Insert Clickbait Title Here – Lessons After 1.5 years of Newsletter Authorship
Social media is silly and valuable. Newsletters can make money if you're patient.
The last time I wrote about my newsletter was after 6-months of running the newsletter, last November. I thought it would be nice to wrap up the year with another summary, and elaborate on some things I've learned along the way.
I previously wrote that I started the newsletter on May 10th, 2021, and had 6 newsletter subscribers on day one.
On November 8th, 2021, I had around 9k subscribers (free email receivers), and a few hundred paid members (paying email receivers).
Today I have around 23k subscribers, and almost 900 paid members. I sincerely thank all those paid members for supporting this newsletter!
Every month I have around 10% more revenue and paid subscribers. I assume at some point this will slow down or stop. We'll see!
Experiment I tried
Earlier in the year, I'd created an email coaching product. Subscribers would pay $100 per month, and I would coach them over email. It generated great attention (and revenue) over a short period of time. I got great feedback from those email subscribers that they liked the product.
However, I was forced to check and reply to email often. It changed the model for how I preferred to work. I wanted to spend focus time a few times a week writing deep content, but those emails made me feel like I was continuously working.
I ended up cancelling the program. I think it had a decent business model, but it didn't work for me.
Most popular articles
Top 5 articles (as measured by webpage loads) over the previous 6 months:
What am I thinking when I see this data? Here's how traffic reaches my articles:
a. 23k people get an article in their inbox. They read it there. They never load a webpage.
b. Google search links people to various pages.
c. Social media links people to various pages.
What's interesting is that if people are interested in my site (stumbling upon it from Google or Social Media), they'll load a page once or twice, perhaps subscribe, and never load a webpage again.
Articles 1, 4, and 5 are my main "google" search result pages. If you google interviewing at Amazon, you'll likely land on those pages.
Articles 2 and 3 went relatively viral on social media. They drove a good number of new subscribers to my newsletter.
As I mentioned last year, Google drives free members (people interested in lightly reading some interviewing articles), but LinkedIn drives new paid subscribers. Article 2 and 3 drove significantly more new subscribers than 1, 4, and 5.
In the end, this is an output metric which doesn't drive any behaviors on my part (as far as I can think). I'll move on.
What about your most popular newsletter articles?
Apple changed a bunch of how their email tracking works. Essentially, you can no longer tell (with trustworthy data) how many people open your newsletters. It's a bummer. What that means is that I can't tell what articles people like, and which they don't. So, I don't have any data on my articles. I send them to 22k people, and.. nothing. I do get emails sometimes from people, but that's anecdotal feedback, not real data.
Social Media Statistics and Changes
I'm going to explain why later, but I'll split all social media stats pre-October, and post-October, splitting the statistics around mid-October.
Pre-October, 19% of traffic came from social media, Post-October, 46% of traffic came from social media.
One more output metric. I had around 10k LinkedIn followers a year ago, and I'm now north of 27k. I had ~350 Twitter followers a year ago, and now I passed 2.7k.
Why did I mention October? Because on October 16th, I signed up for Buffer. And before I continue, I have no financial or personal connection to the tool or company. Buffer is a tool which simplifies the process of writing and posting social media. In short, you can queue up posts for multiple social media channels (for me, LinkedIn and Twitter), and let it post for you on your personal schedule.
Here is a graph of my content engagements on LinkedIn. See that October 16th date?
I wanted to emphasize the importance of simplifying the process. It doesn't write content for me (not yet, at least). What it does is change the process of writing.
Before using Buffer, I had to post content synchronously. If I wanted to post some social media on Monday morning, on that Monday, I would have to:
Sit down at the computer.
Open up LinkedIn.
Write a post.
Copy/paste the post into a Twitter thread (or I'd often use Typefully).
Submit the posts when everything looked good.
But I frequently didn't know what to write. I'd waste time brainstorming. Perhaps I didn't feel like writing. I'd sometimes decide I had nothing valuable to say, and wouldn't post. The need to write a single post right now was a pain.
What's my new asynchronous process?
Sit down at the computer when I'm feeling inspired.
Spend a few hours reading through my articles and write social media posts for them. Once I'm in the groove of writing, it tends to go quickly.
Queue up those posts in Buffer.
Once I have a month or more of daily posts queued up (40 or so), I stop writing.
Let Buffer post my content for the next month+ before I need to write again.
My LinkedIn and Twitter engagement has drastically increased because I'm posting regularly. I'm posting regularly because the process has been simplified.
Does that explain everything about my relative social media success? Not completely. I also learned a few things.
Things I have learned about social media
Social connections really matter
Thiago Ghisi posted a great Twitter thread about an article I wrote in later October. Over a few days from when that was posted, I gained over 1000 Twitter followers. That was something like a 70% growth, since I had a tiny Twitter following at the time. As a single action, it added more followers than anything I'd done before or since. That boost allowed my later Tweets to gain traction and continue that growth.
What's the takeaway? Social media is about social connection. I had responded to some of Thiago's posts, and he provided me some insightful advice about how Twitter works. Then he gave my Twitter account a considerable leg up.
See the Buffer section above. For most social media platforms, a post every day seems to drive engagement. Why? Two major reasons. The obvious one is that more posts simply translates into more engagements from people. More chances for someone to like a post, more opportunities for people to notice one of my posts in the flood of other content creators.
