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Grow: How Elise Loehnen moved her Instagram followers to Substack and got paid for her work
On moving from Instagram to build a steady income stream
The Grow interview series is designed to share the nuts and bolts of how writers have gone independent and grown their audiences on Substack. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
We invited, who writes the publication , to share her insights on monetizing her 80,000 Instagram followers into 12,000 Substack subscribers, being paid for her work from the outset, and finding gradual steady growth by letting great storytelling do the hard work for you.
What’s your Substack about in one sentence?
Big questions of the day that often have a metaphysical-to-practical slant: why we do what we do, why we’re here.
Who reads your publication?
Based on comments and email responses, a pretty wide swath of people from all over the globe. Probably primarily female, though I get a fair number of emails from men as well. Definitely a lot of age diversity.
What do you uniquely offer readers?
I think I’m good at synthesizing information, distilling big spiritual or metaphysical topics into digestible, relatable form—and then weaving it all together with culture.
Growth by numbers
Started on Substack with paid subscriptions: January 2023
All subscribers: Close to 12K
Paid subscribers: Over 500. I also comp anyone who asks.
I turned on paid immediately, precisely because I had a significant block against doing exactly that: it made me so uncomfortable. I left the rates at their pre-set limits, switched it on (or didn’t turn it off), and decided to see what would happen.
It was very moving, but I made the transition to Substack, and longtime podcast listeners immediately started paying, particularly at the highest level. I’d been making a lot of content “for free” for a long time—and on Instagram—and it felt like people were excited to make a gesture of gratitude. It was a really nice hug.
I’d been making a lot of content “for free” for a long time—and on Instagram—and it felt like people were excited to make a gesture of gratitude. It was a really nice hug.
What was your online presence like before Substack, and what made you decide to launch?
I’m on Instagram and theoretically on TikTok, though I don’t spend much attention there. I was a longtime magazine editor (Lucky, Time Out New York, Condé Nast Traveler) and the CCO of Goop for many years, and I have written/continue to write for a fair number of publications (Oprah, the New York Times, etc.). I’ve also co-written/ghostwritten 12 books and am the author of the New York Times bestseller On Our Best Behavior: The Seven Deadly Sins and the Price Women Pay to Be Good, which came out in May.
Prior to that, I had made my newsletters (powered by Mailchimp) too “difficult” to produce—I was designing them in Figma, exporting them, paying an ESP to send. It was very cumbersome and difficult, and it meant that I was failing to create any real cadence with readers. During the course of a weekend, two good friends—and —both told me to move my butt to Substack. I told them I’d think about it and then started playing around on the platform. It was so easy and intuitive and turnkey that I started moving my content over that night and haven’t looked back. Now I’m a huge proselytizer for Substack simply because it lets me do what I do, which is write, with minimal fuss. The network works for subscriber growth. Readers are used to the experience.
Honestly, it put me on a regular schedule—and having people pay me keeps me accountable. I’m grateful for the rigor and the structure and the pressure. I am very consistent about sending a newsletter every week now.
Now I’m a huge proselytizer for Substack simply because it lets me do what I do, which is write, with minimal fuss. The network works for subscriber growth. Readers are used to the experience.
What’s that relationship to other platforms like now?
I feel much more ownership on Substack, where I have immediate access to a list of people who would like to hear from me. I know that I’m landing in their inboxes. While I’m grateful to have 80K or so Instagram followers, I have no clue how many people are actually seeing my content because of the algorithm. It’s also frustratingly deeply, deeply unpaid. Not only is it unpaid for creators—unless you do a lot of partnership work, which hasn’t been my speed—but you are essentially underwriting the content creation of Instagram’s own monetization efforts. So it feels really, really bad. A lot of free labor to enrich Meta. Not great, but there haven’t been alternatives. My hope and dream is to build my Substack enough that I can get off Instagram or dramatically limit the amount of content I make for that platform. (I make a lot!)
How do you balance your Substack with everything else?
I don’t really have a primary job anymore, just a handful of streams of income that let me continue to write and produce a podcast. Substack is definitely meaningful for me, particularly as I plan for the future and think about building out a team or expanding the remit of my site and/or podcast. My hope is that one day it can pay for a full-time editor to help me.
What’s your content strategy?
