This is the second in an interview series designed to share the nuts and bolts of how writers have gone independent and grown their audiences on Substack. This interview was originally shared as part of Substack Grow, and has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
We invited Judd Legum, who writes Popular Information, to share insights on how he’s grown his email list to 153,000+ and converted 5-10% to paying supporters.
What do you offer readers?
I give readers an opportunity to support and participate in an effort to hold powerful people and entities accountable for their actions. Along the way, I'm delivering readers information that they wouldn't be able to get anywhere else.
Growth by the numbers
Started a free Substack: July 2018
Went paid: September 2018
Free readers: 153,508
Paid subscribers: Substack frequently notes that publications with a high open rate convert between 5-10% of their free subscribers to paid subscribers. I've consistently been in that range. Over time, I've moved from the lower end of that range to the higher end.
Why did you decide to go paid?
I quit my full-time job to start the newsletter and I needed an income. I didn't really have a choice.
I wanted to prove out the concept and focus on growing the list for the first 10 weeks before I turned on paid in September 2018. I was nervous that no one would be willing to pay for the newsletter. I had no expectations it would be successful. My only goal was to, over a period of years, cobble together an income. It ended up working out better than I expected.
I was excited about the freedom and the ability to do the work I want to do with no bureaucracy. That has remained the best thing about having an independent newsletter.
Case study: Popular Information’s launch announcement post
Judd’s announcement post includes the three main parts of a winning announcement:
"I have big news to share": The first heading (“What's next for Popular Information”) tells readers upfront that something big is being announced.
"This is why it’s important": Judd reiterates the mission of the publication: “Starting Popular Information was a leap of faith. I had no email list – just the confidence that people needed a source of political information that was unfiltered, unbought and unbossed.”
"Here is what you will be supporting": Judd clearly lists what paid subscribers will receive: “Starting October 1, free subscribers will receive one newsletter per week. If you want to receive all four editions each week – and I hope you do – you'll need a paid subscription.”
In addition to these three elements, Judd included:
A discount to the first 500 members and then another smaller discount to the second 500. It’s the only time he’s discounted subscriptions.
A rich post following his announcement message that exemplifies to readers the types of posts they will find on Popular Information.
Schedule: 4 times per week
Pricing: $6/month, $50/year, $150/founding members
Free posts: Since March 2020, all of my content has been free. Prior to that I generally sent two free and two paid posts each week.
In general, each issue is an in-depth look at a single topic and between 1000-2000 words. Some pieces are lengthy research and reporting projects that are done over weeks and months. Some pieces involve research and analysis completed in a single day.
Note: Some publications, like Popular Info, choose not to paywall any content, and instead request paid subscriptions as a form of donation or patronage. To do this effectively, Judd has made a clear case for the public utility of his work – why it’s worth “sponsoring” to make it accessible to everyone.
Celebrate milestones: Two times a year, I do what I consider an "investors report" about the impact that the newsletter has had over time. I recently did one marking the newsletter's 3-year anniversary.
Note: Punctuating key moments helps readers rally around your writing. Judd found that these milestone posts converted a lot of free readers to paid supporters.
What is the sharpest insight you can offer other writers about growing a Substack publication?
To grow your newsletter, you have to promote your newsletter. And that never stops.
Maybe for some people their newsletter just grows on its own without effort, but that hasn't been my experience.
When I started, I emailed everyone in my contact list individually and asked them to try out my newsletter. I promote it on Twitter and other social media sites. I accept invitations to appear on podcasts and radio and TV.
Read more: Judd has mastered the use of Twitter to drive growth and encourages writers to use it even if you don’t have a huge following.
My most meaningful growth has been directly connected to the content.
Anytime your work breaks through your core audience to a larger audience, you'll see growth.
Probably the biggest spike involved my reporting on the corporate support for the members of Congress who voted against certifying the election results earlier this year, because it got extensive coverage in other publications and had a dramatic impact.
How do you remind readers that they can subscribe for more paid content?
I use the header or footer to remind people about the paid tier. My pitch is no longer about receiving paywalled content and, even when I had paywalled content, that was not very effective. The most effective pitches involve emphasizing the impact of the work and the importance of accountability journalism.
This is an example of a recent message that was successful:
I think it's important to vary your message over time, think about how it matches up with the content that day, and move its positioning in the newsletter. I keep a Google Doc of successful messages that I can refer to for inspiration.
Emphasize the impact of your work. People don’t pay for what you do, they pay for why you do it. The most compelling pitches to readers clearly communicate the impact and importance of your writing.
Match your call to action with the content of the day. Communicate to readers why their support is important and relevant in the moment.
Invest in big stories. High-quality content can break through your core audience to a larger audience. In these moments, writers stand a chance of getting picked up by other websites, people with big audiences, or press outlets and see growth.
To learn more about growing your readership on Substack, take a deep dive into our recaps of Substack Grow, a series of six workshops on everything from developing a strategy to going paid:
Grow: How Popular Information rallies readers around accountability