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Why I Moved My Writing To Substack
I am excited to continue to build a home for my writing that benefits both myself and my readers, creating a model that provides value and sustainability for everyone.
Recently, I made the decision to move the substantial majority of my writing to Substack. This includes my popular Friday Forward newsletter, which has over 100,000 direct subscribers in sixty countries, after eight years of sending it through the same email partner.
This was a big change and not a decision I made lightly. I think many of the reasons for making the move are worth exploring, as they may provide valuable insights and considerations for other writers and creators.
Above all else, there were three main reasons I made this change—and it’s for these reasons that a month after the move, I feel I made the right choice.
I Want To Know My Audience
Like many other creators, I grew tired of building my writing brand on platforms where I don’t have any data, or even direct control over what is actually delivered to my followers. Anyone who has built an audience by sharing their work on social media sites such as Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn knows the unsettling feeling of not having true access to their own audience. It can often feel like standing in front of a huge crowd, but having someone else control the volume of the microphone you use to communicate with them.
Obviously, there’s an inherent attractiveness to building your audience via a large platform such as a social media site or online publication. Having immediate access to a massive audience of people who are already members–where there is no upfront investment or technical expertise required–is a great way to build your following and get exposure for your work. That’s why those platforms are so popular in the first place.
But once your audience grows to a certain size, the problem becomes apparent. You quickly realize your followers, friends or connections aren’t really yours, and how you communicate and interact with them is often out of your control. This also makes it very hard to build and manage a community.
For example, I have a newsletter on LinkedIn with over 300,000 subscribers that I built from scratch. Even though I wrote one of the most heavily subscribed newsletters on the whole platform for many years and published articles responsible for tens of millions of impressions, LinkedIn’s newsletter functionality feels like a black box. The subscriber data is opaque other than basic numbers, the ability to segment the audience is non-existent, and I had no idea how many of my 300,000 subscribers my content was actually reaching each week. This latter point is very helpful if you want to understand whether something you wrote wasn’t well received or it simply wasn’t received at all; it’s an important distinction. The newsletter feature has barely added any functional improvements in the three years since launching.
This is one of the main pain-points all creators experience at some point with large social platforms. Eventually, you either find yourself at the whim of algorithm changes you don’t understand, unable to control or measure the reach of your own work, or—as many have experienced lately with Twitter—having to pony up to get your content in front of your own supporters as organic reach is throttled. This last trend in particular is when it becomes very clear that the audience you have worked so hard to build is not really yours. You are a renter, not a homeowner.
Unfortunately, social media platforms aren’t the only groups that disserving writers lately. I have faced similar challenges as an unpaid contributor for publications such as Inc, Forbes, Entrepreneur and others. The value proposition of this relationship seems clear at first: in exchange for free articles, publications give authors exposure and credibility for their work.
I wrote for many of these sites for years, providing hundreds of exclusive articles. But, to my disappointment, most of these sites have moved my articles, as well as those written by contributors like me, behind paywalls and logins. At the same time, they’ve interrupted the content with intrusive video ads that make for a terrible user experience. As a result, I can’t imagine there is enough reach to make a compelling value proposition for contributing authors anymore.
I want my writing in a format that is easy to read, comment on and share across both desktop and mobile. I also want those who enjoy my writing to be able to subscribe, join my community and connect with me directly. That’s why I am taking all that content back; I’m updating the best articles that I created for these publications and providing them to my paid community, ad-free, on Substack.
Going forward, I will be doing only very limited unpaid writing for other platforms. The payoff just isn’t there anymore, and I’d rather share my work where I know it will be seen and where I can build an audience that I really own.
I’d Like To Make A Living As A Writer
For seven years, I have provided weekly value to hundreds of thousands of loyal readers worldwide via my free newsletter. Many share the messages with their teams each week and have gotten a ton of business value and takeaways. I love writing Friday Forward, but it was surprisingly expensive; the email platform I used was costing me about $10,000 a year just to send a free newsletter. That did not include the costs of my editor and the hundreds of hours I spend creating this content each year. Once I left my full-time role as a CEO and writing became more central to my career, it made sense to seek out a more sustainable model.
