Growth Hacking The Sizzle – 262 subscribers in 6 months

For the Sizzle to continue being a thing, I need 730 paid subscribers by March 1st 2018. I’ve talked about the 730 paid subscribers goal before, so I won’t go over it again – read this if you want to catch up. To get those 262 subscribers, I’ve got to pull out all the “growth hacking” (ugh I hate that word) techniques I can think of.

This post is simply for me to clarify, to myself, how I’m going to get from 468 paid subscribers to 730 paid subscribers in 6 months. This post is also very text heavy, far too long and really, designed for me to brain dump, not so much for others to read. If you find value in it, great, but it’s primarily for me.

For those new to The Sizzle: It’s an email newsletter where I take 5 tech news stories and turn them into useful summaries that takes about 10 minutes read and is sent every weekday afternoon. There’s a two week, no credit-card required trial and after that, it’s $5/m to read. I’ve been writing it almost every weekday since October 2015. Issue 472 just went out. You should try it if you haven’t already!

Getting someone to pay for The Sizzle is a two step process:

Step 1 – get them to sign up for a free trialStep 2 – get them to pay once the free trial is over

Right now, step 2 is going pretty well. The 30 day rolling average of trial subscribers to paid subscribers is still hovering around 30%. Apparently, this is very good. People like what I’m doing! Step 1, convincing people to sign up for a free trial of The Sizzle is what I need to work on. How many do I need to convince? 1,747. If 15% of them become paid subscribers (which is half the rate that currently do end up as paid subs), I’ll meet my goal of 730.

Luckily for me, churn is pretty damn low. My rolling 30 day churn average is currently 0. Nobody’s stopped paying in the last 30 days. At this point, I’m not too concerned about churn – it’s all about finding new susbcribers.

There’s basically three ways I can entice 1,747 people to give The Sizzle a shot:

Paid Advertising – literally paying for someone to mention/promote The SizzleOrganic/SEO – people visiting The Sizzle’s blog/other stuff I writeWord of Mouth – existing users telling people how great The Sizzle is

The bulk of this post will be exploring these three ways of enticing people to try The Sizzle and the bulk of that bulk will be around working out what to spend a rather small budget for paid advertising on.

Paid Advertising

$27.67 (i.e: 6 months @ $4.61/m revenue from that subscriber) is the most I want to spend in order to get a paid Sizzle subscriber. If 15% of people on the free trial end up becoming paid, that means I shouldn’t really be spending more than $4.15 to get a free trial subscriber (aka, a lead).

Just drop $7,250.05 (1,747 subscribers @ $4.15 per lead) and problem solved, right? Well first of all, I don’t really have $7,250.05, I’d have to borrow it. Secondly, where the hell would I splash that sort of cash around?! There’s so many, what’s going to deliver my pissweak budget bang for buck?

Social Media/Display Ads

  • Facebook – everyone’s on it, right?
  • Reddit – lots of nerds here, I think?
  • LinkedIn – people with jobs that use computers are here, yeah?
  • Quora – heaps of search results end up here, so people read it, I guess?
  • Twitter – they got rid of the lead generation ad, so fuck em
  • Instagram – post pics of screenshots of bits of The Sizzle might work?
  • Other CPM/CPC ad networks like Google, Bing and so on – two words: ad blockers

I’ve dabbled in this sort of stuff before, a few bucks here and there. I’ve never measured the success properly. My overall gut feeling after spending money on Facebook, Reddit and LinkedIn is I think it can work well if I knew what I was doing and I don’t know what I’m doing so I’m really just pissing money up the wall. I should talk to people who do this for a living and see if I can outsource this to them at a rate within my $4.15/lead max spend.

Email NewslettersI assumed people who already read email newsletters would be into finding out about more newsletters. I assumed incorrectly.

I chose 6 newsletters via Upstart, spent a total of $735 which that resulted in a grand total of 36 leads. That’s $20.43 per lead – way more than the $4.15 I want to spend. I vastly overestimated the amount of people that would click. The nice high click through rates listed on Upstart is for content in the entire newsletter, not for the ads. CTR for my ad was more like 0.14% on average.

Some newsletters were better than others – one peaked at 0.38%, a bit of an outlier versus the rest hovering between 0.2% and 0.1%. Using a 0.2% CTRs as an example, an email list with 100,000 subscribers would score me about 200 free trial subscibers. Using my $4.15/lead figure, I’d pay ~$830. A list with 100,000 subscribers is gonna want more than A$830 an ad I reckon.

On the other hand, I placed an ad in Offscreen’s email newsletter. For US$200, I gained 70 leads. That’s only ~A$3.60 a lead. Excellent results there compared to the others. I should place another ad! This shows to me that as long as the audience and price is right, advertising in other email newsletters can work. The hard part is knowing which email newsletter will yield results and I don’t know how to determine that.

