Exclusive data: email newsletters & monetization

In my previous two weekly analysis posts, I’ve made the case for why blogs and email newsletters represent the future of independent media - and could also provide an antidote to the ills of social media. But of course there’s one glaring problem with my hypothesis: monetization. Can the subscriptions model of email newsletters work for independent media, especially since there are clear signs of subscription fatigue in the market?

In this free Cybercultural analysis, I present the results of an Alpha survey of 359 general population US consumers, surveying their willingness (or not) to pay for email newsletters.

Bygone blogging days

Letting the days go by, let the water hold me down
Letting the days go by, water flowing underground
Into the blue again after the money's gone
Once in a lifetime, water flowing underground

And you may ask yourself
How do I work this?
And you may ask yourself
Where is that large automobile?
Once In A Lifetime, Talking Heads

I was fortunate enough to live through the golden era of blogging, and I was able to build a thriving niche media business from it. ReadWriteWeb ran from 2003-2012 under my direction and I made a good living from it - plus at its peak I was able to support over 20 other people concurrently (mostly writers). The revenue model was primarily online advertising and sponsorship, with a portion coming from events and premium reports.

However, the type of blogging business ReadWriteWeb was - bootstrapped, self-sustained, and profitable - is almost impossible to build in 2019. Simply put, online advertising is no longer a viable revenue stream for most niche publications; mainly due to Google and Facebook’s duopoly over the market.

That’s partly why email newsletters have usurped blogs as the default format for independent, niche media in 2019. I outlined some differences between email newsletters and blogs in the opening post in this series. But as I noted in the second post, in terms of content the two formats are essentially the same. The one striking difference is in monetization.

Because the ad model no longer works, email newsletters are placing all their chips on the subscription model. In other words: instead of advertisers and sponsors paying for the content, newsletter publications are asking readers to stump up.

But are people willing to pay a subscription, no matter how small the amount (most email newsletters are in the $5-10 per month range)? After all, there’s a lot of competition for those dollars. Think about all the subscriptions from much larger media and tech companies that many people already pay for: Netflix, Spotify, The New York Times and/or Washington Post, Amazon Prime, Apple News+, Microsoft Office online, Google cloud, etc., etc. Subscription fatigue is a real issue here.

The crux of my concern about email newsletters is this: are normal, everyday people willing to pay for them? Let’s find out…

Survey results

I conducted a survey on Alpha, an on-demand insights platform I’ve partnered with. I was particularly keen to see what people outside the media business and associated Twitter bubble think about subscriptions. I asked the following questions to a general population audience of US consumers:

  • How many email newsletters do you subscribe to?

  • How many email newsletters do you pay for?

  • What do you spend per month on email newsletters?

  • Would you subscribe to an email newsletter about your favorite hobby?

A note on how the survey was conducted. After I set the survey questions, Alpha launched the test by connecting to panel marketplaces to reach my target audience. The majority of Alpha’s sourcing is done through the Lucid sample marketplace, which offers access to roughly 100 million panelists from over 250 diverse suppliers worldwide.

How many email newsletters do you currently subscribe to?

Let’s look firstly at how many newsletters - free or paid - people currently subscribe to. Between 1-4 was the most popular answer. Almost a third (31%) said none at all, but that’s the glass-half-empty statistic. We can also state that email newsletter signups have a nearly 70% penetration rate, which is actually very good.

How many email newsletters do you currently pay for?

Here’s where we get to the nitty of the gritty, to quote Prince. 64% of respondents don’t currently pay for email newsletters. That’s the challenge for indie media in a nutshell: to convince those six-seven out of ten people to pay for online media.

How much do you spend per month on email newsletters?

Of the respondents who do pay for email newsletters, over a quarter (26%) pay between $21-30 per month. A further 12% pay over $30 per month. That’s higher than I expected, which suggests there is an appetite among consumers to pay for email newsletters.

What email newsletters do you currently subscribe to?

I was curious which email newsletters people subscribe to currently. While the answers were eclectic - and a mix of free and paid - it did show that signing up to receive content by email is a common activity. There was plenty of niche content, too. Here are some examples of responses:

  • “cnn, nbc martha stewart, real simple, this old house, better homes and gardens”

  • “Post Gazette. Esquire. Flip board wall street journal”

  • “nelson- adkins museum, kansas health institute, downtown Lawrence, Lawrence public library, new york times daily articles, kansas land trust,”

  • “Maggie Kerr, Planets Within, Lynn Hayes, Astrodients, NIH News in Health, Judicial Watch, Genetic Lifehacks, don't remember the others.”

  • “Farmers Almanac, Book Basset, WHoot, AMAC, Only in Florida, Mother Earth News, Herbal Legacy, Shop Talk.”

  • “the Skimm Money The New York Times Fortune EW People”

  • “Emails from blogs, brands, school, stores”

How likely or not likely would you be to pay for an email newsletter about your favorite hobby?

What I was trying to get at with this question is whether people would be willing to pay for a non-news publication. We know from the recent digital success of large media companies (NYT, WP, et al) that people have been willing to pay for those news brands at least. But what about a newsletter that covers quilting or golf, or some other hobby?

The results above state that 38% are very likely or extremely likely to pay, which is encouraging. In fact, that’s the same percentage of respondents who said they pay over $20 per month for email newsletters. There may be some correlation there, but either way it’s a healthy percentage.

On the other hand, half of respondents to the above question said they’re “not at all likely” or not very likely to pay. Which suggests there’s a lot more work to be done yet to convince mainstream society of the monetary value of niche online content.

Conclusion

From the perspective of independent media, the survey results are promising in some respects:

  • Nearly seven out of ten people already sign up to newsletters, which is a pretty good penetration rate.

  • The newsletters that people have signed up for are eclectic and wide-ranging, which shows there are plenty of niche topics available for publishers.

  • Just under four in ten people pay over $20 per month for email newsletters.

  • The same number (38%) would be willing to pay for an email newsletter that covers their favorite hobby.

However, a couple of the stats show how steep the challenge is for media:

  • 64% of respondents don’t currently pay for email newsletters.

  • Half of respondents said they’re unlikely to pay for an email newsletter covering their favorite hobby.

My own experience with Cybercultural lines up with the survey findings. My free signups have been growing at an excellent rate - especially over the past several weeks, as you can see in the chart below. So clearly people have been willing to give my newsletter a chance.

However, enticing my free signups to convert into paying subscribers has - so far - been a much tougher nut to crack. I won’t show you that chart! I am still in the early stages of building this media brand though, so I am encouraged by the signups growth.

Overall, there’s enough promising data in these survey results to suggest the subscriptions market for email newsletters is indeed viable - even though there’s a lot of work to do to convince more people to pay.

I’ll end, of course, with a plea for your subscription 😉 If you enjoyed this post, you can receive all four Cybercultural emails per week for just $7 per month or $70 per year: