Elements of a successful Substack publication

We pay close attention to what works for writers and how to maximize their success on Substack. What follows is a list of the elements most common to the top money-making Substack publications. We hope you find it useful. 

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Get a good URL. Settle on a subdomain that is easy to say, easy to spell, and easy to remember. A good test for this is to imagine that you’re on a podcast and asked to tell people how to find your website. You want to make it as easy as possible for the listeners to find you (“Go to Easy Name Dot Substack Dot Com!”). 

Choose a simple, striking logo. The Substack logo format is very small (240 x 240 pixels), so find a design that looks good even in a favicon (that tiny image that sits in the corner of a browser tab). Aim for clear, crisp lines and not too much detail.

Example from Whizzered:

Craft a sentence that succinctly explains the value of subscribing. In your promotional materials (on your welcome page, on your About page, on social media, in your posts), tell people why their lives will be better for reading your newsletter. Rather than describing the content, describe the value

Example from Sinocism: “Get smarter about China.”

Develop an editorial model

Publish multiple posts a week. In most cases, the best financial rewards go to those who treat their newsletters as ongoing publications. You should aim to publish at least one high-quality piece a week that’s free for everyone. You can then publish multiple posts a week that are just for paying subscribers and are more insider-y in tone. Read more here.  

Make your best stuff free to everyone. Your free content is your most important content because it stands the best chance of being shared around. These pieces are the best possible advertising for your publication. They demonstrate your quality of thought, voice, and worldview. Once readers fall in love, they will be happy to pay to subscribe. Read more here

Launch your newsletter 

Tell everyone that you’ve started a newsletter. Email your friends and contacts from your personal email account and tell them you’d love it if they signed up. Post your newsletter URL to your social channels. Put the link in your online bios. Talk about it at events. Don’t just expect people to show up by themselves – they’ve got to be told. 

Example: Emily Atkin’s announcement post and tweet for Heated

Start by publishing everything for free. In the early days, your focus should be on growing your mailing list as large as possible. For a sustained period of time – one to six months – publish everything for free and focus on doing great work. Read more from Judd Legum’s growth masterclass.

Be strategic about introducing paid subscriptions. Announce a launch date for subscriber-only content and build momentum toward that day. Remind people at the top of every post that the subscriber-only content starts soon and they should sign up to not miss anything. Read our detailed paid-launch advice here.  

Explain yourself  

Include the important stuff in your About page. Write your About page as if it’s the only thing a newcomer will see before they decide whether or not to subscribe. Up top, tell them what the newsletter is about, how often you publish, and what paid subscribers get. Include testimonials from happy readers (it’s best if these are in the form of embedded tweets). Write a short bio so readers know who you are and why you are writing this newsletter. Prominently include “Subscribe Now” buttons throughout the page.

Examples: 

Include a short pitch to readers at either the top (e.g. BIG) or bottom (e.g. Shero; see below) of your posts. These work well if they’re integrated into the body of the post, so the messages are almost like they’re part of the normal post. Include a “Subscribe Now” or “Signup” button. People need to know that what they’re reading is part of a newsletter and they can support it if they like by either singing up for the mailing list or paying to subscribe.  

Convert readers into paid subscribers

Focus mainly on driving people to sign up rather than pay right away. Your paid subscriber list will always be a fraction of your general signups, so you should aim to get as many people on your mailing list as possible. That will then give you the chance to repeatedly get your work in front of lots of people, some of whom will fall in love and decide to pay for the full experience. 

Incentivize people to subscribe. Over time, you can tempt people who are on your mailing list but haven’t paid to subscribe yet with special offers and unlocked content. You can publish special posts that go to “only free signups” by email and won’t appear on your site. That way, without bothering existing subscribers, you have the chance to convince people to pay by offering discounts or sending content that was previously only available to paid subscribers.

Get the word out

Some ideas for getting the word out about your Substack publication: 

  • Email everyone in your address book. Tell them that you’ve started a newsletter about something great and you’d be grateful if they signed up. 

  • Pin a tweet to the top of your Twitter timeline. Include your Substack URL, or a link to a post you’re proud of. Example: Heather Havrilesky

  • Put your Substack URL in your Twitter bio. Example: Nicole Cliffe

  • Write Twitter threads that include a homepage link. For posts you’re proud of, summarize them in a Twitter thread where you include a link to your substack and a call to sign up. Example: Judd Legum.  

  • Promote your Substack posts on other social networks. Maybe your audience is mostly on Facebook, Instagram, or LinkedIn. Don’t forget them. 

  • Be a guest on relevant podcasts. Email podcasts hosts and ask to appear on their shows to discuss something relevant that you’re smart about. When you’re on the show, be sure to say your Substack URL multiple times: “You can read about it at cool dot substack dot com”. 

  • Spread the links around. Enlist friends to submit links to your best posts to Reddit, Hacker News, and other places where readers gather. 

  • Do some cross-promo. Do a deal with other Substack writers: “If you mention my newsletter to your audience, I’ll mention yours.” 

Other useful resources

Examples of paid Substack publications

List of top paid publications here.

Examples of free Substack publications

List of top free publications here.

Examples of podcasts on Substack
Examples of discussion threads

More details on discussion threads.

Full list of resources

Thanks for publishing with Substack!

Photo by Oli Dale on Unsplash