How Abigail Koffler grew her email list from scratch

We invited Abigail Koffler, who writes This Needs Hot Sauce, to host a workshop about how she built her subscriber list without a big social media following. Abigail’s newsletter is about making the most of cooking and dining out. Read on for Abigail’s insights.

This transcript has been lightly edited for readability. You can watch Abigail’s talk in the above video.

Takeaways

  • Stick to a format. Land on a topic, style, and schedule that you’re able to maintain.

  • Reach out to your networks. Reach out to friends and family, alumni networks, or other newsletters.

  • Use social media to your advantage. Share questions and ideas elsewhere, then link back to your newsletter. 

  • Make explicit asks. Consider asking people to subscribe in your newsletter, or buying classified ads on other newsletters.


My newsletter, This Needs Hot Sauce, launched in October 2017 on TinyLetter, then moved over to Substack in June 2018. I have about 900 subscribers, with over 60 paid subscribers, and my growth has actually been very slow over time. I began the year with just around 500 subscribers, and a variety of factors have helped with my growth.

One is that the pandemic has led to an increased interest in cooking—the food media world has really kind of exploded. I’ve also had a little bit more time, as certain other work obligations were slower because of the pandemic, to put a ton into growing it this year. I'm really excited for the second half of the year in terms of how the newsletter will continue to grow.  Whether you've had a newsletter for a long time or you're about to start one, I think it's a great time to be working on it right now.

I've seen many stories of very talented writers who leave a lucrative job. They have hundreds of thousands of Twitter followers, and then you see the phrase “six-figure income.”

I hope to have that phrase someday, but that is just not the result for many people who start a newsletter—but that absolutely does not mean you should not start a newsletter. You should. And you will still get really exciting results. You just need to have different expectations and use different tools, because you're not going to have that name recognition.

Try to understand your “why”

Especially at the beginning, writing a newsletter is a lot of unpaid work, and you need to really want to do it.

I hated my job back in 2017. I was working at a nonprofit and fundraising, but I always had a passion for food. My diaries from when I was a kid were complaining about the food that was at my camp. Food was something that I knew I would never run out of things to say about, whether it's cooking or restaurants. I knew that at the bare minimum, a newsletter would be a place for me to have an escape from my day-to-day and bring some meaning to something I was already doing.

Your motivation might be finding people who share your interests, changing careers, or saying something that isn't being said. There are certain perspectives that we really are missing because of the way the media industry is designed and the lack of diversity in thought and background. You might know something that isn't being covered, have a personal experience that not many people have, or be a business that is really exciting.

For me, it was changing careers. I was really trying to figure out what to do in my life next. I’d really always wanted to try food writing for different publications, but I had no clips and no experience in the field. But I had a newsletter.

I landed my first-ever paid article for a local news site in Brooklyn by sending the editor an idea and saying, “I write a newsletter. Here's a link to the most recent one.” And that was it. He liked it, he subscribed, and he hired me to write that article. I wound up doing a lot of other work for that publication, and it was the launching point for so many things that have come after that. 

I landed my first-ever paid article for a local news site in Brooklyn by sending the editor an idea and saying, “I write a newsletter. Here's a link to the most recent one.”

I've written for a bunch of different publications now, but I'll never forget that first article. I have the email printed out from that editor, saying how my newsletter was absolutely the conversion point for me getting that opportunity.

Be consistent with your format

Format is extremely important in a newsletter. I have a three-part format that I developed from the first issue, and I've mostly stuck to it.

Every issue is 1) Something to Cook, which is recipes 2) Something to Order, which features local restaurants, including takeout, food companies, and online retailers during the pandemic, and 3) Something to Read, which links to the best articles I find, such as food newsletters, food media sites, non-food sites that publish food articles, and anything I've written in the past week for other publications.

The final part is that I ask a question every week, and then include people's responses the following week. I really love doing that, because it gives me the flexibility to get to know my audience. Now, people expect it. I have friends who are like, “Oh, I haven't answered the question yet today. I have to go look at it. It's been such a crazy Monday.” Having that regularity is really helpful in terms of being a part of your readers' day.

I ask a question every week, and then include people's responses the following week. I really love doing that, because it gives me the flexibility to get to know my audience.

