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How to get noticed on Substack
There are 20 million active subscribers on Substack and 2 million paid members, but how do you find, attract, and retain them? Notice me Senpai!
I wrote an article a few weeks ago about building a world-class Substack publication. During that time I wrote a lot about audience growth on Substack Notes that resonated with people. This article expands on those concepts and is a great companion to that article, which doesn’t talk much about how to get noticed. If you are a paid member, then I recommend my articles on audience growth and using sections to provide value to build on these concepts.
If you are not a paid member, you can read everything with a 7-day free trial.
Subscriptions are probably the hardest business model, at least to get going, and a lot of the advice is basically “It’s really hard for a long time and then it all takes off at once”.
While you’re on the “really hard” part of the growth curve, it’s…really hard.
The only thing you want to know is “When will it start getting easier, bro”.
Unfortunately, the only advice somebody can give is “IDK, maybe never”, because nobody knows anything.
That’s not a cynical stance, either. I’ve worked in publishing for most of my adult life, and in creative fields since I graduated college.
The best we have come up with is:
When something is a hit, ride it hard and hope people don’t eventually lose interest and turn your hit into a money pit.
Make a lot of bets on many different projects and hope that one takes off.
I’m not kidding. One of those two is the business model of every creative business that exists.
Either they found a hit and are riding it, they are putting out a bunch of quality products and betting on the law of averages, or they are doing both.
When you’re building a subscription business, putting pennies in the bank, likesays, it’s really hard to do either of those things. You’re basically banking on one thing before it is a hit and hoping it takes off. The economics of creativity just don’t often work in your favor.
On top of that, there are celebrities, top-tier journalists, world-class reporters, editors from the biggest magazines on Earth, bestselling authors, and more.
How can you even get anyone to notice little ole you?
Well, I built a career without any of that stuff, and currently have a publication with 15,000+ subscribers, so there is hope, even if it doesn’t seem that way.
It’s tough. I won’t lie to you, but it’s also possible if you have the right tools.
First, the elephant in the room. Yes, I have an audience now. Yes, I’m a USA Today bestselling author. Yes, I’ve been a six-figure author since 2017.
That’s me now, but I built that all from being a nobody. When I started, I had a comic nobody wanted and a dream.
So, that I was able to do it maybe means something.
On top of that, I often feel inadequate looking at all the other amazing names on this platform. While I’ve done some things, I’m not the editor-in-chief of Elle, I’ve never interviewed Obama, and I’ve never sold out Madison Square Garden.
People ask all the time why my posts are so long, and I try to explain that while most people who reach my publication know they have a problem, they have no idea the scope or depth of what they are trying to solve, so I have to show them.
Writing programs don’t talk about business and most authors don’t seek out business teachers, so all they know when they come to me is that what they are doing isn’t working and that they want to become a successful author.
I take the time in my posts to say “Oh, you want to build an audience. Well, in order to do that we have to break down x, y, z and I have to teach you a, b, and c.”
But in reality, it’s probably because I feel inadequate and figure I can justify my existence if I just write enough it will prove that I deserve to be here. So, here I go again.
***This is a long post that will be truncated in emails. I highly recommend you go to this page to read the whole 10,000-word post without interruption.***
The secret to success in any field
While the two bullet points at the top of this article are true, we can break them down further into something more usable for our purposes.
Are you ready? Here's what it takes to have success in any field, or any platform, for any business.
Spend time building a community
Share your work with a ton of people in the right communities. Build friendships with people, not just surface-level platitudes. Help them grow and let them help you grow so you both get to the next level and improve together.
Make your work even better
Expand your reach into new communities and increase the impact in the communities you're already in. The deeper your connection with the people in your network is, the more they will want to go to bat for you. The goal, eventually, is to build your own community where you are the nexus point.
Share your new work with a ton of people. If it's better it will resonate more and you'll be able to gain more excitement for it. The more your work resonates, the easier it will spread through communities.
Repeat as many times as necessary, iterating along the way, making better work, building your network, and sharing your work until you break through to the next level.
This isn't a step-by-step system. Notice I didn't number anything. They are all things you need to be doing in tandem with each other all the time from the jump in perpetuity.
You can share your work by personally reaching out, joining groups, and forming collaborations, which is marketing...
...or you can do it through running ad campaigns, which is advertising, though I would probably hold off advertising until you have something that resonates with people deeply and has built a powerful network.
How you share your work might vary slightly between industries, but the underlying process is the same: make good work, network with people, grow your network, promote their work, make it easy for them to promote your work, find more people, and repeat.
Podcasts, courses, comics, movies, television, novels; literally everything I've ever done works on the exact same underlying process.
Conventions, Amazon, Kickstarter, Substack, your own website...anywhere you want to grow your business it's the same process.
If you aren't gaining traction, then make better stuff, change the market for your work, network more, or share your work more either through marketing or advertising.
How you make something great, what communities you join, who you bring into your network, and how you iterate are very personal, but they should be the foundational parts of any plan you make.
The (relatively) simple math of it all
According to Substack, there are 20 million monthly active subscribers, which means if even a fractional share could be part of your niche audience, let’s say it’s 1%, then that’s 200,000 potential readers on the platform who are somewhat gettable. Obviously, some niches will be smaller and others will be much larger than that, but let’s use 1% for this example.
It’s imminently easier to get a subscriber who is already on Substack to become a subscriber to your publication than to get somebody to join Substack for the first time. So, the main crux of this article will be about getting noticed on Substack by subscribers already on Substack. If you want to find out how to scale your publication outside of Substack, I recommend either this article or this one.