I’ve also thought about sponsoring retail store email lists. I was able to experiment with an ad in RamCity, which did ok, but not as well as I’d hoped. Luckily for me, Rod over at RamCity is a nice guy and was willing to take a chance because he likes The Sizzle. If I had to reach out to a stranger and pay “full price” for an ad in their shop’s newsletter, I imagine it wouldn’t fit in with my $4.15/lead budget.

PodcastsI haven’t tried any podcast advertising yet besides a few shoutouts on the Reckoner podcast I’m on already, which I never tracked the performance of.

If I was to do this, I’d really prefer to pay the podcast on a leads generated model. It’s relatively easy to track which subscriber came via a specific podcast (just give out a unique URL, e.g: and then pay the podcast $4.15 for everyone that signs up for a trial via their link. Would podcasts be up for this model of paying for leads instead of me just going “here’s $200 for an ad every episode”?

Let’s say I found a podcast, gave them $100 an episode for say, 4 weeks. For my 400, I expect at least 97 free trial susbcribers. I have no idea how effective the ad will be, or what the “action” rate (i.e: someone actually visiting a website they heard a podcast ad) is. I’d assume a big benefit of sponsoring a podcast is also getting featured on the podcast’s social media presence and website.

I’d have to get a proper list of AU-focussed tech-ish podcasts together at some point. I made one about a year ago, but a few of those have dried up and aren’t releasing episodes as often.

I’m still apprehensive about sponsoring podcasts, but I should dip my toe in the water and see what’s out there.

Sponsored postsThere’s straight up site sponsorship. Lots of Apple websites and blogs tend to do this (think Daring Fireball). These are interesting as they do grab a person’s attention a little more than an ad. I’ve been on both ends of these ads too, as someone offering it on their site and someone buying a sponsored post.

For something as relatively geo-targetted like The Sizzle (it’s really focussed on Australians, although there are a few Americans who read it), there’s a lack of decent tech related blogs run by Australians, for Australians. Spending say, $500 for an ad on a US site might get some decent leads, but I doubt will achieve a good conversion rate as the yanks are put off by the swearing (they hate swearing) and the often AU-centric content and references.

I’d need to do more research on good blogs to sponsor (the Syndicate ad network springs to mind), but I’m not going to try that hard when there’s a load of other things I can do before it.

The other thing to keep in mind, particularly with Australian blog sites, is that they’re probably going to be loathe to put up an ad for what is really, a competitor. I really don’t compete with the blogs (shit, I link to them!), but I just get the impression that’s how they’ll percieve The Sizzle – taking eyeballs away from them, somehow.

Tech/industry meetup sponsorshipI’ve had decent success with this sort of sponsorship in the past (the Cocoaheads groups around Australia promoting One More Thing). I reckon the cost of a lead is too high though. Let’s say there’s a few groups with around 50-60 people attending every month. I give that group $100 so they can buy some food and drink or whatever. I’d need 24 of those 60 people attending to sign up – a 40% conversion rate, which is too high to be realistic.

Event sponsorshipTech conferences are another place nerds hang out. From my own experience, I’ve often been standing around in the main area at lunch or during breaks, on my own, looking for something to do. Maybe if there was a stand with an iPad on it, I’d check out what the iPad has on it and maybe sign up to the email list if it looks interesting.

Mailchimp has an app just for this. It’s designed to run in a kiosk and collect signups. Unfortunately, the setup of a kiosk at an event would require a bit of upfront capital. There’s the cost of the kiosk, signage and the iPad itself. Then every event would need a bit of mobile data, a prize as an incentive to lure in the punters and of course, a fee to the event holders for clogging up their event with my iPad kiosk.

The cost just to get started is around $1200 ($450 for a stand, $500 for an iPad, $250 for a sign). Spread out over say, 10 events a year, that’s $120 an event.

Let’s say there’s a conference with 300 people attending. I offer a 32GB Apple TV as a prize. I give the conference organisers $200 and spend $20 for some mobile data. There is also pants tax involved. I’d have to go there (generally early in the morning, ugh), set up the kiosk, then pick it up (generally in the afternoon in peak hour traffic) when its over. There’s fuel and parking costs involved there – at least $20. That’s $610 all up, including the $120 capital costs of the iPad kiosk itself.

Out of those 300 attendes, let’s say 20% – 60 people sign up for the trial. That’s 60 subscribers – $9.83 a lead. Way too expensive. I’d need to get 147 subs, almost 50% of the conference! That ain’t happening.

