Career & Finance

Everyone’s Talking About Substack—But What Actually Is It?

and do I need one?

The quest for relevance pervades just about every modern-day pursuit. We no longer seem satisfied with a single viral post—instead, we’re out to claim dominance over all the many outlets available to us. Always working to amass more followers, more likes, and more views is overwhelming at best, toxic at its worst. However, there are new forms of media beginning to change our trajectory. And good news: they encourage a more thoughtful approach to building a community.

I started my first blog, All Good Things Today, in middle school. (It’s been defunct for years, so don’t worry about looking it up.) As many bloggers would have said at the time, I was simply looking for a creative outlet—a digital space where I could express myself beyond the confines of my everyday, pre-teen existence. It became somewhere I could escape to, writing about anything and everything that came to mind. I didn’t care about having an audience. In truth, the possibility didn’t even cross my mind. 

And though we’ll never go back to such an innocent time of the internet, it’s possible that we’re progressing toward something more intentional, community-driven, and yes—better. Enter: Substack.

Today, I’m guiding you through this ever-expanding platform. I’m addressing the ins and outs of all things newsletters—and why you might want to adopt this not-so-new, but definitely relevant medium.



What actually is a newsletter? 

Let’s start by addressing the subject more broadly. A newsletter is an email that businesses, writers, creatives—really anyone!—will send out to their subscriber list on an established basis (often either a weekly or monthly cadence). Formats run the gamut and the content can be anything. However, the general purpose is to provide updates and the latest news about whatever you consider your niche—be that a product or your personal brand. Or, if you write on a specific topic, it could be a new installment of your latest musings, findings, or observations. 

To be clear, a newsletter informs while the value of a marketing email leans more commercial.


What purpose do newsletters serve?

We live in a digital age saturated with content. That begs the question: what gap could newsletters possibly fill? With this overabundance of content—and our ever-shrinking attention spans—we also have a push toward shorter formats (think: the popularization of TikToks and Reels). However, because algorithms prioritize seconds-long content, it’s all we’re beginning to see. And we’re starting to get tired of it.

Whereas on other platforms, the algorithm will serve you up content on a whim, Substack helps you connect with the newsletters you resonate with most and that you’ll quickly come to anticipate seeing appear in your inbox.

There’s a clear adoption, fatigue, and ultimately rejection cycle of different content forms. As an example, TikTok expanded its max video length to 10 minutes last year. And last fall, Instagram rolled out the ability for users to create minute-long Stories without breaking them up.

But we’re not just craving more—we’re craving longer, thoughtful curation. And newsletters, because they offer a long-format look into any and every topic, achieve exactly that. What’s more, in an ever-changing, constantly-evolving social media landscape where TikTok could be gone tomorrow, newsletters, like websites, are something that can consistently be relied upon. And with experts calling newsletters “the best channel to reach people on,” it’s no wonder that tools and platforms allowing users to create newsletters are on the rise—Substack being a standout among them.


So, how does Substack fit into this?

Since it began in 2017, Substack has attracted more users and creators as a reliable medium of expression. I’ll throw out a few impressive numbers. In 2022, Substack reported having over half a million paying subscribers, and the top 10 authors on the platform collectively make over $20 million each year. Some are calling it the ‘next social media.’ And though larger publishers will deny it, in many ways, it’s transforming both how we view journalism and media as a whole. But why has the platform seen so much success? In short, because it’s all-encompassing, easy to use, and supports the creativity—and the creators—that drive its very existence.

Substack is an online platform designed to serve as a resource for people wanting to start a subscription newsletter. Not only can you access publishing tools, but Substack makes it easy to monetize your newsletter, setting you up with a payment system as well as easy ways to track your analytics. (If you want to add paid subscription options to your newsletter, read this.)

Substack is also clearly designed for creators. What do I mean by that? First off, if you have no knowledge of html, no problem. The set-up and design process is simple and streamlined, giving you the ability to focus on the work itself. So, if you’ve taken to social media to share your work and grown disillusioned by the fact that you have to essentially become your own marketing agency, take heart: this might just be the outlet for you.


Who should use Substack?

As with all forms of art and content, there are two primary roles in anything that’s produced: the creator and the consumer. Substack is an excellent place if you’re looking to expand and intimately connect with your audience. And if you want to take in well-written, considered content, you’ve come to the right place.

Even those initially attracted to the expression Instagram allowed them are turning to Substack. Last fall, Business Insider quoted Helen Tobin, a spokesperson for Substack, who addressed the transition. “We are seeing a lot of people say ‘my content isn’t being seen, I don’t want to make Reels,’ and we see them coming to Substack.” Disillusioned with the algorithm’s shift, creators who primarily built their audience through Instagram are now looking to grow their audience—and more importantly, their community—via Substack.

Why? Because instead of subjecting creators and readers to algorithmic whims, Substack grants you greater control over how communities connect around content. Tobin confirmed, “this is a place you can own your audience.”

