Your own personal media empire might be closer than you think.
Substack is a San Francisco-based tech company founded in 2017. Substack offers a way to publish content in a simple and elegant view that requires no prior knowledge of email technology.
The platform is wildly popular, but it does have its drawbacks. If you're serious about building an audience online, a different email marketing service like ConvertKit or ActiveCampaign might be a better fit for your goals.
The Takeaway:The email service providers currently most similar to Substack are ConvertKit and beehiiv. A blog reviewing each of those tools is linked below.
- In the age of ChatGPT and other writing AIs, personalized writing will become more valuable.
- You can grow a free newsletter, or use your Substack to introduce subscription fees for your premium content.
- However, seasoned newsletter writers know that the money on Substack isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
- Nevertheless, Substack has become a magnet for great writing in recent years, and has emerged as one of the great journalistic totems available today.
- You can use the platform for personal writing or news, and send digital newsletters directly to a reader’s dedicated inbox. There are also tools for podcasts.
- The Substack app is silky smooth, and the addition of Notes in 2023 added a solution for short form content.
- For some content creators, Substack is not the right pick. For others, it'll fit like a glove.
So what does starting a Substack entail, really? Let’s go over Substack's features, how it stacks up against other email service providers (ESPs), and what independent writers should consider.
Table of Contents
The Rise of Substack
For many people, a Substack newsletter has created a resurgence of interest in email distribution lists and publishing, even though email marketing is well over 20 years old. From that perspective, I'm grateful for Substack.
The platform’s pared-down design and writing tools can give thought leaders a way to bring new subscription revenue to life and be paid for the work.
The success stories are compelling:
➡️ Boston College professor and historian Heather Cox Richardson, one of the biggest Substack writers, writes about the intersection of history and politics to hundreds of thousands of readers.
➡️ 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.
➡️ Casey Newton’s wildly popular Platformer, one of the best paid newsletters on tech, has exclusive insider scoops you can’t find anywhere else—most recently a day-by-day update of the inner workings of Twitter as Elon Musk took over. (He's also my journalist crush, for what it's worth. 🙈)
The top ten publishers on Substack collectively have hundreds of thousands of paying subscribers, whose dues add up to millions in annualized revenue. and some have left or right bias.
If you already have an email list, you'll have the option to import it when you create your Substack.
Be Wary, Though
The platform has important features missing compared to other email service providers. Also, although payment company Stripe takes a 2.9% cut of payments, Substack then takes an additional 10%.
Major writers have built buzz on Substack, then left because of these fees. (ConvertKit absolutely spanks both Substack and Gumroad here, having just a 0.6% upcharge for its checkout function.)
Important:There are multiple tools that let you publish a newsletter online for free. Substack has the most mainstream optics at the moment because it has attracted media personalities.
However, Substack does have a simple interface that makes it easy to read posts. Your fans will be instantly notified whenever you publish something new, and they can opt out whenever they want.
Let's break down some of the pros and cons of Substack newsletters.
What’s Good About Substack
In a webinar for Harvard Business School, Substack CEO Chris Best said he wants Substack to “shift how we experience culture on the internet.”
Substack's value proposition is that you can build a media empire in minutes. Newsletter subscribers have long been considered the most valuable audience in media, despite all the buzz you hear about social.
Note:Email newsletter subscribers are considered the most valuable audience in marketing. Multiple studies have shown subscribers have higher purchase intent and engagement rates.
You can set up a custom domain Substack, pointing to a domain of your choice rather than substack.com. This can give your Substack blog a website-like feel, while still also growing a subscriber list.
Additionally, Substack has expanded its content offerings. You can now create a publication, which includes options for a podcast feed and Notes, a newer feed-like feature. Your publication name can be whatever you like, and a successful publication doesn't always have to be driven by newsletters alone.
Substack Notes is a new feature the company rolled out in April 2023.
Substack lets you escape the “social posts hamster wheel” that has become so common in online publishing. On Substack, writers can do creative work, publish their ideas on the web, and move on. You can put content behind a paywall and require readers to pay to read an article, or you can publish content free of charge.
Traditional media industry juggernauts like The New York Times and Vanity Fair risk disruption by Substack. Journalists want the ability to post to their community immediately, and many want to escape content farms.
Like YouTube videos, well-designed Instagrams, or entertaining TikTok accounts, quality Substack publications can help attract and gather like-minded groups of people.
The software company also has the Substack Defender program, a legal support program that helps with legal reviews and issuing cease-and-desist letters on behalf of a writer.
Substack's payment provider is Stripe, and the platform charges a 10% cut on subscription payments, which is how it makes money. Since most users are creating free newsletters, however, this puts Substack in a less-than-desirable position.
What’s Not so Good About Substack
Substack has some good things going for it, but it also has a lot of important features missing. Here are some of the reasons it may not be a fit for your blogging platform or content creation efforts.