On top of monthly active subscribers, there are 2 million paying members on the platform. This means roughly 2/20th or 10% of active subscribers pay for one or more publications. Given that, if you could attract 2,000 of those already active subscribers, you would likely be able to turn roughly 200 of them into paid subscribers over time.
If you want to scale beyond that, you would need to do some simple algebra: 10X = Y, wherein X is the number of paid members you want and Y is the total number of free subscribers you need to attract.
If you want to be conservative, you can use a 5% conversion rate. Then, the formula would be 20X = Y, or the ultra-conservative 1% would be 100X=Y. If you aren’t at least getting a 1% conversion rate, you probably need to redesign your publication and tighten your message. The tighter your publication and stronger the voice, the more your conversion rate will increase.
That is still a huge task, but it feels doable. Now, we just have to get them to notice and resonate with you.
How do we do that? Let’s dig into it.
Your publication has to look as good as anything out there
The number one thing that every writer on Substack can do better is graphic design. So many publications look bad, especially in the cover imagery. Substack gives you free access to thousands of images and an AI image generator, so there is very little excuse for having less than top-tier graphics. I talk about this a ton in this post, but if you don’t want to read a 15,000-word article, this bundle fromis a good place to start.
The reason I got traction in publishing was because I cared about my books looking as good as anything the Big 5 publishers put out.
All books that succeed have a base layer of quality to them where people can say “Yup, that’s a book and it looks like it won’t fall apart on me. The author looks like they can complete a story.”
If you don’t have that, people won’t buy your book. Just because you have that doesn’t mean they will buy it, of course, but if you don’t have that they almost certainly won’t give you a chance to earn their attention.
Even if they will buy either way, your job as a creator who wants to grow is to remove as many points where people can say no as possible. Any time somebody is given the choice to turn away, they likely will. We call this friction.
In a nutshell, it’s anything that happens during the sales process that the buyer has to overcome in order to become a customer. Let’s say you’re on your way to Chik-Fil-A to pick up some of those addictive waffle fries. When you get there, the drive-thru line is around the block. Friction! The wait is too long, so you drive across the street and settle for Mickey D’s instead.
Friction—though probably of the non-fast-food variety—affects your prospective customers the same way. The greater the friction, the lower your conversion rate.
There are two types of friction: external friction, like the customer’s budget constraints, and internal friction, like the checkout process on your website. In this post, we’re addressing internal friction because those things are in your control.
The buyer already has to come a long way to become your customer. They have to justify the purchase, find the money in their budget, use their lunch break to log onto your website and shop, etc. These are things you can’t control.
So, you should be doing everything in your power to eliminate the friction you can control. That means optimizing everything that happens on your website during the point of sale.
It makes no sense to attract more visitors if you’re not converting the ones you’re already getting. It’s a waste of resource. First, fix your on-site conversion by addressing the friction points below. -Tami Brehse
I like to say books can be “objectively good” and “subjectively not your jam”. They are two different metrics. Same with Substack. If somebody can’t look at your publication and believe it is objectively good, then they will never stick around to decide if it is subjectively their jam.
Objective goodness is a metric that is the same across all books. Whether the cover is pleasing, if it reads well without a lot of errors, if the binding is sturdy, if it conforms to the format of a book, etc. We all know what a book should look like when we pick it up, and if a book doesn’t look like that, we are less inclined to try it out because it doesn’t mean the base level of professionalism we expect.
The same is true with publications. Think about it this way. Every beat writer has their own voice, but every newspaper has roughly the same metrics to measure objective goodness. I wrote an enormous 15,000-word piece about this a few weeks ago, and recommend you read it in full if you want to dive deeper into this topic.
That said, while I believe all my books reach an objective level of goodness, readers subjectively prefer some over others, and it usually vastly differs from my preferences. In fact, my best books usually never sell.
You need an ethos
An ethos is not what kinds of things you’re going to talk about inside your publication. It’s about what transformation you are giving the reader.
Every publication I pay for not only has great writing, but a unique style that delivers on the promise to the reader every time they post. They don’t do this the same way every time, but they know their reader, where they are, and where they want to take them. In fact, part of what makes them great is that they keep finding new ways to bring you into the conversation. If you have an ethos, then you can talk about just about anything. After you figure it out, take that ethos and build your messaging around it. To build one, I recommend.
Your ethos is the brand you are creating. I know lots of writers hear the word brand and run the other way. Many talk about how branding isn’t important because we each have a unique voice.
But by making that case against branding they are actually making the case for branding because that unique voice is your brand. The whole of a brand is a distillation of how the people who resonate with your message will find you. A brand is what speaks for you when you can’t speak for yourself, amplifying your message so it can be found by the people who need to hear it.
You already have a brand. It already exists inside of you, and the outward expression of that inner truth is what resonates with people.
I talk about this in How to Build Your Creative Career.
There are millions of flashy logos and interesting-looking websites floating around the internet, but they are almost always hollow and unmemorable. I want to love them, but they leave me asking the same two questions: “What are you trying to say here?” and “Who are you trying to say it to?”
These are the two basic questions you must ask when building a brand, and too often they are often skipped over in favor of a flashy logo that screams nothing into the void but “Look at me, I’m pretty!”
This is antithetical to a brand’s purpose. The purpose of a brand is to stand above the void and scream, “Look at me. I’m perfect for you!” It may be fun to have a cool logo, but flashy design doesn’t serve the purpose of building a brand identity.
The purpose of a brand is to speak for you when you aren’t there to speak for yourself. It’s a reflection of you in the eyes of your ideal customers. Its job is to provide a beacon for your audience in the endless, hyper-connected fog in which we live.
