Email Newsletter Advertising: $2,913 Spent, Here's What Happened.

in Summer 2018 we launched an indie ad network and acquired over 100 new publishers for just $450 with a strategic newsletter sponsorship.

a few months later, marketer Rebekah Bek recapped a $51,975 podcast advertising experiment at Ahrefs and inspired us to try newsletters again, at a larger scale.

today we're publishing those results.

summary

over the last 6 months we advertised on 10 niche publications for $2,912.75, a non-trivial amount at Fomo.

for perspective, our entire monthly marketing budget is < $350:

  • $100 /month, retargeting with AdRoll
  • $250 /month, Google Ads (primarily for our brand name, "Fomo")
  • $20 for Zapier
  • $10 for SendGrid
  • $0 for "automation," we built our marketing stack in-house

we also pay $165 for Mailchimp (25k+ subscriber range) but i consider this an Ops expense. further, we're considering alternatives since we only send ~1 email per month.

methodology

with thousands of newsletter sponsorships to choose from, it's easy to get stuck in the weeds building spreadsheets and not taking action.

instead i tweeted, and about half our selected inventory came via replies or direct messages from people i trust.

while every advertisement in our campaign was unique, our overall goal was to increase awareness of Fomo (the product) as well as our approach to business.

here are the 10 newsletters we sponsored (spreadsheet):

below i'll walk through the planning and execution of each campaign, along with my endorsement (or not) of the newsletter itself.

at the very bottom of this recap is a meta summary with lessons learned to help you achieve a better outcome than we did.

results

it would be naive to think we could replicate the success of last year's indie ad network launch, but we kept an open mind and established one rule: assume we will lose money.

our assumption came true.

in fairness to all the partners we worked with, i'll evaluate each sponsorship using the same criterion:

  • network description (why we found the audience relevant)
  • clicks (unique users, not sessions or pageviews)
  • whether we were given a "preview" or "proof" prior to launch
  • degree of creative input from us vs them
  • link tracking capabilities
  • ROI (email signup conversions)

let's get to it.

NoCode newsletter sponsorship

this fun resource is for indie makers who want to do more with less.

the founder, Nile, showcases products, tools, and deals through both the website and newsletter digest.

since Fomo is often dubbed a "cool tool," and we pride ourselves in 1-click integrations, getting in front of the NoCode audience made sense.

clicks

  • 65 unique visitors over 19 days; 45 visitors on Day 1

preview / proof

Nile writes his own editorial, but let us preview his draft opening statement.

in the meat of our sponsored newsletter he included a screenshot + 2 links to Fomo.com.

creative input / flexibility

i described Fomo to Nile and told him we prefer to link our home page.

the newsletter subject line itself was "George Simpson just read the NoCode Newsletter," which was very clever and gave the nice impression that Fomo jointly curated that week's roundup.

link attribution and measurement

the NoCode newsletter included these query params in our link:

?utm_campaign=NoCode_Newsletter&utm_medium=email

roi

0 email signups.

Failory sponsorship

think: opposite of Indie Hackers. Failory is where founders and makers share post mortem stories about why they failed to achieve a business goal.

it's a refreshing theme, especially in startup la la land of everyone fake news "crushing it," and since Fomo is open about our own goals and struggles it made sense to get in front of self aware entrepreneurs.

clicks

  • 47 unique visitors over 67 days; 3 visitors on Day 1

preview / proof

we worked with Failory and determined a static banner vs  email shoutout would provide maximize exposure.

creative input / flexibility

we sponsored Failory around the time they transitioned to a new owner and were able to write our own ad copy for the website, inserted as a banner between stories:

link attribution and measurement

i'm not sure why the campaign has a trailing 1 but perhaps if we sponsored inline banners as well as emails the "medium" could have been set to identify which was more popular.

  • ?utm_campaign=failory1&utm_source=failory

roi

2 email signups.

