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Ask HN: Monetizing newsletter with 2M and 1M members
69 points by dangelov on Aug 11, 2017 | hide | past | favorite | 84 comments
Does anyone else run large newsletter lists? We're having a hard time monetizing our weekly emails to our members.

We have nearly 2 million members (that haven't opted out) in English and close to a million in Spanish for a book website. We send weekly emails with new featured books. We've been looking for interested sponsors and I've been looking at other previous discussions here on HN on monetizing NLs for ideas. Most of them seem to be for a much more niche/focused NL list though. Any tips or ideas on how to monetize a large NL list like this that isn't too focused (other than it relates to books)?

I've tried submitting to Upstart.me but don't see it added yet, so maybe it's a bit too generic to be listed there as well.

We've been using it mostly for promoting our own products (such as membership upgrades), but using the same few products over and over again start getting diminishing attention and returns from our members.

(note that we are capable of segmenting our list internally by topic based on the books our members are interested in, but I'm not sure how to turn that into a steady revenue stream as of yet)

Thanks for your answers!

Based on what you shared, I'd recommend knowing/learning more about your membership base if you haven't done so already. Your membership list and their feedback is probably the best source for getting monetization ideas that actually work.

1. Figure out how many of the 2M and 1M members are actually engaged (reading emails as opposed to just opted-in).

2. From the engaged audience, who are they and what keeps them interested in the newsletter? What do their lives look like and is there any value that you can bring?

By knowing who your audience is and what they potentially need, you can deliver more personalized content. You could also think about promoting content from partners that go beyond straightforward ads (i.e. discounts, exclusive offers, developer bundles, Amazon AWS credits, affiliate links, etc.)

That's good advice. We've actually reached out to our members in the past with some similar questions/survey. It's been a while since we last did it, so maybe a fresh one will bring some new ideas to the table.

In our particular case, affiliate links haven't been a good revenue stream, though from what I've read they work really well for some others. The rest are definitely worth thinking about and exploring further.


Another point is, CLEAN UP YOUR LIST!!!!

If you don't have 2M engaged readers, why are you paying to email them? They are costing money and don't bring any revenue in.

At an agency I was with a few years ago had an active list of a few hundred thousand, which was really closer to a million when you added the people we purged from our lists monthly. If you haven't opened any email in the last 3 months, purge.

That's great advice and I agree. We actually do purge the list from inactive members and we maintain an even more aggressively purged "segment" of highly engaged readers.

Perhaps worth exploring in reducing further the cutoff for the general list as well. Thanks!

You're most welcome. It's good you're getting ideas but the key is understanding what resonates most with your members.

The first thing that comes to mind is sending them affiliate links to Amazon/Audible, that's pretty straightforward.

You could also find authors who are looking to promote their books, and charge them for adding their ad to emails.

Also I'm sure there are plenty of software/info-product companies and startups looking for audience in this niche.

If you can segment books by niche, it should be even more awesome and profitable. Send programming books and courses to programmers(a lot of them have affiliate programs), business books to business people, etc.

If it's not a secret, can you share with us what you did to build this list? The more details the better, it would be incredibly useful!

Just in case the OP goes with this you should be very careful-

Amazon Affiliate links in email are explicitly against their terms of service and you could get removed from the program.


Might want to check out Peter Cooper's work on newsletters - e.g. a podcast he was interviewed on (about how he started and grew his newsletter business) was interesting and may give some ideas. Don't have the link right now but if you use relevant keywords in a search, you should find it.

Thanks! Googled it and I believe this is the one you're talking about: http://5by5.tv/rubyonrails/161

I'll check it out.

NP. Found the one I saw, it is actually this:


published later than your find, but both probably have roughly the same content.

Great, thanks for looking it up and sending the link.

Ya, Peter is on here regularly and is generally pretty friendly. I'm sure he'd be happy to give you some direction. https://news.ycombinator.com/user?id=petercooper

I just might drop him a line, thank you!

1.Have you tried setting up a Paetron account?

2.'If you enjoy our content, support us via PayPal'

3. And once in a month or bimonthly sharing your expenses and asking for support.

4. Contacting relevant youtubers for traffic or brand campaign where you can embed their videos along with the newsletter.

