Jessica Barker

Whether you’re a seasoned marketer or just starting out, understanding Substack can unlock new possibilities for your brand’s content strategy. 

In this comprehensive guide, we’ll delve into what Substack is and how it differs from traditional blogs. Plus, we’ll cover who should and shouldn’t use it and how to leverage it in your marketing efforts. By the end, you’ll have a clear roadmap for incorporating Substack into your marketing arsenal and engaging your audience like never before.

What is Substack?

Launched in 2017, Substack isn’t just another blogging site; it’s a game-changer for content creators seeking direct connections with their audience. 

If you’re a thought leader eager to share your insights and build a community around your work, this publishing platform empowers you to do just that, effortlessly. Forget clunky WordPress interfaces and separate email services. With an intuitive interface and robust features, Substack lets you focus on what matters most: creating and delivering compelling content that resonates with your audience.

Plus, it’s totally free to host your content on the platform. You only pay a 10% fee on any paid subscriptions if you enable them.

In addition to the platform’s powerful publishing tools, Substack is home to a vibrant community of creators and readers who come together on both the website and app to share ideas, stories and insights.

Substack’s growth trajectory speaks volumes about its potential for long-term growth. Despite initial net losses, TechCrunch reported that Substack’s revenue skyrocketed by over 400% from 2020 to 2021, signaling its ability to scale up effectively and attract both creators and readers alike.

According to Backlinko, Substack’s traffic surged by approximately 42% from August 2023 to January 2024. With over 20 million monthly active subscribers and more than 2 million paid subscriptions, Substack is here to stay. 

Key Features of Substack

As a writer and longtime fan of setting up a shiny new blog, I’m one of the many folks who couldn’t resist the hype around a new publishing platform. So, last year, I kicked off my own Substack. 

Called Multifaceted, it’s a weekly newsletter about finding delight and direction in a creative life made up of many different interests. (If you’re a multi-hyphenate creative, jack-of-all-trades or marketer with a million artsy hobbies, it’ll be right up your alley.)

One of the best parts of my experience was the set-up. Transitioning from my old WordPress blog(s!) and Mailchimp email list to Substack was seamless. Within no time, all of my content and contacts had a new home. Plus, everything lives on a tidy homepage that shows off my artwork without any manual image resizing. 

But there’s so much more to love after setup, which is why so many writers and creators are making the switch to Substack. Here are some of the functions and features you can expect:

  • User-friendly platform: Say goodbye to complicated setups and technical headaches. Substack’s interface is designed with simplicity in mind, allowing you to focus on crafting content rather than grappling with technology.
  • Hassle-free monetization: Tired of chasing ad revenue or managing complicated payment systems? Substack offers a straightforward subscription model, enabling you to monetize your content effortlessly.
  • Customizable design options: Your brand is unique, and your newsletter should reflect that. With Substack, you can customize your newsletter’s design to match your brand identity, ensuring a cohesive and professional look.
  • Robust analytics: Understanding your audience is crucial for success. Substack provides powerful analytics tools that provide insights into your subscribers’ behavior, allowing you to tailor your content to their preferences and interests.

5 Ways Substack Differs from Traditional Blogs

While classic blogs have long been a staple of content marketing, Substack offers a fresh approach that sets it apart in several key ways. 

Let’s explore the main differences and why they matter for content marketers:

1. Paid Subscription Model vs. Purely Free Content

Substack has disrupted the blogging world by offering both free and paid subscription options, a significant departure from traditional blogs that generally provide content at no cost. It’s an operating model that allows creators to cultivate a diverse subscriber base and generate income directly from their work: They can engage casual readers with free content while offering more in-depth, exclusive material to paid subscribers. 

This strategy not only broadens the audience reach but also establishes a value-driven relationship with dedicated followers who are willing to pay for premium content. For publishers who monetize their work, this option provides a flexible revenue stream that adapts to the creator’s content strategy and audience preferences.

2. Integrated Newsletter Feature vs. Third-Party Email Provider

Substack distinguishes itself by seamlessly integrating publishing tools with a built-in email newsletter service, allowing creators to bypass the complexities of third-party email providers like Mailchimp and ConvertKit.

When a Substack publisher is ready to share a new piece of content, it immediately gets sent out to subscribers. This direct delivery system streamlines the process of content distribution, ensuring subscribers receive updates without delay. This two-in-one approach virtually eliminates the copy-pasting and technical aspects of email management. 

3. Built-in Monetization Tools vs. Third-Party Ads or Delayed Revenue 

A lot of blogs rely on third-party ad networks to monetize their content, which can be unpredictable and prone to fluctuations. Plus, they look and feel cluttered with banner ads and pop-ups that distract from the content itself. 

Substack, on the other hand, offers built-in monetization tools that allow creators to set their own subscription prices and keep a large share of the revenue. This puts the power back in the hands of creators, enabling them to build sustainable, long-term businesses around their content. 

Not all traditional blogs host ads, of course. Content marketers who run thought leadership or SEO-driven blog strategies play a long game that converts readers to paid customers slowly over time. Substacks’ premium subscription option offers a much faster way to generate revenue. Content that was once just a lead magnet can pull in new email addresses and income at the same time. 

4. Podcast and Video Integration vs. Text-Only Formats

Substack isn’t just for writers; it’s a multimedia platform that supports diverse content types including podcasts and videos. This integration allows creators to embed audio and video directly into their newsletters, making it easier than ever to distribute multimedia content. This feature sets it apart from traditional blogs, which often require external services to manage and distribute multimedia content. 

