Resources for Writers

Articles Newsletters Links


Selling information on the Internet: Email and Ezines

It’s hard to get anyone to pay for information on the internet.

Time Warner  - among many other well-established media giants - learned
this the hard way when they introduced  their Pathfinder web-site in 1994,
and tried to charge for the information provided.  They soon discovered that
people would not pay online for the same information that would pay for in print.

People have come expect information to be free on the internet - simply
because there is so much free information out there.

So, you are a lively, interesting writer with a unique perspective on life,
the universe and everything…Or,  you have some special knowledge or
expertise which you know others would find very useful.  And you want to
sell your brilliant ideas and fine information on the internet…you want to
be *paid* for it…

You may be wondering: Is it possible to make money by providing information
on the internet?  The answer is yes - by providing an information service
that is really outstanding or unique.

A while ago we looked at "e-books"  and "epublishers" .   This time, let’s
look at something rather different - email lists. Why email?

Email - plain vanilla,  text, text, and more text - does not have the
glamour, the glitzy graphics, or the multimedia  ‘gee whiz’ appeal that   the
web has.  So whatever sells via email simply must sell on the quality of
content alone.  What better medium for writers who want to be judged on the
quality of their writing, not their art or multimedia prowess?!  Also, just
because it is so humble and taken-for-granted, the power of email is often

For instance,  Declan Fox, publishing  manager for PC World, was pleasantly
surprised at the results he got from publishing email newsletters :

"Everybody thought that email was too simple….They wanted everything on the
Web with the graphics and the banners…And there was the emergence of  all
these hyped push technologies, like PointCast and Marimba. …We
underestimated the power of word of mouth and the ease of use of email..."

Generally, those who profit from email lists do so by either:

a.  Attracting advertising sponsorship      or
b.  Attracting  paying subscribers


Most of us are very familiar with the  ‘build a big web-site, with lots of
free content, attract lots of traffic, and then rake in the money from
advertisers’  approach to making money on the internet - if only  through
our constant exposure to those ubiquitous banner ads.

A fact, perhaps less well-known, is that large, targeted *email* lists have
also been used to good effect to attract advertising sponsorship.  ( In
fact, recent research by Nikkei Multimedia, suggests that email can be a
more effective medium for advertising, as it is better regarded among
readers than web-based advertising.)

An example of  the successful use of  mailing lists to attract sponsorship
is Randy Cassington’s "This is True" Ezine.

In 1994, Randy Cassington created a free ezine, called "This is True",
dedicated to  strange and true stories  - for instance, such weird topics as
a goat who led the polls for mayor in Pillar,  and murders who responded to
the ‘wanted’ ad the police posted to catch them.   Cassington found these
stories by scanning newspapers and magazines daily.  The fascinating
material in this list proved very popular, and by 1998 he had built up to
150,000 subscribers.

With these high circulation numbers in hand, he approached advertisers, who
grabbed the opportunity.  As a result, he now makes a decent living by
selling advertising space on this list.  Several additional spin-offs have
also developed since.  He now  sells books based on this material in these
ezines, and he has also attracted the interest of newspapers, who pay him to
reproduce "This is True" in a regular column.

(Randy Cassington’s story has been taken from  "The Hot New Medium is
Email",  Wired, April 1998)

Randy Cassington and his ilk - listowners who go for the sponsorship
dollars -  attract large numbers of  subscribers by offering interesting or
useful information for free, and getting as many copies into circulation as
possible. This means, of course, removing all barriers to joining (including
fees), and encouraging subscribers to pass on the information to others.

Apart from the obvious challenge of  finding something sufficiently
appealing to write about, there are a couple of  big challenges that must be
met to achieve success this way, though:

1. The list needs to be very large before it can attract advertisers -
around  5,000 at the very least is sometimes given as the benchmark.

2.  "Unknowns’ can find it difficult to break in.(as with anything).
Regardless of the size of  your list, it can be difficult to attract
advertising if you are unknown.  Established well-known brand names have
better success than ‘small unknowns’  - regardless of the size of the list.

3.  As with any kind of publication that supports itself through sponsorship
alone, the quality and objectivity of the content can be seen as

Providing information for free is, of course, no guarantee that people will
want to read it.  In  a world brimming with information, attention is a
scarce resource.  The information needs to be  compelling or targeted enough
to gain ‘mindshare’.  However, if you can find a unique,  or outstandingly
useful, topic to write about, and can write about it is a consistently
interesting way, you may stand a chance here.


Despite the near-universal expectation that information on the internet
should be free,  some listowners  are actually charging for the *content* of
their mailings  -  that is,  they are charging fees for the *information*
(and not just the advertising space).

An example is Mark Anderson’s "Strategic News Service" mailing list, which
provides strategic advice to large corporates on high-tech trends, and is
distributed to such heavyweights as Bill Gates, Adobe,  and the Bank of
America.  For this weekly email newsletter, he charges a subscriber fee of
US$195 annually.

In this case, it is the consistently high quality of  the predictions and
advice which attracts paying subscribers.  Anderson predicted many major
developments before they occurred, including the crash in the Japanese stock
market, and the return of Steve Jobs to Apple.

(Mark Anderson’s story has been taken from  "The Hot New Medium is Email", Wired, April 1998)

According to Mark Anderson, and others who have developed profitable mailing lists of this
kind, in a world of information overload, people are happy to pay to have that information filtered,
distilled, and made manageable.   The *filtering* is the key  - extracting the important bits from
the masses of irrelevant information.

The subscriber-based model  also tends  work better with a niche market - 
a small, focused group of subscribers, who will pay for an information service
which closely targets their  needs.


Mailing lists can be set up either manually or  through the use of automated
email list management tools.  (Of course, if you are fortunate enough to own
a list that numbers in the hundreds or thousands, then manual list
management will probably not be an option!) Whether manual or automated,
though, the only kind of list worth considering is an ‘opt-in’ one - one
that gives the subscriber the choice of opting in or opting out whenever
they choose.

It you choose to automate your mailing list, there are many services
available on the internet - available for free or for a fee.

The free option means third-party advertising and possible limitations on
the number of subscribers you can have on your list.  It can no-cost way to
‘test the waters’ though.  Here are a couple of free services
currently available on the net:

Yahoo Groups:

If your mailing list is large (2,000 or more listings),  and you want to
attract paying advertisers of your own, a commercial mailing list will be a
better option. Commercial mailing lists offer you more control, more
reliable service,  and they do not inflict third party advertising on your

Here is a commercial mailing list service currently available on
the net:


Nicole Bishop is the publisher of "Writerfind News", an ezine for professional writers and publishers which focuses on the internet. Subscribe at