The Ultimate Guide to Paid Email Newsletters

All you need to know about getting paid by your email subscribers.

This is the first article in our new series, Revenue Streams for Thought Leaders. Check back soon for strategies on launching profitable blogs, podcasts, consultancies, and more.

Ever thought about starting a subscription newsletter?

They're a fantastic way to connect with your community and utilise your expertise.

They're also a way to make some serious money.

Plenty of readers are happy to pay for exclusive content they can't find anywhere else - and if you're a source of industry knowledge they can look to for actionable business insight, a subscription is even more justified.

If you already have a newsletter backed by loyal subscribers, this is great news. You'll have a solid base to upsell a premium product to.

Or if this is your first time thinking about paid email newsletters, that's fine too. Everything you need to know about starting a newsletter and monetising it is contained below.

Here's what we'll cover:

  • What is a paid newsletter? 
  • Why you should launch a paid newsletter
  • Your USP: why should readers subscribe?
  • Your niche: getting specific
  • Achieving 1000 true fans
  • Platforms for running paid newsletters
  • How long does it take to write a newsletter each week?
  • How long does a paid newsletter need to be?
  • How do you get more subscribers to your paid newsletter?
  • Can I outsource the writing of my newsletter?
  • Other payment models for newsletters
  • Non-paid newsletters
  • Will consumers reach ‘subscription fatigue’ from too many newsletters?
  • Resources for learning about paid newsletters 

What is a paid newsletter?

A paid newsletter is an email newsletter that readers pay a monthly subscription fee to receive - anywhere from £2 to £200 depending on the content. 

But what exactly is an email newsletter? It’s an email you or your content marketer create to send to a subscriber list. It’s more like a letter than a blog, written with a personal tone. It can feature:

  • tips and advice
  • the latest industry news
  • updates about your product
  • company news
  • content around a specific interest area
  • competitions, deals and coupons
  • free downloadable content

Important note: not all content you share in a newsletter has to be written. You could also share your expertise via podcasts or videos, and link to them.

The difference between a paid newsletter and a free newsletter lies in the quality of your content. Typically, free newsletters contain content that’s easy to curate: news, product updates, links to other helpful content, etc.

Whereas paid newsletters should feature content that takes effort to write and research: original tips and advice, opinion pieces, industry-specific detailed reports, etc. 

Occasionally, it’s okay to include content that requires less work in paid newsletters. A good rule of thumb is 20% news and links and 80% original content. 

Why you should launch a paid newsletter

Paid newsletters get you up, close and personal with a committed and closed community. There’s no competing for attention in algorithmic timelines congested with irrelevant info, click-bait and advertising.

You deliver your expertise straight to subscribers’ inboxes. And you're not just sending content to people who might read it. These users have paid for your newsletter - you can almost guarantee their engagement. 

And that brings us to the big clincher: You. Get. Paid. How much depends on your number of subscribers, your monthly fee and the platform you use to publish your newsletters.

For example, if you used Substack - an online platform for subscription newsletters - the platform takes 10% of your earnings. 

So, if you had 800 subscribers and charged $7 a month, you’d make $4,440 (approx. £3402) every month - have a play with different numbers using Substack’s calculator

Cover the cost of production (your time or the cost of outsourced newsletter writers) and marketing, you can then scale profit with little marginal costs. Not bad, huh? 

Your USP: why should readers subscribe?

Readers subscribe for one reason above all: for valuable information and insight they can't get anywhere else. To deliver this kind of unique and compelling content, the first thing you need is a hook. Your hook should revolve around the customer problems your newsletter can solve.

For example, let’s say you own an online plant shop and want to build a subscriber list for your newsletter.

To create topics, simply think about the problems you can solve for customers:

  • Problem: My plants always die. Topic: How to stop killing your plants.
  • Problem: I never know when to water my plants. Topic: How to water these popular plants. 
  • Problem: My plant’s leaves are yellow. Topic: What your plant’s leaves are telling you.

In this case, your paid newsletter hook would be: I can help budding botanists keep their plants healthy so they can enjoy their hobby more.