Look at a company like Apple. Steve Jobs couldn’t speak to every human being on the planet. He was a busy guy. Even if he could, he wouldn’t be able reach out again and again over the course of decades. He needed something that could repeatedly speak for him in the minds of the populace. Enter the Apple brand, possibly the greatest brand in the history of the world.
In Apple’s advertising, logo, and design aesthetic, Jobs had to convey exactly what people could expect from his products without saying a single word to them. He had to create a brand so powerful that his perfect audience would rise up from the endless void and hone in on his company.
This is what the right brand can do for your company. It can turn your audience building inside out and lead the right people to your door.
If you do it correctly, of course.
Generally, creatives go about building a brand too early in their company’s life cycle. I know it’s tough to hold off on branding since we have artistic energy brimming from every orifice, but a memorable brand isn’t about artistic talent.
It’s about the emotional connection with your audience.
Look at the “Life is Good” logo. There’s almost no artistic talent needed to draw that stick figure, and yet it resonated with people so deeply they were able to build a company that’s held up for decades.
Most creatives think a good company starts with a solid brand, but in reality the branding should be the last thing that comes about in the life cycle of a company. Until you have pinpointed your ideal customer avatar and have a complete product line aimed at them, it’s useless to think about creating a brand that could change drastically with every product launch.
To fully understand your brand, you must be able to say, “This is what my company stands for,” “this is who I build my products for,” and “this is what I’m trying to say.” This only comes with time, market research, and speaking extensively to your perfect customers.
For Wannabe Press, our history with Kickstarter made a green and yellow color scheme very appealing to me. Not only does the green stand out on marketing materials, but the coloring harkens back to our roots with grassroots fundraising.
We modeled our rebellious bee mascot off of Invader Zim, a children’s cartoon created by Jhonen Vasquez. He was a huge influence on me and an even bigger influence on my audience. Once we figured that out, it was a no brainer to use Invader Zim as the basis for our logo. We filled her with attitude, because that rebellious spirit embodied everything we knew about our ideal customers.
We didn’t start with our mascot, though. We only designed it after years of building our audience. It was borne out of seeing how people reacted to our products. It came from watching who bought our books again and again. It was a reflection of what we saw in the people who liked our products. We weren’t trying to stuff a mascot down our audience’s throats. We saw what they responded to and made something that spoke to them.
That’s the true secret to building a memorable brand. You build it as you go until it reflects your ideal client perfectly. They tell you exactly what they want, and then you mirror it back to them. Once you can do that, your brand will stick out like a beacon in the endless void.
The interesting thing about branding is that if you want to go slow and grow organically, the best thing you can do is spend a few hours solidifying your brand.
Because your brand speaks for you when you can’t speak for yourself. It magnifies your message to cut through the noise and find your people.
It’s something you can do one time that pays off for years.
I spent some time back in 2015 creating our mascot, Melissa the Wannabe, for Wannabe Press, and it has paid off for years.
People identify themselves with Melissa, and I know they are my people.
I have not had to think about my publishing company’s brand since 2015. Whenever I need something, I just pull that file and use it.
When I need a profile pic, I pull the pic I’m using now and just change the background color. It was made by the same artist who drew our mascot, so I know it’s in alignment with everything else I do.
It makes things so much easier because I know what fits in my brand and what doesn’t almost immediately. I have saved countless hours worrying about what I should do by having a solid brand.
Meanwhile, I’ve run tons of sales, tabled at a boatload of shows, and spent thousands of hours on the rest of my marketing, but my brand has not taken even an hour of my time since then and it has netted me countless new fans.
When I created this Substack, I spent a couple of hours finding a logo and putting everything together, and I’ve not had to think about it since launching The Author Stack.
My brand brings me new readers every day without me doing anything.
It’s a significant time investment upfront, but it’s the kind of work whose positive impact compounds over time.
If you want to go fast, you absolutely must get your brand right, but if you want to go slow, then the single best-leveraged thing you can do is get your brand right.
It is the foundation by which people will find you and decide whether they resonate with your work. Readers make decisions in a fraction of a second, and if you don’t catch them you might have lost them forever.
You don’t have to have a slick, hip brand, either.
I talked to somebody recently who was developing a cottage-core brand where people feel safe and warm just hanging out. The brand is what speaks to your ideal reader.
You absolutely do not have to do anything with your brand, or even think about marketing. I’m not trying to pressure you to feel like this is something you have to do.
However, if you are interested in finding more people who resonate deeply with what you do, then solidifying your brand is something you can do once that pays off forever.
Are they not stopping, not clicking, or not converting?
There are three big issues you need to deal with before you start getting noticed. Each of these points will make people turn away from your publication. Basically, you need to figure out if people are not stopping their scroll to check you out, if they are not clicking to read more once they stop, or if they are not converting into subscribers.
If they aren’t stopping, then you have a design problem. It means your imagery/text is not exciting enough to make the reader stop scrolling. This is the hardest part of the equation, honestly.
If they aren’t clicking, it means you have a messaging problem. Perhaps you have a great image, but the headline isn’t something your audience cares about, bores them, or something else in the messaging is preventing somebody from clicking.
If they aren’t converting, then it means you are targeting the wrong people, or your text isn’t crisp enough to get them excited. It could also be that you don’t have enough places to join your email list throughout your article. Also, don’t design every article for the same person, but the same kind of person. Everyone is going to find you at different places in their journey. You are technically the same person at every age but you are very different, too. So, is your reader.
Once you fix those problems, you will be able to reliably get people into your publication. It’s not really worth it to start scaling before you can fix these three problems. If you want to learn more about this, then read Help! My Facebook Ads Suck.
I know it’s not about Substack, but it will help you picture the design elements of a page that may be holding people back from diving into your publication.
Once you have a banger publication that looks great, then it’s really about being noticed.