Hacker Newsletter classified ad

i've personally subscribed to this resources for years, as i detest the general culture on the HN forums and find browsing it a waste of time.

since Hacker Newsletter is trusted by nearly 60,000 tech folks, and Fomo has an API + engineering blog content, it made sense to position Fomo as hacker-friendly.

clicks

  • 305 unique visitors over 14 days; 149 visitors on Day 1

preview / proof

Kale runs Hacker Newsletter and he's an A+ collaborator. after we expressed interest in their experimental "classifieds" feature he shared this:

given the predictable format of the newsletter itself, we could have predicted our link aesthetic.

however, knowing we'd be accompanied by up to 5 other classified ads was an honest way to remove ambiguity in terms of feature placement.

creative input / flexibility

Kale seems to "vet" each advertiser, and suggested we keep our copy short. we wrote the final result, which later became the h1 headline on our home page.

link attribution and measurement

hackers don't like marketing or "tracking" so we kept it simple:

  • ?utm_source=hn

roi

0 email signups.

Unreadit newsletter sponsorship

this is a brand new resource with a growing list of newsletters, essentially a hybrid of Inside.com and Hacker Newsletter but for reddit.

if you subscribe to the Marketing newsletter, for example, you'll get a weekly roundup of the top-voted (+ their favorite) posts from several marketing-related subreddits. clever!

after being tipped off about Unreadit and learning of their early traction (4 digit email subscribers within weeks of launch), it made sense to share Fomo with this group of efficient and curious marketers.

clicks

  • unknown unique visitors (see "link attribution" below)

preview / proof

Unreadit has a "click to preview" tool on their sponsorship page that renders an example advertisement underneath.

creative input / flexibility

on the checkout form we were able to upload our avatar, write headlines, and specify a click-through link.

Fomo promoted 2 different blog posts in the Entrepreneur and Frontend newsletters.

since reddit's culture is anti self-promotion, we figured helpful content would earn more engagement.

prior to payment, advertisers can choose from a list of available dates.

link attribution and measurement

this is the 2nd time i made the mistake of thinking the supplier would append their own tracking IF given a clean URL from the advertiser.

while most do – e.g. AdWords requires users to opt-in to remove automatic link tagging – the Unreadit team is new at this so... oh well.

roi

unknown, let's assume 0 email signups.

MentorKit newsletter sponsorship

this is the most experimental email newsletter sponsorship we tried, because MentorKit is essentially an advice and lifestyle column.

based on the content of previous newsletters (i subscribed before sponsoring), MK's primary audience appears to be marketers and entrepreneurs.

we did a multi-week sponsorship that promoted content from both Fomo and my personal blog with a "long term" strategy vs hoping for directly attributable sales.

clicks

preview / proof

similar to NoCode, MentorKit writes their own stories.

ultimately we didn't know what our ads would look like until the newsletter landed in my inbox, but MentorKit did track outbound clicks and checked in with me after the campaign had been live a few days.

this followup is a nice touch and other providers did not do this, perhaps because they have less confidence in their ability to drive traffic.

creative input / flexibility

MentorKit drafted a few pitches in a Google Doc and we provided clarifying details before shipping. just like unreadit we tried 2 different advertisements:

maybe it's just me but it's not perfectly clear these advertisements are... ads.

because each link was just a blog post and not a referral scheme or otherwise incentivized link, i don't think MentorKit did anything "unethical."

rather, this highlights an ongoing debate about the specific strategy by which a traffic broker should disclose paid client sponsorships.

link attribution and measurement

because each piece of content was on a different blog with its own unique GA snippet, there was no need to specify multiple attribution parameters.

  • ?utm_source=mentorkit

roi

  • Fomo ad: 0 email signups.
  • personal scholarship ad: (0 - 4* applicants)
*the scholarship application was an outbound Google Form link. i could have written JavaScript that appends source page URL parameters to the application form, but it felt like overkill.

since 131 people applied and 1,458 unique visitors viewed the page during my application enrollment period (ending Jan 31, 2019), an average of 1 person applied per every 11 who saw the application.

thus, MentorKit may have driven as many as 3 or 4 applicants to the scholarship by way of 37 unique visitors.

DigitalPsychology sponsorship

if you're familiar with Robert Cialdini's "Influence" you'll get a kick out of DigitalPsychology, a free resource by maker Daniel Stefanovic.

there are 9 evergreen pages of content that dive into research surrounding consumer psychology and its impact on buying behaviors. marketers who read can immediately implement advice into their ecommerce stores or SaaS webites.

since social proof is among the 9 pillars of influence outlined on Digital Psychology, it made sense to offer Fomo to readers who self-identify with first principles.

clicks

  • 50 unique visitors over 30 days; 7 visitors on Day 1

preview / proof

DigitalPsychology already had a native ad in place for the owner's other project, so we mirrored its style (avatar, headline, short description) and there were no surprises in terms of final look and feel.

creative input / flexibility

Daniel let us write our own ad, which was placed at the bottom of every page on the site.

they also removed the existing ad, making Fomo essentially the "sole sponsor" for a full month, which was cool.

link attribution and measurement

we wrote our own tracking parameters. probably overkill since all ads were in the footer, but hey why not:

  • ?utm_source=DigitalPsychology&utm_medium=referral&utm_campaign=footer

roi

0 email signups.