No. 1: A Substack Newsletter Doesn't Replace the Need for Traffic
In marketing, you have what’s called a funnel. Users start at the top, and you slowly guide them toward the bottom, where they’ll hopefully take an action of some kind. We like funnels because they give us data on what is and is not resonating with readers.
For this feedback loop to work, though, you have to keep bringing users into the top of the funnel.
Reminder:Email is *not* a top-of-funnel strategy. It’s a middle-of-funnel strategy, something that works well when people already know who you are.
When you publish your content on Substack, your existing readers and paying subscribers will receive email notifications about it, and they’ll be delighted. But unless readers are stumbling upon your work while browsing in the app itself, it’ll be a challenge for them to find you.
Substack is working on improving this by adding discoverability features, but there’s already a lot of competition from other publications and journalists.
Everyone struggles with audience growth. For most creators and online entrepreneurs, traffic is the most challenging component of growing a list.
No. 2: Substack Doesn’t Let You Address Readers Personally
On Substack, you can ask for a subscriber’s email address, and… that’s it. No names, no preferences, no other information.
Creators don’t mind this at first. But as your audience grows, you want to know which readers are reading your work and which ones aren’t.
Hard to fly a plane when you don’t have much data to work with. ✈️
When you use an email service provider like ConvertKit or ActiveCampaign, you'll have options over what information you request from your email subscribers when they sign up.
I use ActiveCampaign, personally, and ask for first name and email address upon signup.
No. 3: Substack Doesn’t Allow for Conditional Content
When I send a newsletter, the same newsletter goes out to everyone, but different users sometimes see different things, depending on whether or not they are my client.
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:
In ActiveCampaign, a competing email service provider, you can show different content to different subscribers, all in one email.
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 or thousandth newsletter a subscriber has read from you.
No. 4: Substack Has No Automations
Substack lets you write and send content whenever you want. But what if you want to showcase old-yet-still-helpful content to new readers?
Email automations let you send different content to different subscribers at different times. There isn’t a way to do that on Substack. 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, I want you to have automations in the picture so that not everything always has to be a new post.
Example: The Dog Email
I once had a newsletter I sent that asked for advice about our dog. His name is Hefty, we had him for 3.5 years, and my company is named after him. The doggie daycare discovered that he has a very interesting talent: He can jump over a seven-foot fence.
Here's a GIF:
Our dog learned how to CrossFit his way over the daycare fence. Great.
This newsletter was engaging content, and 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 every Friday, for two years, new-ish readers on my list who’d never read this story before were sent this newsletter.
Screenshot of an automation in ActiveCampaign that sent this old email to new subscribers, as part of my "getting to know you" sequence.
Every Friday I would wake up to new replies. The advice I got was great — thundershirts, CBD treats, training tips, oh my! — and it was a nice way to create some levity and relatedness with readers.
Most importantly, once I set it up, it was done.
Many Creators Shy Away From Automation
Businesspeople, on the other hand, are desperately trying to pull back as much time as possible and generate more revenue along the way so their employees can be paid.
Business owners and stakeholders have urgency. 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.
Email automation lets you tell more stories to more readers with less effort.
No. 5: Substack Struggles to Manage Hate Speech
Substack has been called the “platform for the deplatformed,” and continues to grapple with its position on content moderation.
Back in 2018, Substack jumpstarted its presence by offering cash advances to several prominent thinkers, thought leaders, and journalists. The tech company brought in people who already had big audiences to demonstrate how the economics of paid newsletters would work.
Some of these personalities included Glenn Greenwald and Graham Linehan, prominent conservative voices who regularly publish anti-LGBTQ rhetoric. Substack’s founders say their content moderation policy is “no harassment.” But many creators feel this policy is not being enforced.
Email Newsletters Are More Private
Users can subscribe to newsletters without the world knowing about it (unless there was a one-off blip, like a database data leak). Substack is trying to hold true to its commitment to free speech, but what history has shown us with platforms like Parler is that, when speech is uncensored, it goes south fairly quickly.
No. 6: There’s No Reason to Stay on Substack Once Your List Is Built
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 pointed out, this enables creators to build on Substack for free, then migrate off the platform when it’s time to monetize, because you can download your users’ email addresses in a CSV file.
This puts you at a disadvantage if you’re Substack, yes? Substack is trying to get ahead of this by developing a feed and solving the top-of-funnel traffic problem we mentioned earlier.
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, you’ll want data from places like Google Analytics on your site and other in-depth data sources.
A new feature, Substack Notes, was released in April 2023. The feature is very similar to Twitter, and gives users a way to share short-form content, similar to Facebook and other social feeds.
Looks an awful lot like a social media feed to me. I thought Substackers hated social media? (c/o Substack)
Substack Notes will allow creators to recommend other newsletters and links, and have more curation options.
If I'm being honest, the feature appears to go against Substack's previous value proposition—I thought we were busting silos and *not* creating echo chambers and groupthink, right?—but I also acknowledge that Twitter's downfall has led to a remarkable market opportunity for the company to platform viral debates and further engage writers.
