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How My Email Newsletter Makes Money

Many in the publishing world are looking for a durable and profitable model. Web Digest For Marketers has been publishing since April 14, 1995 and has been profitable for nearly that long. Below you will find 10 tactics that built it from 50 subscribers in 1995 to over 51,000 subscribers today and attract the top advertisers in the Internet Marketing industry.

1. Keep Editorial Short and Sweet

Editorial brevity is the one element that remains consistent through 15 years of publishing Web Digest For Marketers. Editorial units are typically kept between 100-300 words. This allows people to "helicopter around" each issue.

Originally, Web Digest For Marketers featured only short reviews of marketing-oriented Websites. A few years ago, we found quick tips were popular with readers and advertisers alike, so we added that to the mix. More recently, we introduced insider interviews with movers and shakers in the Internet Marketing industry.

Believe it or not, writing short takes longer. For example, this tip contains 99 words.

2. Content You Can Keep

Web Digest For Marketers was the first email newsletter on Internet Marketing. I knew others would follow quickly. The trick was to anticipate what would endure and stay valuable to the reader when those competitors finally showed up.

I specifically stayed away from industry news. I knew too many would come into this space to cover the latest happenings. I wanted content that people could retain for future reference.

This also is a boon for advertisers because click-through rates have a much longer tail with evergreen content.

3. The Power of Pass-Along

One question I ask myself when considering an editorial topic is "How likely are people to forward this email newsletter to others?"

If it's a hot topic, that pass-along is substantial. The day the newsletter is published invariably yields the highest number of new subscribers.

Email is the original social or viral medium. After all, you can't forward a Website :-).

Subscribers like to forward:

  • Hot new tools and resources (be the first on your block)
  • Provocative interviews that are timely
  • "Go and do this" tips and tricks

4. Influence the Influentials

I aim the content high, at my peers, rather than the lowest common denominator audience. Think Internet Marketing 501 instead of Internet Marketing 101.

If I can attract opinion leaders and practitioners, the rest will follow. We purposely assume a certain amount of knowledge from the audience.

Aiming the content high means offering insightful trends, useful insider tools and asking deep-dive questions in interviews by researching the dickens out of each interviewee.

BTW, advertisers also like content aimed at a sophisticated audience because those people are more apt either to work for large firms or have large firms as clients. Those are the companies and budgets my advertisers want to reach.

5. Tips on Topic Picking

I look at search results on my Website to see what people are looking for in my Internet Marketing Resource Center. I look at Google Trends. We check the Social Media zeitgeist to see what's on people's minds, too.

However, this research only reflects what Internet Marketers are currently talking and thinking about. To keep a brand vibrant for 15 years, you've got to predict what people will want to know next.

Take chances and work your hunches. We did an issue early in the game titled "Essential iPhone Apps for Internet Marketers." Was there a burning desire to know those best apps before we did that issue? No. We gambled and knocked the cover off the ball.

The Twittersphere was abuzz about that issue. The pass-along was superb. New sign-ups rocketed, and the advertiser was quite happy, too.

6. Take Editorial Risks

Recently, we ran an issue on Twitter tools/resources. Each review ran about 140 characters so that we could mimic the short "Twitter" style. There were 29 such short reviews with 29 links. Would the advertiser's offer and link face too much competition from those 29 editorial links? We didn't know.

So, I sold that #1 ad slot at a discount, just in case it underperformed. The offer in that ad performed astonishingly well, despite all the link competition from the editorial side.

Over the years, I've noticed that people like links to handy resources in their emails and pass them along. That issue was passed along more than most, and that issue had the most cumulative click-throughs of that year.

7. Three Tips for Making Money

A. Bottoms-Up Pricing

Most advertisers buy on a projected CPL (cost per lead) basis, not CPM (cost per thousand). So, instead of pricing ad space at parity to others in my category, I reverse-engineer acceptable CPL for advertisers in this industry and extrapolate the CPM from that.

With noticeably lower CPMs than others, newsletter ads and solo email drops to my list sell out many weeks and months in advance. Sure, in fat times, I probably left money on the table. But, in challenging times, Web Digest has a reputation for offering value and doesn't have to make Draconian price cuts in order to drum up business.

If you're known for asking top dollar, and you suddenly go cut rate, that new perception takes a while to catch on. An advertiser might also wonder why you were charging so much for the same commodity a few months earlier.

B. Time-Released Value Packing

Give clients more than they bargain for. Without mentioning it during negotiations, I like to add bonus ads to the insertion order. This gives the advertiser extra confirmation they're doing business with a good-faith, reliable partner.

We also proof and thoroughly test all advertising copy. Every so often, the call-to-action link in an ad or solo goes to the wrong landing page, and we'll catch it before transmission. Sometimes, I think of a snappier subject line or page header, which the advertiser often adopts.

C. Know When to Walk Away from the Money

I once shredded a check for $6,000 for a solo email transmission. The advertiser offered a so-called whitepaper that was nothing more than a warmed-over two-page sales sheet. Anyone who wanted to download it would have had to complete over 16 data fields that asked for all sorts of intrusive information.

I knew my subscribers would be ticked off if they gave up all that information just for a sales sheet. They'd complain to me and unsubscribe in droves from my newsletter. I decided not to take the short money.

8. Offer a Loss Leader to New Subscribers

People love bonuses. About eight years ago, I offered my first sign-up bonus, my "Essential Search Engine Marketing Resource Guide." Newsletter subscriptions rocketed. We also sent out a press release on it.

More recently, my "Social Media Marketing Guide: 12 Key Tools" is a juicy inducement to subscribe and easily justifies the money spent to create it.

9. Don't Jump on Every Band Wagon

Many email newsletters changed their layouts so they could easily repurpose their content in email, blogs and RSS feeds.

Generally, I'm all for multi-purposing content and wringing every nickel of value out of that investment. But, blog ads don't make nearly the same money as good ole email ads and solos. So, I don't put all the content from the email newsletter into a blog or RSS channel.

I notice excellent content often has no ads associated with it because it comes as an RSS feed via email. Plenty of ad revenue is being left on the table there.

10. Plan for Unintended Outcomes

When I started Web Digest For Marketers in 1995, I intended it to be a self-liquidating loss leader for my consulting and speaking business.

The ad revenue it generated underwrote editorial expenses. I thought of the newsletter as the sideshow, playing a supporting role for my other lines of business.

As the list grew (51,000 subscribers at time of writing), I realized I could generate greater revenue by focusing on the newsletter side of my business, enlarging the list size and learning about media sales while adding a few twists to that game.

I now try to allow for more unexpected opportunities. Laying in a course for a particular target is necessary. But, the real opportunity might lie to the left or right of that target or on some unexpected happenstance encountered on the way to that target.

Set your initial course, and watch for opportunities on the way to your destination.