I recently saw buzz around a newsletter business that closed $550MM in a year.
Here's the tweet from Sam Parr that kicked things off.
If you’re not aware of the brand, here’s a quick overview.
The Agora is a behemoth in the newsletter and info publishing space.
They’re known to have some of the best direct response copywriters, strategists, and media buyers in the business.
And that reputation is very well founded.
Back when I was freelance copywriting I made an effort to work with some of The Agora companies.
The short version is, I didn’t get to work with any of them. However, I did speak to copywriters, editors, and strategists within their companies.
And I was blown away with the level of understanding these folk had about selling online.
Their reputation as the gold-standard in direct response marketing is, in my opinion, very well deserved.
Notice how I said I approached “some of The Agora companies"?
That's not a typo.
The Agora is not a newsletter business. They're a collection of newsletter businesses (and more). All told, their collection pulls in over $1B per year.
Here's how their company infrastructure breaks down and how they make their money.
A quick note on The Agora companies
I need you to do something for me in this micro-study.
Ignore the quality of the products The Agora promote.
I’ve never bought any of the products they’re selling, so can’t speak to their actual quality.
However, there’s a lot of negative press around them.
I’m not going to get into the actual products or value they provide here. This isn’t the place for that.
We’re going to focus on the strategy they’ve rolled out across multiple brands to rake in the cash.
The Agora’s subsidiary newsletter companies generally focus on one of two niches.
The finance subsidiaries offer investment advice while the health subsidiaries offer advice on health issues.
I cannot say for certain whether any of the negative press is true. I'm not a health professional nor a finance whiz.
What I can tell you though is the way The Agora companies are built and marketed is nothing short of genius.
Let’s look at what they do so well.
The Agora's Organisation and Financials
Let's first look at how The Agora companies are organised.
If we focus only on the newsletter businesses they own, you’ll see they have...
- A single parent company (the Agora)
- 13 US-based subsidiaries
- 9 non-US based subsidiaries
- 120+ newsletters both paid and free (I tried counting but there's a lot of non-updated pages making it hard to put a definite number on this).
Everything kicks up to the level one step above it.
So a collection of, say, 30 financial newsletters might come under the Agora Financial subsidiary.
All of the subsidiaries are then under the control and purview of the primary Agora company.
It’s a super simple way to organise everything.
And it’s proof that once you’ve found a marketing and growth model that works for you, you can roll it out to other similar and complementary offers.
What I really like is how most of the brands are operating with small staff numbers.
The subsidiary 7-figure Publishing lists only 8 editors.
LinkedIn has 4 other members of staff for the brand which brings them up to a potential total of 12 employees. And they're running an 8-figure business.
Honestly, I'm sure a lot of the staff are Agora Financial employees (especially media buyers) working across newsletters.
It makes the average revenue per employee insanely high.
And to top it all off, the Agora owns more than just newsletters.
They also have a number of books, investments, and brick-and-mortar business interests.
It is truly a behemoth brand and proof that if you can write persuasively, you can find success.
The Agora's Financials
The Agora play their cards pretty close to their chests.
There are no real publicly available numbers for their revenue (or their marketing which made putting this analysis together a real pain).
However, sites like Owler estimate it to be $1B.
That number is also used on multiple other sites analysing their income.
And there’s plenty of sources showing that subsidiaries often have 9-figure ad spend.
Growth for the brand has been pretty impressive to boot.
According to this interview in 2015, revenues were around $500MM. Now, they’re reported to top $1B.
An extra $500MM+ in 5 years is nothing to sniff at.
How does The Agora grow its revenue?
There are really two very short answers to this.
- They acquire related newsletters or audiences in similar niches (example here)
- They launch a new newsletter and cross-promote it to their existing subscribers
Once they have a new newsletter to sell, they apply their tried and tested billion-dollar marketing and upsell strategy.
Which I’ve broken down for you below.
The Agora newsletter sales strategy
Here’s where things get really interesting with The Agora’s newsletters.
All of the examples I’ve seen use the same growth model to sell people their subscriptions.
To sum it up quickly that process is…
- Step 1 - Acquire traffic through ads / co-promotions.
- Step 2 - Show a video sales letter that explains the problem and the potential benefits in detail.
- Step 3- Convert traffic on a long-form sales page with a free or low priced “tripwire” offer.
- Step 4 - Upsell users to a higher priced paid membership, or offer a downsell offer if they abandon.
- Step 5 - Nurture the relationship and periodically offer further upsells (which cycles them back to step 2 - the VSL)
Let’s look into the process in a little more detail.
Breaking down an Agora Subsidiary
We’re gonna pull the acquisition and monetisation process for one of The Agora’s financial publications and subsidiaries.
The one we’re focusing on is Banyan Hill Publishing.
This is one of the more established and long running Agora subsidiaries having now been in operation for 23 years.
They’re well known in the investing space and focus on investing advice, particularly for retirement focused investors.
Banyan Hill Publishing products
This is where things started to get a little crazy for me.
To kick things off, Banyan Hill have 5 free newsletters. These are what they’ll push people onto immediately so they can nurture the relationship.
However, they also offer a tonne of paid products.
Here’s a breakdown of the 29 premium offers they have.
The ones where the price is unknown are lacking a button to check out the sales page.
I’m assuming this is because the cart is “closed”. Either they run it seasonally or it’s an “exclusive” offer that they only let “trusted investors” into. Or it could be that the offer is no longer running.
Regardless, that’s a lot of potential products to fork out for.
A lot of the “today’s price” listed above are for the cheapest subscription offer. They often have upsells or “recommended offer” tier’s that will bump up the AoV.
If you were to go through each of these offers and subscribe - even to the cheapest offer - on every one, you’d pay a whopping total of…
It feels like a tonne of money.
