📰 18k subs and $200k revenue

Ft. Annapolis' local newsletter Naptown Scoop and creator Ryan Sneddon

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Today’s guest is Ryan Sneddon. He runs Naptown Scoop, a local newsletter serving Annapolis, Maryland. In three-and-a-half years, he’s built an audience of over 18,000 (nearly half the town’s population), and last year the business generated around $200,000 in revenue.

In this edition, we discuss:

  • 🏘️ How Ryan got half the town to sign up for the Scoop

  • 👩 Exactly how Ryan defines his core reader

  • 💲 How Ryan prices the newsletter’s ad spots

  • 👀 The Scoop’s simple and effective referral system

  • 📈 Ryan’s plans to increase revenue by 175% this year

Don’t feel like reading today? Listen to the full interview on our podcast. Within the newsletter, find breakdowns of Ryan’s background and ad sales in our In the Spotlight section and how he built his audience in our Steal This Tactic section.

— Francis Zierer, Editor

P.S. Don’t forget to fill out our usual poll at the bottom of the newsletter if you have feedback on the content of this specific issue. Reading the responses is one of the highlights of my week.

Like one of his entrepreneurial role models, The Hustle founder Sam Parr, Ryan had no media background when he started Naptown Scoop. 

He went to school in South Carolina, where he studied engineering and stuck around for about a year after graduating. One day, a coworker asked Ryan if he wanted to check out a new brewery after work. Ryan did, and he also wanted to know how that coworker had heard of the brewery. The answer was 6AM City's Columbus-focused newsletter; the pioneering local media company, founded in nearby Greenville, South Carolina, and operating in seven markets when Ryan became a subscriber, now covers at least 25 different markets.

Right before the pandemic began, Ryan quit his job to start his own thing (he wasn’t sure what). He landed on The Daily Thread, which he now says was “a terrible newsletter. It was a terrible project, but it did teach me all the basics of how to start a newsletter.”

Over 10 months, Ryan spent "500 or 800 bucks" running The Daily Thread, which topped out around 800 subscribers, a 35% open rate, and $300 in revenue. The newsletter lacked focus, but writing 1,000 words per week and messing around with Mailchimp for the better part of a year was the right learning experience.

By August 2020 Ryan had moved back in with his parents outside of Annapolis. Nobody, from 6AM City or otherwise, had set up a local newsletter there yet. So he started Naptown Scoop, which overtook The Daily Thread in terms of subscribers within a month, and he sold that “terrible newsletter” to one of its subscribers for $800, going all-in on the Scoop.

“Naptown“ is a nickname for Annapolis. Wikipedia says it’s also a nickname for four other US cities. Expansion opportunity?

Three-and-a-half years later, Naptown Scoop's subscriber count of over 18,000 equals nearly half the population of the town it serves. It's Ryan's full-time job, and besides him, has one other full-time employee (an assistant) and seven part-time employees (two writers, two social media managers, two salespeople, and a special-projects person). The Scoop hit an almost $200,000 revenue in 2023, only its third full year in business.

The Scoop does soft news, meaning coverage is generally light and lifestyle-focused, whereas a traditional newspaper like Annapolis’ Capital Gazette covers a mix of soft and hard news. An example of the Gazette’s coverage: this recent story about personnel policies in the local county council’s legislative branch. It’s not in the Scoop’s purview to go deep on topics like that, though they do sometimes link out to such stories (including in the Gazette).

We asked Ryan how he chooses what to cover, and the first thing he said was:

"No politics, no crime, unless it's a major, major, major crime that you can't ignore. If the mayor got kidnapped, we'd write about it, but if somebody gets carjacked at the Safeway, does our average reader need to know about it?"

Let's look at a recent issue of the Scoop from Friday, April 5 (chosen for being published one week before this article was published). From top to bottom, including all copy (excluding words within images), the word count is 1,802. This is a standard word count for the Scoop, with no issues in the previous two weeks going below 1,600 words or exceeding 2,000.

We took a look at how this word count is distributed across the newsletter:

  • Intro and outro combined: 57 (3%)

  • Ads (three, combined): 360 (20%)

  • The digest (misc. lifestyle news): 147 (8%)

  • Local business highlight: 76 (4%)

  • Local happenings: 313 (17%)

  • Referral CTA: 34 (2%)

  • Civil news: 78 (4%)

  • Weather: 65 words (4%)

  • Live music listings: 479 (27%)

  • Sports listings: 174 (10%)

    (Top five content types by word count in bold. Percentages rounded to the nearest whole number) 

The above list is structured in order of appearance in the newsletter. You’ll notice that, by word count, the most significant bulk of the content is live music listings. Ryan says he puts those, along with the sports listings, at the bottom of the newsletter because they’re the most popular; that way, readers scroll to the bottom and see all ads included in the issue.

The Scoop’s revenue comes almost entirely from newsletter ad sales. Ryan says they also sell social media ads, merch, and a membership program, but the total from all other sources pales in comparison to the newsletter ads.