I send my newsletter at about the same time every week: early in the afternoon on Monday. I used to do a Sunday send because I didn't want it to interfere with my work week, but now I do Mondays and just love starting the week by sending my newsletter out. One time, I had to send it at 6:30 p.m. because of technical difficulties, and I got messages like, “Where is it? I'm at my lunch break and it's not here yet.” I had to say, “It's coming. I promise.” I love that it's such an important part of people's day.

My first ever issue was on TinyLetter, and a lot of the things that were in it are still part of the newsletter. The “Something to Make” section became “Something to Cook,” but it's the same thing, and I also still have the other two sections.

As I mentioned, 2020 has been a big year of growth, and the topics of my recent top newsletters give a sense of that. I’ve written a lot more about current events than I have in the past. There’s been this idea of food being an escape, which I think it can be for a lot of people, but it also intersects with literally every issue in the world, from labor to farming to race to culture. I started writing about these kinds of topics a lot more this year, within the same format that I had established. 

I’ve also written about my family. My mom and dad both had COVID this past spring, so I wrote about that because it was something extremely important that was happening in my life and to the country, and I knew I had a platform to share it. I think the reason I've been able to share these personal details is that almost since the first issue, I'd made my newsletter a very personal space. I'll mention people so often that my friends will be meeting my roommate, and they'll be like, “Oh yeah, I know who you are because your name is in the newsletter.” That comes naturally to me and has made it a little bit easier, because it never feels like there's some disconnect between “newsletter me” and my actual life.

Reach out to your networks

After you've identified your goals and your “why,” then you have to do the hard part. You have to start your newsletter and you have to tell people in order to grow it.

There are networks that you might not have thought of much if you don't have a large audience on any platform, which was my case. For example, moms. My mom shares almost everything I post on Facebook. It could also be an aunt, grandparent, or anyone who has other friends. These are people who love to support.

If you have a newsletter on Substack, there's a stats section, and you can see where traffic is coming from. It’s good to look at on a regular basis because newsletters love to share each other, and it's happened multiple times where someone I don’t know will link to one of my newsletters. That’s a great community to tap into. I'll see that people are coming from their newsletter, and then I can reach out to the person behind the newsletter, thank them for including me, subscribe to their newsletter, and see if I can link to them in some way. It's this nice exchange that happens very organically.

You can also use alumni networks. It could be schools, or a program you went to, some sort of course, or even a summer camp—whatever you're in.

Your readers are your best marketers. If they are letting you into their inbox every single week or every single month, that means they enjoy your content, especially if they're opening it repeatedly and responding to it. I'll get emails from people sometimes being like, “Oh, yeah. So-and-so recommended I sign up.” Or, “This person forwarded it to me.” That's an important way to continue to grow. There are a lot of different ways to ask people to share for you, but you can't forget that word-of-mouth marketing.

Your readers are your best marketers. If they are letting you into their inbox every single week or every single month, that means they enjoy your content.

If you have friends with large followings and you're thinking it may be odd to ask them to share a link, it's not—even if it's someone you're not that close with. It's totally normal. They're aware of their platform, and if they're a good friend, you can just ask. I would do it after you send out an issue that you're particularly proud of, because that will be the first one that many people will see. If I get a big subscriber bump, I try to put more effort into the next newsletter because I know people are seeing it. And make sure you say thank you to the people who helped to share: buy or Venmo them a drink, because we're in the middle of a pandemic, and it’s important. 

Newsletter swaps are really good as well. They're super helpful to grow and trade best practices with other newsletter writers. I've done newsletter swaps with my friend at the lifestyle newsletter Garden Variety. It's been fun because we'll do either Q&A or recommendations on something, and it always brings a new audience. Being featured in a newsletter is amazing publicity because people who like newsletters will probably get more newsletters. I don't even know how many newsletters I get, and not just about food. I get a great one about the history of Black Wall Street in Tulsa, one about grief, and others on a huge range of topics.

Use social media to your advantage

In terms of social media platforms, I think Twitter and Facebook are a lot easier to link on than Instagram, but Instagram is actually my favorite space besides Substack. I have an Instagram account for This Needs Hot Sauce, and I have almost the same number of followers as subscribers on Substack. It's an overlapping, but not entirely identical, community. There's some content that's just on Instagram, just as there’s content that's only in the newsletter. I personally use my Instagram more for conversations and sharing photos in the moment.