Before this point, your efforts likely won’t bear much fruit. Now that you have the rest of your publication on fleek, you should start getting people you meet excited to join your community.
If you aren’t getting people excited, it means you haven’t fixed the other problems yet. The biggest mistake that people make is trying to network with the biggest names in their niche. While that does surprisingly well on Substack, the people who are going to be most invested in your career are people at your level who are trying to figure it out. They are the ones you should push the hardest because they will push you the hardest.
When they grow, you grow. All of you win when you win together. This is why when you see successful people, many of the people in their network knew them before they were successful, and they all seem to have become successful together.has a really good post on this where he talks about this and now is on a great path.
What is your niche?
If you don’t know your niche, that’s a problem. Knowing your niche is a huge part of getting noticed.
What is a writing niche?
In simple terms, a freelance writing niche is an area of specialization in which a writer wishes to concentrate. This can be a specific industry, a cluster of closely related industries, or a content format type. Niche writers build portfolios that showcase their specialized writing skills and work strictly with writing clients who need content in that particular niche. -Upwork
There are about a hundred ways to be a humor writer, a business writer, or a tech writer. The more focused you can be, the more the right readers will resonate with you. This is especially true when you find your voice.
In literature, the term “voice” refers to the rhetorical mixture of vocabulary, tone, point of view, and syntax that makes your phrases, sentences, and paragraphs flow in a particular manner. Novels can represent multiple voices: that of the narrator and those of individual characters. Here are some writing tips to help you find your own writing voice:
Determine your point of view. Before embarking on a new creative writing project, you should ask yourself: Why am I writing fiction (or non-fiction) in the first place? Is there a theme or opinion about the world that you’re aching to express in your own work? Is there something you observed in real life—or an experience you had with a best friend or loved one—that you want to commit to the page? Or are you simply interested in telling a good story while making the reader laugh along the way? People pursue the craft of writing for different reasons, and understanding your own intentions will help you develop a strong voice and your own style.
Pick a consistent voice for your narrators. Some authors are famous for first-person narration, while others narrate exclusively from the third-person point of view. (Consistent second-person narration is highly difficult to sustain throughout an entire piece of writing and is rarely ever used.) While plenty of famous fiction writers toggle between first-person and third-person narrative voice, you can help establish your own writing voice by picking one style and sticking to it.
Think about sentence structure and word choice. When narrating a novel, will you use grammatically perfect English? Or will you use regional phrases and colloquialisms? Will you curse? Will you drift in and out of your main character’s voice and inner monologues? Even something as elemental as using short or long sentences can completely change the tone and feel of the author’s voice. Adopting specific policies about word choice and sentence structure will further establish your own voice as an author.
Find a balance between description and dialogue. Some authors layer their novels with long passages of description—they describe actions and emotional responses through the narrator’s voice and use dialogue to reinforce the narration. By contrast, other authors let dialogue drive their narrative and only interject narration when dialogue simply will not suffice. Picking one of these styles and committing to it is yet another way to establish a specific and unique voice.
Write all the time. Finding your voice takes time. Experiment with different voices and writing styles. If you’re most comfortable writing romance novels, try your hand at thrillers. If you’re used to writing novels, try a short story. Take a writing course with other aspiring authors in order to hone your writing skills and expose yourself to different styles and examples of voice. If you’re experiencing writer’s block, give blogging or freewriting a try. Sometimes, letting your mind wander and writing for writing’s sake can be a powerful tool, allowing your mind to unearth an almost unconscious writing style. It often takes many years and thousands of pages for a writer’s true voice to emerge, so be patient with yourself. Good writing takes time, and developing a writer’s voice can take even longer. -Masterclass
Once you know your niche and your voice, then it’s about becoming a good steward of your niche’s ecosystem and finding out how you fit into it in a healthy way. Here are some questions to ask yourself when trying to become known in your particular niche.
Have you found all the publications in your niche?
Are you following and subscribing to them?
Are you communicating with them regularly?
Do you hang out with them on Notes?
Are you sharing their work and engaging in a positive manner?
Do you have a unique perspective that enhances the overall conversation?
I think of the Fictionistas who all banded together to build a fiction community on Substack, but even if there isn’t an official community, there are still people who create the neural network of your niche. Once you find one, they are probably recommending at least one other on their page. If you already have a banger publication and know how to fit into their ecosystem, then simple plugging into the existing ecosystem will start to amplify your work.
Here’s how that works in practice.
I built my name showing authors how to use Kickstarter to build their author business. I had been talking about direct sales for a long time but found a way to get noticed because I was successful on Kickstarter, and authors turned to me when they wanted to learn about the platform. This allowed me to grow my own brand because I found a way to fit inside the author services ecosystem in a unique way. The ecosystem already existed for years, but I didn’t grow significantly until I was able to carve out my little niche inside of it in a healthy way.is focused on Substack growth and we all know if we have questions about Substack, she’s a great resource. I constantly see her referenced. A long time ago a producer told me it’s better to be in the top 3 on a list of genre writers than being number 10 on five lists because nobody calls the tenth person.
Spread information in a healthy way for your ecosystem
If you’re familiar with our Author Ecosystems, then it should be no surprise that each ecosystem goes about spreading information differently.
A forest spreads information through their own community outward. Think about Brandon Sanderson’s Kickstarter. He just dropped it in his Reddit and they spread it for him to the tune of $41 million dollars.
A grassland, by contrast, studies the market and is interested in “owning a topic”, so that they become the hub of everything. They collect thought leaders and industry experts, and when they talk, it disseminates from the top down. They find ways to corner the market on a topic so the whole of the industry looks to them. It’s a much more top-down approach.
