Lessons from running a niche newsletter for 2+ years
Earlier this year, I’ve made the decision to close down La Bagarre (loosely translatable as “The Scuffle”), my french language newsletter about Mixed Martial Arts (MMA), a sport where people in their underwear fight in a cage for money. I had been sending it to my subscribers every Monday for the past 117 weeks.
La Bagarre: Le MMA pour les nuls | Substack
L'actu MMA pour les nuls, chaque lundi par email 👊🇫🇷. Click to read La Bagarre: Le MMA pour les nuls, a Substack…
While it was a lot of fun to write about a very interesting sport (I swear it is), the project never quite lived up to what I believed was its potential, and I couldn’t justify spending 3+ hours every Sunday writing for a measly 80~ (!) readers.
Looking back over the past two years, I was able to pin down a few takeaways from this experience, and I figure I’d make a post out of it. In part because I have to somehow rationalize my complete failure and turn it into a life lesson, but also because I thought it might be helpful to someone out there that’s considering getting started with their own newsletter.
Here are 7 lessons I’ve learned from running my newsletter for 2 years.
Lesson #1: Set up objectives
This might seem very basic, but having either a clear purpose or, at the very least, defined objectives behind your project is very important.
I started my MMA newsletter because I was staying up every other weekend to watch the fights (they air very late in Europe due to the time difference) for years, and didn’t really have a lot of people to talk to about it. I thought that there had to be a lot of enthusiasts out there that might be interested.
Also, I’m a writer and content manager by trade, but I mostly write in English about technical topics from data privacy to no-code business software. Writing about and a fun topic in French was a great way for me to diversify and engage in some fun writing practice.
Unfortunately, I didn’t really consider setting objectives. I kinda just started the newsletter for the sake of it and, when things got a bit rough, I didn’t have anything to hold on to.
My advice: Think about what you want to achieve with your project, where you want to be in 1 year, and what your ideal scenario would be. This will help you keep a north star along the way.
Lesson #2: Know your niche
This might be the biggest mistake I’ve made, and it was from sheer laziness. I made absolutely zero research about the market of French-speaking MMA media before starting, and just blindly assumed, because all the sports content I consume is in English, that no one was reporting about MMA in French.
Turns out it’s an absolutely massive scene with huge media platforms raking up millions of views online, and hundreds of accounts producing high quality content.
That doesn’t mean I shouldn’t have started my own thing, but it would have been useful (some might argue even elementary) to know a little bit about my market and potential audience.
My advice: Do some research. Ideally, you should already be a somewhat active member of the community you’re targeting (more on that later).
Lesson #3: Find your angle
That’s a direct follow-up to the previous point. By understanding your audience, your “competition”, and the niche you’re trying to get into, you’ll be able to create a unique value proposition and define what sets you apart.
In my case, it became pretty clear that a lot of the French-speaking MMA media is more oriented towards young sports practitioners, enthusiasts that generally train combat sports and enjoy technical breakdowns of fights, and look for the latest information on social media, preferable in video formats.
That wasn’t my strength at all. My value proposition was a casual commentary from a non-practitioner, by email, and my target audience 30-something professionals looking to get a laugh on Monday mornings with a high-level summary of the latest high-profile fights.
My advice: Go all in. Whether you want to be an expert or a generalist, there’s an audience out there for everyone. But having a clear messaging and positioning aligned with your unique value proposition will help you find your audience (and vice versa).
Lesson #4: Build (or join) a community
This is a key part of success in today’s crowded online space. Being authentic and participating in communities will make a huge difference in how your audience engages with you and relates to your content.
Unfortunately, I personally did not care for creating a community of MMA enthusiasts, despite my attempt at creating a space for it on French Quora. I briefly joined a private group on Twitter but found engaging in online conversations quite tiring and borderline toxic for the most part.
My advice: Build or join a nice community of like-minded enthusiasts for whatever topic you’re writing on, and nurture these relationships.
A comparable example from the business world is the company Softr, a platform to build no-code tools. I’ve been fortunate to write for them for a few years and to observe first-hand their impressive growth that has been fueled by a very healthy relationship with their community: Engaging with no-code enthusiasts, listening to feedback, driving product iterations based on the market… It’s not exactly the same but a very transferable observation.
The following interview with Softr CEO and co-founder Mariam Hakobyan is an interesting one if you want to learn more:
Lesson #5: Distribution is half the work
I love writing and creating, but I really dislike the process of promoting my stuff online. Unfortunately, that’s a tricky one if you want people to find out about your work.
My advice: I don’t really have one. If you’re like me then good luck, I guess, and let me know if you find a way to make it work.
Lesson #6: Know when to give up
At some stage, if things are not going your way, you kinda have to pull the plug. I pushed for a few months but even ChatGPT gave me tough love when I asked him about what to do:
My advice: Just try to look at it from an objective perspective, and to be honest with yourself. It’s not all about subscribers or monetizetion. Do you enjoy writing your newsletter? Does it bring something nice to your life? If so, by all means, go on!
If not, go back to your initial goals, the community you’ve created, and consider what the next step could be (stopping, selling, hiring new writers, etc.)
Lesson #7: Learn from the best
Finally, if you intend to take your newsletter project seriously (I really didn’t), there are a lot of useful resources online you can leverage.
From other writers sharing their experience (like I’m doing here, you’re welcome) to tips and tricks from experienced creators and enthusiasts, there are plenty of places for you to learn. You’re not alone!
My advice: Look up people in your space and get in touch. Most writers are very nice, and you might get some very useful insights.
A great place to start is the Newsletter Circle by Ciler Demiralp, a newsletter all about newsletters for indie creators, where author Ciler interviews other creators to learn more about how to start, grow and monetize your own newsletter. It’s a good one:
Learn how to take your newsletter to the next level from successful creators.
Reflecting on my newsletter writing experience
Ultimately, I’m probably not the best person to ask how to create a successful newsletter, since I failed at it quite dramatically.
That being said, there’s value in learning from experience, and it felt good to put this article together and to come to terms with the end of La Bagarre. Writing has always been a very fulfilling creative process for me, and I would invite all of you to try to put something out there, even if no one (or a measly 80 subscribers after 2 years — still not over that one) ends up reading it.
As Shane Parris puts it in a great article on Farnam Street:
“Writing about something teaches you about what you know, what you don’t know, and how to think. Writing about something is one of the best ways to learn about it. Writing is not just a vehicle to share ideas with others but also a way to understand them better yourself.”
— Shane Parrish, “Why Write?” (Farnam Street)
It’s been a lot of fun writing about MMA and receiving feedback from my few readers every week, but I think I’d rather just stay a fan going forward, and watch MMA whenever I want, not because I feel a self-imposed need to “report” on it.
I’m not completely giving up on the newsletter format though. To follow my next writing venture, sign up for my new newsletter, where I’ll be sharing semi-regularly about tech, product marketing, UX, and more. Spoiler alert: I probably won’t follow any of the advice I’ve included in this article.
Jack of all trades, master of some | Thierry Maout | Substack
Musings about technology, product marketing, life abroad, language learning, and more. Published monthly(ish). Click to…
Thanks for reading!