Articles - 22nd January 2021

The freelancer’s guide to monetising your newsletter

Words by Tom May
Illustration by Jon McCormack

Email newsletters have become big business in the last couple of years. Platforms like Substack have made it easy to create and mail them out at zero cost, and thousands of people are doing just that. So if you’re a freelancer with specialist knowledge, they can become a useful way to earn some side income.

The key, though, is the word ‘specialist’. For instance, a newsletter about photography in general will struggle to get attention. However, a newsletter about using drones for wedding photography in Scotland might find it a little easier to get started.

Getting people to sign up is the next tough challenge. This is easier if you have a large database of clients and customers already, or an engaged audience for your social media feed, blog, podcast or YouTube channel that you can draw on.

But once you’ve grown your newsletter audience, how do you convert those numbers into cold, hard cash? In this article, we’ll look at the five most effective ways to do so.

 

1. Selling ads

The most obvious way to monetise your newsletter is to place ads in it. The big danger here is the potential to alienate existing readers, so you have to think about what you’re doing carefully.

One approach is to include programmatic display ads via a service like InboxAds. That way, you don’t have to look for individual advertisers, saving you work and hassle. On the downside, you won’t have much control over the ads, which may seem impersonal and jarring to your audience.

An alternative is to strike deals with individual advertisers, then write your own advertising copy for them that better resonates with your readers, and looks more like an integral part of the newsletter.

Readers might even value these ads as much as the rest of your content; if for example, they’re getting a deal or discount that’s not available elsewhere.

The main problem with this method is the challenge of finding advertisers, especially as companies often have unrealistic expectations of how many click throughs and conversions they will get from your newsletter.

 

2. Subscription

This may surprise you, but people are increasingly willing to pay for a regular email newsletter.

Why? Basically, because time is money. And so regular, curated updates on their favourite topics let them keep up with trends, without needing to wade through the cesspool of social media.

Your newsletter will, however, have to be pretty special for people to pay for it. In essence, you’ll need to generate compelling content that some people, at least, won’t be able to live without.

For instance, a freelance accountant might launch a newsletter focused on post-Brexit taxation rules, aiming companies exporting financial services to the EU. In 2021, you’d expect that to stand some chance of success…. as long as someone else isn’t doing something similar already.

Seeking subscriptions for your newsletter is risky, because you’ll almost certainly alienate most of your audience. For example, you’d expect Substack to talk up the opportunities for subscription revenue (as that’s where they take a cut)… but even they say a conversion rate of 10% should be considered good.

In short, if you’re pursuing the paid-for route, you’ll have to make sure you have a pretty sizeable readership to start with.

This strategy is more likely to succeed if you build up a strong sense of community around your newsletter. In short, you need to make your readership feel less like passive consumers and more like active participants.

One way you might do this is to ask for feedback on each newsletter, and include selected quotes from readers in the next one (similar to the letters page in a newspaper or magazine). This is a great way to make your readers feel they’re part of something bigger, and giving them a sense of ‘ownership’ that will encourage them to pay for your newsletter.

 

3. Affiliate links

Affiliate links are kind of like a ‘lite’ version of placing adverts. Basically, you add relevant links into your newsletter copy and hope people click on them and buy things. If they do, you get a small cut from the seller.

For example, if you talk in your newsletter about a book you’ve recently read, you’d want to add an appropriate affiliate link to Amazon.

Affiliate links have the advantage of being easy to add, in a natural way that’s unlikely to alienate your audience. The main downside is that the amount of money you earn will be limited. It might even be zero, if nobody buys anything.

 

4. Ask for donations

Rather than making people subscribe to your newsletter, you might ask people to make donations when they can.

This means your overall audience will remain large, while your keenest supporters will feel more engaged and enthused; because they’ve chosen to pay, rather than being forced to.

The main downside is that the level of income you receive from one month to the next will be anything but reliable. There’s also the fact that supporters may expect something extra in return.

Bear in mind though, that ‘something extra’ might be a positive rather than a negative. For example, imagine you’re a freelance animator and your newsletter focuses on new jobs in the film industry. You can make small animations for your subscribers who are willing to buy you a coffee.

You might find a Patreon supporter asking for advice on applying for a particular job. And you’d probably be happy to do so, as it would help you understand your audience’s perspective better. Not to mention that, if the supporter gets the job, they may become a useful contact for you as a freelancer too!

 

5. Sell a product

The final way to monetise your newsletter is to use it to sell your own product or service. For example, a freelance artist who sells prints through Etsy, a freelance designer who sells T-shirts through Threadless, or a freelance TV producer who’s self-published their own book might all use a free newsletter as a marketing tool.

The main challenge with this approach is to strike the right balance between self-promotion and serving the readership. Too much of the latter, and your newsletter will look like an ad. Too little, and it won’t serve its money-making purpose.

You’d also need to weigh up whether the amount of effort you put into the newsletter really pays off in terms of expected sales.

 

Email newsletters can be a useful source of side income for freelancers, and might even become your main source of income in the long term. However, the various methods of monetising newsletters are fraught with pitfalls, and you have to put a lot of thought and effort into maximising the results.

As with everything in life, it’s good to avoid putting your eggs into one basket. So it’s often a good idea to combine two or three monetisation methods, as long as you have enough time and energy to pursue each one thoroughly.

Finally, always keep your audience in mind. With every decision, think: ‘How would I feel to get this in my inbox? ‘… and you shouldn’t go far wrong. Good luck!

 

What are your goals for 2021? To grow your business, or to just find your first client? No matter what stage you’re on in your freelance journey,  Albert and UnderPinned’s Ultimate Guide to Freelancing Course will make sure you’re on track to build a successful freelance career. The course starts February 1st and will consist of five jam packed weeks of learning. Find out more about the course and sign up here.

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