If you don’t know your customers’ main problems, it’s time to do some market research through surveys and social media engagement (for more help, check out Wordstream’s A Guide to Finding & Solving Your Customers’ Problems). 

Your niche: getting specific  

Having a niche is just as important as having a compelling hook when it comes to attracting subscribers. The more unique your content is, the easier is it to break through all that noise online.

Your niche could be a particular area of a wider subject. For example, let’s say you run an IT business. Your paid newsletter could focus on cybersecurity or training opportunities.

Or you could do what freelance tech journalist Jared Newman did. He already had more than 11,000 subscribers for his free email newsletter. After surveying his readers, he realised there was a demand for a newsletter that covered broader topics but focused on tips and advice. In this sense, his niche wasn’t about the subject. It was about the style and format of the content on offer. 

Achieving 1000 true fans 

You don’t need hundreds of thousands of subscribers to make a comfortable profit from your paid newsletter. Kevin Kelly, co-founder of Wired, pointed this out in his 2008 essay: “1,000 true fans.” 

He highlighted how any kind of creator can lead a comfortable lifestyle by simply finding one thousand ‘true’ fans. Superfans who follow everything you do, say and sell.

If you don’t already have a solid subscriber base to nurture into ‘true fans’, you could start by offering a free newsletter to build that initial relationship. Although, if your content is hot and high quality, it is possible to get people to pay for your newsletter straight off the bat. 

Either way, there are a number of tactics you can employ to gain loyal superfans, such as:

  • continually express gratitude for their support
  • give them special access to content
  • give them an identity (Lady Gaga calls her fans ‘Little Monsters’)
  • recognise their birthdays with a personal message or small gift

For more insight into creating superfans, check out Elite Content Marketer’s Guide: How 1000 “True” Fans Can help Creators Make a Sustainable Living.

Platforms for running paid newsletters

Why spend hours formatting your newsletters and managing your paying subscribers when a platform can do it for you? 

There are plenty of options to choose from. Let’s dive into some of the best and how much they cost. Disclaimer: the features listed will vary depending on your price plan. 

  1. Substack

Includes:

  • an email list
  • newsletter customiser and scheduler
  • subscriber management
  • a website for all your posts
  • community features
  • control over what’s free and what's only for your paying subs 

Cost: Publishing is free. For paid subscriptions, Substack charges 10% of your earnings 

  1. Convertkit

Includes:

  • 1000 subscribers
  • email automation 
  • email designer
  • email sign up forms
  • integration with Shopify, Teachable and Crowdcast

Cost: Free without automated funnels and integrations; $29 per month for all features

  1. Ghost

Includes:

  • member management
  • automation tools
  • no transaction fees (0% of your sales)
  • content gating
  • custom experience builder
  • user analytics
  • hundreds of integrations

Cost: $29 per month (1000 subs), $79 per month (8000 members), $199 per month (35,000 members)  

  1. Revue

Includes:

  • newsletter customiser and scheduler
  • subscriber management
  • custom email address and domain
  • built-in approval workflow
  • user statistics
  • subscribe forms
  • content sources integrator
  • iOS app
  • subscriber feedback tool

Costs: free (50 subs); $5 per month to $135 per month (200 subs to 40,000 subs)

Also see: Mailchimp with the Memberful integration, Klaviyo, Sendy and Campaignzee

How long does it take to write a newsletter each week?

Ideally, you should spend two to five hours working on your paid newsletter each week. That time includes writing, researching and publishing your newsletter, which will differ depending on the type of content you want to produce.

In the end, you should treat your paid newsletters as an additional arm of your business. The more time you invest in creating good content and nurturing your subscribers, the better your return. 

How long does a paid newsletter need to be?

Too short and your audience might question the value of it. Too long and some of it might not get read.

You want to aim for a cosy spot in the middle. Enough high-quality content your readers can sink their teeth into without getting bored or overwhelmed. 

How do you get more subscribers to your paid newsletter?

You could start with a free newsletter (as we mentioned before). Show your value through incredible content that solves customer problems and rewards their loyalty. 

