Jun 12, 2012

Peter Cooper Makes Money. By Not Talking About Himself.

We’ve said it before, but tweets about email marketing with big, fantastical numbers in them are like catnip to us—we can’t get enough of them. Tweets like this one, for instance:

We love supporting good content, too, so we reached out to Peter to get some more information. He wears many hats (developer, podcaster, blogger, author, entrepreneur), but he uses MailChimp to send three weekly newsletters (about Ruby, JavaScript, and HTML5, respectively) to thousands of engaged readers. In a recent 5by5 Founders Talk, Peter discussed how he prefers to link away to thoughtful content instead of promoting himself. Clearly, it’s working, so we asked him to expand on the idea.

Serving Your Readers

"The reader comes first," Peter said. "Of course, there has to be a payback of some sort for me, but without happy and loyal readers, you have a weak publication, whether it’s a magazine, newspaper or an email list. Sadly, the majority of email newsletters are all about linking to a company’s own projects, products, and news. I think it’s pretty rare that they delight their readers. Though some pull it off!"

Notice how, in the below screenshot from one of Peter’s Ruby Weekly emails, of the 10 links pictured, only one links to his work:

Peter’s email empire began with this newsletter, an offshoot of his Ruby Inside blog, which he started in 2006. He eventually thought his audience might appreciate this wealth of very specific information in email form, too. Turns out, he was right. His elegantly designed Ruby Weekly signup page includes personal touches ("Curated by Peter Cooper and not some big ole megacorp") as well as testimonials from happy readers ("Peter does all the hard work of keeping up with the ruby world outside of my twitter feed… Means I can be lazy and not do it myself.").

"The original goal was simply to have another option for readers of my Ruby site to keep up to date with the news I was already reporting on," Peter said. "The point was that I could promote my training courses, screencasts, and, eventually, e-books to them. This is still a key part of the goal, but along the way, I’ve also played with display advertising, job ads, event promotion, etc., because it takes a longer time to build my own content to sell."

The result is a bunch of smart, interested folks that love the aggregation work he does and are exposed to all his other projects. He’s got a captive audience that he can sell things to, but he does it in a subtle, non-sales-y way. He treats people like the humans they are—humans who want great content.

"I have a background in editorial and publishing, so I’ve brought all that experience into play here," Peter said. "I like to think of myself as a publisher first, coder second."

Choosing Links

His readers give back, too. Starting out, Peter "crawled the usual haunts" for links, places like Reddit, Hacker News, and so on, but his process is evolving with time.

"More recently, I’ve started to get a lot of email from readers giving me tips," Peter said. "I even have contacts at companies, like Adobe, who send me weekly lists of content on their development sites."

Based on the feedback he gets from subscribers and how well certain links perform in his MailChimp reports, Peter learns about what his readership wants, and can alter the kind of links he includes going forward. (One of the best ways to do this is to check out the Top Fives section on the left-hand side of your reports page, right under List Growth. There, you can see your campaigns with the best open and click rates, as well as your most-clicked links.) Sometimes, that means including more stories about dependably popular angles, but he likes to make sure that niche topics get their due as well.

"Links that always do well are to pieces of content like ‘5 Rails Tricks You Didn’t Know,'" Peter said. "I like to maintain a little enforced diversity, though, so I often link to projects that I know won’t perform super well, but are novel or interesting enough to deserve some airtime. These are always the worst performers, but I think readers like knowing that I’ll give anything interesting a chance."

Making Money

As far as making money from email is concerned, well… "It’s quite tricky," Peter admitted. "There are various networks out there, like Launchbit, but if you’re in a very tight niche, as I am, it can be hard to find the most relevant advertisers unless you approach them directly. If you have a pretty targeted topic and, ideally, some idea of who your subscribers are, it’s worth approaching companies in that scene who clearly invest in advertising. Find the most popular blogs, other email lists, etc., and approach those companies with your statistics and demographic information in hand. It can take a long time to build a good relationship, and they may want to do some test mailings for cheap or even free, but if you can find the right company, you could establish something good for the long term."

(Incidentally, we’ve created something that’s very helpful for finding this kind of stuff—it’s called Wavelength.)

Peter’s turning into a bit of a mogul in the "making money from email" game. Even if he humbly brushes off the suggestion that he’s a pioneer in a relatively new market, it’s clear from the rise of subsequent newsletters growing big lists out of specific topics that he’s motivating others to do the same. But despite some not-so-ideal situations that have sprung out of this, he doesn’t see the competition as a bad thing.

"Unfortunately, I’ve had a few people entirely rip off my landing page, and I’m not too keen on that," Peter said. "But in most cases, people work on topics that are different from mine and either approach me first or cite my newsletter as an inspiration. I’m only aware of a few newcomers who are direct competition, but it has never hurt. Indeed, the more newsletters, the more the idea of email newsletters get validated in my typically distrustful geek market."