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Inside the Tech of a Paid Newsletter

Yaro Bagriy
Yaro Bagriy

Setting up a paid newsletter is quite a bit different, and perhaps more complex than setting up a simple blog.

With a blog, you’ve got dozens of options, most of which are one-click installs. Pick your platform, choose a theme, and get to writing. It really can be that simple.

But for a paid newsletter, you’ve got to worry about:

  • The front end landing page
  • Collecting payments
  • Creating a “gate” for access to the content
  • Syncing your paid member status with your mailing list provider
  • Sending the right content to the right people
  • You don’t, for example want to send paid newsletters to free members, and you certainly don’t want to send “Upgrade Now!” type content to your paid members.
  • Getting detailed analytics on both members, visits, but also email opens, and clicks.

It’s not an insignificant group of problems to solve, but luckily for us, it’s relatively straightforward.

In this post I’m going to show you the entire tech stack behind Terry Godier’s paid newsletter, Conversion Gold.

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The Website

The first piece of tech (and marketing) that is required for your newsletter is to have a website. You have to have somewhere to send people who might want to sign up for your thing.

Yes, you can use the pre-built landing pages from your newsletter platform, like most Substack users do, but many newsletter creators really like to have control over the visual look and feel.

That said, you can always ignore this advice (at your own peril 🙂 ) and decide to simply use the one provided to you without worrying about this next part. You’ll give up a lot of flexibility, and the ability to create multi-faceted gated content sections (which we dive into below), but what you gain is a faster launch, and fewer headaches.

For my site Terry decided to go with WordPress. Terry is a developer and he typically builds out all of his own stuff, but the goal of this project is different. He just wanted to be able to write and focus on his content without having to reinvent the wheel. Based on a conversation with his buddy, Jon Henshaw, Terry knew that he wanted to use Memberful (it’s also what Ben Thompson uses at Stratechery). He also followed Jon’s suggestion for using their WordPress plugin, which sealed the deal on WP as a platform.

You’ll need a hosting company to bring it all online. DigitalOcean has a 1-click deployment for WordPress. It’s pretty darn simple, but we don’t recommend it for non-techie users. You are probably fine using a shared hosting plan, such as those offered by your domain registrar (or using WordPress.com).

Aside from a stock install of WordPress, Terry did build his own theme from the boilerplate underscores theme. Don’t develop your own theme unless:

  1. You’re a developer.
  2. You really need something that off the shelf themes can’t provide.
  3. You have a lot of time on your hands.
  4. You don’t want to lose your developer street cred by using an off the shelf theme.

You’re going to be fine using a pre-made theme, really.

The website had to do two things:

  1. To get new subscribers.
  2. To be a place where subscribers could read archived issues of the email.

The Memberful plugin makes both easy.

Once you sign up for Memberful and install the WordPress plugin, you get a snippet of code that you can insert onto any link on your site.

Here is what the Conversion Gold buy buttons look like

Here’s what it looks like when a user clicks on them (note that Apple Pay is showing on Macs).

The payments are handled through Stripe, so you’ll also need to have an account there if you want to mimic this flow.

Next, in order to set up the members archives, just use the Memberful plugin again to gate access to paying members. The cool thing is that you can set some marketing language here to show to people who aren’t signed in, or are not subscribers yet.

Here is what that looks like

Here is what it looks like on the front end (what visitors see)

You don’t have to do it this way, but Terry was deliberate about showing a teaser of the content to guests. It actually drives signups because Terry has other, non-premium content, that he uses for marketing purposes. Visitors come for the free content and end up clicking around and seeing the teaser and want to sign up for the paid content.

Create Beautiful Newsletters
AWeber has everything you need to quickly and easily design and send your email newsletter in a matter of minutes.

The Email Platform

Mailchimp was used for this example because Memberful has a very good integration. It’s also free for the first 2,000 subscribers.

The email platform is in charge of a few distinct jobs:

  1. It needs to have all paying (and free) member email addresses so we can mail to them.
  2. It needs to have an up-to-date status of the members paid subscription.
  3. It needs to be able to segment paying members apart from free members, and allow sending emails to either group.
  4. It needs to hit the inbox when you send a newsletter.

Memberful syncs directly with Mailchimp and maintains segments for me automatically. This is a pretty big pain point that is fixed right out of the box, and is a great reason to go with the Mailchimp and Memberful duo.

When creating a new campaign (email speak for a new email) you can segment by paying members, or free members, depending on what you’re sending.

It looks like this

You’ll see that there is the ability to send to members on either monthly, yearly, or none of these. Members on monthly or yearly are on Terry’s paid members with active subscriptions (as determined by Memberful), and members that “do not” belong to either of these are the free members.

In terms of hitting the inbox (also called deliverability) there are literally dozens of factors, some of which you control, some of which you do not. One major step that you can take though is authenticating your domain. That’s out of scope for this article, but Mailchimp has some support documentation on that here.

Publishing workflow

One of Substack’s key features is simultaneously publishing web and email versions of your newsletter. You can do the same using a WordPress plugin called Newsletter Glue. This plugin connects Mailchimp to WordPress and lets you build newsletters inside WordPress like a blog post.

By using this plugin, you achieve 4 things:

  1. Build and publish newsletters inside WordPress. Now that you’ve built your newsletter publishing stack on WordPress, why leave? With Newsletter Glue, you start each newsletter by creating a new blog post. Then you just write your newsletter directly in the post editor, and publish to send. Much better than writing it in Mailchimp, then copying and pasting into WordPress to restrict the content later.
  2. Automatically create a newsletter archive. When you write directly in WordPress, every newsletter is a new post. So you naturally have a web version for your newsletter archive, which you can restrict using the Memberful plugin as mentioned above.
  3. Easily send to paid member segment. Newsletter Glue lets you choose the correct segment to send each newsletter to without leaving WordPress.
  4. Use special newsletter blocks to help your newsletter stand out. Like author bylines, reading times and callout cards. You can even embed Tweets simply by pasting the link.

Here are Newsletter Glue’s Send as newsletter settings. Once you’ve written your members-only newsletter, you can select the correct segment, and send your newsletter without ever leaving WordPress. Newsletter Glue turns your WordPress post editor into a complete newsletter builder. It also glues Memberful, Mailchimp and WordPress together so that your WordPress site becomes a one-stop publishing hub.

The Analytics

Memberful provides a nice dashboard showing revenue, subscriber count (per plan), and churn. Churn is when members kill their subscription. It’ll happen pretty much every time you send an email, so just expect it. It’s not that people hate the email that you’ve just sent, it’s just that getting the email might serve as a reminder that they wanted to cancel anyway. We’ll write a lot more on this topic in the future.

Here is an example dashboard from Memberful

For the website itself, one great privacy focused example is Fathom analytics. Many newsletters use this as an alternative to Google analytics. Really, it provides everything you’d need and respects your visitors.

Here are some stats for IndieMailer (acquired) so you can see what it looks like

Mailchimp offers stats on the email side. They give you:

  • How many emails you’ve sent.
  • How many members you have (by segment, or account level).
  • How many people opened the emails.
  • How many clicks on each of the links in the email.

And a few more things, but those are the ones that are most useful.

And that’s it — that’s the entire tech stack for Terry’s paid subscription newsletter. There are dozens of ways to set this up, but this is the one that was chosen for this example, given the constraints, requirements, and skillset. We plan to go into more detail on other platforms and setups in the future.

Thanks for reading!

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Yaro Bagriy

Podcast host & community manager


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