February 2, 2021

The Platforms Eye Newsletters

When many of us solo writers think about the audience funnel for what we’re building, it often starts with Twitter. If we can build a large following there, we can then push those people onto our email lists, and then hopefully convert them to paid subscribers. That’s the model in a nut shell.

But the goal has always been to push those followers into an email list built on another platform—either Substack or, in my case, a custom built system. It’s meant that platforms derive no value from the businesses being built except for the very top of the funnel engagement. That relationship appears to be changing.

According to Sara Fischer at Axios:

Twitter has acquired Revue, a newsletter platform for writers and publishers.

Why it matters: The deal marks Twitter’s first step into building out long-form content experiences on Twitter, and its first foray into subscription revenue.

That’s a big move. Whether it recognized the above user flow or not, Twitter is now moving from the very top of the funnel to supporting the full stack of a newsletter creator. It’s a compelling argument.

Not to be outdone, Facebook is also apparently working on its own newsletter product. According to Mike Isaac at The New York Times:

The product, which is still in its earliest stages, could be similar to those of other newsletter companies, according to the people, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to do so publicly. That could include features to help writers build their followers on Facebook and curate their email lists, the people said, as well as paid subscription tools to help journalists make money from their newsletters.

According to the report, there are dozens of engineers working on it and it’ll be released sometime this summer.

I’ve said it many times and I’ll say it again… there are inherent risks with building any sort of business on a platform. Facebook has, historically, pulled the rug out from under publishers. And this reminds me of another scenario that wound up stinging publishers: groups.

As Facebook grew, publishers all recognized the importance of creating groups on the platform. If we could curate a large audience, we could then start promoting our own content to them and it’d drive a ton of users. Facebook encouraged us to spend money to increase the size of those groups as quickly as possible, which we did because the traffic potential was intense.

Once we had built these massive groups, we got addicted to the easy traffic. One day, Facebook changed its algorithm. Now it wasn’t guaranteed that things you posted in the groups would wind up on the individual’s newsfeed. The way to guarantee it? Pay to promote the piece of content. It became instantly unprofitable for ad-based media companies.

I don’t fault Facebook for doing that. It’s a great business and it’s clearly worked. But it’s a cautionary tale of anyone trusting Facebook to build their business. Because of that, I am not incredibly enthusiastic about any sort of premium offering on Facebook. It’s just too risky.

Twitter, though, has interesting potential and I think could do very well if it figures out how to integrate Revue efficiently (not a small job if you know Twitter’s history with acquisitions). Here’s how I would think about it…

At the center, you’ve got a user’s Twitter profile. This is the identity of the individual. For many of us, this is top of the funnel. The larger our Twitter audience, the larger our paid audience. With this acquisition, that doesn’t change. We’ll continue to try and build a large following on Twitter.

I imagine the profile page might change a little bit and include a CTA to subscribe to the individual’s newsletter. This only makes sense. If someone is seeking out our profile and following us, we should push the user into a more controlled funnel as early as possible. What better time than when they’re already taking an action to follow us?

From here, we’ve figured out how to push users from Twitter into a newsletter. However, let’s take the reverse approach as well. When I publish one of my briefs, I also paste a link in the AMO Slack channel so we can discuss it if people want. I could imagine a world where at the end of our long-form content, there are a couple of buttons that drive the user back to Twitter to discuss it.

Fred Wilson, co-founder of Union Square Ventures, does this on his blog.

On his site, when you click those buttons, it takes you to the original tweet promoting the story. From there, people can reply to it and start conversations. It’s an interesting way to introduce a full loop of Twitter to the content back to Twitter. This connection between Twitter and the paid subscription could also open up interesting possibilities tied to private threads on the platform.

When you think about the news last year that Twitter was working on a Clubhouse-like product—where you could participate in audio chats—the potential becomes even more interesting. I run a podcast. Could I introduce a way for readers to engage with me in these audio get togethers?

The final major benefit here is tied to audience development. Because Twitter is an ad-driven platform, it could open up opportunities for us to target lookalike audiences based on our current newsletter list. Perhaps we’d pay for that exposure, but if that helps us grow our lists using Twitter’s social graph, it’s a very good argument.

There are certainly drawbacks to this. Twitter is, after all, a platform that will want to own much of the value created. How it balances giving the individual ownership over their audience will be key. For example, if I didn’t wind up owning the email list, it’d be a nonstarter to me.

Nevertheless, I am very interested to see how this plays out. If Twitter can get it right, it’ll likely make it easier for many newsletter writers—at least those that build on Twitter—to grow a much larger audience.

FOS launches sponsored course

Front Office Sports officially launched its first online course, FOS Essentials, in partnership with Pepsi. According to Digiday story:

Set to launch this week ahead of the Super Bowl, the online course will cover sports marketing essentials from the perspective of Pepsi’s marketing leads.

Unlike most publisher-run courses that end with some degree of certification, FOS Essentials will be free to audiences who after completing the approximately 8-hour long lesson plan will be awarded a badge they can post on their Linkedin profiles.

And since there is no consumer revenue associated with the program, FOS is making this a solely sponsored product. To date, this is one of the largest partnerships that FOS has signed, according to Adam White, the sports business publisher’s CEO and founder. He declined to disclose how much the deal is worth.

This is an interesting approach to tackling the course business. Typically, a publisher will create a course and attempt to sell it to its audience with the goal of getting some sort of a certification. We’re starting to see this popup a lot in the creator space with cohort-based courses about very specific topics. For those that write about topics that lend themselves to leveling up skills, it’s a smart business.

FOS isn’t chasing that business. Instead, the entire thing is free and is underwritten by Pepsi. In many respects, this is a piece of in-depth custom content. The majority of the speakers that are presenting come from companies associated with Pepsi in some way.

This introduces interesting possibilities for other media companies, especially those that bridge the business and consumer world (or, as FOS CEO would call it, the prosumer audience). Are there ways that other publishers could help their readers level up their skills in large numbers while generating sponsorship revenue?

Because this product requires an individual’s engagement—they’re actively watching the content with the goal of getting the badge at the end—it could generate far hotter leads for partners than just white papers and webinars. On the other hand, the amount of work that would go into producing a piece of content like this could be outside the budgets for most business advertisers. Pepsi is a pretty large company after all…

But it does present an interesting question… for b2b publishers, should we be spending more time thinking about ways to help our readers level up their skills? Even if it’s not sponsored and is a reader revenue play, could we build longer lasting relationships with the reader doing this? It’s certainly a viable business worth exploring.