The perfect alternative to Twitter might be right under your nose.

Substack Notes is the email newsletter startup's latest and most social media-inspired rollout to date. The feature lets Substack newsletter writers publish short form thoughts and curate content from other sources, all in one feed-based setting.

As someone who has been complaining about Substack for years, I find this new feature exciting, albeit contradictory to what Substack has previously said about social media platforms and groupthink. The timing truly could not be better. Twitter is tumultuous these days; this is an enormous, dream opportunity for the Substack network.

As such, the feature launch is so big it’s taken over the home page of Substack’s website.

screenshot of the substack home page with text that says introducing substack notes

Screenshot from the author, taken April 29th, 2023.

For the first time, there’s an opportunity to have a presence on Substack without actually having to maintain a newsletter on Substack. That interests me, and if you’re trying to grow your online audience, it should interest you, too.

Here’s what you need to know about the new Notes feature, and Substack newsletters in general.

The Substack App: A Quick Overview

Substack is a newsletter platform that lets readers start their own email list in just a few clicks. The app is a haven for independent writers who want to publish in-depth content.

Your newsletter can have a free edition, which tens of thousands of users leverage to build their subscription network. You can also convert casual readers into paying subscribers, the same business model used by subscription-powered media outlets. You can enjoy the Substack network on your computer or on the app.

You’ll often see your favorite Substack economists nerding out about how lucrative paying subscribers are. “Wouldn’t it be nice to have a million paying subscribers?” they say. One of my big complaints about Substack is that these projections are sensationalist at times. Running a paid newsletter is tough, unless your writing is incredibly compelling, or you have exclusive information and reporting to share.

Tip:In most cases, it's much easier to sell a predetermined set of organized information than it is to sell a subscription to ongoing information.

Nevertheless, it’s really easy to set up a Substack account.

I took screenshots while setting up mine. Simply input your email address, confirm from within your inbox, slap a photo and short bio onto your account, and you’re all set.

screenshot of a signup email from substack
screenshot of profile creation details on substack, including name and bio

You only need a name to get started on Substack. Consider adding a short bio as well.

Substack Notes: What to Know

Clearly, Substack is pushing Notes hard. The primary call-to-action button in the left-hand sidebar is to write a new Note, and if you haven’t logged in since the launch, you’ll get a lightbox pop-up.

screenshot of the substack dashboard, with an arrow pointing to the new note button
screenshot of a pop-up on the substack home page promoting notes

I had to create a publication in order to be eligible to write my first Note. It was a little confusing, as I was directed to a signup page that looked like a new user signup. But this was to create my publication and claim my URL (Shameless plug, it’s here).

Here are some screenshots of what that looked like, it was pretty quick.

screenshot of substack publication creation asking for publication name
screenshot of substack publication creation
screenshot of substack publication creation

You can either import a list of subscribers or add email addresses manually.

Complete those steps and you'll have yourself a shiny new publication. If you leave it as-is like I did, it'll look like this.

screenshot of a substack publication with no design elements yet

My fugly publication.

How to Write a Note on Substack

When you click to create a new note, a lightbox will pop up. Your Notes can consist of text, images, and/or links. When sharing links, a preview will appear. You cannot share videos at this time.

screenshot of the notes interface on substack

To enable rich text, simply highlight the text you want to modify. This will open up a small menu of additional formatting options.

screenshot of the notes interface on substack with a link preview

Links will populate a preview. If sharing your own posts, ensure your meta description (preview text) and preview image are set up. This gives readers more context.

Why I Don’t Maintain a Newsletter or Publication on Substack (For Now)

A rule of thumb in traditional online business acumen is to use your social media presence as a top-of-funnel strategy. You can use social media to foster conversations, but eventually you’ll want to convert casual readers into email subscribers.

The reason for this is that we don’t have as much control over whether users see our content on a social media platform. An algorithm could suddenly change, or, as with many other social media platforms, it simply gets too crowded, and there’s only so much space in someone’s feed.

Here are some key takeaways on the Substack’s newsletter functionality in comparison to other tools like ActiveCampaign.

Key Takeaways

  • Substack’s newsletter function is not as robust as other email service providers (ESPs).
  • There are no automations, no tagging features, no ability to segment readers, and no way to promote freebies or lead magnets as an incentive to sign up.
  • If you run a paid newsletter on Substack, the signup process is really smooth, but the app takes a 10% cut.
  • Several paid newsletters that were grown on Substack have since migrated off Substack as a result of this comparatively steep fee.

Despite its shortcomings, Substack is entering verb territory. People are starting to say “Do you have a Substack?” rather than “email list” (which drives me insane). I acknowledge Substack has quite the grip on newsletter culture these days.

Pro Tip:In marketing, familiarity wins. People are drawn to what feels familiar to them. In psychology, this is called the mere exposure effect.

A little-known food writer can get discovered on Substack talking about an amazing recipe developed recently. A consultant can use Substack to publish industry news or just updates about everyday life. People tend to focus on the money paid out by Substack and its financial rewards, but I think the better feature is audience growth opportunity. Substack can be a powerful growth channel when used well.

The platform will likely continue to develop Notes, as this is a substantial feature launch.

Frequently Asked Questions

What Is Substack Good For?

Substack is like an email subscription universe wrapped up into one app. With the new Notes feature, the platform takes another step toward becoming a social network. You can use Substack the drive discovery and reach new audiences, with an ultimate goal of increasing your audience.

How Do I Sell Paid Subscriptions on Substack?

Enable the paid subscription buttons that are in your profile settings. Once this is done, you’ll be able to add a call to action to your free newsletter content to encourage users to sign up.

Can Substack Writers Use Notes to Attract Paid Subscribers?

Probably! It seems like that’s the whole point. The Substack network runs on paid subscriptions, and unlike other social media platforms there aren’t any display ads yet. Substack is giving writers more publishing options with Notes, and your favorite writers might already be using the feature.

Start Exploring Substack Notes Now

As online professionals, part of our job is to keep up on emerging technologies and features. If you like to post short form content and have a Substack account, exploring the new Notes feature will be time well spent. ◆

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