2 years ago, I started a newsletter on Mailchimp called Tech Bound and built it out to +3,000 subscribers. 3 months ago, I decided to migrate to Substack. One week ago, I went from Substack to publishing on my own site. In this post, I explain why, what my current stack looks like, and a larger trend that has been in full swing for 2 years.
The democratization of monetized information
Substack sits on top of a trend that's very dear to me: the democratization of monetized information. In simple terms, writers can earn money by sharing valuable information without the dependency on a publisher or newspaper. That's not just better for creators but also for consumers because they can have a direct relationship with each other. There's no middle man to add friction or cost.
The unbundling of newspapers by the internet left a vacuum that individual writers slowly started to fill. Then came the shift of corporate communication from Email to Slack or, better said, from asynchronous communication to real-time. That blew the vacuum up even more. We get less business email now but everybody still has an email account.
The second-order effect of unbundled newspapers, "unleashed" content creators, Google's rise as #1 source of traffic, and the maturity of online platforms, is an overwhelming flood of content that has been pumped into the Internet for over 10 years now. No one can keep up with that.
Feed readers used to be one way but when Google killed Feeder, many jumped ship and went to social networks for information. I still used Feedly and it's great but I'm one of a few that saw the power of RSS, which is now coming back in the shape of podcasts. Anyway, people went and still go to social networks for information.
Social networks are just as overcrowded with information right now. The difference is that social networks lean much heavier on tastemakers, influencers, and thought leaders. We can't comprehend the flood of information out there, so we consume what people we look up to recommend. There are tools like Nuzzle (which I also use) to help you curate the curators but even that can become stressful because social is so fast-paced.
So, the next iteration is a more contained form of information from experts: paid newsletters. Ben Thompson's Stratechery is the best example and if you read my stuff, you know I admire him and what he's built. But there are many others in all different kinds of verticals, from sports to outdoors. What you're reading right now is another example.
So, that was a long and windy way to explain what's happening here but it's important to set the stage for the right stack. It's more than just "hot new toys" or a vanity thing. The right stack has a big impact on the work.
Pros and Cons of Substack
Let me start by expressing my excitement about Substack. I think they're on to something and I really want them to succeed.
Here's how I seem them for my situation
- Simple setup: the simplicity of Substack is what really enables writers to focus on their craft
- Podcasts: you can publish paid of free podcasts
- Advertising analytics: you can monitor ad or organic performance with tracking pixels! This is actually pretty exciting because you can measure the SEO performance of your publication in Google Search Console. Way more than Medium allows you.
- Stripe payments: easy payment collection
- Comments: readers can comment on articles and you can even create threads
- No room for customization
- No custom domain
- You can't really export content
- Cannibalization (Medium offers an import function with a default canonical tag back at the source)
- No list tags or segmentation
- Crucial features like tables or working list indents are not there
The community features and simplicity of Substack are great. If you want a simple publishing solution for paid newsletters, Substack is your platform. However, it doesn't provide me with what I need right now and doesn't seem to go into the direction for my needs.
Pros and Cons of publishing on your own site
- Ownership: You own the content and the platform (forever)
- Control: full control over design, URL structure, etc.
- Cost: lower cost (depends on your stack)
- Customizability: have things your way or change them if you want
- Transportability: For open-source, you can move your data and content wherever you want
- More work: You need to set up a stack like Memberful + Convertkit (not as easy)
Substack is by far a better platform than Medium for content creators. But you still don’t fully “own” your content. Substack is a platform, not an aggregator, but not open-source. You can’t export your content and take it somewhere else. You can export your email list but Substack stores no information other than the email address, which is painful when migrating.
Wordpress is open-source. Whatever happens to Wordpress in the future, I can grab my content and run to another platform. That reason is not important when all you want to do is publish content and ask for a bit of money. But if you want to take it to the next level, customize the experience, and provide tools and other benefits for paying subscribers, your own site is a better option.
A while ago, I wrote about the issues for startups and when publishing on Medium. Instead, I suggest to cross-post with Medium's import function to save the SEO benefits but still leverage their community. I don't think you can compare Medium and Substack one to one but the issue of ownership is still there.
A good food analogy (like so many other food analogies I use on my side - says a lot about me):
- take-out meals = Substack/Medium
- cooking at home = your own site
My current paid newsletter stack
I would have gone back to Mailchimp but the RSS format is so poor and clunky that I decided to switch. I feel like Mailchimp hasn't really innovated in the recent years and new providers are cheaper and provide better functionality.
Publishing here three times a week gets me my cake and lets me eat it, too: I've been wanting to publish more frequently for a while, now I have to. I wanted to push my own platform, now I can. I wanted to charge for some of my information but not all of it, now I do. And I'm not alone.
The newsletter renaissance
I'm bullish on Email as a channel for the future. Not in the way that is has been approached in the past, as a dumpster for offers and notifications, but as a content and communication channel.
This is not new, it has been brewing for a couple of years. Parse.ly found that New York Times newsletter subscribers consume twice as much content, spend 80% more time on sites, and can make up a big chunk of direct traffic if approached right (source).
Patron saw 100% growth from 2017 to 2018 and Substack +40% over the first months of 2019 (source). Some creators make a couple hundred thousands of dollars per month. That, of course, is the top of the line. Most creators are probably closer to hundreds of dollars. But it provides a new content format apart from ebooks or courses. $5/month for an email is a smaller commitment than a $100 course.
Quartz got over 750,000 subscribers with just 5 newsletters (source). Many people get their actual news from emails like thehustle, theskimm, or Robinhood Snacks. These businesses have either been acquired for millions of dollars or are making millions of dollars. This is no accident.
As organic channels like SEO and social are getting more competitive and crowded, email provides an environment you can control.
Users don't trust companies anymore (source), but Email provides a low-risk way to nurture leads and build trust without human contact. An Adobe survey from 2017 found that people still want to receive emails from businesses - jut not with promotions but information (source).
All of that makes me believe that we're going to see way more paid newsletters over the next years.