Commentary

Publishers Should Weigh Business Needs For Email Newsletter Platforms

Email newsletters are seeing a comeback as publishers of all sizes -- including journalists that are self-publishing -- look for more ways to monetize their content. To create turn email newsletters into a profit center, publishers should consider how their business needs will change over time and what kinds of technology they'll need to meet those goals.
Substack has gained a lot of attention because its platform makes it easy to set up an email newsletter, and charge subscription fees. In the past year, journalists including Andrew Sullivan, Glenn Greenwald and Matty Yglesias started publishing on Substack, giving themselves greater control over what they publish.
However, Substack isn't necessarily the right platform for publishers that have ambitions to develop a more sophisticated email newsletter publishing operation. Jacob Donnelly, who joined newsletter startup Morning Brew as general manager of B2B in December, described some of his frustrations with Substack in his "A Media Operator" blog.
Readers should check out his post, "Why I Decided to Leave Substack," that discusses his ambitions to manage his email list in different ways to target sub-segments of his readership with premium content. Of course, Substack is still in its early growth stages, and it will probably add more services to meet the differing demands of journalists, creators and publishers.
For more perspective on software tools for publishers, I recently spoke to Chris Sopher, co-founder and CEO of the community publisher WhereBy.Us. It recently spun off a software company called Letterhead that provides its internally developed tools to publish email newsletters, and to monetize them with advertising and paid subscriptions.
“There's been this explosion of activity at the individual writer level, which is awesome because it invites more people into the fold," Sopher said. "The needs of those folks are distinct from the needs of a publisher, a team or an operating business. People will start on those platforms that are low-cost and easy to get started, and then often outgrow them at some point.”
Letterhead has a self-service marketplace to sell advertising inventory among the newsletters that choose to sell placements through its platform.  
“An advertiser can come on and purchase one ad in one newsletter, a whole run of ads in one newsletter or one ad in multiple newsletters, any sort of permutation," Sopher said. "The goal is to empower the advertiser to know where the newsletter is going.”
Letterhead is expanding its business beyond publishers that have newsletters with 5,000 to 10,000 readers to larger organizations with a dozen or more newsletters. Its platform consists of different services that can be combined with the content management systems of publishers and other parts of their operations.
“The larger the publishing organization, the more they're just picking one piece of our software to use because they tend to have a solution already," Sopher said. "They just need that one feature and they plug it into the rest of their stack.”
The base price for Letterhead's service is $200 a month, and rises from there, depending on the size and sophistication of the newsletter and various services.
“We want to be a product that helps you move more quickly and test new stuff," Sopher said. "The pricing reflects that.”
The growth in email newsletter publishing is spawning an industry of service providers with capabilities to match the increasingly sophisticated needs. Rather than developing technologies in-house, publishers should consider what kinds of tools are available in the market, and their flexibility to support growth and monetization.

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