On top of that, I felt strongly that, after nearly a decade spent delivering free content to audiences globally and honing my craft, I’d earned the right to ask for some support in return, especially from my most loyal readers. I decided to take a leap of faith and ask my audience to pay a little bit to support it. In return, I added a bunch of additional benefits for paid subscribers.
What’s striking to me is how unnatural it feels for people to pay for writing or content they read regularly and get value from, especially in a business context. We've grown so accustomed to the ad-supported economy that it has created a peculiar dichotomy in our perception of what should be free and what we ought to pay for. This trend is certainly real, but it defies logical reasoning.
Paying for a $17 martini or a $8 Starbucks latte we drink in 10 minutes feels normal. At the same time, paying less than that each month for an app or website we use every day feels like heresy. It feels foreign to pay for anything we’re accustomed to getting for free —even if the real cost has been handing our privacy to advertising companies.
This ad-supported model is particularly marginalizing for writers, who almost never get a share of big platforms’ ad revenue. For example, my LinkedIn articles and posts on Inc and Forbes have generated tens of millions of impressions for advertisers, but I’ve never seen a penny of that revenue. In the video world, sites like YouTube and TikTok have been pressured to share this ad revenue with the content creators, allowing them to make a living on their craft. Not so with writing.
This made Substack, which makes it easy for writers to monetize their work, feel like an obvious destination. I will admit, initially I had not planned to use the monetization features, but after doing a lot of reading and looking at the different models and case studies provided by the Substack team, I decided to give it a go and picked the right model for me.
It feels really good to finally get compensated for the value my writing puts into the world and to be able to create a new level of product for a community that values my work. Adding a paid tier also creates accountability for me as a writer to deliver, which is a challenge I think will help me continue to grow.
Substack Is Designed For Writers
For years, I sent Friday Forward through a newsletter platform that was designed for marketers, not for writers. Because platforms like this one are used by companies or entrepreneurs who use email marketing and newsletters for customer acquisition, the cost can be very heavy for people who just send an occasional newsletter to a large audience.
Substack has a much more reasonable cost structure, and the costs are tied not to the size of your list, but rather to the revenue you generate on the platform. Their focus on the free-to-paid conversion features that help nudge frequent users into upgrading have already helped me quickly grow my paid readership into the hundreds.
The platform also automatically creates an online destination for my archive, in addition to emailing my newsletters and articles. Rather than having to create and maintain and separate site to host my Friday Forward archive—something I did for nearly 400 posts over the years—Substack creates a searchable archive with SEO optimization capabilities, social sharing, custom branding and other writer-friendly features.
Unlike social media and contributed publications, I also have a comprehensive view of my subscriber data. I can see trends, open rates, sharing information, who makes the most referrals, and more. I no longer have to wonder who is seeing my work, who my biggest supporters are or what is resonating most—I have all the data to know definitively.
Substack takes pride in the network effect which helps authors grow their subscriber bases. This platform has managed to bring together like minded authors who champion each other's work, coupled with an audience that exhibits a strong propensity to pay for quality writing. This was one of the features I had heard about the most; many writers who moved to Substack or back after a hiatus have shared graphs of how their newsletters grew on the platform and how they benefited from the halo effect. I can also see which publications I have the most mutual subscribers with and where I have the most outbound and inbound referrals from other Substacks, which facilitates the creation of mutually-beneficial partnerships.
I’m pretty picky about tech platforms, but Substack’s features have so far exceeded my expectations. It’s easy to use, and when I inevitably find ways to improve the site, the team has proven to be great at taking suggestions.
We’re currently in a choppy moment for the creator economy. It’s never felt easier to get your work in front of people, but at the same time it’s also never been harder to maintain and leverage an owned and operated audience.
One month in, I’ve found Substack to be a happy aberration in this environment. Transitioning to Substack was a step in the right direction for me. I’ve moved away from an opaque relationship with followers, and the inscrutable algorithms that constantly kept me guessing. I’ve also shifted away from the paywalls and disruptive advertising that both restricted and devalued my work
I am excited to continue to use the platform to build a home for my writing that benefits both myself and my readers, creating a model that provides value and sustainability for everyone.
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