Substack Review: What To Keep In Mind With Email Newsletters
Let’s dissect the buzz.
Are you reading Substack reviews and determining whether or not you want to start an email list?
Does the idea of having paid subscriptions and overall email subscription revenue excite you?
You can start a Substack newsletter quickly, but there are also other options to consider. In this post, we’ll discuss Substack alternatives for publishing content.
So You Want To Start A Paid Subscription Newsletter
It seems like everywhere I go (virtually) these days, all I hear is people saying email newsletters are the hot new thing – especially paid newsletters.
“Join my Substack newsletter!”
“Substack is where the magic happens.”
“That one history professor is making a million dollars a year on Substack, which feels like a fit for me, so I’ve decided I’m going to do the same.”
“Substack, Substack, Substack!”
I feel like I’m Jan in an episode of The Brady Bunch, except instead of long, gorgeous blonde hair I’m taming my cowlick with a quart of pomade every morning.
For many people, Substack has turned them on to the idea that publishing content via email is cool – even though email marketing and both paid and free newsletters are well over 20 years old.
From that perspective, I suppose I’m grateful for Substack: The platform proposes that pared-down design and well-written content are all you need to bring your dreams to fruition.
The platform is a no-nonsense option for creators, and has attracted the attention of both creators and aspiring media startups.
➡️ Boston College professor Heather Cox Richardson writes about the intersection of history and politics to hundreds of thousands of readers via Substack;
➡️ Food and beverage writer Alicia Kennedy accidentally enabled the paid newsletter button on Substack last year and soon had 400 paying readers according to an interview with Digiday; and
➡️ An article from Axios noted that Substack has over 250,000 paying subscribers. The top ten earners combined make over $10 million annually.
If you want to get paid to create exclusive content and make money from a newsletter platform, you have many options. Let’s break down the pros and cons of Substack newsletters.
Substack Review – Post Outline
What To Keep In Mind About Substack
#1: Substack Has No Traffic
Traffic refers to how many people read your stuff on the internet in a given day, week, or month. Without traffic… you’re dead in the water when it comes to this internet game. Google Analytics is the gold standard for measuring traffic, whereas many social media apps let you see in-app traffic trends in just a few clicks.
When you publish your content on Substack, your existing readers and paying subscribers will be delighted, but there isn’t a great way for new readers to discover your work.
You might pop up in search engine results if your SEO game is good (These days it’ll need to be really good), but for the most part Substack doesn’t have a built-in audience where people are hanging out.
I haven’t heard of anyone using only Substack itself and no other platforms to successfully build a large list – have you?
You would have to go somewhere else to find your people, then invite them over to your Substack newsletter…. which is the exact same sequence of steps you’d take for any other email list provider.
Everyone struggles with audience growth. For most creators and online entrepreneurs, traffic and audience growth are the most challenging components of growing a list.
“But Nick, I’ll get people/websites/influencers to feature my newsletter, and then people will join it.”
I like that idea! But that’s not a Substack-specific thing. That’s called… PR and marketing.
It’s important to start writing free content and reach new people. Substack will definitely give you a way to communicate to your existing audience directly, but it doesn’t replace the ongoing effort of growing your audience.
#2: Substack Has No Personalization Tag Features
For most of us, first name and email are sufficient. But you could also ask for details like phone number or zip code. You could ask for anything you want, really.
Here’s why this matters: It’s proven that when you address subscribers by name, they’re more likely to feel engaged and develop a relationship with you and your work.
Personalization tags also let you create more thoughtful or customized experiences for your subscribers, ensuring you don’t step on any toes.
I send a new weekly newsletter every Sunday and sometimes send newsletters during the week.
Sometimes, I use part of my Sunday newsletter to promote Camp Wordsmith™, my business and writing membership program. Enrollment opens and I’m actively selling. Usually, I’ll do a live webinar to help get the word out.
However, I don’t want current Camp Wordsmith™ clients to see this. And I don’t want to keep begging readers to register for the webinar if they’re already registered. The communication would be a little sloppy.
So I make this content conditional. I do a little announcement box at the top of my email that only shows if readers are not current clients and not yet registered. I also do a box for the people who *are* registered.
Here’s what that looks like in ActiveCampaign, my email service provider:
Yes, this is a little more detailed. But you do detailed things all the time: You tie your shoes, you drive a car or book a flight, and you can cook a mean fettucine alfredo. Resist the urge to feel overwhelmed and give up. Details like these are what make email marketing and newsletters so powerful.
