Internet marketing

  • The subscription-newsletter platform Substack creates a stable revenue model for writers by allowing them to put their content behind a paywall in exchange for a small cut.
  • To convince readers to pay for their writing, Substack creators need to create unique material that is substantially different from anything else on the internet.
  • Substack cofounder Hamish McKenzie spoke with Business Insider about what makes a newsletter compelling enough to convince readers to subscribe.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Substack, the subscription-newsletter platform founded by Hamish McKenzie, Chris Best, and Jairaj Sethi, has become so ubiquitous in recent months that it seems like every journalist has one.

When the conservative New York magazine pundit Andrew Sullivan left the publication, he announced he would be continuing his column on Substack. The recently chastened food-media maven Alison Roman launched (or rather, resumed) her Substack after her fall from #CookingGoals grace, and the former Rolling Stone provocateur Matt Taibbi recently confirmed that his writing, for the time being, would be almost exclusively for his Substack.

Indeed, the newsletter platform has benefited from the alignment of two phenomena critical to the success of any startup: an elegant product and good timing.

The Substack interface makes creating and monetizing newsletters simple, and the platform’s accessibility has been instrumental in its rapid adoption. At the same time, Substack’s subscription-based business model has flourished partly because the digital-advertising industry has cratered.

As a result, cofounder Hamish McKenzie said Substack has “thousands” of newsletters running on the platform and more than 100,000 paying subscribers.

It is premature to call the newsletter space “saturated” because email has massive breadth, and Substack caters to only a tiny fraction of it. But that tiny fraction is becoming hotly contested.

So how do you create a newsletter that stands out? Business Insider spoke with McKenzie to find out what makes writing worth paying for and what newsletter creators should keep in mind when launching their publication.

Internet marketing Treat it like a publication, not a marketing tool

The term “newsletter” still carries the connotations of an earlier era, when email blasts were either marketing tools or diaristic missives. Thanks to the monetization tools available through Substack though, McKenzie encourages writers to think of themselves as tiny publications, rather than simply a sender of emails.

“We use the term newsletters because it’s a useful shorthand for explaining and understanding what Substack is, but realistically it’s more like a publication,” McKenzie said.

Of course, no aspiring Substack writer should get too tangled in the considerations of brand building early on; you don’t need to have everything figured out before launching a newsletter.

But thinking of yourself as a tiny publisher can be a helpful frame of reference. Like any other brand on the internet, it would behoove you to put some consideration into your subject matter, tone, writing style, and voice. Your newsletter might be a guppy, but it will still benefit from a clear identity.

Internet marketing Find a niche within a niche

Because it relies on subscriptions rather than advertising, Substack allows writers to cover any topic they want, no matter how niche, and monetize their content. In an advertising-based model, writers have to consider whether or not their subject matter has popular appeal because advertising requires a large audience to be lucrative.

That’s not so with subscriptions. Substack has taken the famous “1,000 true fans” koan and concentrated it. Now you need only 100 paying subscribers to finance your writing full time.

“What makes a publication special is something that very specifically serves a need that is not being well-served elsewhere,” McKenzie said. “That could mean writing about corporate accountability through a political lens or a briefing sheet about the most important news of the day affecting China.”

Substack rewards depth, rather than breadth, so carve out a tiny slice of subject matter, go deep on it, and connect with people who care about your writing.

Internet marketing Use your voice

Unlike traditional publications, most Substacks are written by single authors, which means that your voice is also the newsletter’s voice. 

Alongside subject matter and writing style, a publication’s voice is one of its most acute calling cards. In fact, if you write about a widely covered subject matter but do so with a distinct voice, that alone could differentiate you enough to stand out.

“People can relate to a person as much as they do the ideas within the publication,” McKenzie said.

Internet marketing Your unique worldview is your strength

Substack puts the emphasis on the writer: their voice, their background, their experience, their opinions. So similar to how a distinct voice can set your newsletter apart from others, a unique worldview can separate your writing from everything else on the internet.

If you have a background that is rare in mainstream media, Substack turns that into an advantage. The more singular your perspective, the more valuable it is.

“If someone has a unique worldview or quality of thought, that is what makes a newsletter compelling,” McKenzie said.

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