Agora’s Ad strategy
One thing I find interesting with the various Agora companies is their preference for native advertising.
If you dive into the ads, you’ll often find the majority of ad-spend goes on platforms like…
- Google Display Network
Here’s the overview of the ad activity for Banyan Hill from Similar Web.
You can see that Display Ads are their second biggest source of traffic (just under 600,000 visits) after direct traffic.
Direct traffic likely consists of people who have already subscribed and are looking to log-in to their premium materials.
So it’s a safe bet that display advertising is Banyan Hill’s bread and butter.
When you look at the ads, they generally fall into the below templates.
- Allude to something big investors need to know about
- Offer some form of proof (past win, featured celeb/talent etc)
And beyond that it’s just a simple image. Something that will grab attention though.
Here are some example of ads Banyan Hill and another subsidiary (Stansberry research) are running at the time of writing.
As you can see, they’re all fear based.
Fear is a powerful emotion and easily prompts action.
So, Agora make heavy use of the P.A.S copywriting framework in these ads and the copy.
PAS is an old formula that’s still used heavily today (cause it works wonders). It stands for…
The idea is to mention a problem your ideal audience is having to hook attention.
Agitate the problem to keep them engaged and to get them to really feel the pain.
Then launch into the solution. You get them worked up about the issue before saying “here’s how to solve it”.
By making the user feel the pain, they’ll be more likely to emotionally buy in to what you’re then selling.
Agora uses a lot of these PAS ads, and they like to run them through native ad networks like Taboola, OutBrain and the like.
But what happens when you click on one?
The Agora Financial landing page approach
I’ve clicked on dozens (if not hundreds) of Agora ads (sorry to their media buying team) and you see the same pattern come up time and time again.
I noticed the same pattern when going through all of the publications above.
After clicking on the “Expert who predicted the ‘08 crash” ad above, you see the below.
Step 1 is to push you to an advertorial which acts as a bridge between the ad and the sales page.
The copy plays on the fear the ad set up, but also sets up the solution in the next page.
That next page is, of course, their sales page.
Not a lot to see here.
It’s a ~45 minute long VSL talking about the wonderful gains subscribers have achieved with their advice, and a puff piece for the face of this publication.
After you’ve sat through the 45 minute presentation (or let it run whilst taking the dog out for a walk as I did) a button will appear.
Click it to get the “offer”.
This is the checkout page which explains everything you’ll get and the amazing time-sensitive discount if you buy in the next 30 minutes.
Depending on your actions on this page, one of two things will happen.
Agora’s upsells and offers
If you decide to subscribe you’ll be hit with some upsell offers.
If you make a move to exit the page, they’ll drop the price down to ensure you subscribe to something. A move known as a downsell.
The Agora knows the value of building their email list.
And they’ll do whatever they can to make sure you’re on theirs.
Once you’ve subscribed to something (even their free newsletters) you can expect daily emails offering insight and analysis.
But that’s not all they offer...
Ongoing nurture and repeat sales
A lot of the paid newsletters also offer “free subscription to X, Y, and Z” newsletters.
These are often the free newsletters you’d find on the site anyway.
The reason The Agora wants you on these free lists is so they can advertise to you more freely.
No one would be happy to be sold to in a product they’d paid for.
But a free, insight packed newsletter that promotes another offer isn’t such a misuse of trust.
They’ll periodically run ads in their free newsletters which will direct you back to the sales page sequence of another paid offer. Often one owned by a different Agora subsidiary.
Here’s an example from an email sent by Three Founders Publishing, an Agora company, promoting an offer from Palm Beach Research - another Agora company.
Click on it to get fed into the VSl stage of another offer’s sequence.
This allows them to continue marketing overlapping products that offer just enough new information to customers they know will open their wallet.
It’s a genius way to offer new products to customers and still retain the full profit of each sale.
Why this works
I’ve been fascinated with The Agora’s setup for years.
They’re viewed as the pinnacle of direct response marketing, particularly by copywriters.
And I can really see why.
They have a tried-and-tested growth model that they’ve rolled out across multiple brands.
And on first glance, it seems super complex.
I mean, you have the ads, advertorials, multiple sales page, and ongoing nurture to consider.
But it is deceptively simple.
The primary principle they’re leveraging across the journey here is something called the Yes Ladder.
We’ve done a full breakdown of the Yes Ladder and how Noom used it to grow a 9-figure revenue stream in our Noom growth Study (you can get that and our Morning Brew Study as welcome gifts when signing up for our premium newsletter below).
In short though, the Yes Ladder operates on a very simple process.
Get the user to say yes to “low-threat” questions.
With each yes, increase the “threat” of the question.
Eventually, you’ll be able to ask your “high-threat” question (often pay now) and will be more likely to get a yes.
To put it in simple terms, it’s taking the reader to a coffee shop, restaurant, then bar before asking if they want to head back to yours for “coffee”.
You’re allowing them to get more comfortable with you at every stage before escalating to the next ask.
With the Agora model above, it breaks down like this.
It’s super simple.
Everything is targeted toward that end goal of getting them to sign up.
However, it’s built in a way where each increase in “threat” is negligible and aligns perfectly with the potential benefits of taking the action.
It’s genius in its simplicity and effectiveness
And if The Agora only manages to get people on a free list, they still have plenty of opportunities to sell them in the future.
The emails act as the advertorial before sending people to the sales pages.
Want to learn more like this?
If you’re looking to set up an effective ad funnel, then I’d highly recommend you steal the basic Yes Ladder process from the Agora.
It’s behind a billion-dollar company’s growth and, when you look around, you’ll see it being used in more places than you realise.
But if you want more analysis of effective growth marketing strategies like this one, consider joining up to the mailing list for other studies and information on how to grow a business.