Substack Grow: Growing your free list

This is the fourth in a series of six posts designed to share the essential knowledge writers need to go independent on Substack.

This resource aims to help you grow your free readership using tactics from social media promotion to targeted partnerships. 

It’s normal for your Substack to primarily experience slow, steady growth most of the time. Devotion to consistent promotion will help ensure a continuous growth trajectory. Every once in a while you may also get big subscriber jumps from a post that goes viral, a shoutout from another publication, or celebration moments like a paid launch. 

This resource offers ideas on how to create those big moments as well as a variety of routine tactics you can invest in for steady growth.

Routine tactics for steady growth

The best predictor of success is writing and promoting your work regularly and consistently. It’s hard to predict which pieces will take off or when someone big will find and share your Substack. Even if growth feels slow at first, over time, the growth will compound into a self-propelling momentum.

Talk about your Substack everywhere

Most writers feel that they are too self-promotional, but in a crowded attention ecosystem, new readers may need a few nudges to discover you. Your existing fans won’t mind being reminded.

  • Use CTAs (calls-to-action) in your posts. In every post, use buttons and email headers and footers to ask readers to subscribe, comment, and share.

  • Add your Substack link prominently to your website, social media bios, and email signature to convert existing friends and fans into readers. It’s also good for SEO: Search engines rank sites partly based on how many other pages link to your site.

  • Share on social media every time you publish on Substack. Give potential readers a taste of your content on the platforms where they are. You can include teaser excerpts, screenshots, or share the research behind your work. You can also celebrate milestones, like getting close to 500 subscribers.

    • On Twitter, many writers create viral threads that summarize free or paid posts and link to their Substack. Also, connect Substack to Twitter in your Settings page to notify your Twitter followers about your publication.

    • On Instagram, tell followers about your latest writing in your captions and stories, and add Substack-related Instagram stories to a profile highlight. 

    • On Facebook, you can create a page to share your work. In posts, use an eye-catching image and add the Substack link in the first comment rather than the post body to make sure it gets seen.

  • Find potential readers where they’re at. After you define your readership, research where these people congregate online and in real life: conferences, Facebook groups, subreddits, and more. Create a rolodex of potential outreach opportunities, and start engaging in these spaces and sharing your work. For his local news publication, Tony Mecia partnered with Charlotte’s local radio station, local Facebook Groups, and even hosted an awards show.

  • Comment on other writers’ publications. Substack displays your reader and writer profile when you comment on other Substacks. Engaging with other writers’ work helps their readers find yours. (Don't know where to start? Attend one of our upcoming Office Hours or Shoutout Threads.)

Engage with your readers

Your readers are often the best cheerleaders for your Substack. Here are a few small things you can do to ensure you’re learning about what resonates with them most.

  • Reply to friendly reader emails to build a personal connection with your readers. The more you talk to your readers, the more they’ll tell their friends. 

  • Add testimonials to your About page. If you receive a compliment from a reader, consider asking them if you can share it on your About page and on social media.

  • Conduct reader surveys. Learn what your readers want by asking them who they are (e.g. geography, job, age), what they love about your Substack, what they want to see more of, and who they know would like your work. Erin Moon explains more. 

Growth experiments

In addition to the routine tactics you’ll do every week, you may want to invest in some larger promotion campaigns and bigger bets.

Create growth moments

  • Spend time writing a few big hits. Write longform, high-quality content that stands a chance of getting picked up by other websites, people with big audiences, or press outlets that match your target audience. There’s no magic formula, but one big hit can bring you thousands of new readers.

  • Celebrate milestones. Punctuating key moments helps readers rally around your writing. It can be a simple blog post celebrating a writing anniversary like Anne Helen Petersen did here, or a full-on festival like Persuasion put on. Define what milestones are important to you and invite your readers to celebrate with you.

Forge targeted partnerships

Partnering with other writers, influencers, and media outlets will help you reach new readers and build your network of supporters and thought partners.

  • Ask people with larger audiences to share your Substack, especially if they’re friends or current subscribers. If you don’t know anyone, try cold emailing or messaging someone you admire whose audience overlaps with yours. Introduce yourself with your Substack, share something relevant to their followers or about a topic they care about, and be gracious with your ask.

  • Build relationships with press and community leaders. Whether in advance of your publication launch, breaking news, or a big story, you can create your own “press list” of journalists and influencers in your industry, locality, or community. This encourages them to share or cite your work, as Edwin Dorsey explains. You can even offer these people comped subscriptions to your newsletter.

  • Publish guest posts and interviews with other figures in your field. These enable you to “borrow” another person’s audience if the interviewee shares your newsletter post with their followers. It also can give readers new perspectives: For example, Kevin Maguire invited a non-biological mother of a same-sex marriage to write a guest post about fatherhood, and Isaac Fitzgerald swapped interviews with Anand Giridharadas.

  • Reply to other Substack posts to start a conversation. Clicking the share button on a Substack post provides the option to “Reply on Substack.” This creates a new draft with an embed of the original post. You can then publish your reply to your subscribers, and it will also appear as a comment under the original post. You can use replies to host a dialogue with someone with a different audience or point of view, or reply to larger writers’ posts to help their readers discover you.

In Practice: How First 1000 grew to 20,000 subscribers

Ali Abouelatta, the writer behind First 1000, unlocked growth by combining ongoing, routine efforts with a series of experiments. After three years of this systematic approach, he went from having no pre-existing brand or audience to reaching over 20,000 subscribers. Ali shared his creative, entrepreneurial approach with us.

Takeaways:

  • Good work compounds over time. Ali argues that growing gets easier as you grow—a thesis we’ve heard from multiple writers. That said, you don’t know at what point you will experience your inflection moment. The important thing is to keep going, knowing that each reader will help you find more readers. 

  • Set small achievable goals. Ali set a goal to grow his email list to 170 new subscribers every month, then broke that down to 6 new subscribers every day. He then dedicated time every Sunday and Monday to growth experiments, and Tuesday through Saturday to his routine tactics.

  • Growing isn’t magic. Ali found that growing his publication took a combination of routine efforts and growth experiments. Routine efforts are low effort, low reward, but they add up over time and correlate to steady, consistent growth. Experiments are higher effort, higher reward. These creative ideas could unlock a whole new segment of readers, or simply not pan out. In the video, Ali shares a deep dive into some examples of both successful and failed experiments, including two ProductHunt launches and offering limited-time bonus content to readers who shared his work.

  • You need to give to get. Ali sets three hours aside every Thursday to contribute to online communities he’s a part of. He answers questions in Quora and joins conversations in different Discord servers, WhatsApp groups, and Slack channels. He says that this goodwill went a long way in building advocates for his own writing.

Make a plan

To put these ideas into practice, we’ve created a workbook for you to plan your growth strategy. It includes tabs to track your routine promotion tactics and a rolodex of contacts to reach out to for partnerships and experiments.

We encourage you to adapt the doc to your specific needs. Update the columns to reflect the tactics that work best for your publication and audience. For example, if you have a lot of photos in your publication, you might update the "Share on social media" column to "Share on Instagram." 

Download workbook

Don’t use Google Sheets? Download the excel version.


This post is the fourth in a series of six posts that will share the essential knowledge writers need to go independent on Substack. Check out the first three posts: “Start by setting goals,” “Developing a publication strategy,” and “Building a home for your publication.