You’ve Got Mail: The Rise of Subscriber-Based Outreach

Today’s instalment of the You’ve Got Mail series is dedicated to the burgeoning world of subscription-based newsletters, one of the most promising formats for storytelling and outreach alike.

What are Subscribed-Based Newsletters?

This type of newsletter format typically involves a small monthly or yearly subscription fee that allows creators to support their work while delivering independent content directly to readers’ inboxes. Substack and Ghost are a handful of platforms that have pioneered this form of writing, in the process creating new spaces for anything from investigative journalism to creative campaigning.

The most popular of these platforms is arguably Substack, which was founded in 2017 with the aim of helping writers monetize their work. Today, the platform is popular among journalists of many stripes, who enjoy the freedom of producing work that can push boundaries while having an immediate relationship with their readers. This way, authors are less reliant on algorithms to make their work seen and, in the process of sharing their work, build community instead. Substack also aims to support investigative journalism and other forms of rigorous content production through its Defender program, which offers pre-publication legal review of stories and up to $1 million in legal fees for authors who may need access to legal advice on complex issues related to their work.

Ghost follows a similar model: they offer content creators a platform through which to disseminate their work through premium newsletters. Ghost offers customizable templates, native signup forms that work on any site, and the advantage of 0% transaction fees. It also integrates seamlessly with features such as referral programs, push notifications, social sharing, payment gateways, and many others. The platform also supports the integration of workflow tools such as Slack, Buffer, Stripe and others.

More recently, social media giants such as Facebook and Twitter have also joined the space, through Bulletin and Revue, respectively.

Benefits for Nonprofit Organizations

For nonprofits, subscription-based newsletters may represent another promising avenue through which to diversify income streams and reach new audiences. Many organizations already rely on outputs such as annual reports, monthly newsletters, and social media updates to share their work. At the same time, these venues may not be the best ones to establish a direct line of communication with followers, nor do they always afford the time and space required to dive deeper. Subscription-based newsletters, on the other hand, are a great way to regularly invite followers into an organization’s world: for example, by introducing inspirational case studies, analyzing success stories, and sharing lesser-known aspects of what makes their work so important.

So far, readers seem to appreciate the model for the more intimate connection it affords with writers whose work they admire. In the media industry, for example, this type of outreach has been hailed as a solution to the problem of trust between writers and readers. Because the goal is not ad-sales or algorithm-based performance, what naturally flows to the top is content that is actually found trustworthy, useful, and engaging by readers. 

And while there are some criticisms that are being levelled against this form of publishing when it concerns the future of journalism, particularly more recently around Substack’s engagement with freedom of speech, it is true that for nonprofits looking to share more of their work this format may be a powerful one. With monthly fees as low as $9/month, and with varying options that typically range from 0-10% when it comes to transaction fees, nonprofits have very little to lose in experimenting with subscription-based outreach. In journalism, for example, the numbers are encouraging: as the New Yorker reports, more than 100,000 subscribers now pay for at least one newsletter on Substack alone, “and the platform’s top users collect hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue, which, in some cases, amounts to more than they might earn as staff writers at legacy publications.” 

The coronavirus and economic crisis have done much to change the landscape of giving and fundraising in Canada. For nonprofits, this type of outreach could be a way to do more with less: increase transparency, grow trust, give more visibility to existing work, strenghten relationships with followes and, more improtantly, provide a potential new source of funding for their work. 

Getting Started

If your organization is curious about getting started with subscription-based newsletters, these resources may help:

  • How to build community around your publication (Substack)

  • Your guide to going paid (Substack)

  • How to use Substack for podcasts (Substack)

  • Newsletter checklist: A pre-publishing and post-publishing guide for new writers (Ghost)

  • Subscription business metrics explained for publishers (Ghost)

  • 5 ways to repurpose content like a professional creator (Ghost)

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