How to use discussion threads to get closer to your readers

This is a guest post by Terrell Johnson, publisher of The Half Marathoner, who has mastered the art of the discussion thread on Substack. 


When I moved my newsletter from Mailchimp to Substack in the summer of 2018, I didn’t think a lot would change as far as how I went about publishing it. I’d still put together the same weekly issue, with the same basic structure, and that would be that.

Fast forward several months, and I began to notice a handful of other Substack publishers experimenting with message-board-like discussions. I dashed off an email to Hamish, one of Substack’s founders, to ask if I could I try that too. He said of course, and within a few days I got to try out a feature that has since become one of the best things I offer my subscribers.

To give you an idea of how it has gone, I tried it out for the first time in late May, with this discussion thread on changing your running form. Honestly, I had no idea what to expect; I just gave it a whirl by asking a question about running that I’ve often wondered about myself. I was impressed by the level of knowledge that my subscribers demonstrated in the conversation, but also by the back-and-forth chats once the conversation got going.

Since then, I’ve been hosting a weekly discussion thread every Friday morning that’s open to everyone on my mailing list. For the most part, they’ve gone well, frequently bringing 100 or more people into the conversation.

Hamish asked if I might share what I’ve learned about how to make discussion threads work. I hope this guide will help!

Ask specific questions 

When you ask readers to participate in a discussion, It helps to be as specific as possible about your topic. I’ve seen a handful of discussion threads that didn’t seem to attract much activity, and one thing they have in common is the topic was vague. You have to do the work first of sparking readers’ interest – that gives them a jumping-off point and you can broaden it from there. Also: don’t think you have to have all the answers – what are you curious about in your topic area that you’d like to know more about?

Example: “Can running together improve your relationship/marriage?

Be a social butterfly

I try to do is engage with as many people as I can during a discussion. Sometimes I have (what I think are) thoughtful and helpful comments; other times, I chime in just to make sure people submitting responses feel acknowledged. And sometimes I ask them questions. I’m constantly impressed by the level of knowledge my readers bring to running – and I may never have learned that without these discussion threads.

Become ‘appointment viewing’

We always do discussion threads on Friday mornings, starting between 8:30am and 9am EST. Why then? I wish I had some clever reason to share with you, but I simply copied what I saw Nicole Cliffe doing with her discussion threads. (I even copied the subject line she uses!) But Friday also works well for what I cover, as runners look ahead to the weekends, when races take place. It’s a perfect time to look back on the week that’s just passed and look ahead to something big you have planned for the weekend. 

Give readers a chance to share themselves and what’s important to them

Each week, I try to focus our discussion on a single topic/question that will encourage readers to open up and tell us about their own experiences. After all, when it comes to running, I really only know what it’s like on my own 48-year-old legs. Hearing about what it’s like from someone who’s 27 or 77 makes the discussion much richer. When readers feel comfortable enough to share their own experience, that means you’ve earned their confidence – they trust you’ll hear them out and value what they have to say.

Example: “Friday open thread: Your running goal/dream for 2020?

The finish line

That last point has been pivotal for me in how I understand what matters to the people who subscribe to The Half Marathoner. I’ve found that people seem most engaged when the topic allows them to share something about their own experience. By contrast, I’ve found that when they’re asked to share opinions about things in the news, they’ve been less engaged.

A case in point: a few weeks ago, the legendary runner Eliud Kipchoge made huge news by breaking the two-hour barrier in the marathon. I started a discussion thread on the first Friday following his record-breaking run, thinking this might really captivate my readers’ imaginations. I was surprised to find that it... really didn’t. It generated fewer than 30 responses. On the other hand, this thread on how to run in the cold got 99 responses.

Of course, you may have a different experience. It really depends on your audience and what's important to them – and discussion threads are one of the best ways to find that out.

If you have any questions at all about doing discussion threads on Substack, please feel free to reach me at terrell@halfmarathons.net. I'll be rooting for you!

– Terrell

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