🔴 Gatekeeping is good, actually

How to use TikTok to grow a newsletter, ft. Haya from The Deep Dive

In partnership with

Today's guest is Haya Kaylani, creator of a curation-style newsletter called The Deep Dive. What does she curate? YouTube video essays, five of them every Wednesday. She's built an audience of 92k TikTok followers and 13.5k newsletter subscribers in just 15 months — pure organic growth, with almost all of her newsletter subscribers coming over from TikTok.

In this issue, we discuss: 

  • 🎨 Curating, gatekeeping, and gatecreating

  • 📺️ Why writing about YouTube is a huge opportunity

  • 📢 Applying lessons from a career in PR to indie creator work

  • 🤳 Building a newsletter audience by building a TikTok audience

If you're short on time, skip to the Steal This Tactic section for a brief analysis of the tactics at play. But I recommend reading the whole thing this week.

As always, if you don't feel like reading, listen to the full interview on our podcast.

— Francis Zierer, Editor

In 2023, companies in America cut 721,677 jobs, a 98% increase from the year before. Haya Kaylani’s job was one in that number. Naturally, having spent the previous seven years working in PR, she was well-equipped to spin the setback into an opportunity: she started a newsletter.

It’s not that Haya had been harboring ambitions to start a newsletter for years or even months. Rather, in her newfound downtime, she started reading a bunch of newsletters and exploring the sector: “Once I got a greater understanding of it, I was like, I could do this. This could be me.”

Haya’s years in PR had trained her in a style of writing well-suited to the format:

“That succinct, quippy, attention-grabbing style. I mean, the entire pitching process, for anyone familiar with PR, is like a bulk email. It’s like a newsletter.”

There's a wide gap between thinking "I could do that" and actually doing that. Haya jumped the gap. She knew she could write; she just needed a topic. Pretty quickly, though, it came to her: she'd curate video essays. She discovered the category in college and has been obsessed since. None of her friends were as obsessed as her, though, so the newsletter would be a productive outlet to connect with other fans of the format. She was set on the idea by mid-January 2023 and sent her first issue just weeks later, on February 8th.

What are video essays? The simplest answer is longform indie documentaries created for distribution on YouTube. 

For the pilot issue of The Deep Dive, Haya curated six of her all-time favorite video essays; today, every one of her weekly issues features exactly five, usually recent releases, and always with a bonus reader-submitted video essay at the end. She keeps the number relatively low because that's what curation is about: surveying the crop and selecting only the choicest fruits. She watches "at least a combined 24 hours just in those days leading up to an issue," not counting additional watch time throughout each week, to find those choice fruits.

The newsletter has gone out nearly every Wednesday since Haya first shipped the pilot 15 months ago. It has 13.5k subscribers and counting. She also launched a premium product last fall, which includes a filterable, searchable playlist of all videos she's featured and an occasional supplemental newsletter, The Rabbit Hole. Haya did not share how many premium subscribers she has, only that the conversion rate is less than 1%. The premium subscription is priced at $5/month or $48/year.

In July 2023, Kate Lindsay interviewed Haya in her and Nick Catucci’s Embedded newsletter. It was published only 23 weeks after Haya sent The Deep Dive’s first issue. Three important things to note here:

  1. The newsletter already had 6.5k subscribers

  2. Haya’s TikTok already had 57k followers

  3. Kate discovered Haya on TikTok

That is remarkable growth for any newsletter or TikTok account’s first 23 weeks. And, like Kate, nearly every one of those newsletter subscribers were TikTok followers — or at least viewers — first.

It’s not easy to grow a newsletter audience almost solely by posting on TikTok. Scroll down to the Steal This Tactic section, where we unpack how Haya has done this and what you could try for your own newsletter.

Beyond any executional details, Haya undoubtedly hit on the right topic to find an audience on TikTok.

Have you ever googled “what to watch on Netflix right now,” or some other version of that question? I do this probably once a month. Outlets like The New York Times and Vulture publish weekly lists optimized for this exact query — it’s a filled niche. But!