Meanwhile, a tundra looks for evergreen trends and builds excitement into a fever pitch building up to a release of something until the tension is so tight everyone is on edge.
You won’t find many deserts who speak up, because their strength lies in analysis and optimization. They are trying to take the temperature of where the market is now and find ways to ride the existing wave of interest. They are best on big platforms with lots of voices, so they can catch the biggest wave possible.
Aquatics, in contrast, expand into other formats to try to find new readers and plumb different areas. Instead of trying to collect people on one platform, they are going super wide with format and platforms and trying to fit themselves into every platform to gather people there.
Start being of service
What does it mean to be “of service”?
Lots of people talk about being of service to their community, but they miss one crucial point.
Being of service to something — a person, a group, a community, a cause or a belief — means that you’ve chosen to engage without expectation of reciprocation -Copyblogger
Those last four words are everything. “without expectation of reciprocation”. I see so many people seeking to serve in order to get more followers, make more money, or boost their egos.
Those people often wonder loudly why they don’t get anywhere…and it almost always flows back to those words.
You expect something.
That is not being of service to your community. It’s counterintuitive, but good things happen when you do things without expectations.
The easiest way to get results is to stop doing things expecting results and to simply do them to be of service. Share insights without expectation of anything in return.
I have a roundup every week filled with my favorite posts. Some of the writers I share like the post, others restack it, and still others comment, and I appreciate that, but 95% don’t do/say anything, and that’s fine.
I am doing it because I want people to read great Substacks and get more involved. I’m doing it to be a good steward of the ecosystem. It turns out that when you do that, good things happen.
Even though they don’t all engage, I have still met a ton of amazing creators because I shared their stuff with my audience so other people could find them. If you only find one awesome connection a week, then by the end of one year you’ll have over 50 awesome connections.
I’m very strategic to only share things I think my audience will love. I am very protective of my audience, but also want them to find things to love about a platform I love. When you help others win, you win.
Have you ever heard of the Goodwill Bank? It’s one of my favorite metaphors, especially when people feel icky about sharing their own work. I talked about it in How to Build Your Creative Career.
You are going to ask for a lot from your audience when launching a product. They will be bombarded by it on every social media channel imaginable; you will be disseminating information dozens of times a day on multiple outlets. God help the people who follow you on multiple channels. They’re the real heroes.
With so many updates about your product, it’s easy for people to become annoyed with you and tired of your product. They will want to unsubscribe from your newsletter and unfollow you on social media. By the time your launch is over, they won’t want to hear from you ever again.
The only way to combat this is to have a great relationship with your audience before you launch your product, because you will torch it once your launch begins.
That’s why you need to be making deposits into the goodwill bank far in advance of any product launch. This is the crux of the value first mentality. This is the business reason for why we have to provide information to our audience and grow their trust before we ask anything in return.
Because we will ask for something in return when we launch a product, and we will ask a lot. We will ask so much that any rational person will tune us out. But emotions aren’t rational. People allow those they like and trust to get away with irrational things, like pounding them with reasons to buy their product.
That’s why we need to build up massive goodwill before we even consider launching our product.
Think about your goodwill like it’s a bank. We’ll call it The First Bank of Goodwill. This bank works like any other bank, except that it runs on your goodwill instead of money.
When you do something nice for somebody, you make a deposit into this bank. Whether it’s writing a blog post, speaking on a panel, providing advice over coffee, or even just retweeting an interesting article, everything you do for your audience is a deposit in the goodwill bank.
By contrast, everything you ask of your audience is a withdrawal from the goodwill bank. Every time you ask somebody to buy your product, every time you pitch them something, and every single time you ask them to share your posts, you are withdrawing from your goodwill account.
If you have been depositing into the goodwill bank over and over again, you can make these withdrawals without overdrafting your account; however, if you haven’t been making these deposits, then you can’t afford to make an ask of your audience. Imagine trying to buy a $50,000 boat in cash when your checking account only has $3.27 in it. You just can’t do that.
The same is true with your goodwill.
If you keep withdrawing from the goodwill bank without making deposits, there will be nothing left in your account when you need it. Without enough goodwill, your product launch won’t be successful, because your audience has no reason to support you. If you keep making those deposits, then you will always have enough goodwill in your account to sustain your withdrawals.
This is where most people screw up when it comes to launching a product. They haven’t spent enough time making deposits into the goodwill bank to sustain their withdrawals, so their ask comes across as begging. It’s perceived as brash and creates an uncomfortable situation. Instead of people gladly buying the product, they either bristle at the thought of buying or only buy out of pity. This type of customer doesn’t stick around for the long haul.
This is why making deposits into the goodwill bank is such an important concept. If you do it correctly, you’ll always have a massive amount of goodwill available when it’s time to launch your product. With that goodwill built up, your audience will gladly buy from you instead of recoiling from your ask.
Just note, making deposits into the goodwill bank is a perpetual task you must perform throughout your career. You can’t just use it on your first launch and coast on the interest forever. Your goodwill account is like a checking account—it doesn’t build interest.
Luckily, goodwill is easy to deposit if you are a good person who wants to serve your audience. If you come from a place of service and value, then almost everything you do will make a deposit into the goodwill bank.
Basically, if you think of goodwill as currency, then you have to deposit more often than you withdraw or you will go into a deficit and overdraw.
If you do that too often, your audience will get mad and turn away.
But, if you keep depositing more often than you withdraw, then you can basically keep withdrawing as much as you want.
You just have to keep a positive balance.
Find ways outside of Substack to grow
Writers on Substack seem exclusively interested in how to grow through Substack network effects, but this is myopic thinking.
I get where it’s coming from. When you think about other social platforms, growth must happen exclusively on that platform.