Hacker News Digest newsletter sponsorship

i won't wax poetic about HN Digest because it's a ripoff of the Hacker Newsletter.

that said, they do offer a neat feature that lets subscribers hand-pick how much content they want to receive, and how often.

i discovered HN Digest via ThoughtLeaders, a marketplace connecting brands like Fomo to newsletter sponsorships and influencers.

clicks

  • 38 unique visitors (not verified)

ThoughtLeaders has a traffic dashboard, but i don't trust any of those tools and neither should you.

all outbound links were "vanilla" (no tracking), and they failed to make this obviously critical ad tech feature clear in the ad builder.

after my brief email argument with their team following the newsletter campaign  they attempted to up-sell Fomo on several thousand dollars worth of services. we will not use ThoughtLeaders again.

preview / proof

live ad builder, 1 click purchase after choosing a newsletter to sponsor.

creative input / flexibility

the newsletter itself, in our case HN Digest, has the ability to automatically or manually approve ads. our copy and image icon were accepted.

link attribution and measurement

no clue.

roi

no clue, but let's assume 0 email signups.

Built with Shopify sponsorship

spoiler: we own this free resource, which interviews successful Shopify stores every week about how they started and grew their business.

featured shops range from $10,000 sales /year to $15 million, so the audience is diverse in their aspirations and growth stage.

since Fomo is popular in the Shopify ecosystem (thousands of installs), it made sense to feature our product in "card" format on the interview reel.

clicks

  • 15 unique visitors over 28 days

preview / proof

not applicable, we run this baby. :)

creative input / flexibility

here's how Fomo ads look in context on the blog reel:

link attribution and measurement

Built with Shopify is a niche site with low (but 100% organic) traffic. we rank #2-3 on Google for "Shopify case studies."

  • ?ref=bws

last month (February 2019) our ad drove 15 unique visitors to our app listing, but over time it's driven a few 100 high quality visitors.

roi

0-2 app installs (we convert 20-30% of unique listing visitors to signups).

Monday Medley newsletter sponsorship

my friend Nat produces a high quality weekly newsletter with light editorial and links to his own blog posts as well as random, interesting resources he found that week.

many of Nat's subscribers are like me: in tech, smart, handsome, and appreciate of marketing tools that can help grow my business. it made sense to put Fomo in front of Nat's audience, even if just to reinforce awareness of Fomo.

clicks

we get a couple dozen links from Nat's blog, which mentions us organically, so accurately assigning a figure here is tough. see "link attribution" for more detail.

  • 50 unique visitors

preview / proof

Nat writes his own newsletters so after providing our link, we got the final result as a regular subscriber.

creative input / flexibility

Monday Medley newsletters are text + link only, so no logo but we got the job done:

link attribution and measurement

  • Fomo.com was linked with ?ref=monday-medley
  • my personal scholarship post was vanilla / naked

roi

several people referenced "i found you through Nat's blog" in their scholarship application.

total email signups to Fomo.com is unknown, as querying GA for ref=? (vs UTM params) is unreliable, and Nat's website already links to Fomo in an organic post.

let's assume zero email signups.

Inside Marketing newsletter sponsorship

for frequent newsletters on niche topics, Inside is your place.

from "Inside Tesla" to "Inside Trump," and now "Inside Marketing," there are dozens of options with their own editorial team and of course, unique readership.

because Inside has impressive engagement and demographic data for their new tech and marketing categories, it made sense to share Fomo.

clicks

  • 106 unique visitors over 4 days; 30 visitors on Day 1

preview / proof

prior to our campaign going live, the Inside team sent a hidden URL with our final text + link + imagery included in a clickable mockup.

creative input / flexibility

the Fomo team drafted a short pitch and then Inside's editorial team tweaked it, ie removing "bullshit" and instead swapping it with "BS."

this change is totally fair... most B2B SaaS tools don't curse as often* as we do.

