How to use lead magnets to grow your audience

Everybody likes free stuff. That’s the concept underpinning lead magnets, a marketing tactic used to gather contact information like emails, also known as leads. The concept is simple: you draw people in with something valuable (hence, magnet) in return for something also valuable — in this case, an email address. Every email you capture is a new audience member to potentially win over with great journalism so they eventually pay for your work.

A key struggle for emerging publishers is getting people to discover the amazing work you do. That’s where this tactic comes in. The Discourse Nanaimo used a lead magnet to grow its email list in the lead up to its official launch. This single lead magnet, a PDF summary of findings related to the local news outlet’s investigation into housing affordability, brought in 1,285 leads — a significant chunk of their founding campaign target.  

The lead magnet helped bring new audience members into The Discourse Nanaimo’s top of funnel. As the team continues to deliver valuable content, build relationships and warm these new audience members to the brand and its values, by the time they ask them to pay for the work, subscribers will be more likely to say yes.

Here’s how to do it:

Identify a target audience 

It’s important to consider the recipient before you design your gift. Missing this step is akin to gifting your four-year-old niece a sensible sweater. Good gift, wrong person. 

Be specific about your target audience: How old are they? What are their interests? What are their pain points? As you design a gift that’s right for this group, keep in mind the state of your own email box and offer something that’s good enough to warrant giving an email address away. 

Develop a high-value, exclusive gift

This sounds daunting, but it doesn’t have to be. Journalists are masters at creating useful,engaging content. Simply repackage existing reporting into a standalone piece of content you know people will want to access. This could be as short as a PDF tipsheet or as long as an entire email learning series

The keyword here is repackage; the longer you spend creating this, the more you’re adding to the cost of acquisition. Work to use parts of your reporting that ended up on the cutting floor. 

Lead magnets often work best visually in the form of a downloadable PDF, presented in a way that’s brand-aligned. (If you don’t have access to a designer, you can use a free online tool like Canva.) They could also be a recorded piece of storytelling, video or behind the scenes photo gallery.

But the medium doesn’t matter as much as the content. If you know people are desperate to find a local doctor, for instance, a simple spreadsheet or email could prove extremely valuable. The gift can also be exclusive access to an online community group or event (keep reading for more examples). Whatever you develop, make it evergreen: it’s most cost effective to keep leads running for at least a few months.

Create a landing page

This is where you describe your gift and provide a space for people to enter their email. Write a call to action that’s simple, compelling and clearly describes what people get in return for their contact information. 

The Incarcerated used Substack to offer up its seven-part series on prison labour in Minnesota to build their subscriber base in advance of officially launching the newsletter. 

To do this, you can easily create a landing page in Mailchimp or similar tools. You can also use a plugin like OptinMonster on your website to invite people to sign up for your gift.

Wherever you host it, keep it simple and uncluttered. Ask for their email and name only. Remember that this landing page and the content you deliver is a person’s first impression of you. Make it clean and enticing as a taste of what’s to come.

Run an ad promoting the gift to your target group

Ads are essential for getting traffic to your landing page. If you link your landing page to a Facebook pixel, which gathers user data from websites, you have the advantage of retargeting people who visited the page. Keep a close eye on performance to make sure your calls to action — and the gift itself — are resonating, and A/B test as much as possible. Though it depends on the specific market, the Indiegraf team suggests you keep your cost for advertising low, at about $1 and $2 per email captured, known as your cost per lead.

Send an automated email series to everyone who opts in

Mailchimp and other newsletter hosts make this step easier than it sounds. It can be as simple as one email confirming subscription and delivering the gift, followed by the welcome series all of your subscribers get. 

Think about keeping these new contacts as a sub-group or segment of your main email list. If they have distinct interests, you can then fundraise with user-specific value propositions.

A word of caution: if these audience members begin to receive the same emails as your entire list, they may get bombarded with too many at once. To avoid this, keep them as an independent segment to control the flow of content.

Put a price on it (or not)

Most often, lead magnets offer something for free in exchange for an email. But keep in mind that if your offer is something really valuable, you can and should put a price on it. For instance, Simon Owens outlines why he now re-packages select issues of his newsletter into paid PDF ebooks, with hope that people will later subscribe for his paywalled content.