That being said, anecdotally, I’ve seen micro-influencers gain massive followings on Instagram over the past year by prioritizing Reels content. If that’s your jam, own it—but to be frank, Substack likely won’t be somewhere you’ll want to expend your energy or grow your community. Instead, Substack and the newsletter genre as a whole, is bound to be more successful and in truth, more lucrative, if you have critical, meaningful work to share that spans beyond day-in-a-life style content.

This isn’t to dissuade anyone of course, but simply to provide recommendations as to where your time is best spent. Writers and creators who craft the most compelling newsletters are those who are seeking to create value both within the newsletter itself and who can link out to original, and often their other long-form, content elsewhere. My favorite examples (both on Substack and other newsletter platforms)? See below.

  • Slow Brew Sunday. Every Sunday, creator Jules Acree sends an inspiring Sunday morning newsletter. Rather than simply reflecting on her week, Jules uses her past few days as context to energize readers with actionable steps and intentions that they can take into the week ahead. I also love that she spotlights one of her readers each week as a way to highlight her tight-knit community.
  • Feelings Not Aside. My first Substack subscription! The subtitle drew me in immediately: “a newsletter for sensitive people.” Author Kayti Christian is a perfect example of a writer who came to Substack to consistently share thought-provoking, journal-like reflections that encourage readers to embrace their emotions. She supports her audience through linked resources and related further reading.
  • Morning Person. Leslie Stephens is *rocking* the Substack world. Having worked in editorial previously at Food52 and Cupcakes and Cashmere, Stephens is well-versed in the world of digital media and what makes compelling content. She gives us everything from the best movie recommendations to snippets of her life and the very real and raw ebbs and flows that come with existing as a woman in 2023. Her words are refreshing and honest—and in many ways, feel like they were written by your best friend.

Of course, you can take these as examples to guide your foray into the world of newsletter writing. Or, if you simply want to read and benefit from these writers’ and creators’ perspectives and hot takes, please do it! The beautiful thing about newsletters, and Substack in particular, is that you can get as specific as you want when curating your reading list. Whereas on other platforms, the algorithm will serve you up content on a whim, Substack helps you connect with the newsletters you resonate with most and that you’ll quickly come to anticipate seeing appear in your inbox. It’s a refreshing peek into the possibilities—and joys—of intentional digital minimalism.


Do you need a Substack if you already have a podcast or blog?

Now, if you’re thinking that starting a newsletter would be redundant if you have a blog or podcast, let me quickly rid you of that assumption. Sure, in many ways, the approach seems similar: long-form writing and content creation is the chosen medium. However, speaking from the reader’s perspective, I’ve come to find that there’s a certain back-and-forth interaction in newsletters that blogs and podcasts don’t share. Particularly with Substack, where you can join the subscriber chat to contribute to discussions and build upon topics, it’s evident that you’re part of something larger than is usually possible in the two-dimensional, digital space.

Personally too, I find that each time I receive a newsletter—whether through Substack or not—I’m reading something that was thoughtfully crafted not only to inspire me, but to remind me that I share others’ perspectives, and that delighting in a story, essay, or a even a single written thought confirms that I’m part of a larger community that thinks this way, too.


How to get started

So, are you ready to dive in? Below are a few tips to help you get started, without getting overwhelmed.

  1. Define your goals. As with any project you start, I can’t recommend this enough: get clear intentions. Are you wanting to grow your online platform? Expand into new digital realms? Do you simply need a space online to connect with other like-minded folks? Take the time to journal and reflect on whatever comes up. This is the best starting point for a clear path forward.
  2. Ask yourself: how will your newsletter add value? In a digital world saturated with content, it may seem nearly impossible to sift through the noise and stand out. But, with clearly defined intentions and by staying true to your voice and perspective, it’s possible to create a community around what you have to say. Below are a few ways your newsletter can add value to the space:
    1. Offer inspirational content. Some of my favorite newsletters begin with a quote or a simple food-for-thought sentence that helps guide my thoughts for the day.
    2. Include recommended reading/listening/watching. Podcasts, books, articles, and more—we can never get enough.
    3. Link to your other content. But remember: If you’re promoting your work elsewhere, you want to bring added value through your newsletter. Include insights and reflections on the content that the blog post, podcast episode, or video didn’t share.
    4. Showcase your community. If you have a larger platform, invite readers to take a big role! They can send in a little about themselves to be featured in your next issue.
  3. Find the newsletter platform that suits you best. Sure, here I am lauding all the benefits of a Substack newsletter, but trust me: there are way more out there that may fit your goals and intentions better. See below for other tools to explore. I’ll preface by saying that many of these are catered toward marketing and business pursuits. Again, if it’s content for content’s sake that you’re after (whether creating or reading it), Substack is likely your best option. For more on getting started with Substack specifically, see here.
    1. Mailchimp
    2. Flodesk
    3. Constant Contact
    4. ConvertKit

Once you’ve found the right newsletter software for your particular angle and purposes, let loose! While you will follow specific steps based upon the platform you choose, there are a few things that will be true for any newsletter. Name your publication, share a brief description, and get started! Remember: No one knows all the answers before they dive into anything, and oftentimes, the best way to begin is exactly that: begin.