Substack Writing Tips
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When I was building my first Substack newsletter, there were no third party resources available for newsletter creators. Getting my first 250 paid subscribers was hard! That's why I created the first Substack Course.
Founder, Blogging Guide
In 2022, Substack remains one of the top newsletter creation platforms. And given that it is completely free for writers to use, it is still one of my top recommendations for creators who want to build their own subscription newsletter. However, Substack is still a relatively new platform and there are few writers that are experienced enough to help other writers by offering insights into how to best use the platform. I’ve written a number of Substack articles and even an entire course on Substack. This article will cover some of my most up to date Substack writing tips.
General Substack Concepts
Before diving into some specific Substack writing tips, it’s worth noting that there are a few high level concepts that many Substack writers commonly overlook. These concepts are critical to success on Substack
Substack is both a newsletter creation tool and a blogging platform. Substack has (cleverly) positioned itself as a newsletter platform. However, Substack is really a hybrid newsletter-blogging platform.
When you send a email (issue of your Substack newsletter) to your subscribers, your newsletter post also is published on a dedicated URL associated with your Substack publication. You can actually use Substack as just a blog, by opting to not send each newsletter post to anyone, and simply posting it on your website.
This hybrid model is important because, in order to run a successful Substack newsletter, it is critical that you view each post as having a dual role (newsletters need to be highly engaging and can take many forms, whereas blog posts, in order to rank in search engines need to be readable by both humans and search engines).
Although Substack’s business model relies on paid newsletter subscribers, there are many other ways to make money from your Substack newsletter. Substack’s business model involves Substack taking a cut of any revenue generated by paid subscribers to your newsletter.
Substack offers their newsletter creation tools completely for free in order to encourage this. However, although Substack was designed to operate a subscription newsletter, there are many ways to monetize your newsletter. And successful Substack writers often utilize several of these methods to help increase their income.
Substack is great for building a newsletter, but it should not be viewed as a discovery tool or high traffic source of new readers. Substack’s business model revolves around them providing you with the best tools to (easily) publish your own newsletter. Substack does not provide you with readers or a built in audience.
So in order to be successful on Substack, you need to either have an existing audience or be willing to build one as part of your Substack newsletter. This may sound simple enough, but building an audience who finds your content to be of high value is actually quite challenging, and is hard even for the most experienced digital marketers.
Substack Writing Tips: How to Become a Successful Substack Newsletter Writer
1. Pick a Suitable Niche
While most niches have the potential to be successful on Substack, some are definitely more conducive to paid subscriptions than others. Generally, most niche topics that writers discuss in their newsletters fall into two main categories: entertainment and education.
Entertaining content is great for growing a large list of free subscribers. Educational content is better for converting casual readers into paid subscribers.
The topic of your Substack newsletter should be as specific/well-defined as possible without excluding topics that you know you will cover.
As an example, personal finance is likely to broad of a niche. You want to pick a more specific topic within personal finance. This will both help you connect better with your audience as well as make you stand out from the competition.
Some example of potential Substack newsletter niches within personal finance include credit card churning/mile hacking, tips saving money as a single parent, ways to increase income as millennial trying to escape the 9-5 grind.
You niche can also be an interdisciplinary niche between two typically unrelated topics. For example, you could write about both money and music. This could be a newsletter on how the influx of venture capital is affecting the type of music promoted on streaming platforms.
If you are curious about what topics the top ranked Substack newsletters cover, you can check out the Substack leaderboard to see the top paid Substack newsletters and top free Substack newsletters.
2. Decide on Your Target Audience
Having picked a suitable niche for your Substack publication, your target audience will likely be somewhat clear to you. However, if you are entirely new to writing on Substack (or writing anywhere for that matter), you should spend some time figuring out which groups of people might be interested in reading your newsletter.
The groups who may be interested in your newsletter can include a wide range of readers. Everyone from professionals in your niche, people who have a fascination with your niche, to people who are completely unfamiliar with your niche, but want to learn more.