Try googling “what to watch on YouTube right now.” The list of results is much less optimized than for the Netflix query, and it’s mostly focused on free movies rather than YouTube-native content. This is an unfilled niche — take a look at the below chart.

Source. Credit to Simon Owens for bringing this to our attention.

Among media companies, only Disney beat YouTube for share of TV usage time last month. We could argue about whether or not YouTube counts as “TV,” but the fact is, people are watching more YouTube on their TV than all other media companies save for one.

This, I believe, is a significant reason for Haya’s success. Sure, “watching YouTube” means as many different things as there are types of content on the platform. That said, there are thousands of YouTube creators putting out serious, well-produced, long-form content (i.e., video essays), but comparatively few creators like Haya curating that content for an audience that lacks the patience to trawl the platform themselves.

To quote Kate Lindsay in her aforementioned interview with Haya:

“The job of the video essay is to get everything all in one place. It's a little bit what you're doing. There's an appetite for curated content right now because the internet is so big. It's like, ‘Just tell me what I should watch.’“

Algorithm-based platforms aren't going anywhere; neither is human curation. To quote Twitter user @tsarnick, paraphrasing Sam Altman: "content curation and the ability to figure out what people want will be the most valuable skills in an AI-enhanced future."

There’s too much content on YouTube (on every platform, but we’re talking about YouTube here). The recommendation algorithm is always lurking, stalking our behavior, but we want people with a singular point of view (with taste) to tell us what to consume and why. We need a better reason to let the the next piece of content wash over us other than an algorithm telling us “you may also like.”

People follow Haya because she tells us why. Because she has taste. She goes on YouTube, watches 24+ hours of video essays each week, and picks the best. Her weekly newsletter is a sandbar of meaning in the endless ocean of digital content.

This is what curator-creators offer: high ground from the ever-rising tide of online content, which constantly threatens to erode our taste and time.

Read The Deep Dive or follow the TikTok account. Read on for our analysis of Haya’s TikTok strategy and her advice for creators. Listen to our conversation on The Creator Spotlight Podcast.

The following interview excerpt has been edited for length and clarity.

CS: Who is your audience, and what is your relationship with them?

HK: My audience, the vast majority is 18 to 34. And it leans towards the 25 to 34 range. It’s people who have grown up with YouTube and who have been in the space for long enough to understand the different sectors and the different trends that come up within it.

Going back to the blurb that I had in this week's newsletter, “if you think I don't let you enjoy things, wait till you watch this video.” The “can you just let me enjoy things?” crowd — if there's anyone who's not my audience, it's that.

The aforementioned video.

I've talked about this a lot in the newsletter, and not in a way that's snarky at all. I do think people should be allowed to enjoy things if they want to. By all means. But my audience is definitely people that are interested in learning why we do the things that we do. Who believe that the learning is part of what makes culture fun and interesting to participate in.

My audience is people who don't just wanna move through their lives and the culture and the internet and social media and their interactions with people without taking a second guess as to why they're doing the things they're doing, why they're going to the places they're going, why they're seeing the things they're seeing, why they're wearing the things they're wearing.

Want to hear more from Haya? Listen to our full conversation in her episode of The Creator Spotlight Podcast.

Thank you to Opus Pro, our partners this week. Remember when we talked about superformats two newsletters ago? How you want to create one primary, idea-rich piece of content and cut it into smaller pieces for distribution elsewhere? Well…

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How Haya goes viral on TikTok and turns viewers into newsletter subscribers

TikTok, like all the other social platforms, doesn’t want users leaving their platform. But one of the most reliable ways for newsletter publishers to gain subscribers is to spend a bunch of time posting and engaging on social platforms, then share the link to their newsletter subscription page. These two things are always in conflict.

How do you get people to leave TikTok and check out your newsletter or other off-platform websites? First, you need people to actually watch your TikTok videos*.

