So you want to start a UK investment SUBSCRIPTION website?!

A brain-dump of advice, suggestions and ramblings from my 15 years of pro investment writing and 6 years of investment blogging.

So you have seen prominent stock-market commentators start (or restart) subscription investment websites and think you have what it takes to have a go yourself.

TL;DR – it’s hard work!

The problem of free competition

The heyday of investment subscription publications was around 1997-2000. The market was buoyant, books such as the Zulu Principle had lifted the lid on investing and the internet had not yet destroyed traditional media.

I wrote for an investment publication called Analyst for a few months in 1998:

The owner said at the time he had 10,000 subscribers, who were paying at least £100 a year. So a nice £1m-plus revenue to easily cover the freelance writing expenses of a few ex-City analysts.

Then comes the internet (and the dotcom/banking crashes) and Analyst goes under by 2008.

The inherent problem facing all investment subscription publications/websites today is the vast amount of free information and commentary available online.

Everyone can freely read RNSs, download annual reports, search online for other opinions and make their own investing decisions. And even if people are willing to pay for something, they can spend their money on SharePad, Stockopedia, Research Tree, etc for factual information rather than pay for your opinion.

The market for UK investment publications/websites is relatively small. ABC shows both the Investors Chronicle (IC) and MoneyWeek with c30,000 paid readers. Shares Magazine was paid for, but is now free, a switch that tells you something.

Those publications/websites are staffed by numerous writers and have plenty of resources through their parent organisations – and yet I am sure their readership numbers are declining. How many paying readers will you attract with just you and your website? If you have a few years of success, my guess is a few hundred maximum.

Prove you are an expert with a portfolio, but do not give tips

Ok, so you are a genuine market expert and your opinion is actually worth paying for. Well Mr Buffett, you have to prove it! The only real way to attract attention to your market skills – and get people to your website – is by running a portfolio.

The most popular articles on my blog by a mile are my quarterly portfolio reviews, where I disclose what I have been buying/selling and my portfolio holdings and performance. People are attracted to portfolio reviews because they quickly summarise i) the shares you like and ii) how good (or not) you are at investing.

Running a (successful) portfolio will give you credibility and give your website readers. No other investment content comes anywhere close.

But you have to be careful with a paid-for website portfolio. You do not want to give (or be seen to be giving) formal investment recommendations or advice.

The rules surrounding investment website regulation have never been clear to me (the IC has issued tips for years but is not regulated). But I can confirm FCA compliance/interference is a complete pain and not something to get involved with (I wrote for an FCA-compliant tipsheet for 7 years).

Call your portfolio a ‘demo’ or ‘educational’ portfolio or similar, and never overly boast about its (out)performance or give it undue attention. Just highlighting the simple performance stats should be all you need to attract readers and keep on the right side of regulation.

Find your audience

Nobody will pay for your website if they can’t see what they will get beforehand.

So you have to make some content free, which creates a dilemma: how much free stuff should you give away? Too little and there won’t be enough to read and nobody will sign up. Too much and you may upset your existing subscribers (and nobody will sign up because they can read enough for free). There’s no easy answer.

But whatever you do publish for free, it must be as good as the paid-for work to showcase what possible subscribers can expect.

Plus, you are more likely to garner attention from SEO, social shares etc from one excellent piece than you are from multiple low-quality pieces. Always write high-quality posts – that way you can stand out from the crowd, as the internet is full of investment writing dross. And learn how to write by absorbing tips such as these (especially tip 1).

Write good, free-to-air stuff regularly, and eventually (could be many months) Google will find you (assuming you have indexed your site with the search engine). Having good SEO is paramount, as every investor uses a search engine. But not every investor uses social media and similar to find investment commentary.

(For example, you could build a following on Twitter. But the UK ‘fintwit’ audience is limited. I have tweeted less than 500 times and have c2,800 followers, while one UK investor has tweeted 230,000+ times yet has c10,000 followers. Twitter ‘engagement’ such as ‘likes’ are in the low-single digits, so 3,000 followers may convert into 150 clicks onto an article. How many of those 150 will then go on to pay for your website? Not many. EDIT: Early signs from this tweet indicate a 3% click through.)

Another must-do is to maintain a mailing list. You do not want to lose anyone visiting your site, so ensure they come back by offering an email alert to new (free) content. People who sign up to your list are far more likely to convert into paying subscribers, so keep them engaged with good free content every so often.