While it is ideal to build out a reader profile before launching, this profile of what a subscriber to your newsletter looks like will become more clear as you build up a larger catalogue of content.
That is why I typically recommend writers coming up with 3-5 “cluster topics” within their niche. Imagine that you are building a niche website or a Wikipedia article on your niche.
The essential subtopics are these topic clusters that would be essential to cover your niche in depth. Based on reader feedback, you can see which of these topic clusters resonate the most, and adjust accordingly. However, you don’t want to pivot the entire focus of your newsletter, which means you generally want to remain within a specific niche.
3. Focus on Building High Quality Free Posts
One of the greatest misconception about Substack is that high quality paid/paywalled content is what drives paid subscriptions. In reality, 90% of your best content should be featured in your free posts.
High quality free articles are critical to convincing readers to become paid subscribers to your Substack newsletter.
After all, free articles are the main way that readers can evaluate the quality and value of your writing.
It can be tempting to save your “best content” for subscriber only articles. But a better strategy is to lead with your best content in the form of free articles.
The reason is twofold:
1. Paying subscribers are looking for value, but they are also voicing their interest in an issue (your niche) and supporting a writer (you) by subscribing to your newsletter.
2. Free articles that contain amazing content tend to consist of original content, making it more likely that the article will index in search engines or be shared on social media. Locked or subscriber only articles will not index as well because most of the content is blocked by the newsletter’s paywall and people who pay for access to your content will probably not share your articles widely (if at all).
4. Monetize Your Newsletter Using Methods Other Than Subscription Revenue
As mentioned in the introduction of this article, there are actually several ways to monetize your newsletter.
Some of the most popular methods include:
Adding a paid classifieds section to your newsletter posts
Using affiliate links when mentioning relevant products or services in your article
Offering sponsored posts to advertisers
Creating info-products to promote/sell through your newsletter (courses, eBooks, tools, etc.)
5. Incorporate Other Writers into Your Substack Publication
If you are new to writing, creating regular content can seem daunting. One way to overcome this is to add other writers to your Substack publication.
Adding other writers as contributors to your Substack newsletter is not only great for reducing your workload, but it can also be a great way to showcase a range of perspectives on a topic.
Having multiple writers for your Substack newsletter is also advantageous because each writer will usually be willing to promote the work of their fellow writers, thereby increasing your initial reach exponentially.
6. Embrace Email List Churn
Most writers who are new to newsletters freak out when they see email list churn (people unsubscribing to their newsletter). Although this may seem counterintuitive, embracing your necessary churn rate is critical to writing a successful Substack newsletter.
While you may be losing readers when they unsubscribe, this is actually a good thing. Substack (and most other passion economy platforms) relies of finding your most avid “fans” and converting them into paid subscribers. You are at most looking for a few thousand of these people, meaning, you will need to churn through many casual readers who may find your content somewhat interesting, but will never become paid subscribers.
7. Personalize/Brand Your Content
Substack offers writers several opportunities to personalize and brand their newsletter. These include:
Substack email headers. Any publication can add a banner, header, or footer to their publication emails. These headers can include brand specific language and a header image. For example, I include the logo in the header section of my Blogging Guide newsletter. I also include brand specific resources. Even the color of the hyperlink is the same hex color code as my brand:
Substack newsletter about page. Your newsletter’s about page is a great place to highlight not only why readers should subscribe to your newsletter, but to showcase your unique style and voice as a writer. I always suggest that Substack writers spend a few hours crafting their about page as it is one of the most important pages related to your newsletter. This can include custom graphics, repeated use of your logo, social proof in the form of testimonials, or links to other relevant content you have produced outside of Substack.
Substack Welcome Email. Substack allows you to create a default welcome email that all new subscribers to your newsletter will receive. This email is a critical sales conversion point, with many writers making their strongest pitch for readers to upgrade from free to paid subscriber status. Make sure that you customize this email and spend some time making it as personable and relatable to your audience, as possible.
