How to get your first 1,000 email subscribers
A deep dive into the strategy, tools and tactics used to grow this newsletter to 1,000 subscribers on Substack in 2021.
It’s no secret I wanted this newsletter to reach 1k subscribers in 2021. Thankfully on 29th December I hit the milestone. Now I’m drawing back the curtain to show you how.
How I started with 0 subscribers and no audience to then see 400% growth in 2021.
Today the newsletter is the biggest sales channel for my private 1-1 coaching practice (tens of thousands of pounds in sales) and I regularly get enquiries from media platforms to co-license content, shares on other platforms and lovely comments from you people.
Read on for how I did it, and the seven strategies that made the biggest difference.
Trust me when I say that for business owners/creators/anyone building a personal brand that a newsletter is one of the most fulfilling ways to grow your audience away from the algorithms where you control the entire trajectory. And it’s fun, IMO.
Like my coaching sessions, I’m sharing the tools and frameworks and it is up to you how you choose to use them. If you want even more support and the low-down on all tools/programmes do consider joining The Ask’s Newsletter Creator Sprint in Spring.
Now.. It’s a long one. I hope you enjoy reading and please leave a comment/❤️ if so!
Before we get into it, some early context…
The first post I ever wrote was whilst drunk at home in my flat lockdown in March 2020. Remember that time anyone?! Not unlike my state of mind during that time, it was shockingly bad. I had no plan or agenda but having just discovered Substack thought I’d give it a go.
One of the better drunken mistakes of my life. My lack of forethought helped me to cross the psychological barrier that keeps so many people from starting in the first place.
First ever Substack post on March 2020
I published sporadically at first, then bi-weekly from June 2020 then a year later, in August 2021 moved to weekly posts.
The newsletter is completely free for you to read. There are no memberships or paywalls. I’m still figuring out how much longer that will be the case for. (Pros and cons to each).
Average open rate = 40%
The newsletter began with career focused content before I pivoted The Ask support people starting businesses. Ever since March 2021 the newsletter has focused on early stage entrepreneurship. (It took off at exactly this point).
Growth has been slow and steady and many newsletter writers grow much faster; I’ve seen charts like mine above that are almost vertical! Whether that’s due to their growth strategies, content quality or leverage through other platforms I do not know. What I do know is that what I’ve done is entirely replicable and it’s a strategy based on hard work, not on luck.
It’s true that at the beginning, every single subscriber takes work to acquire.
Josh Spector, who helps creators to produce, promote, and profit their creations said in our newsletter mastermind group “you don’t need 1000 subscribers, you need 1 subscriber x 1000”.
For most people this is a long game. So you better have a good ‘why’ behind your efforts to ensure you can stay the course.
Today’s post includes some affiliate links to services or products I endorse, if you decide to make a purchase, I receive a small kick back at no additional cost to you. One of the small ways towards monetising this (free to read) newsletter!
1. Invest in your success
I’m going to start with the bad news. You have to put time, money and effort into your newsletter. But these obstacles also mean that the rewards are available anyone who can overcome them, because most people do not.
Let’s look at each one in turn:
In my case, I posted 62 editions of my newsletter before getting 1,000 subscribers.
On average it would take me 1-2 hours to decide on my topic/point of view, plus 1-4 hours to write it (depending on the topic), another 1 hour to edit, find images, choose a headline and then between 1-2 hours promoting it on other channels/social platforms.
That’s around 550 hours, or 79 working days (based on a 7 hour day). Or nearly 1/3 of the year.
Eeek. I feel tired just thinking about it.
But crucially, it is not a chore for me. I bloody love it. And you don’t have to spend quite so much time, btw.
Whether you pay for tools, images, promotions/ads or just pay in terms of the time you write it when you could be doing other revenue generating activities, then it costs money to grow a newsletter.
I have struggled to calculate this one but I think it would be around £700 in 2021. This includes a subscription to another email services provider (more on that later) and paying for ‘sponsored ads’ inside other bigger newsletters. These ads were fairly effective for me — I’ve heard other writers say differently — but I found aligned audiences and received good numbers of people come through in one go. So getting 70 new subscribers in one day is wholly worth the couple hundred pounds investment compared to how long it would take to get that many otherwise.
In the last year I’ve also had the support of Mel, who works with me at The Ask. I pay Mel to support with all manner of things growth/ops related and the newsletter is a large chunk of her time.
