Android Intelligence is a site and newsletter that is dedicated to providing practical tips, personal recommendations, and plain-English perspective on Android, Chrome, and other Googley subjects! It was founded in 2010 by JR and has since grown into a thriving community with over 12,000 subscribers.
We caught up with JR to learn about his journey and to understand what it takes to become a successful newsletter.
Android Intelligence is a weekly newsletter for people who are passionate about productivity, especially as it relates to Android and other Google apps and services. Android is a core part of the publication and the nucleus around which everything else revolves, but I explore things like Gmail, Chrome, Docs, and even more general productivity topics just as often.
Every issue features three things to know, three things to try, and a little dose of lighthearted fun to keep things interesting.
My background is in the traditional editorial and journalism world. I started out working in TV news and transitioned from that to print and online publications around 2008. I’ve been covering Android quite literally since its start, and while it’s a little tough to wrap your head around nowadays, in the beginning, Android really was the underdog. It was a niche player in a market dominated by BlackBerry, more than anything, with Apple rising up as the hot new star.
There weren’t many writers focused on Android or even taking it especially seriously in those early years. Most folks, especially those in the media universe, were still treating it like a flash in the pan. When I first pitched the idea of an Android-centric column to an editor at Computerworld, in fact, she told me she was skeptical that such a small niche could create a successful and long-standing column.
Thankfully, she was willing to give it a shot — and that’s when Android Intelligence was born. That was in June of 2010. It’s still a column at Computerworld today.
In 2018, I decided to expand beyond those virtual pages and explore the idea of a fully independent email newsletter. That was before the big newsletter boom we’re in now had begun, so it was mostly untested water for me, but I quickly found it was a fantastic way to connect directly with readers and have a more meaningful, interactive relationship. It allowed me to branch out into different types of coverage while maintaining complete control over the reading experience, which is something I’ve really come to appreciate.
The newsletter is mostly text, with a smattering of images and animations. I also do a weekly podcast as part of my Android Intelligence Platinum membership program.
For the first few years, that Platinum membership program was it. (It provides readers with an expanded and customizable newsletter along with a new in-depth guidebook each week, the aforementioned podcast each week, and a bunch of other advanced resources — a searchable database of every tip I’ve ever mentioned, a private Q&A forum for on-demand advice and answers from me, and other such premium perks.)
As of this past March, I’ve also featured one sponsor in each issue, with a careful focus on finding partners who are well-aligned with my readers’ interests (but whose products and services aren’t things I cover directly, as I don’t want to risk creating even the potential appearance of a conflict of interest). This helps both make the sponsored sections relevant and interesting to readers, instead of being an intrusion, and set up the sponsors for maximum impact and success.
So far, every partner I’ve worked with has reported meeting or exceeding their goals. One sponsor commented that they saw a 62% higher conversion rate with Android Intelligence than with their other channels, which was pretty phenomenal to hear. By focusing carefully on finding interesting, well-aligned matches and then working closely with partners to craft messages that place their products in the best possible light for this specific audience, we’ve managed to see some tremendous successes — and equally important, readers have consistently provided positive feedback on the experience and the types of useful, interesting offerings they’ve discovered.
In terms of my own actual take-home income, it honestly hasn’t been much — but that’s mostly because thus far, I’ve reinvested nearly everything that memberships and sponsorships have generated right back into the operation and expanding and improving what’s there. In 2020, for instance, I migrated my website to a new server that’s many times faster and more reliable than the low-cost hosting environment I’d originally used, I worked with a team of talented developers to optimize and obsessively rebuild the entire site from the ground up, and I moved the newsletter itself into a whole new publishing platform that’s significantly more powerful and reliable than what I’d previously been using. I’m in the midst of a project now that’ll lead to a fun new custom interactive quiz system and leaderboard that’ll be connected to the newsletter. That’ll be launching this month, alongside a new referral rewards system and a second (invite-only) weekly issue.
I have an endless list of things I want to do and ways I want to grow and expand what I can provide, and it’s pretty incredible to have the resources to pursue some of those projects and let readers directly see those benefits. So, yes, the newsletter is absolutely paying for itself, which is spectacular.
You know, I think it was mostly paying for itself from almost the get-go, thanks to some Patreon-style support from generous folks early on (before I launched the official Platinum program). That being said, I started out with a pretty simple and modest setup, so the expenses were initially pretty low.
I’d say it was the finicky, obnoxious nature of email clients and how challenging it can be to get things to look the same across all possible inbox environments. Somehow, in this day and age, there are still no real consistent universal standards in how email clients interpret and display code, and trying to make sure that everything you send looks the way it should in every site or program is a massive headache. (Here’s lookin’ at you, Outlook…)
Initially, it wasn’t too terrible in terms of basic foundational expenses, but as the operation has grown and expanded, so, too, have the costs associated with it. At this point, there’s everything from the cost of web hosting to the fees associated with using a more advanced and feature-rich email service provider to consider. I also rely on a handful of more specialized services and pieces of software to offer all the features I need — and then, of course, there’s all the time that’s associated with both creating new material and doing bigger-picture growth and development, and that’s time that isn’t being spent on more traditional income-generating parts of my job.
I’m lucky in that I actively write for a handful of established, high-quality traditional media outlets, and the vast majority of Android Intelligence subscribers find their way over after reading my work in those places. More than anything, though, I strive to have every newsletter that goes out be both interesting and helpful to folks. And that, I think, is what keeps people around and hopefully encourages them to spread the word as well.
At the core, I rely on a service called ConvertKit to collect and organize the email addresses of people who sign up and then create and send out the various newsletters. It’s been a perfect publishing platform for my needs, and it allows me to do everything I want while maintaining complete control over how my newsletter looks and what sorts of external elements are associated with it.
With all the focus on these cookie-cutter-style, all-in-one solutions like Substack and Revue these days, I think the importance of finding the right email service provider for your own needs is absolutely underrated. The simpler sorts of tools are great for certain situations and for people who are just getting started or not quite ready to wrap their heads around lots of moving pieces, but at some point, they’re bound to become restrictive (and maybe also not the most cost-effective, when it comes to paid publications) — and for me, at least, being able to structure every last element of my operation in the way that’s right for me has been invaluable.
The other key piece to my puzzle is a Patreon-owned service called Memberful, which I rely on to power my premium membership program. It’s been an awesome partner for my purposes, and its tight integration with ConvertKit is one of the main reasons I ended up with that pair of platforms together.
All of the standard stuff about having something to say and focusing on the quality of your content above everything else is sound advice and the smartest place to start. Beyond that, I’d suggest thinking carefully about the presentation of what you’re doing — not only the design itself but also the format and how you want to structure your newsletter. Specifics can certainly evolve over time, but having a consistent and well-defined format, with purposeful sections that carry over from one issue to the next, goes a long way in establishing your identity in readers’ minds and making your newsletter easy to follow.
More than anything, though, I’d say to be yourself and let your personality shine through in everything you do. The world’s got no shortage of newsletters now, and the best way to find your people and stand out from the crowd is to be genuine and let your newsletter reflect you as an individual, whatever that may mean in your particular case. The resulting product might not appeal to everyone, but it’s better to stay true to yourself and connect deeply with the people who get you than to remain generic and have only fleeting, surface-level interactions with the masses.
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