How Delia Cai grew Deez Links from zero to 2,000+ signups

  
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We invited Delia Cai, author of Deez Links, to speak to an audience of Substack writers in New York about how she grew her newsletter to 2,700 signups. Delia started her daily media newsletter as an intern at Atlantic Media.

This transcript has been lightly edited for readability. You can also check out the slides from Delia’s talk..

Takeaways

  • Be your newsletter’s wingman. Talk it up to everyone.

  • Borrow other people’s audiences to reach new readers.

  • Build credibility by getting other people to write about you.


Why Delia started a newsletter

I write a newsletter called Deez Links. It’s basically a daily-ish media newsletter that sends you a link to something worth reading, tied to the larger media industry.

I started Deez Links four years ago, when I was just out of college. I had an internship at Atlantic Media that was cool, and not cool, in that I spent all of my time just reading news about the industry, and I was writing corporate memos. It was cool because I was learning a lot about digital media, but I was also just sitting in a cubicle all day, not interacting with other humans. 

This was 2015, 2016, around when newsletters like Today in Tabs and Ann Friedman's newsletter were getting a lot of hype. I was reading those and I was like, “This is so cool. I want to try to do this. I want to try to write in some kind of outlet that isn't just in corporate memo speak and maybe I can just do this for my friends and it will just be a funny thing that I do during the work day.”

So I started Deez Links. It was on TinyLetter. I made the logo in three seconds in MS Paint. It was an extremely lo-fi situation.

I sent it out to my friends, friends from college, and friends that I worked with and I was just like, “I'm going to do this every day. Let me know if this is interesting.” I had no real aspirations for it other than just getting in the practice of writing about something every day.

Deez Links grew to about 500 subscribers by 2018, which was fine. It was mostly people that I'd met on the internet, or just people that I knew personally. Then I moved it to Substack in 2018, and since then it's gone through this amazing growth trajectory to where I had 700 subscribers and got a shout-out in New York Magazine and Vanity Fair. We're also doing this merch store which is really cool, which has taught me a lot already about ecommerce and supply chains.

Deez Links was mostly people that I'd met on the internet, or just people that I knew personally. Then I moved it to Substack in 2018, and since then it's gone through this amazing growth trajectory to where I had 700 subscribers and got a shout-out in New York Magazine and Vanity Fair.

Looking back over those four years, it seems like there's this very calculated path to growing the newsletter, and I have to be totally honest and admit there was not. I was just bumbling along. This was my passion project. I just tried a bunch of things, so I’ll share with you the three buckets of things that have worked out for me.

Be your newsletter’s wingman

So the first one is super obvious. It's just to be your newsletter's wingman.

I think the really wonderful thing about newsletters is they're so personal. They're tied to you and your name most of the time. Bring it up to your friends, your work friends, while applying for a job. I put my newsletter in my resume. And I was like, “I don't know if this is work appropriate, but this is what I got.”

When you start a newsletter, you may not have a lot of cred to go off of. You don't have a built-in audience unless you're already a writer on other platforms, and I didn't have that. I was just out of college.

Your first 500 subscribers are going to be the people who are just naturally invested in you, your friends and your mom. So you should make your newsletter an extension of yourself and bring it up all the time when you're talking to people in your circles.

I think the trick to this is always consider how to widen that personal circle, whether it's going to meetups, going to hangouts, or interacting with people on Twitter and making Twitter friends, which is my favorite thing. That way you're always adding to the circle and you're being your own best advocate for the newsletter.

Then at the end of the day, after you've bonded and had a normal human social exchange, you can say, “Yo, I have a newsletter. I write about X, Y, and Z. I would love to know what you think about it.” Telling them to Google it, or even texting them the link, is super easy. That way, you’re treating it as a way to stay in touch with people that’s less weird than, “Can I add you on LinkedIn?” It's like “Hey, we bonded. Do you want to support my art a little bit?”, which feels like a more natural ask.

Borrow other people’s audiences

The second tactic  I stumbled upon was borrowing, or being exposed, to other people's audiences. I think this is the most effective one.

I ended up coming across this tactic in three different ways. One was with classifieds. When I first started out, I was thinking, “I'm a young woman in media. I feel like other young women in media would like this newsletter, what are they reading right now? What am I reading right now?

I loved Ann Friedman's newsletter. She had this huge subscriber base, mostly women, and her newsletter is tied to current events and news as well. I feel like that's my audience. And she does this thing where she’ll place classified ads on her newsletter. It costs $50 to write a 140-character line about why you should subscribe to Deez Links and put the link in there. So that went out in her newsletter and I got 70 subscribers from doing this, which doesn't sound amazing, but when I first started out, it was like great. I didn't have to meet 70 people to do this. I just put an ad in this newsletter with a very loyal following.