5. Finally, Checking with Book Publication to add relevant new releases as Sponsored.

Patreon, no, but we've tried to ask for donations before. It worked well I guess but nothing recurring. I'll look into whether Patreon might work for us.

Thanks for the other tips as well!

Thanks for the links. It seems that in the first case it's mostly Amazon Affiliate links and in the 2nd they don't really mention the ways they monetize their website and newsletter.

I am not sure if "not opting out" is a good indicator for "being a newsletter member". Be careful with trying to monetize this. You could damage your email delivery rate and thereby your core business while trying to squeeze those additional pennies.

Thanks for the feedback. I agree about having to be careful.

We extensively check any/all emails we send out to make sure we keep a great delivery rate even on routine emails. If we were to include an ad for example, we'd work with the advertiser to make sure the copy is good, is not misleading and that it doesn't trigger spam filters etc. Our members can easily unsubscribe or select the type of emails they receive and we avoid dark patterns.

It might take some work but you'll definitely be able to get advertisers. The first step would be audience surveys to find out who your readers are and what they are interested in, and then you can go out and find advertisers who want to reach those folks.

However, if you're already doing books, what about Amazon affiliates or even, depending on the topic of these books, selling related products? If someone is interested in finance, business, or home improvement, for example, there's a lot of items they might buy beyond books. You can recommend them and make some money off each sale.

Can't do Amazon affiliate links in email (yes this is stupid but it's one of their rules)

I guess the trick here is that while we can segment our lists based on interests, it might be a bit tricky & time consuming to constantly find interesting products to offer and tailor them to the many different groups. Which is not to say it would not be worth it.

Good idea about the audience surveys - though we do know our audience's geography, perhaps a general demographic survey would provide some interesting insight. Thanks!

I think that offering products that are interesting to your segments is exactly the reason they would be interested in them. Who's going to buy products/click on ads that are not interesting to them.

You're already doing the work to build the list. Why are you opposed to spending the effort to target the advertising?

Of course we're not opposed to spending the effort to target the advertising. It's a recurring theme in many suggestions here and we're definitely going to look for ways to improve our targeting. Thanks for your comment!

Ahh. Perhaps I misunderstood the parent comment?

And if you're going to the trouble of surveying for demographics, might as well add that data as fields in your ESP to allow for reporting and segmentation against those demos in the future. That lets you do things like target specific genders or ages with more relevant content/offers/ads.

I wrote a book. If you have people who are interested in technology I would be interested in promoting it to your list.


Yeah, we're able to send to a subset based on recent interests (downloads) and we have many categories. I've just added my email to my profile - please feel free to get in touch.

Sent you an email. I haven't added DKIM yet so check spam as I also included several attachments.

Edit: Just added DKIM. Very easy with GSuite + CloudFlare. Also added an SPF record for Google.

Got it - thanks!

It seems like you've got everything needed for a thriving marketplace without the market.

Why is your content all free? Have you tried to directly monetize the content? Why not have the first x,xxx downloads free, then monetize the content and split revenue with the author & publisher? Or have a graduated cost based on popularity, similar to what pinboard did? Something like this may have the side benefit of creating a sense of urgency and anticipation for your newsletter.

We're already doing some of those things on our website, or we have experimented with them in the past. At the moment we are trying to focus on the newsletter a bit and find ways to better monetize it. Thanks for your comment!

Why not ask your members?

You have the attention and trust of a LOT of people. Figure out what they need, what problems they have.

How many weekly emails are you sending, and how much money are you spending to send them?

In your shoes, I might attempt to break the newsletters up further into more easily monetizable niches. You can track which links are clicked by different subscribers, segment them, and then start sending slightly different emails. Or just straight up create new mailing lists and ask your readers to subscribe to those occasionally.

Just spitballing here.

P.S. You might consider asking on the Indie Hackers forum, too: https://www.indiehackers.com/forum. Lots of people there have monetized various apps and mailing lists.

I'd suggest a similar approach as csallen, though Step 1 should probably be to do research to find similar newsletters, websites, magazines and find out who is advertising in them.

Once you know that, you will have a much better idea of who specifically is currently spending advertising dollars (display or affiliate).

Knowing who is spending money already is really important because getting companies to carve out some of their existing budget for you is easier than getting companies to create a budget out of thin air for you.