Substack doesn’t allow you to take any information other than email address. Whatever you write has to go to everyone and look the same way, whether it’s the first newsletter someone has ever received or the 100th newsletter they’ve read from you.
If you’re going to take this much time to write and send email newsletters, let’s use a tool that will give you flexibility down the line. 📈
#3: Substack Has No Automations
Substack lets you write and send content whenever you want. But what if you want to showcase old-but-still-helpful content to new readers?
Email automations let you send different content to different subscribers at different times. I don’t see a clear way to do that on Substack (Again, hopefully a feature they’ll add down the line).
Substack certainly lets you get started quickly. But do you really want to spend hours each week on a newsletter, only to send it once and have it never see the light of day again?
You work hard to write good content; let’s leverage it and repurpose it as much as possible.
If you want to someday build something bigger via email or building for business I want you to have automations in the picture.
Example: My automated superhuman dog email
I had a newsletter I sent months ago asking for advice about our dog. His name is Hefty, and apparently he has a not-so-hidden talent: He can jump over a 7-foot fence.
Here’s a GIF:
This newsletter was engaging content got a terrific response. It was fun and relatable, and it gave subscribers permission to turn the tables and offer me advice, which builds rapport.
So I put this email into an automation, and now every Friday some new-ish readers on my list who’ve never seen it before are sent this newsletter.
Every Friday I wake up to new replies. The advice I get is great — thundershirts, CBD treats, training tips, oh my! — and it’s a nice way to create some levity and relatedness with readers.
Many creatives shy away from automation because it feels inauthentic.
Businesspeople, on the other hand, are desperately trying to pull back as much time as possible, make money, and get paid. Time is a precious resource that is not renewable, and time spent in a text editor or looking at a CSV file needs to be kept at a minimum.
If your writing actually helps your readers and/or entertains them, wouldn’t you want to show that off as much as possible?
Email automation lets you tell more stories to more readers with less effort.
#4: Substack Will Probably Become a SaaS Soon Anyway
Substack pays you through a Stripe account and takes a 10% cut of payments on top of Stripe processing fees. As the podcast Newsletter Crew recently pointed out, this enables creators to build on Substack for free, then migrate off the platform when it’s time to monetize.
This puts you at a disadvantage if you’re Substack, yes? It’ll probably only be a matter of time before Substack converts to a SaaS model, making it… just like all the other email service providers.
Am I just crazy? I wondered if I was the only person perplexed about Substack newsletters (And also Clubhouse, back when the trending live audio platform was very buzzy), so I asked my list about it.
The responses were mixed:
I understand the sentiment for simplicity. And I bet for a lot of writers, Substack is the right choice.
But if you’re wanting to really build something up over time or use email for business, let’s not glorify simplicity and villainize strategy.
Setting up a paid newsletter can be done with almost any email service provider. Here’s how you could do it.
How To Set Up A Paid Newsletter In 10 Minutes
For a paid newsletter or any other monthly recurring payment structure, here’s a really simple three-step approach.
Step 1: Choose An Email Service Provider
Step 2: Set Up A PayPal Business Account
One of the most universal ways to begin accepting payment is through a PayPal interface. To do a subscription offer, you’ll need to have a PayPal Business profile; setting one up is easy, and you can convert an existing account to a business account if you like.
I personally didn’t even need that second link. I went to create my subscription product, which in PayPal looked like this:
On the completion screen, the default was a website embed tab. but there was also an “email tab”, which gave me a URL.
Here’s how that link looked when I opened it in a new window. Looks good enough to me! If you want your links to look a bit more pretty, use Bitly to make them shorter and cleaner.
Step 3: Connect PayPal To Your Email List With Zapier
Zapier is a handy tool that helps your different online apps talk to one another.
Think of Zapier as “digital glue” that can make apps connect with one another; you just type in two apps you want to connect and it shows you integration options.
In my example, I connected to ActiveCampaign since that’s my email service provider. I couldn’t directly connect to a list in this integration, but I could drop a subscriber into an automation that then adds contacts to my “paid subscribers” list.
Once you’re set up, give your PayPal link a test drive with an email of your own to make sure everything works. From there, you’re all set and can launch your own paid newsletter product.
It’s easy to get caught up in the whirlwind of new tech tools like Substack or other platforms.
As you explore, resist the urge to get swept up too much in the excitement and piggyback on a trend before you’re ready. Decide what experience you want to give your readers, then pursue that setup with excitement and focus.
Thanks for reading. 🙏🏼
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