Substack isn’t like that.
In fact, almost all my growth comes from off-platform actions. Looking for subscribers off platform contradicts what I said above, but the simple fact is there are billions more readers off Substack than on it, and bringing them into the Substack ecosystem is often a really good way to grow. However, you’ll have a much harder time converting those subscribers into paid members because they have not necessarily bought into the paid subscription model like people already using the platform.
My growth comes from many different avenues. Mainly, it comes from Bookfunnel promotions, from my Action Fantasy Book Club, from lead magnets with Writer MBA, and from conventions. Because you can upload an email list to Substack, you can grow elsewhere and import that list into your existing publication. It completely changes the dynamics when you start to look outside Substack’s internal network to help fuel your growth.
I wrote about it in this article, which goes into all the best places to invest your time and energy to grow an audience. The core of it is the Good Human Strategy that undergirds my whole life. If you can get it right, a whole lot of this other stuff falls into place.
Before I share where I think you should invest your time and money, I need to introduce you to the philosophy that undergirds my whole business. It's called The Good Human Strategy, and it is the basis for everything I do.
It's worked for me pretty well, but I will admit it takes much longer to work than the fear-based strategies so prevalent nowadays.
There is nothing more compelling than fear when it comes to selling things. However, I personally don't like selling on fear. It doesn't make me feel good, and while I might leave a lot of money on the table, I have no problem sleeping at night.
So, here is the strategy I use broken down into three steps.
Put good into the world with no expectation of return.
Do good work that is objectively of high quality, even if it is subjectively not somebody’s cup of tea.
Show your work to as many people as possible and collect the people who resonate with it like a dragon hoarding riches.
It sounds simple, but it’s taken me surprisingly far. There are tips, tricks, and hacks I will share to get the most out of this strategy, but this is the core of it all.
One of the most important things I ever learned while building my career was called The Attractive Character. It is the idea that if you become the kind of person your audience can't resist, then you will magnetize the right people to your message while repelling the wrong people.
This single concept changed a lot for me. In fact, it turned my marketing around completely. Instead of pushing my message out to everybody endlessly, I planted my flag into the ground and pulled the right people to me.
This idea is the basis for The Good Human Strategy.
In it, you start by putting good into the world and acting like a good human. Hopefully, you are already a good human, but even if you only act as a good human, you will find that you eventually become that kind of human. It is very important that you are at the very least helpful and kind because those are two qualities people respond to, especially if you are helpful and kind to them.
These qualities do not work as well as fear when it comes to building loyalty quickly, but it does create a better class of fan, who is loyal because they want to be loyal, instead of loyal because they fear not being near you.
The most important part of this whole process is that you put good into the world without expecting anything in return. What you do is your karma and the only thing you can control. What other people do is their karma, and that’s on them to handle. The world will beat you down in every way possible, but if you can find a way to still put good into the world even when everything is going against you, then you win in the end.
Once you are a good human, who puts out good into the world, for the right reasons, you must also make sure to do good work. This is the type of work that people respond to and like. If you just make garbage, then people won't like it, and this strategy falls apart. Everybody doesn't have to like your work, but your work needs to resonate deeply with at least some people.
After you make good work and do good things, then you plant yourself in as many places as possible where your ideal audience hangs out, like a magnet, and allow them to find you. Once you implement the first two parts of this strategy, the rest of your life becomes about planting yourself in as many places of the right places as possible, spreading your message to the right people, and waiting for them to find you.
Planting is a bit like playing music on a busy street corner. Most people walking past won't pay you any mind, but some of them will stop. If you're good enough, they'll turn around, and engage with you. If you are magnetic enough, you'll start to gather a nice little crowd for yourself before too long. Does everybody who plays on the street gather a crowd? No, because most people aren't good enough or magnetic enough to sway an audience.
It's the opposite of standing on that same street corner and running around begging people to listen to your cd. This happens a lot in Los Angeles. Every time you walk up a busy street, you see one singer or another stopping people at random and begging them to give them a minute of their time.
In that scenario, you are doing the chasing. You are tiring yourself out, engaging with the wrong people, and wasting a lot of time. On top of that, you're pissing a lot of people off who just want to go about their day.
It's the same crowd you're engaging with during both scenarios, but you're engaging in a much different way. In one scenario, you run around chasing them. In the other, they come to you. Same crowd, but with much different results. The problem becomes that when you plant, you better have something worthy of attention.
Another great way to plant is to say "Here is my Substack!" and let the right people find you. Unfortunately, it is hard to plant without an audience already, at least with your own group, because nobody knows you...yet. This is why you need to plant in other places first, but you can direct them back to where you are growing your own audience, like your Substack.
Sometimes, you have to plant several times in the same place, but you can never stop planting. This is the opposite of chasing after people. It is the opposite of hustle. You are choosing where to plant, and you know what resonates with your audience. Once you have that, the right people will magnetize to you instead of the other way around.
There are all sorts of marketing and sales strategies you need to understand in order to know where to plant, how to message yourself, and how to turn a casual observer into a lifelong fan, but The Good Human Strategy is simple and effective. Instead of chasing after people, become the person they need you to be, and then they will come to you.
Your career is an ecosystem. It does not exist on any one platform. It is a living breathing thing that changes all the time. It evolves, stalls, sputters, and veers off track. You have to guide it, just as if it were a child.
The thing people always get wrong is focusing on any one platform as the only source of their success.
Yes, it’s important to grow with intention, but no career is ever made on one platform. Instead, they all act like entry nodes, or spokes on a flywheel, that allow people to enter and exit.
The stronger the central hub of your flywheel is, the more your career will flourish. Yes, the spokes are important, but they are nothing without the hub.
