Substack review

7 minute read

*Disclaimer: I was introduced to Substack by an employee there, who suggested I try the service. Also, I signed up for this in April 2019, so some commentary below might be dated. If you like this, you might like my newsletter. *

I’ve previously described my reasons for starting a public blog. In addition to this website, I also recently signed up for Substack to publish my monthly newsletters. Before Substack, I’d been directly emailing my distribution list.

I moved to Substack for the following benefits:

  1. Easier way of managing the email list rather than copying and pasting emails every time, removing the chances of forgetting to include or remove subscribers.

    You can build a mailing list through Substack and take it with you at any time. If you already have a mailing list, you can import it via settings with the click of a button.

    Email

    After importing the list, you can view the status of each individual subscriber and their recent activity

    Sub list

    And you can click into each subscriber to see more details as well as edit their subscription type

    Sub profile

  2. Easier way for uninterested readers to unsubscribe and less awkwardness compared to emailing me directly [1].

    Unsubscribe

    I’d prefer if the text was more obvious rather than slightly hidden. Yes, I actually want to make it easier for people to unsubscribe. People don’t like spam, and I’d rather not send something to someone who doesn’t want it. If I could, I’d move the unsubscribe option right to the start of the newsletter. I understand I’m likely in the minority that feels this way though.

  3. More professional looking newsletter, with easier inclusion of rich media content.

    It’s easy to embed YouTube and Vimeo videos, Spotify tracks, and tweets into your posts. Just copy-and-paste the relevant URLs and the embeds will appear like magic. You can also drag-and-drop images and gifs.

    Adding images is simple

    Way easier than adding media to either gmail or this website. Gif created via LICEcap btw.

  4. Analytics of my reader base, such as click rates. I’m assuming this will improve over time as more functionality is added.

    Analytics

  5. Potential for monetisation eventually [2]. The business model is simple as well, with Substack taking a 10% cut once you start charging subscribers. Substack also lets you do monthly and annual pricing. The payments are processed via Stripe, so you have to set up an account there if you don’t have one yet.

    Once you’ve connected a Stripe account to Substack, we manage your payments reliably and securely.

    Paid

Other things that I like include:

  1. Customer support so that you don’t have to deal with admin problems yourself.

    If people encounter problems with their credit cards or logins – or whatever else comes up – we solve the problems on your behalf via support@substack.com.

    I haven’t used this yet, but it’s nice to have in case I need it one day.

  2. The ‘About’ and ‘Thank you for subscribing’ pages on Substack come prepopulated with content that I could tweak in order to quickly setup the service, rather than blank forms that would require me to create even more content from scratch. I thought this was a nice small touch that made setup less painful.

  3. There are also leaderboards that help promote the most popular content, which could lead to a virtuous cycle if you’re able to get up in the rankings. Substack claims that this helps discovery, though I have a suggestion on this further down in this post.

    The leaderboards help readers discover great publications, and they help publishers find new readers.

    Leaderboard

    There are also short profiles of the top publishers [3].

    Profiles

  4. The welcome page to your newsletter nudges the reader to subscribe but doesn’t force the issue, which makes sense to me. I’d not want to subscribe for something without having read a sample first.

    Welcome

  5. After you’ve signed up as a publisher, the founder also offers his contact info in case you can’t get your questions answered in the FAQ. I haven’t tried emailing yet so I don’t know if they actually reply though.

    Founder

  6. There’s also a group subscription feature if you’re aiming for a more corporate audience.

    If you think that organizations, companies, or other institutions might want to buy multiple subscriptions for their members, you can sell group subscriptions.

I also thought the following could be improved:

  1. There didn’t seem to be an easy way to upload your entire mailing list as free subscribers, with the form only allowing for emails to uploaded one at a time. I had to manually toggle the subscription settings for all my reader base after uploading their emails [4]. This was doubly annoying because I couldn’t toggle settings for multiple readers at the same time, and had to change each individually. A feature that allowed me to edit multiple subscribers at the same time would have been nice.

    Single email

  2. Uploading old posts was also painful. Since the date and time settings were deeper in the editing layout, it took time to upload the posts and then individually backdate to the correct date that I wanted. I only had a couple of posts, but I can’t imagine how someone with a longer publication history would bother to put their old content up with the correct dates.

    Finally, if you import posts from some other site’s archives, you can backdate them so they are published in the correct order and associated with the correct publication dates. To do so, after you have published a post, go into that post’s Settings (just to the left of the Publish button) and select the desired date

    Old

  3. I had initial issues with creating an account and logging in. I’m not sure why ‘email login link’ is the default option, which led me to a loop of requesting a link via email that directed me to the same login page and prompt. This was confusing.

    Link

  4. The home page has a link to the blog, which gives more information about the service. Once you click through to get to the blog though, there’s no intuitive way to get back to the substack home page without pressing the browser back button. The drop down menu doesn’t let you go back and there’s no return button in the main text.

    Blog

  5. There doesn’t seem to be a way to edit post urls. In the below example, I was editing the ‘coming soon’ placeholder post, but couldn’t fix the url despite changing my post title.

    URL

  6. A simple mouseover text of what they define as ‘open’ and ‘clicks’ would also be helpful. I’m assuming it’s close enough to what we’d think of if we used common sense, but it would be nice to get clarity here.

And I have the following suggestions:

  1. As mentioned above, having the leaderboards is nice, but doesn’t allow for discovery of new content. Perhaps they could add a column for ‘trending’ content that was growing subscribers rapidly? Or a column with a regular rotation of lesser known publishers curated by the Substack team? Yes I’m obviously biased here as a smaller publisher.

  2. I liked this page which talks about all the features you get with Substack, but it needs to be easier to find.

  3. There’s a google doc that’s shared with publishers after they sign up, containing helpful information. This should be a proper web page on its own so that people can reference it. Case in point, I’ve already lost my link for it.

  4. The password reset link only required me to enter my new password once; it should require me to confirm or retype the new password to reduce incorrect password resets.

  5. Is there an easy way to do linked footnotes?

  6. Will they reconsider adding custom domains, or is it too much of a tech hassle? There’s also a lack of more advanced customisation, which I’m assuming is intentional.

Substack offers a free newsletter service that’s relatively easy to set up, looks professional, and has helpful analytics of your subscriber base. I’ve liked using it for my monthly newsletters so far and it’s a big step up from simple email. I’ll still be sticking with Github Pages for my main website due to the higher degree of customisation offered such as custom domains, separate page layouts, or formatting. However, there’s plenty to like in Substack.

Footnotes

  1. That said, my only unsubscribe so far has come from a friend telling me he wanted to unsubscribe before doing so, so I’m not sure if this is working as intended…
  2. This is one of those quotes that will age badly regardless of whether I succeed or fail
  3. I don’t know how to get these if you’re not among that list though
  4. Via the subscriber profile page mentioned above