Some thoughts on Substack - Yeah...it's okay

Posted on Jul 27, 2020

Greg Morris asked for my opinion on Substack as I have been using it for my newsletter Learn Create Share. I started to type a response but when I wrote “Substack review” as a subheading, I knew it was a blog post. So here it is.

TLDR - yeah, it’s okay.

“I’m using it because I had set it up (I moved from revue as [Substack] has no subscriber limit for free) I like it but think I may move but I’m trying to focus on doing the newsletter and not think too much about the tool) it’s so easy to get into tool mindset and so avoid creating.”

Substack’s philosophy

Substack is different from a lot of email services in that it’s not really an email service. It’s a way for writers (and content creators) to get paid by dedicated fans. Substack makes money by taking a cut off payments to its users. Users get these payments by offering benefits to subscribers or simply asking. Substack encourages exclusive content as the way to encourage payments but doesn’t make it mandatory, you could just ask. In exchange, Substack gives its users a free platform with email, that’s also hosted online on a .Substack.com subdomain and even throws in a beta feature of podcasting. It’s worth noting the way they make money as that influences substack’s approach and services.

Substack really wants you to charge for your email

To get some custom header features, you need to accept payments. I’ve considered setting up optional payments just to get this feature but…

Substack wants you to charge a proper amount

I tried to make a dollar amount plan, Substack said no. It had to be $5 a month or more, with a minimum of $30 for a year plan. Both are entirely reasonable price points and also probably show how Substack gets charged on credit card payments and so smaller amounts may cost it too much. At this price, some people may support out of the goodness of their heart, but really, you’ve got to offer something extra.

Exclusive content.

What’s Substack like as an email service?

It’s good. It does the job. You have basic web formatting with h1, h2, strong, em, and all that jazz. You can add links, you can make buttons, insert images and videos too. There aren’t any web embeds of content (which can cause issues if you copy and paste embedded content from a notion embed preview) but you can certainly make a good looking email.

Is Substack a blogging service or a email service?

It’s… complicated. Unlike most email services which provide you with iframe embed forms, possibly landing pages and in rare cases web versions of emails that subscribers can view, Substack has a web archive on your Substack domain. In fact, you could use Substack as a blog which emails new posts to your subscribers. Unlike other blogging services, Substack provides very limited customization. You can adapt your about page, the description of benefits, some limited colour options, and set a custom subdomain. That’s basically it (I’m sure I’m forgetting something though).

There’s Podcast stuff?

I think I’m right in saying it’s still in Beta and I certainly haven’t tested it yet. Just like the email and blogging features, it’s completely free though. Unlike the email features, I have no idea how easy it would be to move to a different podcast host. Still, the potential is that you could run a media group who puts out articles, emails and podcasts all hosted for free and with multiple collaborators.
The price is building on someone else’s platform and the heavy encouragement to follow the exclusive content model.

What else is different about Substack

There are some other differences between Substack and other email service providers. - There is mo segmentation other than paid/free (no target email marketing for you!) - Substack has a real community about it including resources for writers, their own newsletter and even grants to support creators. - Substack has a leaderboard showing the most popular newsletters and publications from the week. This can help new subscribers to find your newsletter…but you have to get enough likes to get on the leaderboard…so the biggest newsletters profit the most.

Do you like using Substack

Hummmm. I don’t really know. I love how generous Substack is. You literally never have to pay to use it in exchange for Substack taking a cut of paid subscriptions. I don’t like how I feel like I have to offer a paid version of my newsletter and that I can’t set it up on my own domain nor customize the look and feel more. I think a premium version with those options would be very interesting but I understand that this is the monetization model they have chosen and it’s all about building their name, getting more users on, profiting off the ones who do build an audience who will pay.

Some aspects of creating a newsletter in Substack are really fantastic, but…other aspects are only okay. The editor is solid, but Ghost probably has a better one. It’s easy to create a newsletter with interesting links from the week like Learn Create Share, but Revue is probably better. The real distinction is the website articles but I would like to have more options over how they look.

So are you going to move email service provider?

My wife and I have some really exciting ideas about Learn Create Share. In fact, we hope to announce something that will really embody the name and ethos in the next edition of the newsletter, but I’m not making any firm promises yet. We probably could use Substack for that purpose but I have a Sendfox account that I may start using for this purpose. That would provide us with a couple of extra options (some limited segments) and we’ll have more control over the webpages and sign up forms etc. Sendfox has a pretty great pricing model too: there’s a limited free option, 5000 contacts for a $49 one time fee, and then an extra $10 a month for every additional 1000 contacts and to get extra features like no branding. Sendfox isn’t perfect either (sendfox branding unless you pay a monthly fee, even after the one time fee. Not as great an editor, etc) but it feels like the right choice for us now.

Regardless, one of the best things about email services is that it is easy to export a CSV file and then switch service. This really helps with ownership even if a service dies.

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