Content and website name

You have to write about what you know. UK investors generally are a cynical bunch and will easily sense if you are a BS-er.

Bear in mind your area of expertise may be popular. I note two subscription websites have recently launched covering ‘quality stocks’ and both offered free content on Games Workshop. People are unlikely to subscribe to both sites.

Also, writing about ‘obviously great’ companies has the drawback of those companies being ‘obviously great’ – i.e. your potential subscribers could know all about them already. Perhaps more people will pay for your insight into obscure stocks that may one day become ‘obviously great’ companies.

One possible problem of writing only about certain types of investments is that your investing style may change over time. Commit to a website called ‘ukgrowthstocks’ for example and in a deep bear market your site may look very confused when you are bottom-fishing for recovery plays.

People naturally learn to recognise other people by pictures and names. So I used my name for my website (perhaps an advantage for me as I have an unusual name) and included a photo. Using your name for your website should help build your own personal brand, and is just easier for people to remember and search for. It also builds trust and credibility. I would not worry about attracting unwanted attention or your neighbours finding out. 99.999% of the contact I have had with readers (online and offline) has been polite and positive.

Unless you have really incredible, almost ‘insider’-type content, I would not recommend running an anonymous subscription website. Finding subscribers is hard enough without readers worrying about whether you are a scammer.

What IT to use?

The easy option is WordPress. The core software is free, web hosting can be cheap and millions of free tutorials can help out if you get stuck.

But you will need to pay extra for a decent site. You will need a paid-for membership plugin to handle the paywall stuff, and probably a security plugin (to stop all the spambots) and probably a backup plugin (just in case) as well. My blog runs on WordPress and has been hacked twice.

Once your site gets some daily traffic, you will probably discover your cheap hosting leaves the site slow. So you experiment with cache plugins to increase page loading times so as not to annoy paying customers with a slow site while your free stuff is bombarded by crawlers. Once more traffic arrives and you have optimised all your plugins, you then realise a faster server is required, so you have to migrate to a managed WordPress service (much more £££) or self host your own server (requires IT skills). WordPress tech generally can be a headache for writers and other ‘creators’.

One alternative to WordPress is ghost.org, which I have not used but have heard good things and would now consider ahead of WordPress for a membership site. It is an all-in-one content system where you can "build a website, publish posts, send newsletters, grow an audience, sell premium subscriptions, create a sustainable business around your creative work." The advantage here is everything is developed by the same team and the whole software is dedicated to independent writers trying to sell subs. Cost starts from $108/year (plus VAT?) with servers, security and backups all taken care of. It’s a not-for-profit organisation, too.

Substack.com is another popular alternative. Easy to get started and nothing to pay until a subscriber pays you. But I understand attracting Google’s SEO attention is hard on Substack, which means you have to ‘market’ your site on other channels with those limited audiences. Substack is designed for email, too, so your website is quite basic and inflexible.

That’s all for now. I will update this post with any further thoughts. Let me know what I have missed in the reply box below!

Maynard

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Hi Maynard,

Really interesting post. The newly launched site with two former Investors Chronicle writers has definitely got my attention in the last 10 days. I highly rate Phil in particular, for his breadth of knowledge and ability to explain investment themes and ideas. Much like yourself actually!

I imagine that it is a lifestyle choice to do this, for individuals who enter with eyes wide open and sufficient personal funds to see out difficult times on a small subscription base.

I suspect that the number of new offerings in this space over the last year and half is a reflection of a strong bull market. I’m sure it’s easier to get paying customers when everything is going up! It will be interesting to see how many survive through a prolonged downturn or even a sideways market. Many newbie “investors” and potential customers will disappear if the market gets tough.

The new offerings are also a great source of competition to traditional investment media, such as Investors Chronicle. My feeling is that IC has very much lost its way and is ripe for customers following Phil into his new venture. This would have been more difficult pre-covid, whereas now one just needs a laptop, an internet connection and sub to Sharepad!

I have been through a period of using a number of paid sites. My personal favourite now is John Investment Chronicle. His diary is concise, up to date and produced “warts n all”. His performance over a number of years is very good and he comes up with many interest options for me.

My investments in BVXP, SUS and CLIG are all from your initial coverage over the years. I’ve used your insights to guide me and act as a support for decisions. It allowed me to top up on SUS and CLIG at the lows last year; which has worked out really well.

James

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Hi James,

Thanks for the comments. Phil’s new site was indeed one of the two ‘quality stocks’ sites I noted, the other being Graham Neary’s ‘Monopoly Investor’.