(*These videos don’t necessarily need to be yours. See: Ali Abassi’s clever lead magnet. But it helps.)

Haya’s first TikTok video, published the same day as her first newsletter, still only has around 2k views. But her seventh video cracked 11k. And her 21st cracked 1M — and 148.2k likes, 869 comments, and 28.2k bookmarks. This was only 5 weeks after she started posting.

A few frames from Haya’s first 1M-view TikTok, including the newsletter plug at the end.

Haya has posted 155 TikToks since that first 1M-view video. Only 26 of them (or 16.7%) have received less than 10k views. Four more have received at least 1M views — one currently has 3.7M views.

Haya's TikTok strategy is simple. The newsletter goes out on Wednesdays. She posts a breakdown of one of the videos, repurposing the blurb she used in the newsletter the same day. A couple of days later, she'll round up the remaining few.

At least, that was her strategy, as described in her interview with Kate Lindsay in Embedded. It's still largely the same, but sometimes, she only posts once per week. The structure has loosened slightly; she experiments more. I'm most interested in her posts replying to commenters, but they're among her least engaged.

If anything, Haya’s approach is an endorsement of simplicity and low production value. That’s not to say it doesn’t take time for her to produce each video, or that she doesn’t write a script and record multiple takes. But these videos are so, so simple. It’s Haya greenscreened over a screenshot of a video thumbnail, talking animatedly about why the video is interesting.

She's an engaging speaker, and the videos she talks about are engaging; it's a simple formula. Former Spotlight guest Casey Lewis does the same thing on her TikTok, summarizing hot-topic stories she’s featured in her newsletter — it works for her, too, sending subscriber spikes to her newsletter.

Crucially, Haya’s videos are longform. Most of her TikToks are over a minute long. Some approach three minutes. And TikTok, as it tries to encourage longer videos, might give hers an extra boost in the algorithm. It's always a good idea to experiment with new features when an algorithm-driven platform first releases them — Andrew Huang told me this a couple of months ago. That's when the algorithm will give you a boost.

Slight twist on this section today. I asked Haya to share one piece of advice each for newsletter, TikTok, and video essay creators.

For newsletter creators: Consistency.

“Consistency. It’s cliche, but if you are showing up every single week and you're putting it out there, no matter how slow your growth is, no matter any other factors at play, you're creating a sense of accountability for yourself, and a sense of trust among your audience.”

For TikTok creators: Just post.

“When you’re starting out, if you have a weird thought but you know there's something interesting there, and you want to put it out there, just put it out there.

The worst that could happen is that no one really sees it. And the best that could happen is you find people who have a similar interest as you and you're able to connect with them.”

For video essay creators: Let your freak flag fly.

“I love when video essay creators lean into inventive, creative ideas for what to create an entire video around, even if it feels so random and out-there.

It becomes so easy to comment on the same things everybody else on YouTube is commenting about. But I really enjoy when video essay creators just go out on a limb.”

A few relevant highlights from the endless stream of content we consumed this week.

  • Wanna know why YouTube thumbnails look like … that? You’ll like this video from one of Haya’s recent posts: “The YouTube Thumbnail Conspiracy,” by Scott Cramer.

  • Simon Owens wrote about what YouTube outperforming the streamers and cable means for creators and Hollywood alike in his newsletter this week. Characteristically sharp and succinct. Read it here.

  • After purchasing it on release day, I’m finally reading Kyle Chayka’s book Filterworld: How Algorithms Flattened Culture. If you’re interested in going deeper on the effect of algorithmic platforms on culture and human taste, you’ll love it.

Thank you for taking the time to read today's issue. If you liked this one, I highly recommend listening to the podcast version.

On to next week's issue, featuring a creator with an award-winning, events-focused newsletter serving the city of London. She’s a newsletter writer in her day job, too — we had a great conversation and I can’t wait to share it.

Talk soon,
Francis Zierer, Editor

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