If you do offer it for free, consider sharing the value on your landing page, so people understand the worth of what they are receiving.

Track your progress. 

Any tactic is only as good as what you learn from it. Watch your metrics closely to be sure that what you think is valuable actually is, and adjust as necessary. If people are clicking, but not completing the transaction, check for bugs or issues in your checkout process and make sure it’s mobile friendly.

The key takeaways

Ready to start? Here’s a breakdown of ideas to get you going. Remember that the more consistent your lead magnet is with the value underpinning your regular content, the more excited people will be to receive your newsletters and eventually pay for your work.


  • An investigation summary – Breakdown the big findings for your audience.
  • Case study – Showcase a solution underway to inspire readers.
  • A white paper – Summarize findings on a complex issue.


  • Guide or tip sheet – Curate links and resources that can’t be found easily. 
  • Summary – Synthesize something like an annual budget or report for your audience.
  • Early access-  Offer up a sneak peak to a big investigation.
  • Checklist- If you know your target audience is passionate about photography, consider something like a field checklist.


  • Photo gallery – Offer up images of a location people can’t find elsewhere.
  • Behind the scenes – Show the making of a popular piece of content. 

Community building:

  • Online group access- Offer up access to a private Facebook or Slack group.
  • Online event access- Offer VIP access to an exclusive online event.

In the news


Have a tip, pitch, question to ask, link to include, or opportunity you want to promote? Send it to me!

And one more thing… 

This is a unique approach to opinion content.

How cult-favourite Mountain Gazette was revived for the 21st century

In January 2020, Mike Rogge sat down at a bar across from the Outdoor Retailer trade show in Denver, Colorado, and bought a magazine. 

Mountain Gazette has been around since the 60s and had a cult following in the outdoor community — publishing writers like Edward Abbey and Hunter S. Thompson — but has had an on-again, off-again lifespan under different ownership situations. It hadn’t published a new issue since 2012, and now Rogge owned the entire publication. 

In a brutal digital media landscape, Rogge is betting that his vision for the Mountain Gazette will be a sustainable one: publish two print magazines per year — to subscribers only — and forgo all digital publishing. 

Rogge, who has spent 15 years working in the media industry for outlets like Powder Magazine, Vice Sports and The Ski Journal, likens print media to vinyl records. While most record labels these days have to focus on the streaming services, some still appreciate the art of a physical album. 

“Our subscribers want more meaningful connection, and they care about quality over quantity,” Rogge says. “I feel like for every media company, they’re in your face 24/7 on every platform. We just want to be on your coffee table twice a year.” 

So far, that bet is paying off. Mountain Gazette sold out of their first issue of the revived magazine (issue #194), which shipped to subscribers in November. As of the beginning of 2021, the total subscriber count was 1,400. 

The 132-page, 11×17-inch magazine features a breadth of subject matter  — from a meditation on stargazing, to an interview with Colorado Governor Jared Polis, to an essay titled, “Drinking with a Dead Woman,” about a paranormal encounter at a ski town bar. The editorial mission, as summed up by Rogge, is anything that happens when you step out of your front door. 

Contributors range in age from 14 to 84 years old. Some contributors are industry veterans while some have never been published before. Rogge wants to treat his contributors right by paying fairly and on time, and he hopes that the Gazette can be a space to help undiscovered literary talent break into the media industry. 

And in addition to writers, the large format of the magazine offers plenty of room for photographers to showcase their work. 

This connection to a community of creators is what drives Rogge forward. 

“I felt like the outdoor landscape for media wasn’t representative of what I believe the outdoors to be, which is a really inclusive, community-based thing.” 

To foster that community, Rogge is planning to feature more information about the magazine’s subscribers on social media and in a newsletter. Mountain Gazette does not publish any articles online, save for the very occasional blog post, and its social media channels mostly post old cover art and photo submissions from subscribers. Recently, Rogge has been updating a blog post with subscriber photos from a massive storm that hit California. 