*most companies don't curse at all.

link attribution and measurement

we used our own in-house affiliate product for this campaign.

this make it easy to track clicks, free trials conversions, and even *who specifically* signs up with a given link.

Fomo also offered Inside readers a 2 month free trial, while all other sponsorships in this experiment were offered the usual 7 or 14 day trial.

roi

1 free trial signup (requires credit card entry) so far. this campaign is still live.

summary

here's the same chart we introduced earlier, now with all the metrics filled in:

with just 4 email signups for $2,912.75 in spent cash, email newsletter advertising was a huge fail for Fomo.

the money, of course, was just 1 resource.

to produce the Inside Marketing, Failory, and Hacker News Digest ads i also enlisted 1-2 Fomo team members for marketing and design assistance.

this easily cost us another 2-4 thousand in "labor," making our all-in newsletter experiment closer to $5,000, not $2,912.

email newsletter advertising tips

two obvious things stand out from this reflection:

  1. make sure you know exactly how links are being tracked
  2. optimize sponsorship link destinations to maximize conversions

since our conversion rate was low even with the right audience and link tracking (e.g. Inside Marketing), i don't think this campaign could have been "saved" with better attribution.

similarly, while we could have used PPC- or funnel-style landing pages vs our home page and blog, even a 10x improvement (40 signups vs 4) in collected emails would not be ROI-positive. remember, we already onboard 100s of new customers /month organically for < $350 in marketing spend.

the 3rd and less obvious variable, that i would change if we did this again, is getting creative in negotiating rates.

how much to pay for email newsletter ads

as the chart above illustrates, Fomo paid anywhere from $0.49 USD to $8.96 per click with virtually no difference in the audience's quality or conversion likelihood.

this is because newsletter sponsorship prices are still Wild West. there is no standard, no best practice, no industry norm.

savvy newsletters will tell you what they think is average but they're likely comparing prices to print advertising, which has underlying fixed costs like... uh... printers and delivery vans.

email newsletter ad pricing strategies

  1. most newsletters attempt to set prices based on their subscriber count
  2. if they're a bit more transparent, per email open.
  3. another popular strategy is CPM, or "cost per 1000 impressions," but even this can be skewed. is it cost per 1,000 people who could see the ad (sends), or who maybe saw the ad (opens), or who definitely saw the ad (scrolled down far enough in the newsletter)?

it's rare to find a newsletter that charges per click, because underneath all the technology and engagement stats, the truth is email newsletter ads don't get clicked much.

if i executed this campaign again i'd work out a bold incentive structure for click-through signups, say $100 per free trial.

this would also impact the ad units themselves, as the newsletter would likely prefer to try Fomo and then endorse it with the language and tone their audience expects.

maybe we'd even give newsletters a 1-2 month Fomo trial, which in addition to a better evaluation would let their subscribers see our product in action throughout the promotion.

in essence this strategy would be a true partnership, as it relies on Skin in the Game, and would be up to 728% less expensive ($100 vs $728 CPA).

other ways to spend $2,913 on ads

the average cost per click from this campaign was $1.75, which is not bad considering none of the newsletters provided guarantees.

our Google Ads budget (diagram at the top) shows a $1.43 CPC for February 2019, so let's agree any amount under $2 is "OK" if the visitor is an English-speaking marketer interested in conversion rate optimization.

that said, over 1,000 clicks (MentorKit, Hacker News Digest) went directly to our blog versus a clear conversion opportunity like our main website. this means our adjusted CPC was $2.93 ($1,875 / 638 clicks).

we could probably give 50-100 Fomo customers a free month of service (~$3k subsidy pending their pricing plans) in exchange for a "tweet about us" shoutout and drive more than 638 clicks, no?

the allure of online advertising is that it is instant, scaleable, and measurable. sometimes these promises hold true, but not being honest about your metrics is like the addicted poker player who "wins most of the time" yet suffers from net-negative losses over the span of his career.

silver lining

as with all things in marketing and storytelling and consumer buying behavior, growth and awareness are nonlinear activities.

in other words: it's possible we got 2x, or even 4x the ROI i calculated above. for this reason, and because i wear $6 tee shirts from Target, i don't regret spending $3,000 on newsletter ads just to write this blog post.

so if you run a niche community and want to pitch me a sponsorship opportunity that's more aligned with outputs than inputs, say hello.