It seems like two-thirds of Twitter have their own Substack these days. The publishing platform that allows anyone to create a subscription newsletter has proved popular with an array of people from academics to analysts to investigative journalists.
Founded in 2017, Substack first came to prominence by providing several high-profile journalists who had fallen out of favour with their legacy media employers a way to build an audience with full editorial control.
Substack’s unique selling point is how easy it is to use. Users don’t need technical skills to host, distribute and even take payments for articles. And you can set it up in minutes.
Anyone who’s ever run a self-hosted blog knows a lot of time is spent dealing with frustrating technical issues. This time could be better spent on the creative process rather than fiddling around with a server. Substack removes that part of the process which can often equate to 20-50% of total time for the technologically challenged.
Substack claims they are a pro-free speech platform and have made several moves to reinforce this such as acquiring Letter, a service that encourages written dialogue and debate. They also launched legal support to provide free advice and direction for writers facing legal pressure for their work. They have lured prominent journalists from mainstream media outlets to give them free rein over their words and stories.
By all accounts, Substack and its writers are having a lot of success. The top ten authors on the platform collectively make over $30 million per year according to a report. The company has attracted top-name writers such as historian Heather Cox Richardson, journalists Matt Taibbi and Bari Weiss, authors Daniel M. Lavery, George Saunders, and Chuck Palahniuk, novelist Salman Rushdie, tech journalist Casey Newton, blogger and journalist Matthew Yglesias, and economist Emily Oster.
The most subscribed-to newsletters on Substack are an eclectic mix of topics so it’s safe to say the platform doesn’t cater to a specific audience or category. If you’re a subject-matter expert with domain expertise and a unique perspective, you can build an audience on Substack.
So, as the title of this article states, should you be using Substack to build a long-term brand? The answer is that it depends.
The pros and cons of building a brand on Substack are:
- No technical knowledge required
- Easy to start building an audience (if you have something good to say)
- Easy to set up payments
- It has an established audience of readers willing to pay for content
- Your content is on the Substack platform (you technically don’t own it)
- It takes 10% of your commission and Stripe takes 3% for payments
- All Substack profiles look similar so you can’t have a distinctive brand
- Questionable SEO – platforms like WordPress seem to be better for SEO
- An association with a ‘free speech’ platform
The pros and cons ultimately depend on the user’s objectives for using Substack. If you have little technical knowledge and want to earn money from writing Substack is likely the best solution. You can set up and publish your first article in a few hours.
If, on the other hand, you have (or have access to) technical know-how and you want to establish a distinct brand then Substack may not be the best option. Every page and layout on Substack looks the same regardless of whether you have one subscriber or a million.
An important point to consider is how much control you will have using Substack in the future. We’ve seen time and again social networks like Facebook, Instagram and YouTube pull the rug out from under their users’ feet. A simple tweak in the algorithm can lose everything they’ve spent years building.
In March 2022, Substack launched its mobile app so subscribers can read articles using that rather than via email. There is no guarantee it won’t begin throttling emails in to get users to use the app more.
Substack has also banned users for selling products in the past. This goes against its terms and conditions because, one assumes, they do not get a cut from the sales. What other kind of clauses they introduced remains to be seen because ultimately they are beholden to shareholders rather than users.
There isn’t a clear answer on whether you should be using Substack for long-term brand building. Instead, consider it as part of an overall digital PR strategy or content marketing strategy where the means justify the objectives.
Substack is here to stay and will be an excellent product for tens of thousands of people. Before you use it to build a brand, consider the most common adage for the digital age: If it’s free, you are the product.