Substack Grow: Growing a paid readership

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

Once you’ve turned on paid subscriptions, it’s time to focus on growing your paid readership to sustain your writing.

This resource covers a number of tools and promotional strategies you can use to identify high-potential readers and invite them to subscribe to your publication. 

Make sure readers know about subscriptions

Consistently reminding readers about the subscription option and benefits—on your About page, headers, footers, and teaser posts—ensures they are aware of how to go deeper with your writing. 

Subscribe buttons

Every post you write should include one or more Subscribe buttons to give your readers an easy and fast way to subscribe. 

If a reader already has an account and payment information on Substack, they can subscribe in one tap. You can view the Network tab of your publication’s Stats page to learn more about how many paid subscribers come from the Substack network.

You can also create custom buttons as calls to action. For example, Mark Bittman uses a “Get the recipe” button to link free readers to paid posts that contain his complete recipes.

About page

In addition to telling new readers who you are and what you write about, your About page should emphasize the value of a paid subscription—both to your work and to the reader.

For instance, TrueHoop explains why paid subscriptions power higher quality media.

In another approach, The Isolation Journals lists their myriad subscriber benefits.

Email headers and footers

Many writers use headers and footers to introduce their writing and call readers to action. Changing these up regularly helps so that readers don’t just gloss over the message.

You can edit the email header and footer from your Settings page to encourage your current free readers to subscribe. 

For example, Judd Legum writes Popular Information and uses these spaces to emphasize the costs that go into his reporting. By emphasizing the mission of his publication, he brings in paid subscriptions despite keeping all his posts being free.

Use special offers to attract readers

You can create a special offer to entice readers via your Settings page. These offers can be especially powerful when paired with other tactics such as targeted emails or general promotion campaigns.

Each special offer can be customized with options such as whether the offer is limited to students, specified organizations, annual plans, or is only available for a limited time. You can also create custom links for offers and give them to other writers or influencers in their field for them to share exclusively with their followers.

Discounts

Offering discounts can be a successful way to entice readers who are on the verge of subscribing to do so. You can send discounts to high-potential free readers via your subscriber dashboard or use them to punctuate milestone moments, like publishing anniversaries and holidays, with your entire email list.

For example, when Caroline Chambers earned the same amount of money through her Substack as she did writing her first cookbook published through a major publishing house she offered a sale to readers. 

Free trials

You can also create free trials for your publication. When readers sign up for a free trial, they input their credit card information. If they enjoy the trial experience, they will transition into a new paid subscriber.

The Lund Loop offers their subscribers an “instant free trial.” In the automatic welcome email to new free subscribers, readers receive a link to a 14-day free trial. This encourages more free readers to test out the paid subscription, and they can still cancel before expiry in order to avoid being charged.

Gift subscriptions

Your readers likely have friends, family, or coworkers that would enjoy your writing. Encourage them to share and gift your writing via Substack’s “Give a gift subscription” option at https:/YOURDOMAIN.substack.com/gift.

Consider reminding readers of this option around relevant gift-giving times of year, such as the winter holiday season, back-to-school, or Mother’s and Father’s Day. 

Learn more: Discounts, comps, and gift subscriptions

Promote paid content to free readers

Make sure to remind your Substack readers as well as your fans and friends elsewhere of the writing they can access with a paid subscription. 

Previews on Substack

On Substack, you can do this by linking to a paid post within a free post to encourage readers to get curious, click through, and subscribe. For example, The Manchester Mill begins this free article with a description and an embed of the most recent paid post. 

You can also try sending two versions of your posts on Substack: one long version for paid readers and one shorter version for free readers, a strategy that The Charlotte Ledger uses below.

Previews on social media

On social media, you can post summaries or screenshots of your paid posts to tease their content to potential readers, including those who are not yet subscribed. For example, Edwin Dorsey of The Bear Cave wrote a compelling Twitter thread to describe a corporate controversy he covered in a report for paid readers. 

Conduct outreach to high-potential readers

Some of the best candidates for becoming paid subscribers are your most active existing readers. 

Subscriber dashboard

Using your subscriber dashboard, you can send these active readers messages with a personal touch to thank them for reading and remind them about the paid subscription option. As long as you’re honest, gracious, and thoughtful about the message, your readers will welcome the note.

Your subscriber dashboard is a powerful tool to understand and reach out to your existing readers. Using filters like most email opens or web post views over the past 30 days, writers can identify active free readers and send targeted emails. 

Emails you send from the subscriber dashboard will not appear publicly on your Substack site.

Custom emails to subscribers

If you send your most active free readers a personal email asking them to become a paid subscriber, be sincere. Write like you are corresponding with a friend, not sending a marketing email. 

Consider repurposing language from your launch announcement post that captures the motivation and mission of your publication, but make the tone even more personal. Be honest about the costs that go into the production of your free content, and how much it would mean to have them as supporters. 

A great personalized email might include the following elements:

  1. Express your gratitude for the reader’s support so far. Write something genuine in your own voice.

  2. Why do subscriptions matter? Tell a story about what subscriptions mean for your life or for the world of writing and knowledge. 

  3. Ask them to subscribe. Make it easy to take action by including a "Subscribe" button.

  4. Here’s what you’ll get as a paid subscriber. Be clear and succinct when describing benefits, such as: 

    1. (Optional) Discount or free trial

    2. (Optional) Links to “unlocked” paid posts

    3. (Optional) Subscriber testimonials

  5. Make a final call to action. Let readers know that you're open to feedback and ideas.

You may want to customize the language of the email based on the group of subscribers you are emailing. For example, readers who comment the most, those who read the most, or those who discovered your Substack from a particular source.

Read more: A guide to your subscriber dashboard

Consider updating your content strategy

The highest effort—but potentially highest impact—approach to increasing your paid readership is to increase your paid content.

You could elect to move more of your existing posts behind the paywall, then explain to readers why you plan on doing so. In other cases, writers plan a conversion campaign around a new paid-only content stream, such as a podcast or other post type. For a refresher on post types and your free versus paid strategy, revisit Substack Grow #2: Developing a publication strategy.

That said, you should only consider adding new content once you’ve mastered your core writing and feel that you can commit consistently to the increased frequency. Polina Pompliano writes the newsletter The Profile, where she shares longform profiles of successful people and companies. When considering diversifying content, she first asked herself: "Is this the absolute most efficient way for you to get the word out, or are there less time-consuming ways?"

Get creative

We’ve introduced a suite of Substack tools for telling readers about your paid subscription, but the most successful tactics for growing your paid readership will be inspired by knowing your audience and reaching them with what matters. That might be a heartwarming personal email, unique perks like swag or virtual events, or promoting institutional discounts. 

We recommend setting aside a bit of time each week to brainstorm solo, with other writers, or by talking to your readers directly. To keep growing, you have to keep going!


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