The hub is you, your company, your series, or whatever you want to develop your brand around, but Substack, Kickstarter, Facebook, Tiktok, or whichever platform is hot right now, is just one spoke on the flywheel of your career.
The mistake people make is that they spend so much time reinforcing the spokes of the flywheel that the central hub crumbles into dust.
Kickstarter is a main spoke in my flywheel. Most people who come into my ecosystem monetize through Kickstarter.
It is not my only spoke, though…not by a long shot. It is also not my central hub. My central hub is about bringing people deeper into my orbit and then providing them with opportunities to spend money that makes sense to them.
The reason my career continues to thrive is that there are many spokes that combine to reinforce each other and, most importantly, the central hub. Additionally, it means if any one platform crumbles to dust, I can detach that spoke and continue to succeed without it.
Historically, no less than 25% of my newsletter growth has come from conventions. I went to San Diego Comic-Con a few weeks ago and came back with over 1,000 new subscribers for my publication. I’ve talked to several Substacks that grow from Facebook ads, Tiktok ads, Sparkloop, etc.
You have to expand your thinking if you’re going to have exponential growth. It probably won’t come from Substack alone.
However, if you have several ways to grow, then you can combine them together in powerful ways.
Don’t be afraid to cull
When you start to grow like this, you’ll attract a lot of casual readers that don’t really care about your work and fall off reading pretty quickly.
This is the only time I think it’s appropriate to cull your list to make sure your deliverability is high.
Email marketing is continually evolving as subscriber preferences shift toward more personalized experiences. On average, 99% of people check their email every day, and the average email open rate is 17.61%.
However, that doesn’t guarantee your email will make the cut. Several factors impact email deliverability, opens, clicks, and conversions. So, what’s the first step to keeping your email KPIs strong? A clean email list. Clean email lists (with a great email marketing strategy behind them) will keep your email engagement high and your unsubscribe and spam rates low. -Pamela Vaughn
If you’re not in a high growth trajectory, you probably don’t need to cull your list. I generally try to grow pretty quickly. As such, I recently cut almost 8,000 people from my email list.
I know you’re probably thinking “I don’t even have 8,000 emails” or “I would kiill for that many emails and you just threw them away”,
I have agonized about it for months, but there is a good reason.
In fact, according to Substack’s activity, they aren’t even one star. They are literally zero-star subscribers.
How did they even get on my list? Well, I added them from another mailing list that I keep in Flodesk.
I added over 25,000 people from Flodesk here and I told myself even if they read ONE email, then I would keep them.
They read ZERO.
I know people have strong feelings about cutting people from your list, but I could have a list of 150,000 right now…but what is the use of that if nobody opens?
I guess I could go to sponsors and use it as bait, or I could at least have over 100,000 subscribers when somebody clicks…but all of that is vanity.
You want people on your list that read your work. There is no real value in keeping people who never open, or who have never opened.
If you’re just building exclusively from the Substack Network, you can get away with never culling your list, but when you start integrating other things, that is when you’ll start to need to think about it.
If you’re curious, you can go to DASHBOARD>SETTINGS>SUBSCRIBERS and then these are the filters I used.
SUBSCRIPTION TYPE is COMP
SUBSCRIPTION SOURCE (FREE) is IMPORT
EMAIL OPENS (ALL-TIME) is less than or equal to 1
LINK CLICKS is less than or equal to 1
COMMENTS is less than or equal to 1
ACTIVITY is ZERO STARS
SUBSCRIPTION DATE is before 5/19/23
SUBSCRIPTION DATE is after 4/27/23
Those last two were the dates between which I uploaded and comped 25,000 people. They had to meet every one of those conditions for me to cull them.
Eight thousand is a lot of people, but I’m pretty excited that 17,000 of those people did engage. It was absolutely worth it to run this experiment if you have an external list and I will do it again. To date, my opens are still hovering around the same number as before I culled all those people, but my open rate has skyrocketed over 40%.
Host clear-out events
Since a membership is “always on” and people can join whenever they want, they often just…don’t. It’s not that they don’t want to, they just decide to do it later.
So, a clear-out event is something designed to get your subscribers excited to buy something now. It “clears out” your free subscribers and turns them into buyers.
These kinds of events can take a couple of forms:
A PBS-style pledge drive where people get bonuses for signing up during a limited time period.
A Kickstarter-type limited-time launch where subscribers are exposed to a new product and given a different way to support you.
Memberships are great, but most people just don’t buy them. When they do, they don’t buy many, which puts new creators at a severe disadvantage.
They can, however, be motivated to purchase something like a collection of your previous essay, merch, or something else, instead of committing to a membership.
In fact, people are often willing to pay way more than the cost of your membership, as long as they only have to pay one time.
Now, this is my inner tundra showing, and tundras are particularly cut out for doing these types of launches, but if you’re having trouble converting free subscribers to paid subscribers, it’s worth thinking about trying this strategy out. It’s a great way to turn attention to your publication for a focused period of time, too.
You probably have more supporters willing to give you money than you think, maybe just not on an ongoing basis.
For context, to date I have made a little over $3,000 in gross annualized revenue on Substack this year.
Meanwhile, during that time I have raised $58,264 on Kickstarter from roughly that same pool of subscribers. Last year, I raised $138,047 on Kickstarter.
Yes, I have a strong pool of backers on Kickstarter who already like the Kickstarter model, but that’s still almost 30x more in launches than in memberships this year.
I obviously believe in the long-term viability of the Substack business model, but it’s very hard to be on the “very hard” end of the exponential curve, and by planning a clear-out event, it gives you a different way to generate revenue and see where you really stand with your growth.