Schedule: I publish every Wednesday without fail. I try to publish one to two times a month on Sundays as well. Longer pieces, often Q&As with experts, but I’ve slowed down a bit during book production.
Formats: Short essays about topics like fear, owning our wanting, cultural shadow or darkness, and transactional relationships. Q&As with various healers, who typically have wisdom to share about the creative process, unconscious blocks, etc.—i.e. deeply applicable to everyone.
I also post content like word etymology videos and Pulling the Thread Podcast episode pages. Everything I write is evergreen, and so theoretically it can be indexed. I’ve done this with the etymology videos—my hope is that Substack continues to add features that make it easy to categorize and resurface content.
Paid vs free: Typically these are newsletters that take a lot of time and reading and distillation, and charging for them feels very warranted. I also have a pay gate on archived content—I think after two months—and I see a spike in paid subscriptions when I link to older stories. I try to avoid any sales-y schemes, as I have a personal aversion to being sold to in that way. I figure if people find ongoing value in the content, they’re happy to pay. Now that I have a book, too, I’m happy if a book purchase is how people compensate me as well. I’ve purchased a lot of Substack subscriptions, and I typically see it as a warranted exchange for the energy that other writers are putting out into the world. So I’d like to think that my paid subscribers feel the same about me.
What tactics do you use for converting Instagram followers into subscribers?
I use the assets that Substack provides and then I try to give extra context in the Instagram story—who I’m writing about, the books I’m touching on. Similar to how Puck does their newsletters: everyone who is mentioned in bold! As a reader, this works on me, so I try to use it on Instagram to push people to Substack. I also talk about or tease my newsletters a bit. It’s hard to track, but it all feels “of a theme” and like everything is driving everything else.
What is the sharpest piece of advice you can offer other writers about growing a Substack publication?
Turn on paid and just write. Don’t try to sell yourself, or upsell to paid—don’t use clickbait. Just write compelling content. I promise people will pay you for it.
Many, many years ago, when I was an editor at Lucky magazine, I went down to Florida to do a 24-hour Home Shopping Network (HSN) segment. We had picked a bunch of up-and-coming designers to create capsule collections for the show—this is when HSN was huge. I appeared alongside the “host” and then the designer, and it was my job as an editor to talk about the purses and bags and shirts and explain how they can be styled and worn. I’ll never forget what they told me during training: “You are not to sell. Do not sell. Let us sell. You are there to storytell, you are there to talk about the products and introduce the designer. Do not sell.” It was excellent advice. Let your content sell itself.
What advice have you received about growing your publication that didn’t prove to be helpful?
I sometimes see other writers selling subscriptions hard, and I am guessing it isn’t working. Nothing will drive success like word of mouth. Make something of value that people forward on to their friends.
Nothing will drive success like word of mouth. Make something of value that people forward on to their friends.
Who’s another Substack writer you’ve turned to for guidance or inspiration?
I love a writer who knows who they are and operates out of their zone of genius.makes me feel so much better about the world, every day, and I trust her to tell me when I need to pay attention (thus liberating a lot of my energy). I love and her curatorial eye, and I wish I could dress like her (we worked together at Lucky)—she always makes me laugh and her newsletter is fun and funny, and we all need more of that. tells it like it is, without fail. As does Holly Whitaker of , who has a lot of similar interests to me—Ken Wilber fan club for life. Meanwhile, at —we were all magazine editors together—are brilliant, and I don’t understand why they don’t already have one million subscribers.
Going paid from day one: Elise was tired of working hard on content for other platforms without financial reward. She turned on paid subscriptions and followed a smart cross-promotional strategy and saw her Instagram followers become some of her first and highest-paying subscribers.
Paywall an evergreen archive: Elise paywalls content over two months old, and regularly promotes older posts and writes evergreen content that can be resurfaced.
Let the work speak for itself: Write compelling stories and the paid subscribers will come, says Elise. Making something people will forward to friends has been key to her steady upward growth.
What questions do you have forthat we didn’t ask? Leave them in the comments!
To read more from this series on growing your publication, see our interviews with Michael MacLeod, Laura Kennedy, Hetty Lui McKinnon, Katelyn Jetelina, Rob Henderson, Tyler Bainbridge, Melinda Wenner Moyer, Leslie Stephens, and more.