8. Choose a Brandable Name (and directly matching URL)
Picking a good name is essential to creating a successful Substack newsletter. Ideally, your Substack publication will meets most of the following tips:
- Keep the name short — Generally, the shorter the name, the better. It is also ideal to keep your publication name between 1-3 words.
- Keep the name simple — I would suggest keeping the name of your newsletter as simple as possible. Substack is still new enough that there are plenty of available newsletter names (it’s not like finding a website, where you might have to get a bit more creative when picking a name).
- Try to pick a name with an available domain name — This suggestion is optional. But if you want to have the potential to build a brand beyond your Substack newsletter.
As you will notice from the Substack leaderboard, most of the top publications follow these basic rules:
While not required, it’s also useful to pick a name that has a matching Substack URL available.
Substack newsletters have unique URLs which are customizable. Notably, your Substack newsletter URL does not need to match the publication name. That said, you should try to have a matching URL and publication
Sample Substack Newsletter Name: Surveillance State
Ideal Substack Newsletter URL: https://surveillancestate.substack.com
Alternate (Less Ideal) Newsletter URL: https://thesurveillancestate.substack.com
Having an “exact match” URL and Newsletter name is not required but it can help readers recognize your publication and allow publishers to build their brand.
One of the other common formats that I see many Substack writers using is:
Sample Substack Newsletter Name: Surveillance State
Newsletter URL: https://firstnamelastname.com
There is nothing wrong with this per se, but unless you are a household name, this inconsistent naming and branding can be confusing to readers.
9. Find Ways to Offer Concrete Value to Subscribers
When you sign up for Blogging Guide as a paying subscriber, you gain access to my back catalogue of premium posts and to any future subscriber only posts I write. However, this is true for any Substack publication and is frankly a dubious value proposition for readers ( i.e. Sure, I’ve read Casey’s free posts but will I actually get enough value from a relatively new newsletter, to justify the purchase?).
To make this decision easier for my readers, I provide my readers with instant and exclusive access to several digital products that I have created.
If you click on the following locked post (which is also referenced in my featured post, pinned to the top of my Substack homepage), you will see instructions explaining how to download several of my digital products for free!
There are many ways you can gate (control the access to) content.
Since I was already selling these products through Gumroad, I continued to utilize their platform, but you could accomplish the same thing through Etsy or any other digital eCommerce store.
Paying subscribers now have instant access to my bonus content.
Better yet, because this content is listed for sale on Gumroad, it helps potential subscribers realize the value of becoming a subscriber.
The products I am offering free complimentary access to are worth $500+ (and I plan on adding more).
Since the current price of my newsletter is only $100 per year, the value proposition becomes much more clear:
Obviously, what you offer your readers will depend upon your niche. And some niche topics may not lend themselves toward digital downloads. But there are many other creative ways to provide bonus content.
Still, providing clear and instant value to potential subscribers is a valuable tactic on Substack (or pretty much in marketing/sales in general).
10. Master 1-2 Social Media Platforms
As mentioned in the higher level concepts, Substack does not provide you with an audience or traffic.
So how are you supposed to drive traffic to your newsletter if you haven’t already established an audience?
One of the most common strategies is to establish a presence on various social media platforms, as they offer the quickest path to high traffic.
Where most writers make a mistake is they try to master many social media platforms at once/build a following on many social media platforms at the same time.
This is a terrible idea and will leave you exhausted and frustrated.
Instead, focus on 1-2 social media platforms that your target audience frequents. Post useful content (perhaps even snippets from your Substack newsletter there), engage with others who care about your niche, and become an authority figure in your niche.
This will still take at least several months (it is hard to establish authority overnight, even if you have specific credentials), but it is an essential strategy for building an audience, at least in the early stages of your newsletter.
11. Cross-Promote Your Newsletter
A newsletter cross-promotion is when you promote other people’s newsletters to your readers in exchange for them promoting your newsletter to their readers. Essentially, you swap content in your newsletters.
The trick to cross promotion for your newsletter is to reach out to other newsletters with a relevant audience. If you choose the right newsletter, the cross promotion should be beneficial to the other newsletter owner as well.