A $200,000 revenue last year with 18,000 subscribers. That’s $11.11 revenue per subscriber per year. The actual number may be even higher, since Ryan didn’t have 18,000 subscribers throughout all of 2023.

Let’s do a little more back-of-the-napkin math. Ryan didn’t tell us his exact ad pricing, but he did say they billed $15,362 worth of newsletter ads for March 2024, a month in which they sent 21 issues. Some issues have more than three ads, some have less, and different ad placements have different costs (not to mention Ryan is well within his rights to adjust prices for a given client, day, or placement at his own discretion) — but assuming three ads in each of March’s 21 issues, that’s 61 ad units sold at an average estimated price of $251.83.

Ryan used to do all ad sales himself, but he also used to only send three issues per week. Now he has two people helping with ad sales to sell a stock of an estimated 732 ads per year. The actual number will likely be even higher this year.

Individual advertising clients have different needs and budgets. Take this entirely text-based ad for a body-sculpting treatment in an issue with six different ads:

The above ad certainly cost less than the below ad for Brad Kappel, a local Sotheby's realtor who, according to his website, "has secured more than $900 million in waterfront property sales." Brad likely only needs to make one sale to more than cover any ad campaign in the Scoop — and his logo appears quite frequently at the top of the newsletter.

In an interview with Newsletter Operator last year, Ryan said he doesn't let anyone sign a contract for under 6 months but pushes for a year or more. That likely doesn't apply to the kinds of text-based ads seen above but almost certainly applies to marquee advertisers like Brad Kappel.

Assumed costs aside, one thing is clear: Ryan has build a highly engaged and valuable audience of Annapolis residents. It’s a no-brainer for all kinds of local businesses to pay to access that audience.

What's on the horizon for Ryan? He's using the platform he's built with Naptown Scoop to launch a slate of other businesses. He's in the process of launching a portable restroom business. After that, maybe a marketing agency, maybe a fence-building company. He plans to launch versions of the Scoop in other cities; the next city is apparently already in the works, though he's not ready to share any details.

Naptown Scoop is worth subscribing to if you want regular inspiration to start a local newsletter of your own, but Ryan also shares much of his learnings in a newsletter called Life of Scoop.

By the way, Ryan's advice if you're considering starting a local newsletter: begin with live music listings.

Read an excerpt of our interview below or listen to the full podcast here. Continue scrolling to Steal This Tactic for a breakdown of how Ryan built his audience.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity. You can listen to the full interview as a podcast on any major podcast platform. Just search for “The Creator Spotlight Podcast.”

What advice would you give to other people working not just on local newsletters but on newsletters generally?

The basics matter. There are all these stories about Kobe practicing the fundamentals and people saying, “Dude, why? You’re the best basketball player in the world.” And he’s like, “Yeah, why do you think I’m the best basketball player in the world? I do this eight hours a day.” Or you hear about Steph Curry shooting however many shots he shoots every day.

Mastering the basics is what makes you win. It’s just about not quitting. So many people say they’re going to do a newsletter, write three episodes, and then quit. If you commit to writing a newsletter, and you say you’re going to send it at this time on these days, and you just do exactly that, and you don’t miss an edition for three-and-a-half years — I’m living proof it can change your life.

Hopefully you can do it faster and smarter than me; maybe don’t quit your job first. But it’s not that complicated. It is hard because sometimes you just don’t want to do it. Sometimes you have to stay up until 2AM to finish the newsletter so you can get it out by 6AM.

If you just make the boneheaded commitment, if you decide you’re going to send the thing out every single time you said you would — even if there’s a hurricane, even if you’re sick, whatever — if you can do that for years, I certainly don’t want to compete against you.

Want more? You can listen to the full interview in Ryan’s episode of The Creator Spotlight Podcast.

Email-based courses. They’re relatively easy to set up (especially compared to video courses). And if you’re inspired by Ryan’s success growing his audience with a referral system, access to a course (or just a discount on a course you’re selling) is a great higher-end referral reward.

Why are most email courses so bad?

Things we can all agree on:

  1. Email is cool now

  2. Teaching is a great way to sell

  3. Lead magnets get leads

An email course should be an exceptional lead magnet, but there’s a big difference between getting leads and converting them.

Top creators have used this course to create lead magnets, standalone products, agency work, and more.

Get the course today and see why 7-figure creator Dickie Bush got “Actionable takeaways within 5 minutes of digging in. Huge value.”

Naptown Scoop's growth is largely due to Facebook ads, a simple referral system, and a strong understanding of the newsletter's core audience.

Facebook ads kicked off growth, but Ryan hasn’t run them for a year and a half

The first thing Ryan did after setting up a website for Naptown Scoop — even before writing an issue of the newsletter — was run Facebook ads. (If you want a guide on how to use Facebook (Meta) ads to drive subscribers to your newsletter, the beehiiv team wrote it a year ago.)

“I set it up one night, started running Facebook ads the next day, and then wrote the first episode a week later.

