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!