I have 1,600 subscribers, here’s my full review
As a content creator, I want five things out of my email platform.
- Reliability: I want my emails to reach the inbox, not the spam folder.
- Customization: I want tools and design options for branding.
- Logic: I want to automate emails, segment readers, and add integrations.
- Scalability: I don’t want it to break the bank as I grow.
- Control: I want to control SEO, domains, and funnels.
An email platform or service is going to have a combination of these. They’ll be great in some, and “meh” with others.
- Automate and sequence emails
- Segment and manage audiences
- Accept payments
- Set up landing pages
- Customize the look and feel of the email
- Better bypass spam filters (maybe)
Barring payments and bypassing filters, Substack has none of the above, so why is it even an option?
Initially not that much, but at 10,000 subscribers you’d be paying somewhere between $100 and $120 a month, and pricing goes up from there. That’s okay, right? It’s the cost of running a business, and not that much given the revenue you could make from a 10k subscriber list.
But it’s a problem for people who aren’t charging or are new to the game, not everyone has a product to sell. Queue Substack, a free and forever solution to this problem.
Substack is like Medium and email had a baby, but it took after email. Bloggers use it as a content platform by publishing straight to Substack, as well as sending that content straight to the reader via email. It’s a serious option for bloggers hosting their content, but how does it compare when we use it solely as an email service?
This is what we’ll be figuring out.
This is how I’m going to structure this; I’ll give you the pro and the little “but” now, then I’ll talk about the big “but” later.
1.0 It’s free
Substack is free, for as many subscribers and emails you want.
And it’s not just free, it’s reliable. Emails might not always hit the primary folder for Gmail, but they’ll hit “promotion” rather than spam. So that’s a point for scalability but what’s their schtick? How do they make money?
They have a built-in paid subscriber system in addition to the regular free list. Do you have to charge your subscribers? No, you can keep your emails open, so there’s no problem there.
If you do charge, Substack will take a 10% fee on top of Stripe’s cost, and that’s how they make their money.
The fact that its free is very enticing for content creators that are just starting, and that’s no problem. But if you accept payments and scale in the future, it could cost you multiples of what you’d pay on a premium platform.
2.0 Content creation is versatile
Substack has an intuitive editor, and it’s got everything you could need to create content for your email.
- Rich text, i.e. breaks, titling, lists, and more
- Image + animated GIF support
- Custom buttons
- Some integrations
So you don’t need an external word processor, you can write and save your work as you create it.
Before we give a point for customization, note that you can’t customize the email template, font, or landing page. So you can create the content, but you won’t be able to customize the look and feel of your email, it’ll very much look like every other Substack email. More on this soon.
3.0 It’s super simple to set up
You can grab your subdomain, import your list, connect your Stripe if you want, and start composing your first email. There’s nothing more to it.
And this one doesn’t have a “but,” it’s a huge pro.
Substack’s Features & Issues
Substack is a fantastic platform, and with anything that’s fantastic, it’s easier to point out the flaws because there’s so much that’s right with it. So keep in mind that it’s a feature-rich platform, simple to use, and forms many creators’ businesses. I’m also a delighted user of Substack as well.
So we’ll go through the “issues” here, but you’ll also get acquainted with the features as we break them down. That being said, let’s get to the big “buts.”
Look, it’s not bad, it’s got all the basics.
- It’s got open rates
- It’s got subscribers per day
- It’s got links clicked
- It’s got graphs
For a free product, it’s everything you need, but being a greedy content creator, I have to say: it could be better. The paid alternatives have tags, locations, growth sources, demographics, etc. But this definitely isn’t a deal-breaker, not for the content creator, anyway.
You already have a fair idea of who your audience is before you’ve successfully added them to your list. And knowing the open rates, click through to links, and a few other essential things will tell you enough about your titling and content game for you to improve.
Quick Tip #1: Substack has an option to add a Google, Facebook, and Twitter pixel for tracking.
We mentioned before that content-wise, you can do a fantastic job in composing your email. We also said there were some caveats.