Facebook ads were great at first. Ryan ran them for nearly two years until the CAC (customer acquisition cost) started getting too expensive per new subscriber. By then, enough people subscribed that pure word of mouth became a factor (remember, that's how he found out about 6AM City and became a subscriber years before). He'd also figured out his referral system.

“I turned Facebook ads off a year and a half ago, I haven't run any more since, and my list still gets bigger every single week.

You can spend a ton in the beginning, get to a certain point, and then just shut them off and keep growing. The snowball is already rolling. You reach a point of saturation where acquiring new subscribers on that channel gets prohibitively expensive.

We got to 15,000 or something like that before we turned them off. That’s a pretty good chunk of people in a town of 40,000. Now, we cover more than just the town. There’s about 110,000 people that could possibly read Naptown Scoop. Even still, we’re at 18,000 now, which is pretty great market penetration.”

Find another referral system this simple and effective — you can’t

According to Ryan, the golden rule for any newsletter referral system is: "The only thing that matters in a referral system is the first milestone, because almost nobody will get past that. Make that one free for you to fulfill and easy for your readers to get. Mine takes three subscribers."

Ryan writes all about this in a recent issue of his newsletter about being a newsletter publisher, Life of Scoop:

“My local newsletter has 17,700 readers.

- Only 10% have any referrals at all.

- The average is 2.4 referrals.

- Only 0.1% of readers hit milestone #2.”

The Scoop’s three-referral reward could not be lower-lift to fulfill. It’s just a birthday shoutout in the newsletter intro:

Ryan suggests stealing this exact tactic: “Don't even think about it, just do birthday shoutouts, because everybody likes seeing their name in print.” He also notes that this is actually a growth tactic within a growth tactic:

“Let's say I get three subscribers to sign up and I use my shoutout on you. I'm going to send you the newsletter, like, ‘Hey, look, your name's at the top of the thing.’ And now you sign up, so the birthday shoutout that I had to refer three subscribers for has actually generated a fourth subscriber.

Best-case, instead of just sending it to you, I put it in our running crew’s group chat of our, maybe there’s a dozen guys that run together every Saturday morning, and six of them subscribe. Now there’s nine new subscribers. “

Even if you don’t have a local newsletter, the point is clear: only the first milestone matters. Make it good, make it cheap for you, make it easy for any subscriber to reach. Incidentally, Ryan has a referral system set up for Life of Scoop, too: “The first referral takes two referrals and it’s a PDF of all the tools that I use to run Naptown Scoop and how I use them.”

Meet Michelle, the typical Naptown Scoop reader

Every brand, business, and creator should build a detailed ICP (ideal customer profile) — for newsletter writers, if you want people to subscribe and engage with your content, you need to have an idea of who those people are.

Ryan writes about “Michelle,” his very-specific ICP (he uses the term “newsletter avatar”) in another issue of Life of Scoop:

“By running surveys and meeting readers, I figured out my prototypical reader is over 50 years old, female, and affluent.

She owns her home. She has a few older kids who went to our local private school. Her and her husband may be members at the yacht club. She probably eats out at least once a week. I could go on but I won’t.

That doesn’t mean we don’t have men and younger women reading. We do. But if I could only write for one person, it’s Michelle. She makes up the bulk of my audience. And if Michelle cares about something, there’s a good chance everyone else does too.”

Ryan’s understanding of “Michelle” is the most important piece of this puzzle. That he knows who “she” is, what she’s interested, and her spending power is why he’s able to sell so many ads at such a favorable price and keep his readers coming back day after day.

No time to read or listen to the rest? Before you go, here are a few quick lessons from Ryan’s work, applicable across niches and platforms.

  1. Consistency over a years-long timeline is hard to beat. Including his failed project right before the Scoop, Ryan has been working on newsletters for five years. In the early days, he sent one per week, then three, now five. The learnings compound, certain things get easier, and the profit compounds.

  2. Know your audience and act on that knowledge. Ryan’s “newsletter avatar,” Michelle, is key to his ability to operate the Scoop at this pace and with this type of revenue. It’s how he knows what to write about. It’s how he’s able to negotiate great ad sales pricing.

  3. Manual ad sales are difficult but can pay off. Most newsletters aren’t local, and local newsletters require a direct approach to ad sales; you have to engage with businesses in your community. But if you’re running a local newsletter, want to sell ads, and have no idea where to start, the beehiiv ad network can handle negotiation and pricing for you.

  4. Your subscriber count isn’t everything. Ryan’s primary goal with his newsletter is, of course, revenue; he’s generating more revenue per subscriber (RPS) than plenty of newsletters with far higher subscriber counts than the Scoop.

Thank you for taking the time to read today's issue. If you want more of Ryan’s story, listen to our conversation in The Creator Spotlight Podcast.

On to next week's issue, featuring a creator who built a career in the podcast world after listening to Serial, becoming obsessed with the medium, and starting a newsletter about podcasts (which she’s been running weekly for seven years). She also, of course, has two podcasts of her own, one of which is a complement to her newsletter.

Francis Zierer, Editor

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