This is the third 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 Michael Williams, who writes A Continuous Lean, to share insights on how he channeled his unique niche within menswear and found new readers.
What’s your Substack about in one sentence?
The overlooked and underappreciated things in menswear.
What do you offer readers?
My newsletter offers a perspective that I don't think my readers can find other places. I'm looking for the intersection of craftsmanship, style, travel, and fatherhood.
Growth by the numbers
Started Substack and launched paid subscriptions: May 2020
Free subscribers: 10,000
Paid subscribers: About 1,000
Why did you decide to go paid?
I launched paid from the get-go because I didn't want to deal with advertising or brand partnerships. I simply wanted to do what I wanted to do and didn't want to have to hold back or cater to brand partners. I built a semi-successful blog starting in 2007 and was one of the first bloggers in the menswear space. People knew me, my voice, and my approach. So I had a bit of a leg up when starting out.
Even though that was the case, I was still nervous. It's hard to put yourself out there, and writing is deeply personal. It takes courage to put your writing out in the world. I suspect all writers share that feeling to one degree or another.
Schedule: 3 times a week, ideally. I don't do this full time so I don't have massive amounts of time to write. I've been blogging on and off since 2007 and couldn't imagine having to write something good more than three or four times a week. I could definitely write something bad that often, but I'd rather send fewer, better stories.
Free vs. paid posts: I mostly decide what type of story is free or paid on a case-by-case basis. I like to think about what types of stories have the most PR value or have the most potential to be shared, and make that stuff free. I've definitely learned quickly that the more free posts you put out, the better it is for generating new subscribers.
Pricing: $7 a month, $68 a year, and a "Friends" tier for $250 a year.
I have about two dozen people at that top tier. Those people are true believers in what I am doing and just want to support me in a bigger way so the newsletter can exist. The monthly cost is a bit expensive and I have it priced there for two reasons: so I can do special offers and discounts, and to try and push people into annual memberships.
What’s the sharpest insight you can offer other writers about growing a Substack publication?
Be unique in what you do. The internet was built for niches and it doesn't take many subscribers to make this whole thing work. My newsletter works because GQ and Esquire don't see enough value in my classic menswear niche to continue to cover it in a big way. That gap made space for my point of view to work on a small level.
It's not one thing that will make it work. You have to be original, consistent, and push hard to get attention. Find ways to get in front of new people – either by doing your own PR, contributing to other publications to get in front of a new audience, or by doing stories that people will want to share.
Set manageable goals and just focus on creating something special. I think you can take all of the growth advice and do everything right and it won't matter if you aren't doing something unique. I would say 80 percent of your time should be spent on telling great stories and the other 20 percent on running the newsletter.
How do you remind readers that they can subscribe for more paid content?
You really have to make things obvious for readers to pay attention. You would be surprised how little people are paying attention – especially if you set preambles and never change them. I use the headers and footers for news or other announcements like an upcoming Q&A thread. I think the best way to get new subscribers is to do stories that get shared a lot and to do specifically targeted offers as special emails.
Here are a few offers I have done that have been successful:
Target engaged subscribers. In the subscriber dashboard, I filter by four-star engagement and free. I sent this group an email saying that I wanted to reach out to my most active subscribers and thank them for reading and supporting the newsletter. Then I offer them 10 to 25 percent off an annual subscription as a “thank you.” They clearly like what I am doing, so I give them a deal and let them know they are missing out on the rest of my stories.
During Black Friday, Labor Day, and other sales I do a small discount off an annual subscription. Even if you get less money it's still good. Every paying subscriber is a win and I have priced everything to have room to discount a bit. Everyone likes a deal.
Target your most engaged readers. Reach out directly to your most active readers to say thank you and offer a discounted subscription. Michael suggests trying this once or twice a year.
The internet is made for niches. A few loyal subscribers can support a meaningful business. Set manageable goals and focus on creating something special.
Readers are distracted. Make things obvious so that readers pay attention. Use targeted emails and celebrations to create focused moments around specific promotions.
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: