Sex, Blood, and Newsletters — Lessons From the First 6 Months
Things I've learned or observed during the first 6 months of my newsletter.
When people respond to my emails, their most common question is probably some form of question around their upcoming Amazon interview. “How do I not botch this interview?!” However, the most common follow-up question is something like “Why did you start this, and how is it going?” The first half of that question I answered awhile ago.
I thought I'd talk about the second half of that question.
I posted my first article on my newsletter on May 10th, 2021. It was close to six months ago. On that day, I can see that I had six email subscribers, and zero paid subscribers. I wonder who my first six subscribers were. I imagine a couple test email accounts, and perhaps a few family members.
Almost six months later, I have approximately 9k people reading my newsletter weekly. I write one article every week for free email subscribers. I also have a few hundred paid supporters, who additionally gain access to my one paid-only article a week. Huge thanks to all of you who support this newsletter!
I didn't expect the newsletter to grow this rapidly. Newsletters are a long-term commitment. It may take someone repeat exposure on social media to a newsletter before they subscribe. Building enough trust for a reader to become a paid subscriber can take even more time.
I know that this is a bit off-topic from my usual newsletter, but I thought it would be worthwhile to share what I have learned along the way. I love learning. Perhaps you do too!
I had a head start
A number of years ago, I wrote an extremely popular article about the Amazon leadership principles. I published it on both Medium and LinkedIn. The article continued to receive significant traffic for years.
This gave me a boost in three specific ways I've identified.
I'll talk about the value of having a start here later. But simply having one viral article gave me a continual stream of followers on LinkedIn.
Not to be discounted. A number of people messaged me to say that they subscribed to my newsletter because I was the “Amazon leadership principles article guy.” While I had credibility within Amazon, that single article handed me public credibility, which helped get the newsletter off the ground.
Google Search Ranking
After existing for a period of time, my article became ranked high on some important Amazon interviewing search terms. I was within the first 4-5 results on some pretty nice keywords.
When I started this newsletter, I carefully posted a copy of that leadership principles article on my site. I updated it in a few ways, and then did everything I could to redirect existing traffic from LinkedIn and Medium to the copy of the article on my site. Not very long later, my relatively new website took over my high ranking on some important Google Search terms.
Google vs LinkedIn traffic quality
The majority of my free subscribers have come from Google search ranking highly. It gives me a consistent number of new subscribers every single day. When I say consistent, I mean creepily consistent. When graphed, it looks like a straight line. The daily new subscriber variation is usually around 5%, and never more than 10%.
As a side note, this is both demotivating and exciting. I'll post something awesome on LinkedIn, it'll go viral, and I won't notice a single blip on my new subscribers straight line graph. Nothing. Bah. This is also exciting because it's a decent growth rate. I'll have a huge mailing list in couple years if nothing changes.
My LinkedIn traffic on the other hand is highly variable, but makes no visible difference on my free subscriber count. I can double or triple my LinkedIn traffic when I post something popular, and I won't see anything in the free count. I suspect some of that is because many of my LinkedIn followers already subscribe to the newsletter.
Yet, those LinkedIn traffic days are the days when I see spikes in new paid subscribers. Every time I see a spike in new subscribers, I see a spike in new visitors from LinkedIn.
I can't guarantee causation and correlation, as I don't put effort into tracking links (although perhaps I should, as I love data). Yet it seems clear to me that LinkedIn traffic is highly valuable in comparison to Google traffic.
Email open rates
It may be obvious if you thought about it, but paid subscribers open their emails more often than free subscribers. Paid subscribers open rates are around 70%, and free subscribers open rates are around 50%. For those who don't follow the intricacies of newsletters, those open rates are on the pretty decent side of things.
I worried that my Google traffic was going to be low quality, as I had so many free subscribers who were not converting to paid. However, the open rates tell a different story. As far as I can tell, all these free subscribers are still happily opening at least half of their emails.
As a side note, I had a hypothesis that some free subscribers were reading all their emails, and some were reading no emails. It turns out that this is not the usual case. When I pulled up a random selection of readers, I saw that most readers opened emails occasionally. So rather than the 50% open rate being a mix of avid readers and idle accounts, it turns out that most people read some emails.
This perhaps shouldn't have surprised me, because that probably mimics how I treat newsletters myself. Yet it wasn't my original hypothesis.
Headlines make a huge difference
I feel like I've confirmed what people always say about newsletters. Headlines matter. At least for opening an email, it makes sense that the article quality doesn't matter. People read the headline, and decide if they want to read it. I don't have signal to determine if people found the article awesome or meh, but at least I can work on headlines to make them more interesting. How did this one work for you? It's a bit tongue in cheek - I hope enough people appreciate my sense of humor.
Two-way Doors Are Great and One-way Doors Are Scary — Thoughtful Decision-Making had a higher than average open rate. I wonder if the word “scary” attracted people to read it. Supposedly, words like scary get people's attention. Or perhaps people just liked reading about two-way vs one-way doors?