Other ways to attract subscribers are:

  • Push incentives (e.g. “Sign up now for our cooking newsletter and get exclusive deals, coupons and recipes”)
  • Build a brand people love (One DMA report found that 40% of respondents sign up for your newsletter because they like your brand)
  • Run a contest and ask for email signups
  • Keep your sign up process easy and short 
  • Make and communicate subscriber-only benefits 
  • Add sign up options to your social media profiles
  • Include newsletter signup after articles and blog posts
  • Add newsletter pop-ups to your website

We could go on forever here. The key takeaway is: there are LOTS of simple ways to attract subscribers. It just takes some creativity and thoughtful research. 

Can I outsource the writing of my newsletter?

Absolutely. Newsletter purists might disagree, but outsourcing your content marketing, company blogs and other written communication is a standard practice in the business world. Paid newsletters are no different.

You could delegate the entire thing from top to bottom. You could write a single opinion piece and have the rest filled in by another writer.

Or you could act as more of a director. You choose the theme of each issue and get assistance with research, link collecting, interviewing, whatever else you need support with while maintaining it as your own writing.

If you think you will need help writing your newsletter, you don’t have to look far. Expert Machine has got you covered. We can create carefully crafted content that reflects your brand perfectly and helps you secure and nurture those all-important subscribers. Get in touch today.

Other payment models for newsletters

One variation on securing monthly payments is using Patreon, a membership platform that lets you run a subscription-based service. For example, The Thirty is a newsletter developed by Jared Diamond and Mike Vorkunov, sports-writers for The Wall Street Journal and The Athletic. Take a look at their Patreon page

As you can see, they offer three different membership levels, each with their own special benefits. At $6 per month, patrons can connect directly with Jared and Mike to ask them questions and help shape the direction of their newsletter. That's a really compelling value proposition and a strong example of how you leverage expertise and monetize your personal brand.

Having three membership levels gives customers the flexibility to pay what they want. If you like the idea of Patreon, keep in mind that you need to be 100% committed to delivering quality content on a regular basis.

You could also adopt the strategy where payment is voluntary. McKinley Valentine, writer of The Whippet newsletter, takes this approach. She delivers great writing and her subscribers pay what they believe it’s worth to them. 

Sponsorships are an option too. Check out this step-by-step guide by TLDR Dan (creator of TLDR Newsletter) on finding sponsors for your newsletter or podcast. 

Non-paid newsletters

Non-paid, non-freemium newsletters usually have a different intention: brand building, lead nurturing, awareness and sales. They can help lead to paid work. 

They can also help you build a loyal subscriber base who you can then advertise your paid newsletter to (New York Times found that visitors are 2X more likely to become paid subscribers if they subscribe to a newsletter first). 

Some businesses use a freemium model for their non-paid newsletters. They send one free newsletter and then upsell to a paid premium version. Futurecrunch does this. Exploding Topics uses a similar tactic too

Will consumers reach 'subscription fatigue' from too many newsletters?

Newsletters are a growing market (81% of B2B marketers say their most used form of content marketing is email newsletters, according to the Content Marketing Institute). 

So yes, it might be that some users will eventually feel overwhelmed by the amount of newsletters entering their inbox. It’s also normal for a typical user to rotate their options - if they find themselves paying but not reading, they'll unsubscribe.

That’s why it’s so critical to keep your quality output (and perceived value) high. It’s how you keep subscription loss (churn) low. To achieve this, you need to:

  • keep providing valuable information and insight they can't get elsewhere
  • be consistent and don't miss deadlines
  • maintain reliable variety to sustain interest
  • don't neglect the fundamentals: interesting subject lines, digestible format, visual variety

Maintain these behaviours to acquire and nurture your 1000 superfans. They will stick by you no matter how saturated the email newsletter market gets. 

Resources for learning about paid newsletters

There’s always more to learn. Here are some quality resources to keep you at the top of your paid newsletters’ game: 

There you have it. Everything you need to know about running a paid newsletter has been covered in this guide. Think you might need some extra support crafting newsletters that get you paid? We can help. Get in touch today.