For many brands businesses and media organizations, newsletter content is now the most stable means of maintaining readership and visibility, through a more direct connection between author and reader.
And Substack is an organisation taking the written word by storm. So, how does Substack work?
It is very much a fledgling organisation. It was founded in 2017 by Chris Best, the co-founder of messaging platform Kik, developer Jairaj Sethi and former PandoDaily reporter Hamish Mckenzie. Where Substack’s potential lies are in its ability to cater to this new way of thinking while offering its authors a chance to monetise their own words.
Before we go any further, it is best to offer a brief explanation of exactly what Substack is. The platform offers publication, payment, analytics, and design infrastructure. All this enables its member authors to deliver digital newsletters, direct to subscribers.
How does Substack work?
So, is Substack an e-newsletter platform? Well, yes… and no
The best way to think about Substack is as a Mailchimp x Patreon hybrid. Yes, it offers mailing software and template building capabilities. But it also has 1,000,000 subscribers as of November 2021, each paying subscription fees to access content from their preferred authors.
And when you look at the list of authors already on the site, it makes for remarkably interesting reading.
For as little as $5 per month, a user can subscribe to written work and podcasts from the likes of rockstar Jeff Tweedy; esteemed food writer, Emily Nunn; former NSA agent turned scandal-soaked whistleblower, Edward Snowden and even the most notorious man in British politics… Dominic Cummings.
Changing the traditional publishing route
The sway of Substack is now becoming so prevalent that ‘traditional’ authors are now turning down more traditional means of publishing, in favour of joining the channel. Both Salman Rushdie and Chuck Palahniuk have signed serial deals with the channel for the publication of their upcoming works.
As of February 2021, Substack’s top ten authors were making $20,000,000 collectively per year. Its seed capital is in the hundreds of millions, its growth figures constantly on the rise and all of this with only 5%-10% of its members being paid subscribers.
We really should note, at this point, that there are those in the media landscape who claim that Substack has become a space for the ‘de-platformed.’ The channel does indeed host the content of individuals with the proclivity to lean into the extremes of both the left and the right.
How Substack worse: its operational structure has also come under fire from global media outlets, which may just prove to be a retaliatory tactic in the long term.
We’re at a moment in time when media outlets are placing significant focus on the creation of their own proprietary newsletter channels. Many of the oldest print titles in the UK now have dedicated newsletter editorial teams.
This kind of reaction was also placed at the feet of Facebook when it started getting a little big for its boots in the early years. But now every media channel in the world has a Facebook presence…
So where next for Substack and could it be the next media unicorn?
Well, the appeal and opportunity for media organisations are both evident and palpable, and the future of the media landscape could very well be defined by a ‘Substack model’.
The multi-generational cross-section grows ever wearier with the older ways of consuming media. The continued growth of podcasts – Substack also offers Podcasting capabilities – combined with the faster, more personalised nature of news consumption, becomes increasingly the cultural norm.
Perhaps though the only thing that could stand in the way of the growth of Substack are the media giants themselves, Zuckerberg and Pichai. Because, according to an article from Vox, Substack does not have any contractual lock-ins that will stop its writers from bolting to competitors. And both Google and Facebook are hot on the heels of Substack.
The Substack alternatives
There are alternatives already in existence. Ghost labels itself as the independent alternative to Substack, claiming to be open-source, independent and funded 100% by its users. Right now, Ghost’s new business model appears to be luring current Substack users away from the channel, with the promise of brand control, greater API integration, greater customisation and zero commission.
What can marketing and PR learn from Substack?
There is a somewhat clear pathway for consumer-facing brands to adopt Substack into their activities, while also expanding into new revenue streams.
While it is difficult to say the same about the non-consumer side of the profession, this doesn’t mean B2B and trade marketers can’t learn from Substack. With Substack we have an audience of hundreds of thousands of people, literally paying to receive emails… so from a content perspective, they’re getting something right.
This isn’t to say you should rush off, start a Substack and try to charge your marketing database for the privilege, far from it. Because in the case of B2B marketing, having the scope to monetise your email offering is likely going to be a rare occasion.
Agency-side, the debate is a little different. Creating a paywall for your deepest darkest insight is what agencies do after all.
But marketeers can still take away some of the principles of Substack and use them to enrichen their entire content experience. We’ll say that again, people are PAYING, to receive emails.