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How to write a successful Substack
You asked, so here's my advice!
A bunch of people have been asking me to write a tutorial about how to write a successful Substack. Noahpinion doesn’t yet have the kind of readership that the big politics Substacks enjoy (Heather Cox Richardson, Matt Yglesias, Judd Legum, Andrew Sullivan, Matt Taibbi, etc.). If you want to know how to be super successful, you should probably ask one of them! But my readership has grown to the point where I feel like it’s been moderately successful, and the trend looks good. Here’s a graph of my email list readership so far, which I’m happy to say has been accelerating in recent months:
I already offered my advice on how to do the kind of writing I do, in a post last year:
So today’s post will be more about things like choosing a topic, marketing, etc.
I should note, by the way, that advice is probably overrated. The reason is that people don’t really know how they accomplished what they accomplished. They know the things they did, and they know the results they achieved, but because they’ve only done it one time, they don’t really know which exact things were effective and which were just incidental or even detrimental to their success.
For example, imagine you went and asked Michael Bloomberg how to become a decabillionaire. He would be able to tell you how he did it, but that exact method wouldn’t work in 2022 even if he tried to do it again. If Mike started again at age 22 today, with $0, what are the chances he’d make tens of billions of dollars? We just don’t know. What we do know is that aping rich people usually won’t make you rich. And this is probably the same with any goal, including writing a popular blog/newsletter.
So with that said, here are my thoughts on creating a successful Substack.
Advantages and disadvantages of Substack
“Substack” has entered our lexicon as a generic term for a blog that also has an email newsletter attached. I salute the Substack team for that marketing coup. I’ve been calling Noahpinion a “blog”, and other people call it a “newsletter”, but in fact it’s both.
The real killer feature of Substack, which has made it so easy to onboard new users, is free automatic email distribution. If you build your own newsletter website, like Ben Thompson does, you have to mess with Mailchimp or some other mass emailing service. With Substack, they just do it for you — you write the blog posts, and they send the emails out.
Email distribution is incredibly powerful. When you just write on the web, as I used to do with my old blog, your traffic will be extremely volatile. Write a hit post, and it’ll get tons of pageviews, but your normal stuff will not. Add email, however, and the equation changes — now, people who like your writing are getting your posts in their inboxes every time (or at least, some of them are; for some, the emails will be shunted to the “Promotions” folder). This transforms the fundamentally hit-driven business of web writing into something much more predictable and consistent.
Another upside of Substack is that it makes it fairly easy to get paying subscribers. Because of Substack’s brand recognition, everyone knows that a “Substack” is a thing you pay for, unlike a “Medium” or a “blog” or even a “newsletter”. That prompts people to be ready to subscribe. But as I’ll explain in a bit, I think this feature isn’t as important as people tend to think.
The biggest downside of Substack is that you’re basically an independent magazine, which means you do all your own marketing. When I worked for Bloomberg, they promoteed all my columns, and I got to piggyback off of the existing Bloomberg readership for my audience. With Substack I’m largely on my own (the Substack company themselves tries to help market Substacks to the world, but there’s a limited amount they can do).
So with Substack, consistently reaching your existing readers is a lot easier, but finding new ones is harder.
Another downside for some people is the loss of prestige that Substack entails, relative to an established publication; most Substackers have less prestige than the average writer for the New York Times or the Washington Post, because they lack the well-known institutional affiliation. I never cared about that, but many people probably do.
So basically, this means that in order to be a successful Substacker, you need some way to promote and market your Substack. This could be a big Twitter or Instagram or LinkedIn account (I have 256k followers on Twitter but I don’t use those other two yet), or it could be regular TV appearances, or if you’ve written a popular book that would probably work too. If you have a popular podcast or YouTube channel you’re golden. If you have an existing email newsletter you can just port the email addresses over. If you have another job — professor, or consultant, or whatever — your organization might also help you market your Substack.
That’s piece of advice #1. The second piece of advice is about what to focus on when you’re marketing and promoting your Substack.
Free email list signups: the most important metric
The thing most people know about Substack is that you can get paying subscribers. (In fact, this is right there in the name of the product — it’s a full “stack” for getting “subs”.) But in fact, the number of paying subscribers you have is much less important than the number of people who are on your Substack’s free email list.
As most of the people reading this will already know, Substack lets you write kinds of posts — paywalled and free. The paid subscribers can see everything. But the people on your free email list can see only the free posts, and the previews for the paywalled posts. Somewhat confusingly, Substack refers to these free email list signups as “subscribers” as well, and differentiates them from the paid subscribers with the word “paid”. Personally, I call the people on the free email list “readers” or “free email list signups”.
Anyway, increasing the size of the free email list is, in my opinion, the most important task for any Substack writer. There are several reasons I say this.
First, people like to try before they buy. Some people will fork over a subscription fee because they read and liked one of your posts, but many will subscribe only after reading your free posts for a month or three and deciding they need more of your content (I paywall about 40% of my posts). On that note, if you’re a Noahpinion reader and you’d like to become a paying subscriber and get more Noah Smith content, subscribe now! 😊
Anyway, the second reason is that free posts are much better marketing than paid posts. If you have 50,000 readers and 5000 paid subscribers, then writing free posts means there are 10x as many people who can share your post on social media. (Well, technically, free email signups can share the previews of paywalled posts without reading the post itself, but they generally won’t.) The more people who can share your posts, the more new people get exposed to your writing. Remember that for a Substacker, the hardest thing is to build your audience, since you don’t have an employer to do that for you. Viral marketing, via readers sharing your posts, is thus extremely important.