Whilst Mel doesn’t write she may help with feedback and edits, with the lead magnets or technical set ups and promotion on other channels. Mel costs more than £700 in a year ;)
So as you can see my newsletter officially loses me money. I spend money to make it, and you get it for free.
The upside? My 1-1 coaching business has grown thanks to the dedication put into my newsletter, and I’ve been fully booked since Summer 2021. There might have been better/faster/cheaper promotional channels to get there, but I chose this one and stuck with it.
Effort meaning the importance that I assign to the newsletter, such as keeping every Tuesday free from calls to write, or forgoing other business goals to prioritise the 1k milestone. Or talking about it all the time so that people sign up. That’s effort.
2. Be known for something
One of challenges in online audience building is the need for specificity. We are firmly in the ‘age of information’ — the 2000s has been characterised by information being a source of production, control and commerce much like the industrial era gone by.
Budding newsletter writers have to stand out in a sea of free content they compete with. It has never been easier for new content creators and so the sheer volume of content online has never been greater. 4.4 million new blog posts are published every day across all platforms.
Just as you should build your business’ product/service for a niche, the same is even more true in writing. To stand out from the crowd you need to get known for something specific for readers who want precisely this information they may not be able to get elsewhere.
You stand little chance of standing out against the crowd of well funded media companies splurging on ad spend, top copywriters or brand deals unless….
You can be the best.
Be the best?! Well yes, but you don’t have to be the best at everything, just something super defined. With an endless amount of content on broad themes like ‘business’, ‘wellness’ or ‘productivity’ you have to get creative and pick a niche within a niche, or combine different topics together to bring a unique perspective.
Here’s how. I’m going to refer you to the expert: Steph Smith.
Steph is Head of Trends at the Hustle (1m+ subscribers, acquired by Hubspot) and has created an incredible resource, Doing Content Right, a 270 page course that helps you find your ‘idea ikigai’ — 2 or more topics you have 80% knowledge on which combined create your 100% — and the lowdown on SEO, platforms and tools and how to grow your readership. 3,7000 people have purchased this for good reason. Get yours here.
When I honed in on early stage entrepreneurs finding clarity on their new ventures I was able to bring case studies from my coaching sessions combined with a deep curiosity. I loved this new niche which in turn helped to grow the newsletter since I bought a passion and the creativity to concepts such as the confidence curve, founder DNA, business model framework and more.
Anne Laure another preeminent newsletter writer, advised in our newsletter mastermind, to "pick a theme broad enough to encompass your curiosities as well as the ways you might evolve through time”.
As the next section explains you gotta love the creation process in and of itself.
Been sent this post? Subscribe for tactics on building your new business and online creations.
3. Care about your craft
This is less a tactic and more a life lesson but bear with me.
If you commit to your newsletter writing then it can become a big part of your life. I’ll be writing about this more soon but just know that the people who make something of their newsletters find many many doors to open. I’m talking book deals, new jobs, investments, social media followers and partnerships. Not to mention the revenue you can create from sponsorships, affiliates and products.
So whichever direction this takes you, I am being entirely sincere when I say… make writing your newsletter matter to you. Give a shit, basically.
Because writing a great newsletter is not really about writing a great newsletter.
It is about discovering and exploring ideas, learning, and self-development. It is about commitment, habit building, and showing up even when you don’t feel you have anything new to say (you always do).
It is about creating something from nothing. Newsletter writing is the modern day artists’ form of expression.
So if you decide to write a newsletter, please do it because you care about your craft. You don’t need to become the next James Clear or Tim Ferris, but you should have a view about what your content can do for the world and why you want people to read it.
Newsletter writing does not need to be monetised to be worthwhile. It could be your creative expression, passion project, memoir or community building tool. It could be your attempt to move outside of your comfort zone and share more of your thoughts publicly. The distinction is not important but the fact that you care is.
So love your craft. Tell yourself ‘I’m a writer’ as you embark on this journey. Make it form a part of your identity and let the results speak for themselves.
If you feel like what I’m writing sounds familiar to you then yes, I have read and been heavily influenced by both The War of Art and The Artist’s Way. Two incredible resources if you’re getting started down the creator/creative path but feel some blocks or resistance.
Love doing it, don’t resent it. Your readers will notice. Stick to a consistent schedule, find beautiful images, the best headlines and get good at listening to your audience.