- You can’t directly edit the HTML for the email.
- You can’t change the look and feel of the newsletter.
Look, this isn’t so bad in a world where content is king. But the lack of customization also extends to the landing pages, and that’s where some of you may draw the line.
This is simple, it gets across what the newsletter is all about, and it’s a one-button signup, theoretically, no problems. But everyone has unique needs, and there are some things you just can’t do with this.
- You can’t design a custom landing page with links.
- You can’t A/B test headlines.
- You’re restricted to your logo, title, and description.
- You can’t have different landing pages for various purposes, it’s just the one.
- No timers, no routing, no custom domain. You’ll have to redirect if you want that.
There’s also the issue of the hook, that freebie ebook or course that you might giveaway.
Quick Tip #2: You can queue an email for a freebie or hook by including it in the “Thank you” auto-email that Substack lets you customize by default. I’ve found this to be okay.
No Marketing Tools
Substack is trying to be a content and email hybrid platform. It’s got elements that you won’t see on other email platforms, like listing the Top 25 publications (email newsletters).
Being at the top can be lucrative. Substack will promote your work, and if you already have a career, or audience to take with you, it can be effortless to grow.
Matt Taibbi doesn’t need marketing tools, and that promotion might be worth Substacks scaling fee. But for others, like you and me, we need to consider the marketing tools available. On Substack, a publication cannot:
- Distinguish between cold, hot, and warm leads.
- Integrate a buy button.
- Do behavioral targeting.
- Have lookalike audiences.
- Segment demographics.
- Integrate with a variety of tools.
And all of this makes perfect sense; they want to be a platform for publications, not a marketing tool or CRM.
There are two camps of content creators with different needs, and one would have a lot of value in using Substack, the other wouldn’t. Let’s look at the Yes and No camps.
Yes, use Substack.
Yes, you should use Substack as your email platform, if the following accurately describe you:
- You’re new to blogging and need a quick way to capture emails.
- You’re concerned with content and don’t need fancy designs.
- You’re not selling a product that you need a sophisticated system for, i.e. landing pages, and scheduling, segmenting, etc.
- You’re accepting payments, but you’re small enough that the fees are negligible.
- You’re open to platform changes that you have no control over.
In this case, Substack has everything you need. If you’re just looking for a way to connect with your audience, it’s perfect. The one suggestion in picking Substack as your first email platform would be to make sure you’ve got a way out.
We grow, and our needs change, so here’s Quick Tip #3:
- Always have a back up of your list, export frequently. This can be hell later if you’re trying to migrate.
- Always use a link manager like bitly or your own domain that redirects when linking to your landing page or newsletter. If you ever switch, it’ll be easier to change the redirect link once, rather than going back through every article, video, or post to do it. This redirect feature on bitly isn’t on the free tier, so I’d set a redirect on your own domain.
No, don’t use Substack.
No, you shouldn’t use Substack as your email platform, if this accurately describes you:
- You’re selling a product and are looking to convert effectively.
- You plan on selling a product soon.
- You need enhanced analytics and demographic data for your list.
- You want a full email marketing suite.
- You don’t want to be locked into a content platform, you want your own real estate.
If you’re serious about data, your own domain, branding, and are looking to scale effectively, Substack isn’t the way to go. Substack is also not the service to use if you want an email course that sends a lesson every week, or you need logic and sequencing, or if you want to be locked into a platform.
Yes, the alternatives are platforms too, but they’re dedicated emailing tools before platforms. They don’t care about your content; they make their money by selling the tools. If you use a full marketing suite instead, you’ll be able to market tangential products or services, and better sell your content. The fundamental tradeoff is a little bit more work, educating yourself on the tools, and money.
I hope that breakdown gave you a better picture of what Substack is and how you can decide on whether to use it. I have a small email list of 1,600 readers on Substack, am not currently hosting paid content, and don’t see myself switching any time soon. If you’re new and unsure, it’s not a bad place to start, you can always switch later.