The other tactic that I accidentally came across, in terms of borrowing other people's audiences, was doing weekly Q&As. I first had this idea in 2018 where I was like, “I'm just going to do a Friday Q&A with someone in media, just ask them questions about their job.” Like if you cover Congress, what do you have to wear? What does that mean? Or if you do PR for the avocado industry, do you get free avocados? Just dumb questions that I would ask my friends anyway.

I started doing them with my friends, and then once I ran out of friends to bug, I started branching out to people I really admired on Twitter, people I knew from work. And just realized this golden rule of how the internet and media works: if you interview someone, they're very likely going to share it with their following, and that's how you get exposed to their audience.

If you interview someone, they're very likely going to share it with their following, and that's how you get exposed to their audience.

For example, I did an interview with Alana Hope Levinson, the Deputy Editor of MEL magazine earlier last year. When it came out, she shared it with her followers. And she had a huge Twitter following. Then MEL magazine tweeted out to all of their readers, and I was like, “Oh, this is how it gets done.” With each weekly interview I do, I've noticed I get a handful of followers, especially when it's someone who has a very loyal following and audience of their own.

Finally, honestly, the single biggest boost I got in terms of sign-ups was through a newsletter swap with this lifestyle site called The Good Trade. I wasn't super familiar with them, but their managing editor reached out to me at some point last year. I don't know if she found me through the classifieds, but she was like, “I love your newsletter. We have one, too, it's called The Daily Good. It seems like maybe we would have the same kind of audience. Let's do newsletters.” And I was like, “Yeah, sure.” But I had no idea what that even meant. I was just like, “I'm open to anything.”

What I found out it meant was basically just plugging each other's newsletters. They wrote their own line and I put it in mine. So I wrote, “If you love a good semi-spicy newsletter, subscribe to Deez Links and you get a daily-ish link to something gossip worthy happening in the media industry.” And that was it.

As soon as their newsletter went out, my inbox was just completely spammed and I got 400 sign-ups in one day from this. And I was like, this is really crazy. I didn't even know this community, this audience existed.

Get credibility

The third bucket of tactics is to get institutional cred. I mean that in very loose terms. One of the biggest things that worked out for Deez Links was when this email platform called Revue wanted to do a survey of the top media newsletters in the industry. It was a very unscientific poll. They were just reaching out to people in newsletters and saying “Hey, can you plug this poll? We just want everyone to take this survey.

So I put it in my newsletter at the time and said, “Hey guys, if you like this newsletter could you vote for Deez Links in this survey?” I only did it because I thought maybe it would be really funny if we got in the running. But it turned out that enough of my subscribers voted for Deez Links that it showed up in the top five between America Press Institute and Digiday Media, really legit places.

When this came out I was like, “Oh my God, this makes us so legit.” And so again, people in industry were talking about it, there was a lot of buzz. A lot of people were like, “What is this one that I don't recognize? I'm going to Google it and subscribe and see what the deal is.” So when that came out I got about 200 subscribers.

Finally, the one that I'm most proud of is when Deez Links was named in Vanity Fair. I'm going to be totally candid and tell you it's because the editor who wrote this piece is a friend from college. When she was researching this piece, she talked to me and was like, “What do you think? What are some people that you think would be good to talk to?” And so I was like, “You should talk to the Substack people. You should totally mention these newsletters.” We just bounced ideas off each other. Then she just did me a hugely gracious favor and quoted me directly and included Deez Links in this piece about the state of newsletters. That was huge, because it felt like this vote of confidence. When this piece went out, I got around 200 or 300 subscribers and bragging rights forever.

I do want to acknowledge that there was a huge advantage in terms of starting my newsletter when I had a day job in media, and still do, and it automatically exposes me to this whole network of people with these followings and power, like the way the Vanity Fair writer had when she was writing this piece.

I also want to acknowledge that there is nothing that media people love talking about more than their own industry. So that also was a huge help. But nevertheless, I do think that no matter what industry your day job is in, no matter what your newsletter is about, it's a really good exercise to just think about, “Who is my intended audience? What do I think that they're listening to or reading now? And how can I find these middlemen or platforms that can serve as a megaphone for reaching this audience?

Growing your subscriber base is like making friends

It's like when you move to a new city and you don't know anyone. You can go and try and meet people one-on-one, but it would take a long time. The better route is to call up your super-popular, super well-connected friend in the city and be like, “Hey, can you introduce me to all of your friends?” And they do, and that's just so much faster. You get exposed to these various communities a lot quicker, and you come with this vote of confidence from your popular friend.

It's cheesy to think about growing your subscriber base in terms of making friends, but I do think that it speaks to this very personal nature of newsletters. You're sliding to their inbox every morning, or every week, and your subscribers can just hit respond and tell you what they think. That's something really precious and beautiful. It does take longer to build up in ways that, say, maybe blogs were different. But I do think it's worth investing in those relationships, because once you become friends with these people, they’re there for you forever. They'll introduce you to their friends, and then your community just keeps on growing.


For more advice on growing your newsletter, check out how Sarah Noeckel's Femstreet went from zero to 5,000 subscribers.

Photo by Bess Adler