5 strategies I’ve followed here:
Every Tuesday has been newsletter writing or thinking day since I began. Please never ask me to speak on a Tuesday. 😩
Considered the ‘welcome’ and on-boarding experience for new readers
Curated my ‘information diet’ to consume relevant content that helps inspire me and feed ideas throughout the week
Found beautiful images and a consistent ‘look’.
I am excited to announce I’ve engaged an illustrator, Swarnima Jain, to create bespoke illustrations going forward (See top of this post for this weeks). Isn’t she talented?!
5. Taken frequent polls and made sure I delivered on the aspects people enjoy. Now there is consistency and people know what to expect. See the recent poll responses. There is a clear USP (clear, structured, actionable advice). It is not the most succinct newsletter out here. Ha ha. It takes your time to read, and that’s not for everyone. But you will always finish the post with a better understanding of the topic, not just gain some sound bite surface level info.
4. Build authentic relationships
The newsletter writing process is really about finding your people.
This is about building relationships online; something we are all familiar with following two years of pandemic living.
Crucially this is about aligned audiences who care about your subject matter and developing relationships with either the head of that community, the people inside it, or the stakeholders.
Let me give you some hypothetical examples.
Your newsletter is about coffee. You could write weekly until enough coffee junkies find you, or you could network with local producers and offer to write about their products in exchange for them helping to share your work.
Your newsletter is about education. You could find parents who want to read it over time, or you could build a partnership with ed-tech companies or local governors who have something to say. You become their mouthpiece and they help spread your message because it makes them look good to be written about.
Your newsletter is about web 3.0. You could write about trends and news updates or you could meet the people building DAOs, creating NFTs and living off their crypto savings and tell their stories.
I wouldn’t actually score myself that highly on this method because it is one of the most time consuming ones, but I’ll tell you a few things I have done.
Collaborated with Femstreet. Sarah Nöckel started sharing my posts in Femstreet’s newsletter of 15,000 subscribers I felt so lucky at first. Then I realised I’d been actively engaging in the Femstreet community without an agenda before that point. I was a paying subscriber, attending events and meeting members first (aka building relationships).
Here are the screenshots of some of the posts Sarah shared in Femstreet. I think there has been around 10 so far. Thank you so much, Sarah!
Interviewed people for Q&As in the newsletter. Learnt about their stories and gave them a platform to find new customers/readers for their own ventures.
I’ve absolutely loved my interviews with incredible founders/creators like Alex Smith on business strategy, Shaun Gold on finding time and money, Shivani Berry on self-leadership, Alicia Carney on product marketing and Daisy Morris on promotion to name just a few.
PS. 2022 guests, I am on the hunt for you!
Building the relationship between you, the reader, and me, the writer.
I believe by showing up consistently and sharing with you some of the more vulnerable parts of my experiences, you have got to know me somewhat. My top performing post below was one in which I talked about me and my business, rather than theory. I shared some highs and lows from 2021 in my business. As you can see I had exactly 1,000 subscribers, but this was viewed 2.7x as many times(!).
5. Always be promoting
Unless you are already famous (oh hey, let’s talk!) you probably won’t have a big audience sharing your newsletter on your behalf.
So in the early days, you will need to do this yourself. This ties in with the part above on relationship building and finding your people, but it can also feel a bit more shamelessly self-promotional and dare I say it, icky, at times.
BUT if you are genuinely proud of your creation, you have nothing to fear by promoting it.
Here’s a non-exhaustive list of ways in which I have promoted the newsletter so far, thanks to Mel, who has done a fair bit of the heavy lifting here too. It’s not the most fun part I won’t lie to you.
I’ve re-shared the Substack links on LinkedIn to my 3,000+ followers. The results are not that great, I think I could have done this better, but it’s another platform to leverage at least.
I will do stories, carousels or even reels about my newsletter on Instagram. It’s in my Linktree and it is something I am happy to talk about because it is essentially repurposing content that my IG followers would want to hear about it anyway.
See example posts:
Asking people directly.
Whether in person, in the DMs, on forums, I have frequently said ‘do you want to subscribe to my newsletter’ when and if I believe they will find it valuable. My mum at Christmas said I had ‘four subscribers ready to reach my 1k goal including her siblings, if I wanted’ but I resisted. You want aligned subscribers, sorry aunty. Like once, at a dinner I asked for email addresses on a napkin from my fellow diners who were interested. Lol. So shameless.
