Inside the Tech of a Paid Newsletter


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 my paid newsletter, Conversion Gold.

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 as a marketing person I really like to have control over the visual look and feel.

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

You’ll need a hosting company to bring it all online. I use DigitalOcean and their 1-click deployment for WordPress. It’s pretty darn simple, but I 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, I did build my own theme from the boilerplate underscores theme. I don’t recommend this 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. (I’m also a bit of a control freak).

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

I wanted the website to do two things:

  1. To get me 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 because I’m on a Mac).

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

Next, in order to set up the members archives, I just used 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 I was deliberate about showing a teaser of the content to guests. It actually drives signups because I have other, non-premium content, that I use for marketing purposes (like this interview of Rand Fishkin). Visitors come for the interview and end up clicking around and seeing the teaser and want to sign up for the content.

The Email Platform

I use Mailchimp for my email platform 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 of my 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 me to send mails to either group.
  4. It needs to hit the inbox when I send a message.

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 in my opinion, a great reason to go with the Mailchimp and Memberful duo.

When creating a new campaign (email speak for a new email) I’ll segment by paying members, or free members, depending on what I’m sending.

It looks like this:

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

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. I’ll write a lot more on this topic in the future.

I’m not going to post a screenshot of my ConversionGold metrics, but here is an example one from Memberful:

For the website itself I like the privacy focused Fathom analytics. I use this on all of my sites as an alternative to Google analytics. Really, it gives me what I need and respects my visitors (and I like the people behind the project).

Here are some stats for IndieMailer 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 I care about.

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

Thanks for reading!

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