Launch Playbook for Local Newsletters

How Gunnar Holm got $0.50 to $0.60 CPAs in the US and Europe

When Gunnar S. Holm revealed that he was paying $0.50-$0.60 per subscriber (less than half the typical cost) to grow a local newsletter in Oslo, people said exactly what you'd expect...

"Well, yeah… You're building in Norway! Try doing that in the US and then come talk to me."

So to prove the point, he spent a month running the exact same playbook on an audience in San Francisco (thousands of miles from where he even lived), and it worked there too.

The other day, he took me through the whole thing, and I think everyone can learn from what he did. So real quick, I’m gonna run you through…

  1. His Content Strategy: The Reverse Lead Magnet

  2. Launch: How He Went from 0 to 1k (and 1k to 10k+)

  3. Monetization: What Worked and What Didn’t

He shared his exact copy, best performing ads, plus a bunch of data and we’ll get into all of it.

Even if you’re not building a local newsletter, a lot of this is applicable, and may just help boost your conversion, cut your growth costs, or add a revenue stream where you weren’t expecting one.

Let’s dive in…

1. Content Strategy: The Reverse Lead Magnet

Having grown up in Norway, the concept he picked for the local newsletter was simple and specific: "Five of the best events taking place in Oslo, delivered every Thursday."

“I thought of it like a lead magnet,” he told me. Start with one clear problem you solve, then you can expand content from there if you want.

Personally, this helped me a ton. I was getting hung up on the landing page for my own local newsletter because the content was an eclectic mix of local business events, artists, news from around town, and more. I couldn’t figure out how to describe it!

But this “think of it like a lead magnet” approach broke all those mental barriers for me. I ran with a slight variation on his hook (“5 cool events for business owners in Austin”) and sent the first issue the very next day.

Interestingly, this is a concept Matt McGarry and Ryan Carr actually explored this week on the Newsletter Operator podcast too (around 7:57).

They talk about how a newsletter is like a lead magnet people get every week. A reverse lead magnet, if you will.

Because a typical lead magnet offers readers something they want in the moment. It’s a quick hit of adrenaline, and then a crap-shoot on whether they ever open another email from you again.

The best newsletters position themselves to not just send recurring content, but solve a recurring problem, which makes it more likely readers come back.

In the case of Gunnar, that problem was, “What should we do this weekend in Oslo?” And in less than nine months, the simple promise of five cool events each week grew the list to to over 10,300 subscribers with an average open rate of 61.6% and clicks around 9.4%.

By the way, if you’re hoping to build a local audience, starting with event curation seems like the way to go. In fact, Ryan Sneddon built a six-figure newsletter in Annapolis, and recommended something similar (live music listings) in his interview on the Newsletter Operator podcast.

I think it’s smart for three reasons:

  • It’s useful to readers

  • It’s a pretty light lift to write

  • People will keep opening week after week

But how do you actually get readers? Well, let’s take a look…

2. Launch Strategy: Reddit First, Then Paid Ads

Reddit: Gunnar got his first 1,000 subscribers from posting event roundups in the local Subreddits every week. He did this for both his Oslo and San Francisco experiments, and the approach/reception were similar in each.

Here’s an example from SF (screenshot below). You can see, he’s not shy about promoting the newsletter there.

I was surprised by that, and asked if anyone gave him shit for doing self-promo. The short answer: No.

“In big subreddits, like r/Entrepreneur, people are very aware of self promotion,” he said. “But in smaller local channels, they’re not as strict.”

He'd post every Wednesday, and occasionally, someone would gripe. But the moderators were happy to have some valuable posts in the group, and most feedback was positive.

Not all of his posts garnered 100+ likes. But even the less popular ones delivered a healthy number of subscribers, because Reddit is more of a meritocracy than other social channels. Posts don't need a lot of likes in order to be seen by many, many people in a channel.

Facebook Ads: Around 1,000 subscribers he started using Facebook ads to grow the list faster. If you’re new to Facebook ads, there are a couple different types newsletters tend to use:

  • Traffic Ads: When you click these, it sends you to a specific landing page

  • Leads Ads: These can have an email capture right on the ad where people can sign up to your newsletter

He tested both and found that the CPA was roughly the same. But he prefers to send people to a landing page for a few reasons...