Post on other platforms: Quora, Reddit, Hackernews et al.
These can be hit or miss, and you have to add value to the conversation. I’ve made front page of Y Combinator Hackernews a couple of times briefly but never quite got virality.
The first 1,000 subscribers is achieved by doing things that don't scale. You gotta go out looking for people. It’s the personal touch. But I have been told that once you hit 1,000 subscribers, something magical will start to happen as people help you promote it on your behalf. 👀 guys…!
Leverage other tools for your growth
Substack has many wonderful features. Writing inside the newsletter draft itself is a delight. They have built an engaged community with programmes and events for writers, they make monetisation easy and have incredible email deliverability rates.
But there are some downsides to building your email list on Substack.
The main areas Substack has fallen short (for my needs) includes:
No full name data capture, you only get an email address
No way to track where the email subscriber discovered you
Limited discoverability aka Substack do not help to promote my newsletter
The SEO and keywords help to funnel traffic back to Substack.com not my own domain
Lack of email segmentation aka you can’t group subscribers based on their engagement, demographic or any other identifying features
Whilst I do not have solutions for all these issues, I have leveraged other platforms online to provide some work arounds. NB if email segmentation was a key goal for me, I would have moved off the platform entirely.
Since Substack is basically a website, you can go and view all of my archive for free, without ever giving me your email address 😱 unless I put the content behind the paywall there is no solution to this.
So instead I have…
Designed lead magnets via another email services provider
I spend £10pm on another email services provider (in my case Mailerlite which is rated one of the best ESP on the market for a reasonable price too — I have no complaints) and host lead magnets (a freebie in exchange for someone’s email) on my website. Then using automation software such as Zapier I can re-direct new email subscribers back onto my Substack (sort of, the automations on Substack and Zapier suck, but I don’t think you asked for that much detail).
Some of my most popular lead magnets include How to Turn Your Vision into Action and The Founder-Model Canvas to find your product/founder fit.
Found other platforms to boost discoverability
I have added the newsletter to directories, or programmes such as The Sample. Each week they will send your newsletter out to new email subscribers on their database, who can opt in to continue to receive your newsletter aka a new subscribers. It’s entirely free and they’ve shared The Ask newsletter with over 600 people so far. A total no brainer. Sadly no, all 600 did not all subscribe. Imagine… but average subscribe rates are around 1-5%. You can use my referral link to get set up and automatically have your newsletter sent around automatically.
There are other newsletter directories you can add yourself to for free including but not limited to Duuce and InboxReads.
Use my other scheduling tools, workshops and events to get emails
As a coach I meet a lot of new people, and Calendly prevents the headache of going back and forth to find a time to speak. During the scheduling process I’ve set up my Calendly with a newsletter opt in — see screenshot. Get a Calendly account today.
That’s a wrap, for now….
Lots to do, right? Yet I promise it is worth it, if writing online can change the game for your business or creator journey, a newsletter is one of the best avenues. You own the audience and have full creative control.
Here is the checklist you can follow as a take away as you go build yours!
So that deep dive is two years of learnings for you, if you found it helpful you can consider one of the following options:
Share this post with your social networks or communities so we can help more early stage business owners build successful businesses this year and share their work with confidence.
How? Press Share and write “I just read a really helpful deep-dive on how to get your first 1k email subscribers, by Ellen Donnelly from The Ask® — check it out and subscribe here!”
Consider joining me on a four-week sprint as I coach and mentor budding newsletter writers this Spring.
If you read this far it is likely you are one of the serious ones when it comes to stepping up your newsletter this year. As you know reading information is not the same as doing, so not only could this cohort create the impetus for you to actually DO the things listed here, but it will also be sharing the entire deep dive on tools and hacks which I haven’t shared in this post. Most likely you will be able to surpass 1k much quicker than I did as you get all the shortcuts and support plus accountability. I’m opening a small cohort of business owners/creators/employees building personal brands to learn the ropes together and help you to find your unique voice. Register to be on the waitlist here.
Thank you for reading as always!
I’ll be back in two week’s time with another founder profile as we explore how to grow yourself and your confidence so you can grow your business.
Ellen Donnelly, Founder + Chief Coach, The Ask.