How to Overcome Imposter Syndrome at Work - Embracing Discomfort had a lower than average open rate. I don't know if that's because people don't think they have imposter syndrome, or if I wrote a particularly non-engaging headline. Or perhaps on that specific date everyone was busy.
Footnote — I know that open rate data is heading to be less valuable, and less trustworthy. That'll be interesting. I don't think I'm doing anything particularly creepy with open rates, but I understand people wanting their privacy. It will be harder to obtain signals from readers which might indicate that they're less engaged with a particular topic.
Followers get followers
On LinkedIn, I had gotten a pretty decent following from a single viral article. Once I started my newsletter, my number of followers has continued to grow. The rate of new followers was significantly higher than for most people, because I started from a larger base.
I know it's obvious if you think about it, but that's how social media works. I can grow on LinkedIn at a decent rate, because I'm already relatively popular.
On the other hand, I have a double headwind on Twitter.
I don't understand Twitter enough. I like long form writing, and I don't connect with many Tweets. I regularly search Twitter for something worth re-tweeting (to learn Twitter and make my account more active), and can't find anything I like. So much of Twitter seems to be marketing garbage or reader polls to encourage engagement.
I don't have many followers. Even if I post something I suspect was decent (it gets more likes than average), not many people see my Tweets. So I don't get a ton of engagement. Obviously, if I had 10k+ followers on Twitter like I do on LinkedIn, things would be different.
I've heard that Twitter is a great place to find readers for newsletters, but I haven't cracked that problem yet. I'll work on the “understanding Twitter” part, so that someday I can solve the followers problem.
If you look at new newsletters, you'll see the obvious problems otherwise great writers encounter. If they don't have a following anywhere, then it's hard to build a following. Considering my short list of Twitter followers, I can't imagine how I would find thousands of readers in any reasonable timeframe without another source of traffic.
Credibility creates other business
I'm excited about my newsletter subscribers. It's awesome to have paid readers for my articles. Yet considering the time I put into maintaining the website, posting on social media, doing research into articles, writing the articles; it's hard to imagine my per-hour pay reaching a technology leader level. I'm not complaining, but I could certainly make a lot more money doing other things.
On the other hand, the more I write, the more people contact me for coaching, training, and consulting. And I don't say this to market my services (although I'm not above adding a link here). I mean that in comparison to when I left Bezos Academy, I've seen a clear increase over time in the number of individuals and companies reaching out to work with me.
I assumed that my paid newsletter would swiftly eclipse the revenue from my consulting business (which I wasn't actively advertising), but that has not been the case. It turns out that newsletters are a great driver for other business.
General articles get more traffic than specific
I enjoy the idea of writing detailed articles on specific skills to wield at work. As a Director who managed dozens of managers, I have some valuable things to share about how to coach employees through rough spots, or how to identify early that someone is struggling.
Yet my most popular articles are consistently those which appeal to a broad audience. The Value of Clear and Concise Communication is one of my most popular articles, and it has obvious broad appeal. Every single person could use that, even those who don't work at tech companies.
Broad topics appealing broadly isn't a surprise, but it's something I've repeatedly observed and come to internalize. I would enjoy having tens of thousands of followers read detailed coaching for managers, but it's not likely to be successful. Yet a newsletter which appeals to experienced employees is valuable in other ways.
What I've personally decided to do is to try to continually mix my articles. Some will be broader topics, some more narrow. Some on interviewing, some late-stage career. I feel if I mix what information I share, I'll build a newsletter which has a mixture of senior and junior readers.I also like the idea of exposing more junior employees to information which they don't quite need yet. It feels like a good thing to do.
Starting your own newsletter is great fun
If I had to pick a single motivation for doing my newsletter, it would be to learn. I've absolutely found that to be the case. Every time I turn around, there's something new to explore or test.
I also love the impact I'm able to have regularly. I joked in the past that my articles are worth hundreds of thousands of dollars to the right reader. I honestly think that's the case. I've repeatedly had employees at Amazon contact me to say that it either helped them get their job, or helped them get promoted. Sometimes a slightly better answer in an interview, or a slightly better promotion document can make the difference. I'd love to believe that I'm occasionally having that impact.
I hope you all have a fantastic day. I'd love to hear from you if you wanted to reply to one of my emails. I read every single email, and reply to most of them. I only occasionally lose something in the depths of my inbox.
If you're not a paid subscriber already, I invite you to support this newsletter. I'm happy to help people in one-on-one situations, but writing articles for the public scales better. And as someone who worked at Amazon for years, I'm addicted to scaling my work.
If you did enjoy this or another article, please forward it to anyone you think may enjoy it. Or post it on your favorite social media. Or link it from your fantastically popular site. I'd love any traffic, backlinks, etc! :)