How to slowly build a membership

Japan-based writer, photographer and essayist Craig Mod had been writing newsletters for almost 10 years before he decided to launch his paid membership programme.
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Craig Mod’s first newsletter, Roden, which covers photography, literature, meditation and all things Japan, began in 2009 and was rolled out sporadically: sometimes monthly, sometimes biannually. ‘It wasn’t until 2018 that I realised people responded really well to long-form essays on stuff that you’re geeky about,’ says Mod. ‘I thought, “Hey, maybe I should be more rigorous and actually set up a paid membership scheme for this.”’ 

Keep it simple

Craig launched his membership program, Special Projects, in January 2019 with a clear proposition: he would publish two newsletters – one weekly, one monthly – as well as a monthly podcast, On Margins, for free, then offer exclusive additional content for his paying members, including first dibs on tickets and digital copies of his books. 

The pricing strategy would be simple: members could choose between a monthly ($10), yearly ($100) or lifetime membership ($1,500) – the latter originally considered a ‘lark’. 

In the first day, he had 150 paying members – a response that Craig puts down to having ‘a clear value proposition, ie, “If you pay me 10 bucks a month, you get this special newsletter once a week with these benefits thrown in.”’ Driving people to subscribe is also easier if you have a straightforward membership page. ‘It should answer the questions of: What is being made? What do members get? And how do I become a member?’ Craig adds. 

Don’t sweat the numbers

When launching a paid newsletter subscription, it’s important to remember one thing: gaining subscribers is tough. Craig already had a good bulk of subscribers for Roden – many of whom converted to paid memberships – and thousands of followers on social media, but he still had to grind to get the numbers up. ‘Don’t be disappointed if you don’t have millions of subscribers right away,’ he says. ‘Go into it thinking that you’re going to have to fight tooth and nail for every single subscriber.’ 

Sometimes, it’s the smallest details that can help acquire subscribers – and keep them. Craig, for example, responds to every new subscriber with a personal thank-you letter as a gesture of gratitude. ‘I plan to hit 1,000 members by the end of this year, which will provide a $100k baseline “salary”,’ says Craig. ‘This will be two years after initially launching – some thousands of hours of work and no fewer than 250,000 words written.’ 

Learn more

Substack helps turn newsletter subscribers into paying customers. 

Listen to the State of Digital Publishing’s episode ‘The State of Paid Newsletters’ with Revue founder Martijn de Kuijper. 

Brandon Zhang‘s Medium blogpost delves deep into how Anthony Pompliano grew his paid newsletter, The Pomp Letter, and podcast.

This article was first published in Courier Issue 37, October/November 2020. To purchase the issue or become a subscriber, head to our webshop.

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