Yes, market conditions can make a significant difference. Numbers to Motley Fool UK’s tipsheet fell considerably during the 2008 crash, but of course that was the exact time to subscribe!

Direct experience of bear markets can help retain subscribers through reassurance (“I remember first hand the 87 crash when…” etc), but more importantly will help you navigate the carnage successfully as others panic. If you panic sell during the lows, what is left of your subscriber base will unsubscribe and never return, and your website will be finished.

John’s readership has been built partly through his column in the Investors’ Chronicle – which is ironic given our comments of the IC facing a readership decline and greater competition! On that note, a spot in the IC (or similar) should give a website extra traffic and credibility beyond the standard channels. Might have to resort to sending in free copy to the IC to get that spot, though.

I am glad you could alight upon a few winners. But I don’t recommend anybody follow what I do, as I have held (and still do own) some real duffers, and I don’t wish to hold anybody’s hand!

Maynard

1 Like

Interesting post. Full disclosure, I am having a crack at this area with the www.fundhunter.co website and Maynard has kindly given me lots of pointers along the way. I also set it as a challenge to see if I could get Maynard (a committed stock picker) interested in funds or just agree that some are worth it. He has mentioned funds a few time on this message board so maybe he does think some are ok!

Distribution moat

As an aside, this all feeds into the idea of distribution as a competitive moat. Previously, the ability to reach customers through content was challenging with the need to do print publications and post them out. This was a cost, marketing and logistical challenge. As such only publications with say 1,000-2,000 readers or more might work out. But online, someone might survive with only a few hundred readers. So the barrier to entry from distribution costs fell away. Worth thinking about the distribution moat in other businesses as well.

Publications

Investors Chronicle - I think there were 65,000 subscribers back in the day but are now around 30,000. this may be due to new entrants like Money Week.

Small Cap Share Watch - This has been going since the late 1990s. It seems to have sustained its niche.

Shares Magazine - Was taken over by AJ Bell. I think it is still paid for as a subscription service and is only free for AJ Bell customers. I think lots of the stuff is free but you only get the full magazine as a non-AJ Bell person if you subscribe.

Analyst - Incredible. 10,000 subscribers at £100. I wonder if they stopped in 2008 partly because the authors moved onto other things. Keith Ashworth-Lord I think was one writer and is now obviously in fund management.

New publications - Yes lots of internet-only new publications like Proactive Investors. The two new publications that wrote about Games Workshop will be interesting to follow. While I haven’t followed them closely, it seems like they are focusing on the same niche: quality stocks.

How hard can it be?

I think the general gist of the article is right that a subscription business is very hard. There are a number of significant challenges.

Firstly, it may not be clear to much of the public the difference between free, biased marketing that is masquerading as journalism.

Secondly, a number of people who seem to get attention are arguably ‘blowhards’ that always talk about their successes and never really hold their performance up to the light.

Thirdly, you can have people copy you. A well-known personality (lets call them JR) subscribed to my website and then the fund ideas started appearing in his articles and then he launched a funds portfolio featuring many of the funds. Bear in mind these funds hadn’t appeared in his portfolios for the eight years he had been running them. So it is hard to say this was a coincidence.

Fourth, marketing and PR is hard. My modus operandi is ‘trash talk on Twitter’ (https://twitter.com/fundhunter_co ). Which is tongue-in-cheek but free. Really, I think people do best if they are willing to put themselves personally forward. Probably I am not too keen on that. Professor Galloway is a marketing person and is continually in the media on Twitter etc. Moneysavingexpert has done well because Martin Lewis is in the media a lot.

Fifth, I think people need to be 1) good writers, 2) offer analytical insights and 3) have an investment angle (preferably by being good investors!). All three together don’t seem to be that common. I am trying to get better at the writing for example as my previous focus was on the other two. But there are a lot of people who seem to be good writers buy don’t seem to be great investors. There are also some who are good analysts but don’t seem to be good investors or top notch writers. Terry Smith is someone who has all three and his writing therefore stands out. His articles are generally first class.

Sixth, coming back to general writing/communicating/presenting, this is key and most people don’t have this skill or have avoided getting it. Communicating well is one reason Fundsmith is the UK’s biggest fund and Barak Obama became President.

Seven, coming back to marketing. This often feels a bit cheap and gimmicky. Galloway makes lots of ridiculous predictions that don’t come true. He gets mocked on Twitter relentlessly. But obviously he is saying this stuff just to get in the media. Is he ‘cheapening himself?’ Who knows but there is a game people play with the media to get attention. Being willing to play that game is hard.