That's actually a really good idea. Thanks. I'll do some research there and then see if I can get in touch with some potential advertisers.

Good insight about companies having existing vs creating a budget - will remember that. Thanks again.

Hey - first I thought I'd say I love IndieHackers. I often check it out as people have some great products and I love learning about how they did it.

We send at least one regular weekly newsletter as well as other smaller ones depending on what we have going that week. Spending nearly ~3k/mo to send.

Yeah, we're already able to segment internally, based on downloads from a certain category etc. Now that you mention it, perhaps worth seeing if we can segment into 4-5 general groups and email those separately rather than a generic email to everyone, then try and find a product for each group that might be interesting. I'll think it through. Thanks!

Thanks for the link to the forum, I might post there as well.

I think this was largely the business model for BookBub - take a look at them

Thanks! I'll have a look.

Have you considered using Amazon affiliate links to make it easy for your users to buy the books? They get an easy way to buy the recommended book, and you get a cut of the purchase.

Yeah, but our books are either indie books by independent authors or classics in the public domain. They're all free, so there are no affiliate links to use.

We've tried using affiliate links to other Amazon books/products in the past, but it hasn't worked well for us in terms of revenue. Can be a bit hard to sell a book to an NL list expecting free books :)

If the books are free, what about making money on the way people read them? Kindle affiliate links, maybe a service that sends the free books to your Kindle, affiliate links to reading accessories, etc.

Yeah, we offer an upgraded membership that allows people to directly send books from our site to their Kindle.

Affiliate links in general have not worked that great for us in the past though. Perhaps as has been hinted on here, it was a targeting problem and we were sending too general of an ad to the list, instead of more targeted ads based on list segments. We might give it another try with more focused ads.

If i would have signed up for a mailing by a bookstore, i'd only really care about specific recommendations for me. Just a single title, based on set preferences/previous purchases and not too often.

Bit like parties as Netflix do if they release some new series they strongly think you'd like. It feels more like a 'reminder' then an ad, but its an ad of course.

The books on our sites are free, so while we do our best to email interesting content to our members (with our hand selected weekly picks for example), it doesn't bring any revenue in and of itself, unless they decide to upgrade their membership.

You should promote interesting blog content to your list, and get them to go to your website to learn more.

I'm looking at https://www.reddit.com/r/books/ and it looks like there's so many different things that 'book people' are interested in.

I feel like perhaps one of the "problems" is that there are too many different things people might be interested in. So if 5% are interested in cars, the other 95% would find the ad or promo fairly uninteresting and irrelevant.

You are not targeting properly, you're not solving something customers want, or your product is bad. Those are the three things you'd need to look at. With a couple million subs, it's unlikely you've got a bad product, but it's highly likely you're targeting incorrectly or your product isn't solving a problem. As someone who reads a ton of books, this is a saturated market, what problem are you solving that isn't solved yet or that you're solving better?

All of our books are free and most of them are by indie authors that don't publish on Amazon or other platforms. That works great both for our members who want to keep finding new reads and authors looking for an interested readership base to share their work with.

Based on yours and other comments here, it seems it's highly likely we should work on better targeting. Any suggestions on improving in that regard?

Thanks, appreciate the feedback!

Targeting is all about knowing the true habits of your audience versus what your audience claims are their true habits. As others have said, breaking out your newsletter to the highest value people is probably a good start. You can leave the general email general and require an opt-in for people instead of an opt out. You'll immediately know who is engaged enough to want more of what you're offering, then just ask them what they find the most valuable in a survey and find a way to monetize that isn't what you're already doing but is in addition, in other words, create extra value for them.

Maybe your newsletter could have teasers on different topics that link to blog posts, or articles that will let you create different funnels for different interests. Then, once you have them in the funnel, you are able to gather metrics on what is important/valuable to your readers.

Bonus points if the blog posts/articles have affiliate links for readers purchases.

Gold star if the blog posts/articles are also "sponsored content". Then you're getting paid for that too.

How would you go about that? Include a handful of links to blog posts on different topics and track what gets clicked most? In our experience including many links in an email can quickly land you in spam, so I'm curious how you'd go about this and get to a reasonable representation of people's interests. Would you rotate topics on say a weekly basis and track over time?

Sponsorted content and linking to it from the newsletter - that's an interesting idea. Thanks!

