Your own personal media empire might be closer than you think.
Substack is a San Francisco-based tech company founded in 2017. Substack offers email technology on a simple interface as a free service to help users start a newsletter quickly. You can grow a free newsletter, or use the platform to introduce subscription fees or other subscription model for premium content.
The platform is wildly popular, but it does have its drawbacks. If you're serious about building an audience online, Substack lacks advanced features like automated campaigns and customizable landing pages, and a different platform might be a better fit for your goals.
- In the age of ChatGPT and other writing AIs, personal writing will become more valuable than ever.
- However, seasoned newsletter writers know that the money on Substack isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
- For some content creators, Substack is not the right pick. For others, it'll fit like a glove.
Let’s go over how Substack stacks up against other email service providers (ESPs).
What Substack Has Done for Email
For many people, Substack has turned them on to the idea that publishing content via email is cool again—even though email marketing is well over 20 years old. From that perspective, I'm grateful for Substack. The platform proposes that pared-down design and writing skills can give thought leaders a way to bring new subscription revenue to life.
The success stories are compelling:
➡️ Boston College professor and historian 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.
➡️ 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. 🙈)
I’ll be honest, though: I don’t love Substack. It has important features missing that other ESPs have. If you want to create exclusive content and collect paid subscriptions along the way, know that there are many user-friendly newsletter platform options for marketing automation.
Important:There are multiple other tools that let you publish a newsletter online for free. Substack just has the most mainstream optics at the moment.
Let's break down some 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 claims 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.
Important: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 also set up a custom domain Substack, pointing a domain of your choice to your home page, to give your own Substack a website-like feel, while still also growing a subscriber list.
Substack lets you escape the “social posts hamster wheel” that has become so common in online publishing. On Substack, writers can do creative work, hit publish, and move on. New writers can put content behind a paywall if they want to in order to bring in more money, or you can publish content free of charge.
The traditional media industry has been somewhat disrupted by Substack, but things were already headed in this direction. Traditional media has been on shaky ground ever since the rise of social media, which allowed anyone to publish anything they want online.
Like YouTube videos, well-designed Instagrams, or entertaining TikTok accounts, Substack newsletters can help attract and gather like-minded groups of people.
Related: How to Pitch the Media in 2023: 72 Outlet How-Tos
Substack charges a 10% cut on subscription payments, which is how it makes revenue. Since most users are creating free newsletters, however, Substack won’t be able to sustain itself on paying subscribers alone.
My prediction is that the company will introduce some form of in-newsletter display ads or SMS marketing features in the future to help Substack users monetize.
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: Substack Has (Almost) No Built-In Traffic
I need everyone to get this!
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. You funnel their attention.
For this to work, you have to keep bringing users into the top of the funnel. Top of funnel is sometimes abbreviated as ToFu. Middle of funnel gets abbreviated as MoFu, and bottom of funnel is BoFu.
Having an email list is not a ToFu strategy. It’s a middle-of-funnel strategy, something that works well when people already know who you are. If all you do is write an email newsletter, the only way for it to grow is referral, which can be tough.
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.
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. 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.
No. 2: Substack Won’t Let You Address Readers Personally
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. For most of us, first name and email are sufficient. But you could also ask for details like phone number or zip code.
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.
No. 3: Substack Doesn’t Allow for Conditional Content
I send an email newsletter twice a week. The same newsletter goes out to everyone, but different users see different things, depending on whether or not they are my client.
Sometimes, I use part of my newsletter to promote Camp Wordsmith™, my free business and writing portal. However, I don't want current Camp Wordsmith™ clients to see this. And I don't want to keep begging readers to register for a webinar if they're already registered. The communication would be too general.
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 someone has ever received or the 100th newsletter they've 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: My automated 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. This is sometimes called a crock pot sequence.
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.
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.
Alternatives to Substack
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.
➡️ Learn more about ConvertKit here.
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. I think of ActiveCampaign as being more of an enterprise solution, better for companies, and ConvertKit as being better for individuals.
➡️ Learn more about ActiveCampaign here.
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, 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
Still Want to Run a Paid Newsletter? Use PayPal and Zapier
Here's how to start running a paid newsletter now, without Substack.
Take subscription payments on PayPal instead, then link your PayPal account to your email service provider using Zapier, an automation tool. This will let you work around the 10% cut on paid Substack newsletters. For a paid newsletter or any other monthly recurring payment structure, here's a really simple approach.
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. One you have a business account, you’ll set up a subscription button — a tutorial for this is right here, and a tutorial for creating a unique link for your subscription checkout is here.
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.
Next, you'll want to connect your PayPal account to our email service provider using Zapier. 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.
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.
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.
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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