First, it makes it possible to integrate Sparkloop, or another newsletter recommendation service where you get paid for referring subscribers to other newsletters (more on this below).

Second, he feels it’s less likely the email addresses are coming from spam bots.

And finally, he says, people are just more likely to remember your email and engage with it if they’ve experienced your landing page, seen your branding, and maybe even read one or two past issues before signing up.

His best ad: “This is by far the best performer,” he told me, sharing the ad creative below from his SF campaign. He tested a lot of these short ads with text in the foreground, and a simple shot of the city in the background.

“The copy is based on months of testing for the Oslo newsletter,” he said. “The copy – Struggling to find things to do in {city}? – works very well in my experience.”

3. Monetizing: What Did and Didn't Work

When it came time to monetize, there were a couple of surprises…

First Surprise - Sparkloop Didn’t Work: Gunnar runs a newsletter growth agency called GrowJoy, and one of his specialties is the Sparkloop + Paid Ads combo.

Essentially, you pay for ads to grow your newsletter, then add Sparkloop and get paid to recommend other newsletters to your readers, offsetting some or all of the money you spent acquiring them.

He wrote about it in more depth here.

This chart is for a different newsletter, but the growth combo (ads + Sparkloop) is the same he tested for his local newsletters.

Typically when he sets up SparkLoop, he sees something like this from new subscribers...

  • ~50% of new readers opt into other newsletters

  • ~50% of those meet the criteria needed for Gunnar to get paid

  • Publishers pay ~$1.50-$2.50 per accepted subscriber

So the math looks roughly like this...

.5 x .5 x $2 = $0.50

For every new subscriber he gets to his newsletter, he can theoretically count on $0.50 from a Sparkloop partner. And since the local newsletter was growing for ~$0.50 per reader, his ads would have essentially paid for themselves…

But, alas… No!

For some reason, his local readers opted into other newsletters much less often than expected.

I asked him why he thought that was, and his theory is that there’s a mismatch between the themes of a local newsletter and some of the broader tech newsletters that pay for referrals.

People signing up for a local event roundup aren’t in the mind-space to subscribe to a crypto newsletter.

If true, it’d mean people are paying close attention to the recommendations. So if you’re going to test this, try hard to find newsletters with serious overlap.

The Second Surprise – People Were Willing to Pay: Toward the end of his experiment with Oslo, he’d grown the list to ~10k readers, and started experimenting with paid subscriptions, signing up 240+ people at $5/mo.

Here’s how it worked:

  • Subscribers joined the list for free

  • After 2 months, they got an email saying that to continue getting the newsletter, they needed to become a paid subscriber.

  • Anyone who didn’t pay was segmented to a marketing list that got the newsletter once a month, along with "FOMO" emails every so often, showing events they could have found if they were paying subscribers.

Overall, the response to his request to pay was pretty positive. Some thought $5 was over-priced (some people always will). But generally, people seemed more than willing to support a local creator.

4. Wrapping Up

Ultimately, he shut both newsletters down because his main focus is his agency, and a lot of these side projects are just experiments he uses to refine or prove out what he’s doing with clients.

But I learned a ton from him, and am using parts of his playbook directly to help grow my local newsletter in Austin. More on those experiments in a future email.

In the meantime, if you want to learn more, Gunnar publishes a bunch of stuff about this on Twitter. You can follow him there or check out his company.

  • How to Land Sponsors: If you write a newsletter, you’d better already be subscribed to Chenell Basilio’s list. She does incredible deep dives on people like Trung Phan, Justin Welsh, and dozens of others. In this interview, she breaks down her approach to landing sponsors, including all the numbers no one ever shares. It’s excellent.

  • True Measures of Wealth: I loved this piece by Zac Solomon on what a rich bookshelf actually looks like. He makes the case that your bookshelf is the story of your life, and your obsessions, and it should have an identity. Such a cool concept.

  • Letters Live: Maybe I’m the last one to hear about this, but have you ever heard of Letters Live? It’s kind of like TED or The Moth, but speakers read famous letters out loud. I got hooked! Some favorites include – Laurence Fishburne reads a letter from an escaped slave to his former master, and Taika Waititi reads a hilarious letter about a speeding ticket. Also… this.

Want help with your newsletter?

I hold free office hours each week just to chat with newsletter operators, trade insights, and answer questions. You can grab time with me here.