The less obvious reason is that I'm pretty sure the algorithms on all these platforms favor people who currently have engagement. In other words, if yesterday's post already has a thousand likes (currently getting sent to more people), it drives today's post to be seen by more people. The algorithm knows that I'm currently popular. Tada. Magic. More visibility.
Social media is relatively useless if you don't do something with it.
In some ways.. duh. But I've talked to many people who work hard on social media, and a good number of them don't have a distinct method for gaining revenue. Many people are working hard on social media to become more popular on social media. It's a little circular. However, if you have revenue you want to generate, you need to build a funnel.
If I have a post on LinkedIn which has 3.5k engagements (over 700k views), with no link, how much revenue does it create? Zero. It gets me another couple hundred LinkedIn followers, but zero actual revenue. If you look at my newsletter subscribers on that date, you'd see nothing. No increase.
Alternatively, I have a post on LinkedIn which has 3.1k engagements (over 600k views), with a link to an article. How much revenue did it create? 44 people signed up for paid subscriptions from that article. Not bad. That's worth approximately $350 per month in recurring revenue. Not bad for a single article and social media post.
Length doesn't matter
I previously only wrote long social media posts, imitating my article writing style. Then I decided to try shorter posts, to enable me to post more frequently (because you need to shorten your posts if you're going to post every day). What happened? If one in 6 posts previously became popular, that same ratio was still true. My 4 sentence posts had just as much a chance of going viral as my 40 sentence posts. They just took far less time to write.
I'd call that a bit of an unfortunate lesson learned, since I'd prefer to believe that investing a lot of time in a long and detailed social media post is valuable. It's fun (for me), but a relatively tiny social media post often works just as well.
This is obviously true on Twitter where your post length is limited, but even on LinkedIn, the vast majority of viral posts are extremely short.
Why social media is the way it is
When I think of social media, what do I think of?
Clickbait article titles.
Stupid polls, written simply to have people click on them.
Pointless posts written only to appeal to the widest audience.
Crowds of influencers commenting on each other's posts, to get attention on their own posts.
Now that social media has been a big part of my business for the last 1.5 years, what are my thoughts now? It is unfortunately all true and inevitable. You could point at social media influencers and laugh at how dumb they are. Or you could recognize that they're only doing what works. I'm feeling a bit jaded about the whole thing.
Clickbait article titles work. The key to engagement on social media posts is getting people to click once. Baiting people to click is seriously valuable. I'm repeatedly tempted to slide into clickbait territory with my article titles because it would drive business.
Some influencer will post a goofy poll. "Do you think employees should have to work more than 50 hour weeks?" They aren't wondering that! They're just asking a question they know appeals to a broad audience, who will excitedly click a button. That will drive engagement to their other posts, furthering their business.
Some other influencer posts a nonsense post. "Work is work, life is life. Choose life." Sure. Ok. I can't imagine someone reads that post and thinks, "Oh.. good point! I have learned something!" No, the post is written to make it easy for people to mash the like button.
As I grew in popularity on LinkedIn, I began to get a heavy influx of influencers connecting with me. They'll comment on my posts, and sometimes literally link to their posts. I don't believe for a moment that they're interested in what I'm saying. They are just trying to drive traffic to their own posts.
Do I blame people for doing the above? No, because they're doing what enables them to make a living from social media. They're doing what the system rewards.
When I worked at Facebook, I remember a technical discussion discussing the newsfeed "baby picture" problem. What was the problem?
When someone posts a picture of their new baby, everyone feels obligated to hit like. That means that the algorithms recognize that everyone loves baby pictures. So if you have enough friends, what does your newsfeed look like? BABIES. BABIES EVERYWHERE. What's the problem? Most people don't log onto Facebook to see photos of all their friends babies. They log onto Facebook to hear what people are doing, what vacations they had, what has changed in their friends lives, etc.
Most social media algorithms focus on engagement as the primary metric because data shows that engaged users tend to stick on the platform longer. However, engagement doesn't capture what we honestly value from social media.
How can Facebook recognize the difference between a like on a baby, and a like on a fascinating post about a friend's career change? How can LinkedIn recognize when their users learn something, vs mindlessly click on something they agree with?
I don't think anyone has solved that challenge. As an individual, I can be careful to only click on things I think add real value, but any algorithm-based recommendation system seems to trend towards garbage. At least in my experience.
That also means that anyone who wants to get value from social media (and it would be hard to succeed writing a newsletter without gaining followers from social media), will be subtly encouraged by the algorithms to behave certain ways.
My first big learning of the year is the value I find in asynchronous work. I had an email coaching product which required synchronous work, so I cancelled it. I didn't do social media well until I obtained a tool to make it more asynchronous. At least for how I work, there's a lot to be said for figuring out ways to bundle my time. A few hours to write a newsletter, then a few hours building a chicken coop. A few hours writing social media, and then a few hours reading Horatio Hornblower. I think bundling time like that enables flow.
I get new subscribers from social media, but I write my articles for newsletter subscribers. This means that I know there's financial value in writing dozens of social media posts a month (often pretty short posts), so I do it. But I focus my mental energy on writing valuable newsletter articles that I know help people with their careers.
Real value doesn't gain additional followers on social media, but newsletters are different. Subscribers don't keep their subscriptions running unless they're getting value out of their payments. And so far, that's been working. I regularly get great messages from subscribers, thanking me for the content in the newsletters. I'm going to keep focusing my energy on the newsletter, and not worry too much about social media's goofiness.😊