Subscribers can consume this rich media content directly within the email newsletter they receive, or on the Substack webpage, providing a seamless experience from any entry point. This capability is especially beneficial for creators who want to diversify their content formats and engage audiences who prefer listening or watching over reading.

5. Community-Building Features vs. Simple Comment Sections

Unlike traditional blogs that often only offer a one-way communication stream, Substack emphasizes community engagement through its interactive features. 

Publishers can foster active communities by enabling comments, initiating chat threads, interacting via tweet-style Notes and more. This allows subscribers to engage not only with the author but also with each other, building a sense of belonging and active participation. 

Substack’s “Discussions” feature extends this interaction, providing a dedicated space for subscribers to connect and converse beyond individual posts, further enhancing the community feel and making it a powerful tool for building loyal, engaged audiences.

It goes without saying that these audience-engaging features offer significant potential for content marketers.

Leveraging Substack for Marketing

Now you know what sets Substack apart, let’s talk about how to leverage it to supercharge your marketing efforts and connect with your audience on a deeper level. 

Here are a few ideas:

Establish Thought Leadership With a Newsletter and Notes

Trying to position your people as industry leaders? A branded Substack newsletter could be your new soapbox for sharing valuable information, industry trends and thought-provoking ideas. 

Set each person up as a separate author on your newsletter and encourage them to interact with other users and promote your publication via Notes and other outlets like LinkedIn.

Substack’s Notes feature is a great way to regularly update your audience without the formality of a full article or newsletter, making it an effective tool for real-time communication and audience building on Substack.

If you consistently serve your audience’s interests and needs, over time, your Substack can become a go-to resource hub that showcases your organization’s expertise and insights. 

Build a Community To Gain Insights and Brand Advocates

For content marketers, there’s nothing better than having a community of engaged readers who eagerly await new content and actively tell you what’s on their mind. Substack makes this easier than ever to do. 

If your content isn’t seeing much engagement (or being seen at all) on your blog or social media, consider switching over and growing a Substack community. 

Encourage interaction and feedback from your subscribers, and take the time to respond to their comments and questions. Set up subscriber-only chats and discussions to get people talking. This is a great way to collect consumer insights that you can’t find anywhere else. 

By fostering a sense of belonging and community, you can turn casual readers into high-value resources and brand advocates who are intrinsically motivated to spread the word about the work you’re doing.

Extend Your Reach by Adding Substack to Your Marketing Mix

You don’t need to reinvent the wheel to take advantage of what Substack has to offer. Tack it onto your existing content marketing strategy and tap into new audience segments who spend more time on Substack than other platforms. 

Consider using your newsletter to showcase your drive traffic to your other business offerings. Cross-promote and repurpose content as well. Share your Substack content across social media, teasing upcoming articles and sharing highlights to spark interest. 

Get creative with different media formats, too. Turn written articles into podcast episodes to get more mileage out of every new idea you want to share. 

By weaving your Substack activity with existing marketing activities, you’ll create a more dynamic brand experience that can reach a wider audience than before.

Who Should and Shouldn’t Use Substack?

Substack’s appeal attracts a wide range of content creators and brands. The platform is home to a vast array of topics and niches, 

With its ease of use and versatile features, it really seems like there’s something for everyone — from publishers of hyper-niche content to mainstream topics. Substack’s success in niche markets, such as academic publishing, points to its powerful audience growth and subscription revenue potential. According to Inside Higher Ed, UK-based academics’ paid subscriptions on Substack grew eight times faster year-over-year.

So, who stands to benefit most from using Substack?

  • Thought leaders and independent creators: Whether you’re a food writer, finance guru or fiction author, Substack offers a straightforward way to monetize your content and build an audience for your work.
  • Companies with underutilized email lists: If you’ve accumulated a substantial email list but struggle to engage your audience, the platform’s straightforward tools can streamline the creation and distribution of compelling content that can reinvigorate a stale subscriber list. 
  • Brands focused on direct engagement: If you want to share your brand story, showcase your expertise and build community among your followers, Substack has a lot of potential.
  • Multi-media marketers: Want an easy way to launch a podcast, write long-form content, host discussions, post quippy observations and promote your business — all in one place? You’ll find all the features you need on this versatile platform.

That said, the platform may not be the right fit for every marketer and brand. For instance:

  • Large enterprises with complex marketing needs: Bigger corporations with intricate marketing strategies might find Substack’s straightforward tools insufficient.
  • Brands that cast a wide net: Organizations that rely heavily on broad-scale ad campaigns may find Substack’s intimate, subscription-based model less conducive to their goals. The platform excels in building deep relationships rather than reaching vast, non-targeted audiences.
  • Marketers seeking advanced customization tools: Anyone who requires full control over their site’s design and functionality will encounter limitations on Substack — a platform that prioritizes simplicity and ease of use over customizable complexity.
  • Businesses that need integrated e-commerce features: Brands that push direct product sales within their content (as with shoppable Instagram posts) would require additional e-commerce capabilities that are beyond Substack’s current offerings.

Is Substack Right for Your Brand? Dip Your Toe in and Decide

Experienced content marketers know there’s no point in going all-in on every new channel that pops up. That would be impossible, anyway. 

But there’s something to be said for a platform with millions of users that offers all the tools you could possibly need to launch quality content out into the world — for free!

If you’re not sure whether Substack is the right platform for your brand, dip your toe in by poking around the Substack app. Start subscribing to top publications or competitors in your industry to see what they’re up to. (There’s so much to explore! Here’s what I’ve been reading, liking and sharing lately.)

If you do decide to launch a publication, remember that success doesn’t happen overnight. But, with consistency, quality and authenticity, you’ll be well on your way to building an engaged audience for your brand.

So… see you on Substack?