Alternatively, I can offer a conference a deal where I’d pay them $5 for every person that opts-in to the free trial when registering. If 100 of their attendees sign up, they get $500, pure profit, for no effort. I know a few conferences that would love that sort of money.

It’d be easy to implement – they add a checkbox to their signup form and when the event is done, send me a dump of all the people that ticked the box and I send $5 for each email address. Dunno how it’d go down with the people signing up, but if you made the checkbox opt-in, rather than opt-out, I don’t think anyone would have a problem with it?

InfluencersThis is marketing person wet dream material right now. It’s supposed to work really, really well. Let’s take Troy Hunt for example, he is constantly flogging Ubiquiti gear. Take someone people trust, pay them to push a product they already like and bam, everyone wins. It’s just a matter of finding people who I think have an audience that’d be receptive to The Sizzle, then figuring out how much money they want and if it’s worth it for me.

I really have no idea how to go about finding people like this. So that’s something for me to research further.

There’s also just giving people a free subscription. A few months ago I DM’d on Twitter about 30 people I followed that I know don’t already subscribe (mainly journos) and just gave them a free 12-month subscription, no strings attached. Out of those 30, only about 6 bothered to take up the offer. Out of those 6, two of them unsubscribed, hah. I’ve asked those 4 only once to send out a nice tweet or something saying they like The Sizzle. Only one of them bothered to do so. All 4 of them read every issue though…

I’d like to find YouTubers and Twitch streamers as well, but it’s tough as I don’t watch that stuff very often. I should start making a list though, and reaching out to them with an offer of $4.15/lead they drive to me. Never know who’s desperate enough to take me up on that offer.

Affiliate ProgramGet current Sizzle subscribers referring others, it makes so much sense! I tried this for about a month where the deal was, for every lead you sent me, I’d give you a free month of The Sizzle. Hardly anyone used it. Got about 10 people signed up as affiliates and in the 3 or so weeks it was around, not a single subscriber came via their referrals. I cancelled the affiliate program before the month was over so I could get a refund on the software package I purchased to make it happen. I was really disappointed.

Maybe if I paid cash (i.e: $5/lead) that would work well? I’d get non-subscribers doing it and people with large networks signing up to spread the word about The Sizzle. It technically, could be awesome. I’m piss scared about fraud though. What’s to stop someone making a really simple bot, signing up a few thousand people and milking me dry?

To get around that, I could make it so that the affiliate program pays say, $20 for every *paid* subscriber you refer. Problem is, that level of tracking is a step above what my janky string and sticky tape payment workflow can handle. I think. I never really gave an affiliate program much thought after my first failed experiment. Getting a proper affiliate program going, that paid out when someone became a paid subscriber, could work really well. It’d be a bit of effort though.


Social media/display ads – look into finding someone to do this for me whilst keeping within the $4.15/lead budget or at least do some proper experimenting myself

Email newsletters – I tried and they were mostly bad, but some good. Only do more if a sweet opportunity reveals itself

Podcasts – something I should do at least a test of, ideally with a paid per lead model, start by collecting potential pods to advertise on

Sponsored posts – maybe, but only if the price and audience is right

Tech meetups – nah don’t bother, which sucks, as I’d like to support them but it doesn’t make financial sense for me

Events – look into convincing confs to include a “hey you wanna get the sizzle?” option in their rego forms in return for $5 for each person that ticks the box

Influencers – do some more research, make a list, reach out, find out more about costs and expected returns

Affiliate program – if I can figure out a way to automate everything (mostly effective tracking of who refers the trial susbcriber and correctly logging when they become a paid subscriber) without it costing heaps to set up, it could be awesome

SEO & Organic Leads

This is kinda vague, as it’s a mish-mash of random stuff. It’s predominately around finding ways that don’t involve paying money, to get people to visit The Sizzle’s website.

A Sizzle PodcastI’ve long held the belief that people are either readers, or listeners. So to grab those people that don’t read (but still might pay to read The Sizzle so they don’t have to read heaps of other stuff), doing a Sizzle podcast might be a good idea.

There’s three types of podcast I think could work:

News & discussion – this is your “traditional” 2-3 people talking shit about the week’s news. I don’t listen to these sorts of tech podcasts, but people seem to like them and I kinda have fun doing them

Interviews – there’s loads of cool people doing interesting things with tech around Australia, why not talk to them and record it? A big benefit of this is being able to leverage the person I’d interview’s own fame (e.g: interview someone with thousands of followers, they shoot out a tweet, I get 40 new subs! In theory)

Issue discussions – After 470+ issues of The Sizzle, there’s topics I’m constantly writing about. It’d be good to do overviews of these topics with people that actually know what they’re talking about.