“It’s not my magazine, it’s yours,” he often says. And it’s not just about people either — on the magazine’s website you can pick up a branded dog collar in addition to T-shirts and prints of previous magazine covers. 

Rogge is also working with a California-based organization to become 100 per cent carbon neutral. They will track how far the magazine travels, from the printer to each subscriber’s doorstep, and pay to offset the amount of carbon consumed. The deal isn’t signed yet, but Rogge expects it to be a done deal by the time the spring issue is out in the world. 

The magazine’s tagline, printed on the cover, is reminiscent of somebody climbing a mountain or skiing the toughest lines. But it also applies to somebody producing a print magazine in a digital world, and building a community of storytellers and story readers: “When it Doubt, Go Higher.” 

In the news


Have a tip, pitch, question to ask, link to include, or opportunity you want to promote? Send it to me!

And one more thing… 

Our very own Shelby Blackley has a brand new newsletter that answers the age old question: WTF is SEO?

Here’s how Detour Detroit leveraged new members to spur additional revenue streams

Membership may not be Detour Detroit’s top moneymaker, but the self-described “guide to Detroit” nearly tripled its membership base last year, from 200 to 550 paid supporters. 

Co-founder Ashley Branch Woods said it validates the operation’s efforts and helps drive additional revenue opportunities.

“It is an expression of community support we leverage in other ways,” said Woods, a Detroit-based journalist who started the operation nearly three years ago with editor Kate Abbey-Lambertz. “Even though membership may not be the most lucrative revenue stream, it’s the most important and where I spend the majority of my time.”

Detour’s 2020 membership gains came from a ”Keep Detroit Local” campaign, which attracted paid members with the promise of free newsletter ads to local businesses for each new high-tier supporter. 

“For our readers, that mattered a lot to them,” Woods said. “They don’t want us to be unbiased about businesses surviving.”

That campaign proved so effective that as those local shops regained footing, they turned into paid advertisers. Detour Detroit sold $20,000 in email ad sales last year, Woods said, helping to overcome a significant loss in event-related revenue. 

“That really gives me a lot of excitement about the future,” said Woods.

Those advertisers also offer discounts to paying Detour Detroit supporters, further incentivizing readers to retain their membership. Wood also leverages paid supporters when pitching Detour Detroit to other funding sources.

“We’re not asking you to fund us, we’re asking you to match what’s already been raised,” she said. “Our readers want this, it’s already been raised. We’re just asking you to come along with us.”

Most importantly, members have benefited from Detour Detroit’s pandemic coverage and gained additional context surrounding election controversies of national relevance in their own backyard. A lot of that information was shared in a member’s-only Facebook group where Woods and her team communicate with paid supporters directly.

“I feel like we really earned our value in a way that might’ve not been so apparent if Detroit hadn’t been the center for these election fraud claims,” Woods said.

New year, new initiatives

Detour Detroit continues to expand and innovate heading into 2021. The Dig real estate newsletter, launched late last year, will expand in 2021 using a Solutions Journalism Network grant to evaluate Detroit’s lack of economic mobility and opportunity for people of colour. Woods said the goal is to “reimagine the real estate beat” in a way that goes beyond big developments and wealthy players.

“Our stories are based on what our readers want, what is actually happening in their neighborhoods,” she said.

If successful, The Dig could expand into its own “freemium” product, Woods said. Detour Detroit also offers two other newsletters beyond its flagship product, including The Blend, a digital magazine for women, and an events-themed newsletter called Get Busy

Detour Detroit also runs a content studio responsible for producing newsletters for other publishers. Woods expects that operation to expand this year from serving three to four partners to at least a dozen by the end of 2021. Additional services include launch support as well as ongoing training and content creation.

“We are really all-in on newsletters,” Woods said.

In the news


  • Here’s a great guide from Poynter and VidSpark on using social video to reach younger audiences.

Have a tip, pitch, question to ask, link to include, or opportunity you want to promote? Send it to me!

And one more thing… 

One of my favourite pandemic stories was New York magazine’s piece on where all the bucatini went. Now here comes the Hamilton Spectator to remind us there is always a local angle.

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