Jacob O'Bryant
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Newsletter platforms: please support 1-click subscribe

1 June 2021

A few weeks ago Revue announced that they've started to let newsletters on their platform promote each other with 1-click subscribe links. This increases the conversion rate for cross-promotions and advertisements since readers don't have to fill out a subscription form after they click the link (and they don't have to confirm their email address, for newsletters that require it). And higher conversion rates mean that newsletter authors can grow faster and charge more for ads.

This is a fabulous move in my opinion, and I hope it catches on. I've done some experimenting myself with 1-click subscribe. A few months ago I took out an ad for The Sample in Console, a Substack newsletter. Substack doesn't support 1-click subscribe, but with some elbow grease it can be done. You just need a way to figure out who clicked on the subscribe link.

If you export your Substack data, you can get a CSV file that includes a line for every time that one of your readers clicked on a link. It tells you their email address and the time at which they clicked the link, but it doesn't tell you which link they clicked on 🤦‍♂️. I emailed support and asked if they would add a URL column to the CSV file, to which they replied:

We cant modify the exported CSV, but we're always looking for ways to improve Substack, so I've passed this along to the team for discussion.

Fortunately, this can be worked around. If you can figure out the exact times that your subscribe link was clicked, then you can correlate the times with your exported CSV file to figure out who clicked the link.

You could theoretically do this with a link shortening service like Bitly, but again it would have to give you the exact times your link was clicked, down to the second. I just signed into my Bitly account and it's not clear to me if they give you that much detail. In any case, I wrote my own code to do it. Then for convenience I wrote a script that compared my link-click-times to the Substack CSV and printed out the email addresses of everyone who subscribed. Then I imported those manually.

In the Console email, the ad looked like this:

The Sample is a newsletter that [blah blah blah]. Subscribe in 1 click.

(After the email went out, @sjkelleyjr removed the 1-click link since you can't get email addresses for people who clicked the link from the website)

When people clicked the subscribe link, they were taken to a page that said "Thanks for subscribing, by the way this 1-click thing is an experiment, feel free to sign up the normal way too just in case." I got about 100 subscribers from the ad. About 40 of them used the 1-click link, and about 20 of those people subsequently signed up via the landing page as well. So the 1-click link resulted in up to 25% more subscriptions—but we don't know exactly how much more since without the 1-click link, we might've had more signups via the landing page. To know for sure you'd have to do an A/B test.

To be clear: this was a huge pain and I wouldn't recommend that anyone actually do this. Even once you get it set up, you still have to manually export your data from Substack a few times. You're probably better off just buying more ads. But it was an interesting proof-of-concept.

Hence, we really need help from the newsletter service providers. At a bare minimum, they should implement web hooks like Mailchimp does, with UX designed for newsletter authors instead of programmers. When you insert a link, there should be a way to mark it as an action. Then you should be able to enter the URL of a web hook that will receive the event whenever the link is clicked. (Of course, most newsletter authors won't be familiar with web hooks, but programmers like me can write the web hooks and then say "Use this URL as the action").

A great thing about this set up is that it also works across email providers. Revue's 1-click subscribe feature only works with other Revue newsletters, and if Substack implements this feature, I'm guessing they'll do it the same way. Doing this cross-platform in a seamless way would require more work (and in particular, coordination and trust). On top of that, I don't think there's much of a business incentive for the big players to support interoperability. It increases the relative value of being part of their respective networks—even though it would obviously be best for newsletter authors if they could use 1-click subscribe with anyone. So I'm hoping that the smaller providers band together and start implementing this in a cross-platform way, like the way I've described. (And then sponsorship marketplaces like Swapstack can mark newsletters that support it!)

Now, please allow me this opportunity to give myself a pat on the back. I added this to The Sample earlier this month. For background: we use machine learning to match newsletters with people who are interested in similar topics. Each morning, we pick a different newsletter for each subscriber and then forward the latest issue to them, like so:

Whenever someone clicks "Subscribe in 1 click," I get an email alert that includes their address and a link to the newsletter they subscribed to—then I subscribe for them. Since this feature was released on May 5th, it's been used 78 times by 47 different people. We've sent 7,464 emails in that time (about 275 per day on average), so the click-through rate for that link is about 1%. (If you have a newsletter and want to get in on the action, submit it here).

Of course, it's not a perfect solution. If the newsletter requires double opt-in, the subscriber will get a confirmation email at a possibly unexpected time, even though I've already confirmed their address. And I certainly wouldn't mind not having to fill out all those signup forms myself. But let's worry about that later—web hooks would be a great first step.

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