Imagine two Substackers: One who does only paywalled posts and who has 1000 paid subscribers, and another who writes zero paywalled posts and who has 10,000 readers and 0 paid subscribers. Obviously the first one is making a lot more money, but she isn’t growing her audience; she isn’t onboarding new readers, so that 1000 subscribers will likely grow only slowly.
The second one isn’t making any money yet, because she doesn’t charge anyone for her posts. But in the future, she can start writing more paywalled posts, and some fraction will probably become paid subscribers. A good rule of thumb is that 10% of free readers eventually subscribe if there’s a paid option. If the second of my two hypothetical Substackers can grow her audience from 10,000 to 20,000, then her potential paid subscribers double as well.
In other words, just like at an early-stage startup company, growth often beats revenue. If you think your audience has topped out, then you can start writing more paid stuff, but don’t underestimate yourself — my own audience seemed like it was flatlining in late 2021, but then accelerated again. I doubt I will ever start paywalling most of my posts — there are just too many potential readers out there in the world.
Also, it’s worth noting that many writers care about audience size for reasons other than eventually charging people money. This is certainly true for me. While I do need to make money from this Substack, ultimately I care more about how much I’m in the conversation. Paywalling all or most of my posts would shut me out of much of that conversation, even if I had as many paid subscribers as one of the big politics blogs. I write because I want people to read my ideas! And I bet most other writers do too. If you want to make a bunch of money, go into finance.
Narrow Substacks, Broad Substacks, and Reporter Substacks
My third piece of advice is about content. Of course you should write about whatever you want to write about — that’s why you’re a writer in the first place, presumably. But if you care about getting readers, then you do need to tailor your content somewhat to people’s desires.
I see three basic categories of (nonfiction) Substack writers that people like to read. The first is straight-up journalism, like what Eric Newcomer does. Hopefully Substack increases the market for good investigative journalism, because our country really needs more of that. But if you’re not a reporter, this isn’t really an option.
The second category is what I call a Narrow Substack. This is a Substack with a tight focus, usually written by an expert in the field. Examples of these would include Brian Potter’s Substack about the construction industry, Emily Atkin’s Substack and David Roberts’ Substack about climate issues, Emily Oster’s Substack about parenting, and Matt Clancy’s Substack about the economics of innovation.
The third category, which includes Noahpinion, is what I call a Broad Substack. This is a generalist who synthesizes news and research and other information and offers thoughts on a wide variety of topics. We typically do have some specialty — I have a PhD in economics and I know more about macroeconomics than micro — but instead of focusing on that, we branch out a lot. Heck, I’ve written posts about online communist cults, Japanese cartoons, and how to take care of rabbits. A lot of the big politics Substackers, like Matt Yglesias, are also examples of the broad approach, as are wonk bloggers like Scott Alexander.
Which is a better strategy, Narrow or Broad? I guess Substack has internal data on this, but I don’t. My general sense is that a Narrow Substack is a lower-risk, lower-reward option. The set of people who want to read about climate change every day is probably smaller than the set of people who want to read about a different thing each day. But it’s also probably a more dedicated audience, especially if you’re a respected expert.
Broad Substacks, on the other hand, feel like a higher-risk, higher-reward strategy. Your readers are basically expecting you to be a one-person news magazine, showing them some new different interesting idea every day or two. And if they’re paid subscribers, they’re paying you to do that. So if your perspective and your writing style don’t resonate with a whole lot of people, very few will read you. Unlike a Narrow Substack, you don’t have personal expertise and a subject-obsessed reader base to fall back on — it’s sink or swim. Luckily, lots of people have resonated with my own writing, and I’m grateful for that. But if I were starting out as a writer intentionally trying to build a following, I’m not sure I’d take the path I took.
Other tips and tricks
Anyway, to summarize, those are my three main recommendations:
Have some way to promote and market your Substack
Free email signups are the most important metric of success
Choose whether to focus on a topic, or go for the higher-risk strategy of being a generalist
In addition to those, here are some other miscellaneous tips for Substacking:
Always give a free preview on paywalled posts. Let people see what the post is about before they decide whether it’s worth paying to read it!
Offer a free trial period for paid subscribers. Let people try before they buy!
Don’t offer more features, content, or perks than you can sustain over the long haul. No one likes a writer who does a big blitz, signs up paid subscribers, and then starts to phone it in. In the future I might have Q&A sessions, meetups, video content, etc., but I’m only adding things at a pace I’m 100% sure I can sustain.
You should probably only mix audio and video content with written content if you can do it in a systematic, consistent, high-quality way. Actually this is a piece of advice I don’t follow, since my video interviews are pretty ad-hoc (I do those when interview subjects can’t do an email interview.) But I admire people who consistently put out high-quality audio segments.
Substack offers you the option to create a “founding member” subscription tier, which is basically for superfans who love your work and have a lot of money. Use this, and set the maximum amount very high (mine is, um, $420/year).
Put pictures at the top of your posts! This makes them very eye-catching when they get shared in social media. Openverse and Unsplash are two good sources of non-copyrighted images. Remember to credit the photographer (I do this in the alt-text on each picture).
Interact with other writers! Talk to them on Twitter, mention their blogs and Substacks in your own posts, etc. Substack is bringing back the blogosphere — a way to have conversations without the hyper-abbreviated posturing and screeching of Twitter. Use that to create high-quality conversations! Also, engaging in discussions is a much better viral marketing method than push-promoting your posts to people.
Moderate your comments. Trolls will occasionally show up and say vile stuff and try to spread misinformation, just like on Twitter. On Substack you have the option to delete those comments if you so choose.
Get a pet rabbit! This has nothing to do with Substack, but it is a generally effective strategy for happiness in life. 🐰