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The secrets of Andrew Sullivan's newsletter success
Future News 134
Many of the observations that follow will be glaringly obvious. But that’s probably only after you’ve read them.
You may know that Andrew Sullivan is a semi-famous British-American journalist and author. You may also know that he’s been blogging on-and-off for more than two whole decades, with other writing and editing jaunts in-between.
This makes Sullivan, who’s just turned 59, a true expert in newsletter writing. That, and he’s amassed almost 20,000 paying subscribers. Nothing to scoff at.
I’ve deliberately first focused on his paying subs – those who part with $5 per month or $50 annually – because this data point falls exactly on one of the most important trend lines of the newsletter industry. Conventional media wisdom has it that around 10% of all subscribers will actually pay for your product. Lo and behold: Sullivan has more than 118,000 total sign-ups.
But The Oxford University educated writer (yes, he has a Boris story) is defying expectations elsewhere, namely in newsletter openings. Almost three quarters (73%) of paying readers click on Sullivan’s flagship The Weekly Dish newsletter when it lands in their inbox, while Sullivan’s total open rate is around 53%.
A good open rate is deemed to be 25-30%. To use an over-abused publishing metric, Sullivan’s audience is very engaged.
To understand why, look no further than Sullivan’s sign-off post ahead of his summer holiday. The article is a mix of great editorial content, hard-nosed salesmanship and community building.
One of the most attractive aspects of Sullivan’s prose is his conversational style. He even lets his readers into his deliberations about the vacation.
“I sometimes feel a bit guilty about this, especially when there’s some breaking news, but I’ve stuck to it – on the grounds that doing nothing is a good thing from time to time, that rest is important and that “reculer pour mieux sauter” are words to live by.”
Sullivan follows it up with a bit of ‘inside baseball’, revealing his most recent subscription numbers as part of a “Dish tradition” – these are the figures I’ve quoted above. Here’s the clever twist: Sullivan offers some further insights (that credit cards typically lapse in August), and then he turns the information into a call to action.
“We’d love to get to a solid 20,000 paid subs — subscribe here! — and to 120,000 total, but we’re patient.”
With a glimpse behind the curtain and an appeal presented, Sullivan provides a value proposition, immediately answering the ‘why should I pay for this?’ challenge. We learn of a paying subscriber who quit in August only to have a change of heart:
“Truly, there are so many blogs in my inbox that it’s impossible to sift through all of them for substantive absorption, but the latest issue of the Dish has reenergized me…”
We then feel even more involved in Sullivan’s publishing journey as he discloses that his new(ish) podcast has more than 4.4 million downloads.
A full-blown advertisement and endorsement of his latest paperback, Out On a Limb, follows and then two short blog posts (one on whether to prosecute former US President Donald Trump, the other on child sex change operations) finish the article.
But that’s not before the old school community building tactic is deployed. Sullivan finishes with a ‘View From Your Window Contest (VFYW)’, where readers can guess the exact location of a hitherto undisclosed window view in return for a VFYW book or two Dish subscriptions.
It’s fun, it actively involves Sullivan’s readership and it brings a sense of reality to the digital world. It’s endearing. So, what are Andrew Sullivan’s newsletter secrets? He’s probably adding subscribers while he’s on holiday. Genius.
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