Alternatives to Substack Posts
For top-of-funnel efforts, I recommend you start writing and publishing free content on platforms like Medium instead. For your email service provider (ESP), many writers use ActiveCampaign or ConvertKit as a newsletter platform. Let’s go over the differences.
Substack vs. ConvertKit
I recommend ConvertKit to new writers and creators who are experimenting with email and want a sandbox, or something really simple.
- ConvertKit is free to start using for up to your first 300 subscribers, and has a checkout feature built into its interface at this tier.
- After 300 subscribers, you have to move to the “Creator” plan, which is $29 a month until you get to 1,000 subscribers, then continues to go up from there as your list grows.
- Most ESPs use this model, because the larger your list is, the more computing power is needed on their end to handle and manage the data.
ConvertKit also has landing pages, which are far more effective for growing email lists, because you can offer freebies called lead magnets. However, the free tier does not allow for integrations or automations. If you just want to fumble around in an email service provider, I recommend ConvertKit.
Substack vs. ActiveCampaign
ActiveCampaign is the gold standard for email, and it is what I have used since 2017. Several of my clients have migrated from ConvertKit to ActiveCampaign. The drawback is that you need to pay for it from day one (after your free trial ends).
ActiveCampaign lets you do more advanced tools.
- You can split-test the contents of an email to see what performs better.
- You can build your sales pipeline in ActiveCampaign.
- You can do layers of filtering in ActiveCampaign.
ConvertKit v. ActiveCampaign:I think of ActiveCampaign as being more of an enterprise solution, better for companies, and ConvertKit as being better for individuals.
Substack vs. Medium
If you want to get in front of new readers, I recommend you look into Medium instead.
Substack offers a built-in searchable interface, but I find it doesn’t have the publishing tools or SEO juice that Medium has. Medium’s readers are more willing to browse new writers, and prefer more in-depth content that is hard to find on social media.
Medium offers a way for writers’ work to make money via the Medium Partner Program, and the text editor is easy to use. If you want an alternative to social media to build your audience, here’s some related reading if you’re thinking about publishing on Medium.
- Writing on Medium in 2023: The Ultimate Guide
- How to Get Curated on Medium in 2023
- How to Get More Followers on Medium
- The Top 20 Active Medium Publications for 2023
Substack vs. LinkedIn Newsletter
LinkedIn newsletters are a fairly new feature on the platform. A LinkedIn newsletter can be a powerful tool, but your newsletter will be connected to your profile.
If you're looking to expand what you create for your subscribers, Substack has tools like podcasting and other features that give it the upper hand.
Substack vs. Patreon
Patreon allows you to create any kind of content modality you want and put it behind a paywall, whereas Substack is mostly limited to newsletters at this time.
One perk of Patreon is that it takes a lower cut of creator earnings. Patreon's fee on subscriptions is 6%, whereas Substack's cut is currently 10%.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is Substack Free to Use?
Yes. You can start publishing on Substack for free, and as a user you can read free editions of various newsletters. If you’re a writer, you won’t pay for Substack until you start charging for subscriptions, of which Substack takes a 10% cut.
How Is Substack Different From a Blog?
Substack doesn’t have the same SEO tools that blogs have, and your embed options are limited, especially when compared to a Wordpress or Squarespace site. However, Substack does have discussion threads on posts, allowing readers to interact with writers and with one another.
What Are the Best Substacks to Follow?
This depends on what you want to read about. Consider checking out popular newsletters on your favorite topics or poking around the new Substack Notes feature to discover new creators.
Is There Substack Fiction?
There's a Substack newsletter for nearly every topic. Adjust your search preferences to come across new authors and creators.
How Much Does Substack Cost?
Substack is free to start using. If you decide to offer paid subscriptions through the platform, Substack takes a 10% cut of these earnings.
Can I Make a Private Substack Publication?
You can make a publication on Substack that is hidden. But it’s important to keep in mind that this is the internet. A screenshot is only ever a click away. If you don’t want information you publish to be potentially shared, maybe don’t publish it in the first place.
What Can I Use Instead of Substack?
Medium is a viable alternative to Substack that gets you paid for your content and will help you grow your email list. For email service providers, ActiveCampaign and ConvertKit are your best options.
How Much do Substack Writers Make?
It’s hard to say, as earnings are private. The top Substack writers are purported to make millions of dollars a year as content creators, but these are also established creators who are writing a lot, and have large audiences.
How Does Substack Get Paid?
Substack makes money off of your paid subscriptions. They provide the tech and interface you need to run a paid newsletter. If you start selling subscriptions through the platform, Substack takes a 10% cut of this revenue, on top of the 2.9% processing fees you’ll encounter pretty much anywhere online.
Who Owns Substack?
Substack currently has 18 investors, including Andreessen Horowitz. The founders are Chris Best, Hamish McKenzie, and Jairaj Sethi.
Is Substack Worth It?
It’s easy to get caught up in the whirlwind of new tech tools like Substack newsletters.
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 in your writing, then pursue that setup with excitement and focus. ◆
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