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Growing a newsletter from scratch via Instagram: 1 year later, what I learned

A look back at a year of experimentation – what worked, what didn’t, and how to move forward

A little over a year ago I started publishing a weekly “look ahead” in the form of a disappearing story on my Instagram account (in Slovak only). 

The format is not new, many newsrooms do something similar. Famously, there is the Financial Times’ Week Ahead, run by newsletter editor Jonathan MoulesQuartz has a ‘What To Watch For’ section in its Daily Brief newsletter; The Wall Street Journal publishes the “Economy Week Ahead” each Sunday.

For me, it all started with lots of notes I wanted to share with others. As a journalist, I am always curious to know what is coming up over the next few days. I also co-host a technology podcast, so I need to keep an eye open for the next Apple, Google or Samsung event. Also, there are always lots of earnings updates.

At the same time, I was looking for content to post regularly on Instagram to understand the social network better. So I decided to combine the two and experiment – trying to test the potential of an organic, Instagram-based strategy.

The process: Instagram weekly look ahead

I started out by squeezing a lot of information into one screenshot and sharing it (see image below). Friends told me they liked the content but not the form – too much stuff on one screen.

Getting the right app was the first challenge. I initially wrote in the Notes app on my iPhone (my go-to for note taking). To keep the same structure each week I would just crop a screenshot – simple and consistent. But I needed something that would sync between devices and have a bigger default font.

I experimented with Notion, which has a bigger default font. The background color, a bit brighter than Notes, was good, as was the overall user experience. The only problem was that you cannot highlight more than one paragraph to copy at a time. Still, it proved to be a very good option and I did not have to go looking for other apps.

The content was diverse, including holidays, international observances, quarterly results (mostly tech firms, some prominent players), court debates (lots of anti-corruption trials happening in Slovakia), Covid-related news, political events (e.g., a presidential speech or a noteworthy press briefing), new TV shows and movie premiers (both streaming and cinemas), or notable new books or sport events.

At first, I only had a few hundred followers, mostly friends and acquaintances. Eventually, this grew to more than 7000 followers. All organic are, mostly from a few big accounts recommending my weekly content. (But this seems to be a plateau of sorts, at least for passive organic growth).

On a monthly basis, the content reaches around 10-thousand unique accounts. Although stories are supposed to be the way to get eyeballs, time and again I saw that posts traveled further – typically reaching 3-times as many users as stories. 

Whenever I see other accounts sharing stories and not posts I think about the number of followers they are not reaching. Turns out the main Instagram feed is still very much the place to reach people.

This weekly content is the only thing I post on Instagram and it seems I found the lowest bar to pass for an active account so that the algorithm is not downranking my posts (they get roughly the same reach and even grow based on monthly metrics).

Evolution of “The Week Ahead” stories made first in the Notes app on iPhone, then Notion and finally turned into a square post. Source: @davidtvrdon

From weekly Instagram posts to a weekly newsletter

After a few weeks a follower said he would love to get the same content as a newsletter. A discussion popped up under one weekly post and another follower (a journalism student, as it would emerge), jumped in and suggested she would help. Soon a newsletter was born and I had a co-author. (That’s why this section will be written as “we”).

We wanted to give subscribers an extra reason to get the content via email. To be clear, you need other benefits to subscribing to a newsletter, beyond the reliability of email (you know, because of Instagram’s algorithm).

First, we added links. Want to know more about a topic or event we mentioned? With the email, you can explore further by clicking to find out more.

Second, there is more information. On Instagram, we keep content simple and hyper-digestible. In the newsletter, we go a level deeper, trying to give more information and sometimes even context.

As far as differentiation goes, that’s it.

We run the newsletter on Substack because it’s free, allows multiple authors and it’s simple enough for such straightforward content. We also plan an audio version in the near future, so it seemed like a good idea to have it under one roof. (N.B. I wish more newsletter platforms would integrate podcasts like Substack).

The only problem running a non-English newsletter on Substack is that you cannot translate some messages, like the confirmation e-mail or signup screen. So we bought the domain and set up a super simple single page website via Carrd and embedded the Substack signup form.

In the stories, posts and description we use the website to try to convince followers to activate the newsletter. We have been met with two kinds of reactions. One mostly from gen Z: “I love the content but I will never subscribe to the newsletter, though I read it every week on Instagram.” The second: “Your newsletter has become a Monday morning routine.”

The very simple signup landing page on the custom domain. Source: tentotyzden.sk

Takeaways and what’s next (podcast, memberships)

So, here are my thoughts on what worked, what didn’t. A year later I have ten times the followers on Instagram I had before (7,300) and 750 newsletter subscribers with a healthy 50% open rate. 

Remember, that’s from posting one piece of content weekly. I like to think about it as a utility. Like a weather forecast – you can live without it, but once you get used to it, it becomes a part of your routine.

After launching the newsletter, I started to realize the content does not have to live only there and on Instagram, so I started posting the same weekly look ahead on Twitter and LinkedIn.

Looking back it sounds almost dumb not have been doing it from the beginnig. What can I say, don’t make the same mistake and use all the platforms and social media that make sense to you to reach the right audience.

LinkedIn proved to be pretty good in terms of newsletter conversions although the algorithm there is tricky. I started sharing a written version in a post. But as the original got longer and longer it needed more and more editing to fit into a post, which was too time-consuming.

I tried to post a few editions in the form of LinkedIn articles but the reach was very low, so I started sharing images just like on Instagram. The reach was okay, but I did not see many conversions, so I started to share links to the online versions of the newsletter editions.

Links stopped working after a few weeks, the reach was very low, so I had to change it back to sharing images which improved the reach right away.

Twitter did not bring many newsletter subscribers but it is a good content to have on a Monday morning. The Tweets always have nice engagement.

Still, Instagram remained the biggest and most important funnel in terms of getting new subscribers. I suspect that is because the newsletter audience largely copies the demographic of my Instagram account (mostly 25-34-year-olds, 70% female).

As I mentioned above, the next steps include starting an audio version of the newsletter and some kind of option for support or even a membership with extra content.

Also, as all of this happened largely via passive organic posting and the Instagram follower and newsletter subscriber count both have stagnated for a few weeks now.

So it’s time to come up with an active campaign, maybe add an extra weekly post with a reminder to subscribe or even add extra content like a monthly overview of upcoming new books, movies and TV shows.

Let me work on that and get back to you on this in a few months.

David Tvrdon

This piece was originally published in The Fix and is re-published with permission. The Fix is a solutions-oriented publication focusing on the European media scene. Subscribe to its weekly newsletter here.