Substack creators are making 6 figures off newsletters. Here's how they built their audiences from scratch.
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The platform Substack makes it easy to create newsletters for free and charges a 10% service fee if creators start to make money off their product. Building a sizable audience from scratch can be challenging because newsletters are inherently difficult to discover. Business Insider spoke with a variety of subscription-supported, ad-supported, and free Substack publications to discover how top-tier creators built out and monetized their audiences. Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.
Newsletters are having a moment. The platform Substack, in particular, has gained traction among newsletter creators by dramatically simplifying the user experience. The platform is also free to get started. It encourages creators to monetize their newsletter only when they feel comfortable doing so, at which point Substack charges a 10% service fee on their revenue. In the first three months of the pandemic, overall usage of the platform doubled and revenue increased 60%. Readers have found themselves with more time to spare, and a wave of newly unemployed writers, victims of COVID's evisceration of the media industry, have found a financial side-hustle in the outlet. Substack also circumvents many of the problems that plague internet entrepreneurs. Where digital advertising returns only pennies on the dollar, Substack provides a reliable income source in its subscription model. And instead of grappling with SEO minutiae and the black-box algorithms that website copy relies on, newsletters go straight into the inboxes of opted-in readers — that is, if you can find those readers in the first place. One of the platform's primary challenges remains how to build up an audience sizable enough to monetize. While internet surfers might stumble upon a new website through search, they are less likely to happen upon an unfamiliar newsletter. Despite this built-in hurdle, a number of Substack creators have turned their email operations into lucrative side hustles, and some have even been able to make newsletter writing their full-time job. Business Insider spoke with a handful of the most successful Substackers to find out how they built an audience and turned their readership into a source of sustainable revenue. 1. Have a consistent cadence Releasing content on a consistent schedule helps build habit, and habit breeds familiarity. If readers come to anticipate your newsletter in their inbox on a given day of the week, it means you have worked your product into their front-of-mind thinking, which means they're much more likely to share or mention it with others. Bill Bishop, the creator of Sinocism, a Substack newsletter about China with thousands of subscribers paying $15 a month, says releasing content on a fixed schedule is one of the most critical, yet most challenging, components of growing an audience. "Especially if you want people to pay, and you're not someone who's already well-known, you really need to create a schedule and send material out on-time," Bishop said. 2. Borrow big, similar audiences
One of the quickest ways to reach new audiences, according to Dan Shipper and Nathan Baschez, the creators of the Everything newsletter bundle, is tapping into other people's audiences. In particular, Shipper recommends conducting interviews with influential figures in your subject area, then encouraging them to share the finished product. "You get a built-in growth mechanism," said Shipper, whose newsletter bundle boasts almost 2,300 subscribers paying $20 a month, according to financial documents reviewed by Business Insider. "Every week you're introduced to new people, some of whom are going to subscribe." Delia Cai, the creator of the advertising-supported newsletter Deez Links, a short-form agenda setter for the internet-inclined, agrees. On top of conducting interviews, Cai said, she has netted her 5,800 subscribers, a number confirmed through screenshots with Business Insider, in part by earning recommendations from other newsletters with loyal audiences, as such a readership has a clear willingness to subscribe to relevant content. This strategy worked for her when Morning Brew, a general-interest independent newsletter, recommended Deez Links to its 2 million subscribers. "When I was recommended by Morning Brew, I got something like 3,000 new followers in one day," Cai said. "Their readership is so loyal that when Morning Brew says jump, they jump." 3. Lean into the intimacy Newsletters, by nature of jumping straight into someone's inbox, foster a more intimate relationship. Capitalizing on that connection can encourage readers to be ambassadors of your newsletter. "We're very up front about our political, moral, and journalistic values," Aleksander Chan, a cofounder of Discourse Blog, said. "We think that engenders trust with our audience." Discourse Blog, which converted to a paid product on July 6, generated more than $60,000 in subscriptions in a matter of days, according to financial documents shared with Business Insider. The newsletter recently published an open thread allowing readers to leave comments and ask questions. Within 90 minutes, Chan said, they had hundreds of responses, almost all of which were positive. "I've never worked anywhere where the commentariat was so supportive," Chan said. "It makes sense: They chose to be there." In early October, the publication announced it was moving off of Substack onto its own, custom-built website. According to Chan, Substack served as a helpful launchpad for the blog, but the team wanted a more robust feature-set, which led them to shop for alternative platforms. 4. Your free offering is your best marketing
Striking the balance between revenue and reach is critical for paid newsletters, where content lies partially behind a paywall. Naturally, creators feel inclined to put their most engaging writing behind a sign-in screen to encourage readers to subscribe, but doing so limits how many people are seeing your best material. Shipper and Baschez, whose Everything newsletter covers business strategy, approach the problem by considering the differing needs of their audiences. "At the top of the funnel are our free articles and those are targeted at a broader group of people that probably haven't heard of us," Shipper said. "They're also articles that have a higher chance of going viral." The content they list behind the paywall, rather than being their most engaging, is the most nuanced: Only people who have been reading for a while or have a compelling need for insider analysis will understand its value and subscribe. This way, their most accessible content reaches the largest number of people, but they reserve their most insightful material for those who appreciate its value. 5. Leverage reader passion with referral systems
Sharing on social media is critical, but the most effective lever for expanding your newsletter audience is your current readership. While powerful writing will move many readers to share your newsletter, creating an effective referral system can add supplemental motivation. Packy McCormick, the creator of the free business-meets-pop-culture newsletter Not Boring, has developed a referral system that helped grow his newsletter subscriber base to more than 6,000 readers, a number verified via a subsciber dashboard he shared with Business Insider. "When I set up my referral program, I knew it had to be something that people are actually proud of sharing or makes them look smart for sharing, rather than just giving them a free T-shirt," said McCormick, who plans to monetize Not Boring when it reaches 10,000 subscribers. McCormick uses fairly standard rewards to incentivize sharing, but he created a live leaderboard that updates to reflect his top referrers. By gamifying the process, rather than relying solely on the allure of laptop stickers, the Not Boring author enjoys the fruits of a referral program with none of the transactional connotations. By allowing its users to easily monetize their newsletters, Substack offers writers, thought leaders, and entrepreneurs a simple way to sustainably share their insights with readers. Building an audience large enough to support yourself can be challenging, but every successful Substack creator will offer you the same advice: The sooner you get started, the quicker it'll happen.SEE ALSO: 'Ad models break everyone's brains': How Patreon and Substack are trying to make the internet a better place with membership and subscriptions DON'T MISS: 72 startups that will boom in 2020, according to VCs Join the conversation about this story » NOW WATCH: A cleaning expert reveals her 3-step method for cleaning your entire home quickly
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