How do you arrange the cross-posting?
You usually need to reach out directly to other newsletter operators via email or message them on social media.
You can also find a forum that is relevant to your niche, and create an open thread where you mention some of your basic newsletter stats, as well as what you are looking for in a newsletter partner.
Another great way to find other newsletter operators is by looking through the various newsletter directories. These directories are also a great way to promote your own newsletter!
12. Recommend Other Newsletters
Recommending Substack newsletters in your niche or an adjacent topic, is a great way to get noticed by other newsletter writers, and in some cases, will get you their recommendation.
Substack now offers a built in feature, allowing you to formally recommend other newsletters:
While still relatively new, the Substack Recommendations feature seems to offer huge potential.
Below is a screenshot from my dashboard, which shows me the various publications that are currently recommending Blogging Guide and how many subscribers (free) that these recommendations have directly led to:
This tool is particularly effective because a newsletter owner receives an email when you recommend their newsletter, which overtly prompts you to recommend them back:
13. Pause Your Newsletter’s Subscription Settings if you are Feeling Burned Out
Writing a newsletter is different than a blog or most other forms of writing online because once you have paid subscribers, you will definitely feel the pressure to produce content on a semi-regular interval.
As a result, many newsletter creators get burned out fairly quickly. This is especially true if you started a newsletter as a side project, but suddenly see an influx of unexpected paid subscribers.
If you are feeling burned out from writing, but don’t want to formally end your newsletter, you can take advantage of Susbtack’s “pause billing” feature.
When you pause billing on your Substack newsletter:
- The billing cycles for your subscribers will be frozen
- New readers will not be able to sign up for a paid subscription
- Existing paid subscribers won’t be charged.
There is no time limit when you pause your publication and when you’re ready to start publishing again, you can unpause to resume the billing cycles of your paid subscribers.
14. Offer Significant Discounts on Annual Memberships Compared to Monthly
The optimal price of your Substack newsletter depends on a number of factors, including the length of the subscription.
Substack currently allows for two main types of paid subscriptions: monthly or annual.
Annual subscriptions are typically offered at a 10%-20% discount off the equivalent monthly pricing.
The more established your newsletter, the less this discount matters. Conversely, if you have a relatively new newsletter, I would highly suggest offering, at least initially, a 20%+ discount on annual subscriptions, for the following reasons:
- Annual subscriptions allow for better revenue projections. If you have a lot of monthly subscribers, revenue will inevitably fluctuate since monthly subscribers have a higher churn rate. Additionally, as you change your newsletter subscription price over time, or offer promotional deals, these variations will be reflected more in monthly subscriptions than in annual subscriptions.
- Annual subscriptions help weed out “problematic subscribers.” Based on my experience, most of the customer service issues come from a small group of monthly subscribers.
- It is far easier to meet (and exceed) expectations of annual subscribers. Content production varies month to month. So if you have an annual subscription, you will see a better sample of the content that you can come to expect. Monthly subscribers might sign up in a month where you happen to produce less content. This may lead to them not upgrading to an annual membership or cancelling their monthly membership.
- Annual subscriptions decrease the risk of payment failure. A small amount of subscriptions through Substack will fail because of outdated payment information. For monthly subscriptions, there is a greater risk of payment failure, since their are 12 cycles in a year, and only 1 cycle for the annual subscription.
In the case of Blogging Guide, my current pricing offers subscribers a ~42% discount on annual pricing, which is generally one of the larger discounts I have seen on Substack.
Building a Substack newsletter can be extremely rewarding, and the tools offered by Substack have significantly lowered the barrier to entry, allowing anyone to operate a subscription newsletter. However, while it has never been easier to start a subscription newsletter, not all writers find success on the platform (even excellent writers with years of experience). Hopefully this guide with Substack writing tips will help you increase your odds of success.
If you are interested in becoming a successful Substack newsletter creator, consider taking our Substack newsletter course. You can also sign up for our newsletter, Blogging Guide, which contains digital publishing insights on and blogging tips for writers looking to make money online!