Searching for the right software solution can be frustrating when there are–what feels like–an infinite number of choices. This is what I encountered when I explored the features that are included in Medium’s newsletter platform and how they compare with Substack, EmailOctopus, and Mailchimp. One notable distinction is that certain platforms are for longform content while others are primarily focused on email marketing. When I read that ConvertKit launched a paid newsletter feature, I thought I finally found a company that has integrated the best of both worlds. I quickly encountered multiple hurdles that led me to ultimately choose a different platform, however. Below, I shared my experience using ConvertKit (with WordPress) and why I switched back to Mailchimp and launched a newsletter in Revue.
ConvertKit is an email service provider that offers a range of features, from marketing analytics to landing pages, signup forms, and automation tools. Many of these features are available for free, as long as you have less than 1,000 subscribers.
ConvertKit’s Paid Newsletters
Unlike Revue and Substack, ConvertKit does not take a cut of your subscription price, which can be hefty after processing fees. Note that all three of these platforms allow you to publish newsletters without charging your subscribers anything. Should you decide to charge your subscribers, you should expect to pay Substack 12.9% + $0.30 in fees per subscriber and 7.9% + $0.30 in fees per subscriber to Revue–2.9% + $0.30 of these charges are processing fees for Stripe. These prices apply to the US. ConvertKit charges a 3.5% + $0.30 processing fee.
ConvertKit is the clear winner here, if you want to start a paid a newsletter. Let’s assume you charge $5 a month for your newsletter and you have 1,000 subscribers. After these fees, you would earn $4,525 with ConvertKit versus $4,305 with Revue and $4,055 with Substack. ConverKit remains the best option, in terms of net revenue, even if you chose to pay $29 or even $59 a month for ConvertKit’s premium plans.
This all assumes that you have 1,000 subscribers, however. Once you opt into these premium plans, you would need to maintain enough paying subscribers to cover these costs plus the fees. For example, if you pay $29 a month for ConvertKit’s Creator plan and charge $5 for your paid newsletter, you would need at least 7 subscribers to fully cover the price of the Creator plan, accounting for processing fees. You should also account for churn (the number of people who cancel their subscription each month). There are no official statistics on this. Vicki Boykis (2019) stated that her churn rate was about 4%. As of this writing, Recurly states that the average churn rate is about 5.6% and that the rate is much higher for B2C than for B2B (7.05% versus 5%, respectively).
Given the low conversion rates (1%-5%) and uncertain stats around churn, I think the best approach is to stick with a free option unless you are confident that you can provide a lot of value through your newsletter and you have a large audience who is willing to pay for whatever you have to offer.
One other thing that’s worth mentioning is that it’s possible that Revue and Substack are better platforms because you may have more visibility there. Substack has attracted famous journalists such as Dan Rather and Matt Yglesias. Revue also regularly highlights and features writers on their platform in their weekly newsletter, which is how I discovered and began following Ali Abdaal. If this type promotion and visibility is important for increasing your subscriber base, then Revue and Substack would be better options than ConvertKit. On the other hand, platforms like Substack have also been criticized for their lack of transparency (see this Vox article to learn more). If this negative sentiment results in people boycotting the platform, it could potentially affect your subscriber base as well. These are all hypotheticals but I think it’s important to consider any assumptions that could impact your expected outcomes.
Personally, I do not intend to charge my readers for my newsletter, so I am primarily interested in free options with good usability. This is where I struggled with ConvertKit.
The process for signing up and making an account was straight forward: enter your email address and create a password. Once you confirm your account, ConvertKit gives you the option of going through brief tutorials that show you how to use the platform. The first option I saw was to create a landing page. This may or may not be relevant to you. If you skip it, like I did, that’s the end of your walk-through.
Creating a Newsletter
Undeterred, I started exploring the various options I could see to find their newsletter feature. There isn’t an option that reads “Newsletter” on the homepage of your account, so I started with the Products option.
This opened up a page where I was presented with three steps, starting with Product Details. In this section, I typed in a name (Stella’s Newsletter), and then I selected the Subscription option. I set the price to $0 and left the Frequency dropdown on Monthly.
Next, I chose Newsletter–lucky me, I found the Newsletter option on the first try. I then left the default domain name they assigned me and clicked the Create Product button. Once I selected the Create Product button, I saw a message that stated that the Price must not be less than USD $5.00.
Confusing, but okay. “Broadcasts” seemed like the next best option. My intuition was correct once again. You are shown various options to select the audience you want to email and once you choose your settings, you can select your template. The default is text only but you can edit the design of your email by clicking the little gold circle next to “Template.”
The design options are fairly limited. You can select from a few different fonts and you can change the color of your links and the background color of your email. By default, however, ConvertKit includes information at the bottom of your email which allows readers to unsubscribe and manage their email preferences, along with your address. When you use an email marketing service, you’re required to disclose your address. Services like Mailchimp do this as well. Also, if you are signed up for a free plan, ConvertKit will include their logo at the bottom. You have to pay to remove their branding.
For comparison, Revue, Substack, and Medium also include their logo and options to unsubscribe at the bottom of their emails as well. These platforms do not require a physical address. Here is a personal example of a newsletter made in Revue and in Medium. Here are a few examples from Substack: Numlock and Platformer. Full disclosure, these are two of my favorite newsletters.
While you have very little control over the required text at the bottom of your newsletter in ConvertKit, they offer a lot more options for customizing the content of the newsletter itself. Below, I’ve shared a screen capture of the test email that I made. Notice that ConvertKit offers the option to personalize each email by including the name of each subscriber.
You can also include a call-to-action button, attach files, and A/B test the subject line, amongst other things. You cannot do this in Revue and Medium (you can add photos). I haven’t tested Substack, so I am unfamiliar with the options that are available. Substack also added several new features early this year. I have read and heard from others that the UI in Substack is much nicer than Revue’s. I’ve also mentioned before that Substack is a great option for podcasters.
One notable downside of using broadcasts as your newsletter in ConvertKit is that you are unable to share an archive of previous newsletters. As an avid newsletter reader, this is an important factor in whether or not I subscribe to someone’s newsletter.
The other issue I encountered with ConvertKit has to do with its incompatibility with my website. I use WordPress–so much more I can say about this in future posts–and the ConvertKit plugin did not adhere to the rules that I set for when visitors should see a prompt to subscribe to my newsletter. It simply popped up on every page. The form also wasn’t mobile friendly.
Here’s the popup form that I created:
Here’s what the form looked like on my phone:
More importantly, this form is on my homepage. It’s not supposed to be on my homepage. This was the ultimate deal breaker for me. I went back to my old popup form that is tied to Mailchimp. I then used Zapier to automatically add new subscribers from my Mailchimp list to Revue. You cannot do this in ConvertKit (for free).
ConvertKit vs. Mailchimp
Other than that strange quirk that I encountered on my WordPress site, I actually prefer ConvertKit over Mailchimp. I found the features much easier to navigate and use. I also liked the email templates and landing page templates much more than the ones that are offered in Mailchimp. If I were solely focused on email marketing, I would probably ditch Mailchimp for ConvertKit. Mailchimp does allow you to have many more subscribers before requiring you to pay (2,000 instead of 1,000). Their prices are also much lower than ConvertKit’s.
Each platform has its strengths and limitations. Some important considerations include (1) whether or not you want to charge for your newsletter, (2) the ability to embed forms and buttons, (3) your comfort with technology, and (4) the focus on text versus marketing products and services. The best option ultimately depends on your goals.