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How to level up your Substack newsletter

How to level up your Substack newsletter
How to level up your Substack newsletter

Substack remains one of the most popular options for newsletter writers to get started writing and monetizing their work.

But what can you do to make sure your newsletter stands out from the crowd?

We asked Substack's Bailey Richardson, Head of Community, and Katie O’Connell, Community Manager, six questions on how to level up your Substack newsletter, and get the most eyeballs on your work. Read their answers below! 

What tools can I use to customize my Substack?

In the Settings page on your Substack publication, there are a few ways you can customize your publication including:

  • Themes give you the option to change your welcome page, homepage, post, and accent colors. In addition you can select different font styles and choose between two homepage layouts.
  • Sections allow you to create and manage multiple newsletters or podcasts within a single main publication.
  • Homepage links can be used to direct readers to other places to find you on the web or to highlight popular posts, among other uses. 
  • Custom Domain to build a home for their newsletters.

How can I increase the discoverability of my newsletter on Substack? 

Helping writers find more readers is a focus for our teams—both the product team and the community team. I hope you will see more valuable work from us on this front in the coming weeks and months. 

Until then, we have a few places Substack writers can be discovered. These include categories, in the Discover tab and on our homepage, search, and our Stories or Library Substacks. 

Most of the publications that get listed under the top categories reach the homepage because of a few factors, like reach and engagement. 

For the Stories and Library Substack as well as the “featured” category, we aim to feature undiscovered writers who are going deep into a clear topic and exemplify best practices, like posting regularly and engaging with readers. We’re always looking for role model Substackers to shine a spotlight on. 

The final discoverability tool—and one that is really in your hands—is to cross pollinate with your fellow writers. We see writers like Intercalation Station guest posting on other Substacks. Writers like Elle Griffin are also listing fellow writers’ publications in their Homepage links (a la blogrolls), and shouting each other out in posts about what they have read in the last week. These on-platform recommendations are powerful, trusted ways to be discovered.

If I have inactive subscribers dragging down my open rate, should I remove them? How can I do that within Substack? 

Why would you want to remove inactive subscribers? Writers ask us about this often. Their logic is that the lower a publication’s open rate, the more likely email providers will be to mark that publication’s messages as spam or promotions. Meaning that if you send emails to folks who never read them, it lowers your chances of reaching people's inboxes in general.

While we’d love to offer crystal clear guidance on this, it is hard to offer blanket advice because of how much each writer’s goals and publications can vary. That said, we have created the analytics for this so that you can prune your subscribers if you so choose. 

How do I prevent my newsletter from going into the "promotions" or "spam" section?

We suggest encouraging readers to add the publisher's Substack email to their contacts list and try sending you an email to let your email provider know these emails should be routed to your inbox instead of the spam folder.

It’s also worth scrutinizing your email subjects. We’ve seen examples with Bitcoin writers, for example, who use keywords in the title like "Elon Musk" that will automatically route their emails to spam because “Elon Musk” happens to be a keyword that is often used by scammers.

What open rate should I look for before going paid? 

The value of your writer-reader relationship can be measured along two major axes: your reach (the size of your audience) and your engagement (how much they’re paying attention). 

In order to benchmark those, however, you’ll first need to figure out what your financial goals are for going paid. If you’re going full-time, your financial needs might be different from a writer who wants a part-time side project. Be honest with yourself! It’s okay to dream big, and it’s just as okay to say you don’t want to invest time in a full-time project. 

Got a number in mind? Great. Now it’s time to do a bit of napkin math:

In the best of circumstances, we typically see conversion rates of 5-10% for writers who are going paid. You can use your email open rates to help approximate whether to use a high or low conversion rate. If your email open rates are typically less than 30%, use a 3% conversion rate. If your email open rates are typically 30-50%, use a 5% conversion rate. If your email open rates are greater than 50%, use a 10% conversion rate

How can I build a community around my writing? 

Community-building often gets us excited to jump into the what, how, where, and when of organizing. Publish a post! Start a Slack group! Host a conference! But these tactics are more effective when you first have a clear sense of who you’re bringing together and why.

To figure out who to focus on, start by asking yourself:

  • Who do I care about? Who do I want to help?
  • Who do I share an interest, identity, or place with?
  • Who brings the energy — who are the people who already engage, contribute, or attend?
  • Assuming that the community flourishes, who will you stick with?

No matter your reason for coming together, make sure your community’s purpose is grounded in your people’s needs and that it expresses what you can accomplish together by considering:

  • What do my people need more of?
  • What’s the change we desire?
  • What’s the problem only we can solve together?

Perhaps it’s simply “fun” or “guidance.” Or maybe it’s “emotional support” or “collective impact.” Knowing why your readers would want to be part of a community is crucial if you want to offer them meaningful ways to connect. It’s the value proposition.

Once you’ve identified who your community is and why they want to come together, you can start to tackle “what” you will do together. Come up with a shared activity that is purposeful, participatory, and repeatable. We’ve seen writers who offer their readers the chance to connect in private Telegram and Discord channels or regular Substack threads. And we’ve seen writers who offer their most passionate subscribers a chance to meet through small group circles, and even virtual Bollywood dance classes

The options are limitless. To get started, check out this article.

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