Instagram is also a great way to test out your ideas, or if you have a question or you're working through your position on an issue. A recent example is the reopening of restaurants in New York. I did a four-day long Instagram story about this topic, and I got people from all over the country sharing what restaurants were like near them and whether they felt comfortable going out. This was a really easy way for people to share and jump in. I could archive it and then bring it right back to the newsletter. I talked about reopening and shared some articles that informed my thinking, then I linked to the newsletter on Instagram, so they move and grow together.

If you ever have a tweet on Twitter that gets some attention, reply to the tweet and link to your newsletter. On Facebook, you never know who will see your posts. You just have to keep doing it because different people will see them each time. And make sure you put your newsletter on your resume and on your LinkedIn—it’s an underrated social network. People are there. Even if it's not cool or fun, it's still a place where people are clicking on things and looking to find new voices in a field, so you want to make sure your newsletter is linked on that platform. 

Make explicit asks

In terms of getting your readers to share, I’d recommend checking out the preamble feature on Substack, which is the little intro above your newsletter that you can customize. This is something I learned from Emily Atkin from the newsletter HEATED. When she launched paid subscriptions, she did a countdown for several weeks, saying things like, “Okay, two more days!” in the preamble section. It was really cool because that’s a way to ask readers to do something, but it doesn't feel as formulaic because you can switch it up and keep it in the voice of your newsletter.

I wouldn't just constantly say, “Okay, forward this to a friend,” because after a certain amount of time people will tune that out. You need to offer specific things like, “I'm going to have an interview with this person, but it will be only for paid subscribers.” Or, “Hey, this week I really would love to see if we can hit this subscriber number. Can you forward this to a couple friends?” You can use the preamble function for this. Make sure you change up your messaging over time, because if people read the same thing over and over again, their eyes just glaze right over.

Paid advertising isn't really talked about too often, but I've done it twice and I do find value in it. I’ve done classified ads with an amazing newsletter by Ann Friedman, who's one of the hosts of [the podcast] Call Your Girlfriend. It's been around for years, and it's one of the most long-standing weekly newsletters. 

You write a short blurb, and then it goes in the newsletter. The reason I did it was because newsletter readers like newsletters. Both times, I got more than 100 subscribers in two days, which was a huge bump. There are other newsletters that offer classifieds, like Study Hall’s classifieds with Deez Links. Make sure you research the newsletter’s audience – it’s something you can always ask the person you're buying the ads from.

Paid advertising isn't really talked about too often, but I've done it twice and I do find value in it. Both times, I got more than 100 subscribers in two days, which was a huge bump.

Gather with your community

I love doing events and being around people. I've hosted more than 20 in-real-life happy hours at local restaurants, with the biggest one having over 30 guests. Sometimes, we get private areas and special menus. It's a great way to support restaurants I love and bring people who read the newsletter together.

Since we've been in quarantine or whatever this is called now, I've done a bunch of virtual events. For example, a cooking class / happy hour raising money for a community garden in Bed-Stuy. The upside of virtual events is that my friends and readers from all across the country have been able to come, whereas normally they would not be able to.

Having a community that I trust to host conversations about topics as serious as the reopening of restaurants during COVID, or as lighthearted as your favorite ice cream flavor, is huge. That range is because we can have civil discussions about a passion we have in common. 

Media is a very unstable industry. I appreciate that creatively and financially. I know that every week and every month I'm going to have a space to write about whatever is currently happening, and also a certain amount of money coming in. The creative freedom is maybe one of the best parts of having a newsletter, because it's your space. It's my space that I want to fill with productive things that can make people's lives better. 

The creative freedom is maybe one of the best parts of having a newsletter, because it's your space. It's my space that I want to fill with productive things that can make people's lives better.

I do feel a serious service angle to my content, especially because so much of it is about what people are doing in their kitchens every day. It’s such a big part of everyone's physical health, mental health, and happiness. I really value the freedom and ownership to create a site where people have a space to read about food in this way, and then hopefully share that with others and take some part of it into their own lives.