If you want to learn about Kickstarter, I co-wrote the definitive book on launching books on Kickstarter, Get Your Book Selling on Kickstarter.
80% of this work is just gathering the will to stick around another day and keep putting out great work. Yes, you get credit for consistency but not until you stick around for a while.
No, three months is not consistent. Maybe a year is consistent, but you have to keep going past that to really get credit for it.
Three years is definitely consistency, as long as you’re still putting out quality content. A hundred posts definitely shows consistency, as long as they’re good.
Most of the work we do as writers is just outlasting other people and continuing to put out good content. I am constantly shocked at how many people find my work just because I’ve been able to put out high-quality work for a long time.
I’ve had a weekly newsletter for almost a decade now and I can count on one hand how many weeks I’ve missed.
Do you know how many people have fallen down that started with me?
Almost all of them. So many people told me they just couldn’t keep the consistency. These are people with a bigger audience, who made a bigger splash, and who were doing great work.
This takes a while, and it’s not really fair to compare you starting on Substack with somebody who already has an audience because they put in the work. You’re doing the work now, but they did the work for years to get where they are today.
You didn’t see them do the work, but they walked a beat, built a network, grew a fanbase, developed a voice, and cultivated a niche.
That’s the work we all do.
If you’re not able to get traction even though you’re putting yourself out there, then you need to go back to the design of your publication. If you have a great publication, then you need to put yourself out there in a way that positions you as a healthy part of your ecosystem.
If you do all those things, then you should be getting traction. If you’re not, then it’s because you haven’t fixed the problem, even though you think you did. You need to go back and try again.
If you don’t know where to start, go to the Explore tab, look at the best publications in your category, follow them all, and subscribe to all of their recommendations. Then, they will all start showing up in your inbox and on Notes. Just keep doing that until you see patterns.
It’s a lot of data points, and it can get overwhelming, even for me. I think about this post a lot.
Whenever I get overwhelmed I just remember I’m looking at data, and I’m looking for wisdom. It’s my job to take that data, collate it into information, analyze it into knowledge, and then synthesize it into wisdom that serves you on your journey.
We are told to “scale” and “get your subscribers” basically at all costs, but after helping hundreds of authors build their businesses, I have found that the #1 cause of burnout is doing things that don’t serve you.
This could be writing-related (writing a genre you don’t like because it’s “hot”) or business-related (everyone told me I have to be on TikTok but I hate it).
It also comes from doing too much and taking on too much at any one time, but in general, it seems like burnout is primarily your body reacting viscerally to something your soul already knows…
You weren’t meant to do that work.
Once again this is not always the case. Plenty of times burnout is caused by doubling down on the things you love, but the kind of burnout that seems to last months is at least significantly caused by doing work your soul doesn’t want to do.
This is why we created the Author Ecosystems in the first place. We found there are five main types of author growth strategies and by and large, people burn out or don’t grow because they are doing the wrong ones for them.
People come to me mostly for growth strategies, but at the end of the day if you don’t have your mind right you will burn out before you succeed. In fact, succeeding at doing things that don’t resonate with you is the nightmare scenario for most authors, because then they are trapped by gilded handcuffs.
Most writers lack the foundational understanding of what lights them up, what kind of audience they want to serve, and how they want to engage with the world before they scale up and are then trapped in a life they hate.
Writing then becomes a burden and they are suffocated by the one thing that caused them joy.
So, the good news is that you can succeed by doing many different things. If Substack proves nothing else, it’s that you can build an audience writing about nearly anything.
I literally would never have thought reading about salads would be riveting, buthas me waiting on every post. Did I think I would spend time every week reading an interview with a different older person before Substack? No, but made it happen and I love it.
And there are lots of other success stories like this. If you expand out beyond Substack, I know literally thousands of authors, and the most successful ones all have very different businesses from each other, even in the same niche.
The number one most important thing you need to do is get your mind right. There are severa; things I tell everyone who asks for advice, and it has nothing to do with money.
You are going to suck at first and that’s just part of it. Sucking at something is the first step to being good at something.
Failure is part of it, too. Successful people have failed more than most people have even tried.
You deserve to take up space just for existing, and you deserve to exist. So many people think having an audience will “fix them”. Success will not fix the hole inside of you. You have to decouple your self-worth from your success as quickly as possible because it will not heal you. On top of that, the things you think are broken about you are the things that make you a hero. They are the things people will resonate with about your work.
Always optimize for enjoyment. I’ve left millions on the table because I just didn’t want to do that work.
Bet on people, not companies. Companies lay people off. They change. They morph. They become things you no longer recognize. The right people are better bets. Follow them wherever they go.
Choose a group you want to serve. Then, serve them long enough that they overcome the feeling that you will abandon them.
Find ways to add value, monetarily, emotionally, mentally, and physically. But don’t give so much of yourself that you can’t recover. People need you at your best, and that means rest is critical.
People want to support you. Let them. However they can, whenever they can. You don’t have to do it alone.
Yes, getting your money right is important, but you don’t have to monetize if you aren’t ready. You can keep working as a hobby forever. Writing wasn’t even a viable profession until after WW2, and it’s only been the last decade or so that we have had a writing class, especially one that can sustain itself outside of New York and Los Angeles.
It’s okay to do this stuff for the fun of it, but even if you want to make money you should still do this stuff for the fun of it.
There are thousands of ways you can make yourself miserable doing this work. So much of running a successful business is set up to drain your energy. If you’re going to take this journey, the writing shouldn't be one of them.
If I wanted to be miserable, I would just get a job.
Hope to see you next Wednesday, August 30th at 12pm PT/3pm ET/8 pm BST, for our The 5 Biggest Publishing Opportunities You're Missing Right Now webinar.
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