The downside is that to do a podcast properly, it takes a lot of effort. Do I have time for this? Do I want to make the emotional investment to do this? It also means having to like, go outside and put on pants, which I’m not a fan of, but sometimes you gotta make sacrifices to get what you want.

BloggingOf all the shit I’ve ever done to get people to sign up for The Sizzle, one of my blog posts going viral is by far the most successful. Take for example this article I wrote about a Dell FX160 that got to the front page of Hacker News. In the 2-3 day period where that was going around the internet, I amassed ~175 free trial subscribers. About 50,000 people viewed the page, so it’s not a massive conversion rate (around 0.35%), but it’s still the biggest single amount of signups in a day.

It’s not just going viral either – good articles that are “timeless”, like say, this one on how to watch AFL online, or a review of Xiaomi Mi Box just pull in readers (each one’s had about ~2000 page views since they were published) quietly and slowly. I don’t know how many exactly end up converting, but they do.

The best thing about this approach is that I actually like writing and I’m alright at it! I’ve got a huge list of things I want to explore, so there’s no shortage of ideas or ability. I need to set aside more time to dedicate to getting through that list and publishing stuff on a regular basis. It may not show immediately, but over time it’ll build a great collection of content people will stumble across. I might even get the odd post going viral too.

I also gotta work out how to get that content seen. Reddit is great and the main place I like to promote my writing. Chucking it up on Twitter is a given, but it doesn’t necessarily mean it’d get huge traffic. I’d love it if there was an easier way to find relevant Facebook groups I could post to as the stuff I have posted there tends to do well. I can also pay to promote this content on Facebook – that seems to do better than straight up advertising The Sizzle directly, though I haven’t measured it.

New websiteThe Sizzle website probably isn’t the best thing around to convert visitors to subscribers. I made the theme myself, I’m far from an expert and it probaby shows. At the very least the home page needs to be updated to be more enticing and remove the anxiety in giving over an email address.

Things like making it clear you don’t have to pay for the trial and real-world testimonials from the hundreds of happy subscribers will go a long way for giving a good impression to strangers that it’s not a scam or something.


Podcast – maybe do one, could be good, maybe an interview series instead that leverages other people’s audiences would work wellBlogging – hurry up and write more! Pump out something every few days. It comes natural to me and costs nothingNew website – better craft the front page to convert people

Word of Mouth

People really like The Sizzle. Like I said earlier, hardly anyone unsubscribes. So hopefully this means people are comfortable telling their friends. So what can I do to facilitate that?

Sharing featureI’ve already done this and the new sharing feature in the emails is going pretty well. This allows people to finally share content in the email, onto social media, without having to take a screenshot themselves. Here’s an example. It pulls the content from the email via the Sizzle forums (which also has the content) and generates a screenshot automatically when you share the URL on social media. It’s pretty nifty. I can track who signs up from the share page, and in the week or so it’s been public, about 6 people have signed up. Hopefully it’s a steady way to keep the trial subscriber numbers ticking over with no effort on my behalf! (besides maintaining the script that powers it, hah)

Begging existing usersThe Sizzle subscribers are also well aware that it’s just me doing it and I’m scrapping along here. They want to see it succeed too. There’s no shame in me asking every now and then for them just to forward it to a friend or to mention it on their social media accounts. It’s a fine line between not asking enough and asking too much though. But when I’ve done it in the past, it’s usually resulted in a healthy spike in free trial signups, or at the very least, useful suggestions on how to get more subscribers!

Converting those still on the listThere’s over 500 people who gave the trial a shot, didn’t decide to pay and are yet to unsubscribe from the list. They’re prime candidates for convincing them to pay for The Sizzle as they’ve already had a taste! I think to think of ways to get them re-engaged somehow, even if it’s just getting another free trial to remind them how awesome The Sizzle is. Besides emailing them once a month or so with a little sample of highlights from the previous issues they missed out on, I’m not sure what else I can do.


Sharing feature – going well, keep it up and remind people it exists

Begging existing users – contact them a bit more often and ask for their help to spread the word. I’m not too keen on leaning too hard though, these people already pay me, why should they do more?

Converting those still on the list – low hanging fruit, but I don’t know what to do with them and need to brainstorm further

Now that I’ve dumped all this out of my head, I have to figure out where my time is best spent. After reading over it all, I think my priority list should go something like this:

  1. Get into the habit of writing regular blog posts already
  2. Find someone to outsource paid advertising to
  3. Start some sort of podcast
  4. Work with someone that knows what they’re doing to make a new website
  5. Contact some tech events about giving them money in return for leads

I’ll check back in a few months and report back on how I’ve gone. Wish me luck!

Anthony Agius

The Sizzle is curated by Anthony "@decryption" Agius, who has been hanging around the tech scene in Australia like a bad smell for over a decade.

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