Eight, are you really ‘good.’ Someone on Twitter (Mostly Borrowed Ideas) seems to have everyone saying how great his content is. Fund managers etc. This is what matters in the end. Getting to the level where industry professionals like your stuff is key.

Nine, getting my own mum to sign up was a challenge! This shows how unwilling people are to pay for information now.

Some quick thoughts. Will probably write more later.

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Hi Andrew,

Some very good points there. Analyst stopped because the subs dried up!

Starting a mailing list for a website provides some insight into the readership. I have not examined my blog’s mailing list in depth, but I have noticed the list contains email addresses at financial institutions. So there is some professional interest in my blog.

I suppose these pro investors could be a target market for any new website, and such a subscription could be an easier sell than to a typical private investor as the cost could just be another research expense.

That said, pro investors will want decent research and information not generally recognised elsewhere. Perhaps if you were to unearth the small-print at Alphawave or had a stab at predicting BOTB’s recent earnings drop, you could find an interested professional audience.

In fact, if you are really good, you may find City job offers rolling in and become more (financially) rewarded than by running a website!

Maynard

1 Like

Thanks Maynard for an interesting overview of the pros and cons of paid-for investment blogs. I completely agree about the importance of well written analysis. It is in desperately short supply. Having read all sorts of brokers research over the years I am often amazed at the poor writing. Research analysts might be well qualified chartered accountants, and passed all sorts of investment exams, but they often get bogged down in the minutiae of balance sheet ratios and profit forecasts, and fail to give a feel of the quality of the management and a company’s competitive edge.

The biggest challenge for small investors, who do not have the advantage of their own specialist knowledge of a particular sector, such as retailing, motors or software, is how to find potential investment ideas. I subscribe to the Investors Chronicle, and whilst its investment recommendations can be patchy, it is a good starting point for would be investors. It has some specialist outside contributors, such as John Baron, a Conservative MP with good city connections, who can comment knowledgeably about investment trusts, for example.

My main investment resource is a Stockpedia subscription. I have never used Sharepad which might well be equally good. However, I find Paul Scott’s daily Stockopedia small cap a commentary generates more than enough new investment ideas for my needs. It is extremely well written and attracts a high quality of reader comment which is far superior to what one finds on the various message boards. In addition, I subscribe to David Stredder’s regular Mello events programmes which includes presentations by company executives and fund managers interviews. In both cases the comments by readers/viewers are often just as informative as the initial presentation.

Compared with a few years ago, there is so much more good quality investment information freely available. The video interviews on Tamzin’s PI World and The Investor Meet company webinars are often excellent, which makes me think it must be hard to generate a sizeable paid-for following for a traditional investment advice blog.

That said there is one relatively new paid for investment advice blog (Money Makers) jd@money-makers.co. It specializes in investment trusts and there is a link to its free weekly commentary on the Association of Investment Trust website. However, I have taken out a sub for about £100 a year which reviews in more detail various trusts and their managers. It is run by Jonathan Davis who edits the annual Investment Trust Handbook. I am impressed by how much work he puts into producing his weekly commentary which provides a lot of added value.

One final thought on investment blogs. Neil Collins, a former city editor of the Daily Telegraph and Evening Standard, used to pen a very readable weekly investment column for the Financial Times. He stopped doing it a couple of years ago, but he still writes a weekly column which can be accessed for free at https://neilcollinsxxx.wordpress.com

The fact that Collins, who is well past retirement age, still wants to write a well informed free weekly column for what must be a limited circulation suggests to me that the bloggers who want to charge for their investment ideas are going to face an uphill struggle.

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Hi DarwenLad,

Perhaps the market area to get involved in for a subscription website is investment trusts! Funnily enough the author of Investment Trust Newsletter used to regulate the Motley Fool’s tipsheets and I recall he enjoyed a relatively loyal customer base.

Paul provides a great lesson here. Publish regular content of good quality for free for several years – complete with the occasional Boohoo multi-bagger investment! – and eventually you could gain enough readers to justify a paywall. Even though readers have to pay, what is quite amazing are the comments to the SCVR can be just as good (or better) as the SCVR. I must admit I do read the SCVR comments every day, but do not pay for the SCVR itself! Many comments have said the SCVR is just as valuable (or more so) than the Stockopedia data, which may tell us something about Paul’s style and how to encourage readers to pay.