I think, basically using the email to point to blog posts and other content you create/manage (or sponsored posts). I agree nor just a link, but you'd need some kind of teaser, a few sentences or a paragraph lead in with a "continue reading" link to the full article/post, etc. Each link would track clicks and such so you could build up data on what is popular, and who likes it.

The key being, once you have eyeballs out if the email and on a page, you're more open for affiliate links and advertising options based on the data you're gathering.

True. We'll look into ways to experiment with that. Thanks!

The percentage is not that important, the question is which segments are profitable. Try to identify 5 segments that add up to 20% of your readership, try to sell ads/strike partnerships with businesses interested in those segments. After 6 months, look at which of these are not profitable vs. effort/resources spent, and discontinue them. Keep looking for new segments.

That sounds like a direction worth looking into. Thank you!

Do you know of any resources (like a reverse Upstart.me) that might make it easier to find potential partners for the segments?

I don't, unfortunately. But start with segments you or a partner know best, obviously.

The content you are sending them "new featured books" sounds like it's going to be not hugely interesting for most people. Maybe try to create really engaging content around the original means of signing up (was it book specific) and you'll probably find sponsors around that relevant content.

What do you think?

People sign up to find & download new/interesting books to read that they can't always find in other places. That's what our weekly NL is about, so I feel it's fairly on point, but of course there's always room to improve and play with the kind of books we recommend or even the format. Perhaps worth exploring different formats that allow for more interesting content/ad combinations.

Have you seen an interesting format/combination you could share?

If community is at all important to your members, you can set up a hiohmy community for them (https://www.hiohmy.com).

It's free but you could place it behind your own paywall.

We did use to have forums way back in the day, but both ours and many other forums had fallen out of favor for a while and we had shut them down. Forums seem to be making a bit of a come back in some communities so perhaps worth exploring. Thanks for the suggestion and the link.

It's actually not a forum, but a way for members to connect over email. More networking.

Shoot me a PM. I run an email service provider and work actively with clients on monetizing clients email lists.

Forget about free content and free books , 2 focus on reaching book authors and publishers, 1 segment lists 3 profit Contact me for marketing campaign ideas

wait, how did you get 2 million subscribers in the first place? And what does "haven't opted out" mean? Did you buy this list?

No, haven't bought the list, built it ourselves over the last 11+ years of running well established sites with lots of traffic.

Then my next question is: why did they sign up to the list? What value are they getting out of it?

That's an enormous email list, how did you get such a big member list together in the first place?

Websites have been running for 11+ years now and they're well established with lots of traffic.

How much traffic are you getting on those sites? I'd say don't try so hard to monetize the mailing list, try to monetize the sites (membership/patreon, premium services, new paywalled content verticals, paywalled podcasts) and use the mailing lists as an audience to bring to your sites.

Also, minimize your cost. What do you use to send your emails? Eg. Sendy is pretty cheap

SendGrid at the moment, but thanks for mentioning Sendy. Looks promising! Reducing email cost is definitely one way of making the NL more profitable. :)

One potential problem with switching is trust in the new IPs. Any tips for a successful migration?

add the required domain name records, ptr, ... DKIM in amazon is suggested also :)

Maybe sneak an Amazon Affiliate link to some book that isn't on your site.

As another comment here mentions it[0], it's actually against Amazon's policy, but either way affiliate links in general have not worked that great for us.

[0] https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=14993332

For a newsletter that size I'd try an Israeli startup named PowerInbox.

Is it a standard newsletter format or a drip?

We email our members a weekly selection of new books from our website(s).

We do have drip emails for other stuff (eg: a user hasn't confirmed their account, or a user abandoned the membership upgrade process).

Have you tested using drip for the weekly emails? Might prove profitable without devaluing content.

Sorry, not sure how drip weekly emails would work or help? I'd love to hear more but not sure what exactly you had in mind.

liveintent or powerinbox maybe?

We had looked at PowerInbox before but can't remember why we hadn't given them a try. Hadn't heard of LiveIntent. I'll look into both of them a bit more. Thanks!

PowerInbox ads can be a bit spammy. LiveIntent has a more strict contract so keep an eye on the terms though but they are the largest ad email network to my knowledge so advertisers are likely spammy.

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