Maynard

Newsletters/subscription services - What I think is worth doing is asking which services set out to solve the investment problem? Which services are about satellite stock/fund picks? Which services save people time.

Investment problem - Generate the highest annualised return while maintaining a zero probability of a large and permanent loss of value.
Satellite positions - Ones on the edge of a portfolio that we might seek to generate returns from but which might go wrong and would never be large positions.
Save time - the trouble is there is almost too much content. SCVR I think is valued by people because it summarises the key RNS updates, for example. Much of the media is very broad.

SCVR - I thought you had to be a Stockopedia subscriber to read this now. I am a free Stockopedia user and cannot read the comments.

I think the potential of newsletters is to focus on a niche. For example, I used to subscribe to something in the UK that just covered IPOs. It was from the T1ps business that I think blew up. But that is a good niche and if there was something like that I might subscribe to it again. Some interesting IPOs I have missed out on like Auction Technology and Darktrace.

I can go through my personal experience with subscriptions:

  1. Investors Chronicle - Used to subscribe and maybe will do again. The challenge was that I might focus on 10-20% of the magazine and so it was frustrating to pay for it all.
  2. Money Week - Found this was far too macro focused and bearish. Some content was good though and again the issue was paying for everything.
  3. Small Cap Sharewatch - Used to subscribe. A good quality publication with good research. Although I felt that the quality of the companies covered was sometimes mixed.

Information services

  1. SharePad - Need this for my website and general research. Rate it highly although it can be a bit challenging to use and the data quality could be improved. So I do subscribe.
  2. Stockopedia - Some people find this more user friendly. I used to subscribe and may do so again. I just found SharePad better for my needs.

What would I subscribe to?

Because I do a funds website at the moment I don’t want to inadvertently copy anyone else’s ideas. So I don’t subscribe to other funds websites (unlike a certain person who subscribed to FH from another website - not all roses smell great!) But this leaves stocks wide open. Websites covering quality stocks are of interest and also IPOs. US stocks are particularly of interest and maybe a few European stocks. IPOs - there doesn’t seem to be much specific on this but there is on spinoffs.

AJ Bell - By way of example I did two articles on this and it was pretty time consuming but also very valuable. The shares have done very well since the IPO. I was going to post my articles from Cube Investments but Graham appears to have removed the website completely which is not great!

The Edge - Covers spinoffs and special situations. Mainly for institutions but does have a service for individual investors (I haven’t subscribed).
My Wall Street - Irish-based company with an app covering Wall Street stocks.
Beth Technology - San Francisco research team covering technology stocks. One of my subscribers rates this service highly.
Motley Fool US - I like some of the analysts here such as Brian Feroldi and I think US stocks have the most potential generally.
Investing City - I like the person here and some of his research and podcasts.

Generally, due to economies of scale there are going to be more stock research services for individuals in the US. What I would want to see with a service is a very good process as opposed to I think the stock might go up.

Free content from funds -

Of course we shouldn’t forget there can be a lot of free commentary from funds. You can also check the track records to see if it merits attention. For example, Lindsell Train produce fairly long factsheet commentary each month. Blue Whale started doing factsheets sometime ago. You have all the annual and interim reports from the funds.

Baillie Gifford Trust magazine - This is one example with this quarterly magazine online or by post for free.

Fund managers are often discussing the investment case for a company that they own. Or it can just be educational.

Writing too much - What I have found is that some services write a huge amount. This then runs into the same problem as the weekly magazines in that you have too much to go through.

Personality driven marketing - What I find is that a lot of services are marketed on the basis of the person behind them. There is often a lot of talk about them as a person. I think Small Cap Sharewatch was interesting because it never went down this road. The person behind it is almost anonymous. He just wanted to do it based on the quality of the content or just stay anonymous.

In summary, I would probably pay for something if it was very good and targeted and what I like. IPOs are one niche that I have used a newsletter before in the past and might do so again in future. There are some interesting new services emerging.

N.b. I put a resources page on FH with a of the website I have come across that might be interesting:

4 Likes

In case of interest this is a subscription website (Mostly Borrowed Ideas) that people seem to rave about on Twitter. The writer does deep dives on stocks. Here is a free article he has done. I have no connection with the person and I think they only cover US stocks. But it is just interesting to see an example of a subscription service that a lot of people seem to like on Twitter.

Article: https://mbi-deepdives.com/etsy/

Their Twitter handle: https://twitter.com/borrowed_ideas