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Is Substack's iOS App Launch Significant?
Let's break some of it down for Creators.
Substack launched its Apple app in early March, 2022.
That’s a full five years since they launched in 2017, I guess they wanted to get it right.
The standalone app pulls all of a user’s newsletter subscriptions into one inbox, placed alongside a discovery tab for readers to find new publications.
Loyal Substack readers now have a way to keep all of their subscriptions in a dedicated place.
This could in theory improve readership and discoverability of some of the top Newsletters.
I’m not entirely sure what some of these statements even mean specifically. But if you are not clear Substack has a great FAQ on the App that can help.
For writers, Substack says the new app will allow them to better connect with their readers and also give them more ownership of their content and mailing list.
Writers will also be able to deliver newsletters and podcasts straight to readers’ inboxes.
How does this empower writers? An app is just another way to consume the content right. The main focus of the app is to give users a simple way to read posts and discover new writers on Substack. Will the app improve the reading experience and discoverability of (many of us obscure) writers, that is the question.
After witnessing Medium struggle with their app for years, I know how difficult this is to get right. Substack is a young company, but the writers are counting on them to help expand the product.
Writers could benefit from increased reads due to Notifications to their audience.
The app also allows you to collect your newsletters in a dedicated inbox and receive notifications when a writer you’ve subscribed to has published a new post.
So in theory there could be slightly higher read-rates, less churn and perhaps more retention, if you are somehow some very talented writer. We know that in traditional Email Newsletter this (churn) is all quite high.
Adjacent to the inbox is a “Discover” tab with suggestions for readers by categories like culture, politics, and sports. The featured “this week” section includes newsletters by Patti Smith and Bari Weiss, among others.
The most popular writers on Subtack don’t need more emphasis, the rest of the writers do. Still a “Discovery” tab can only be good as it will facilitate mobile readers to discover more Substack Creators. I’m not clear also on how writer recommendations or suggestions will work.
Once you open the app, you’re taken to your inbox, which shows you new newsletters from all of the writers you subscribe to. So if people are using the Substack iOS app, when they subscribe to you they could become more engaged in your work - as opposed to just checking an Email box, it could be a more personal user experience.
More audience engagement
An improved user experience for the reader.
The app is also something of a step away from email: users of the app can pause email delivery of newsletters, instead opting to only receive mobile notifications. Yikes what? This might mean some subscribers would be only occasional readers, but basically like they are anyways on Email (where read rates are generously typically between 30-40%).
Substack says emails will automatically resume if a reader stops using the app. Makes sense, the idea here is that the user experience in iOS would be overall superior to Email, agreed!
When you click on a post, you can use the navigation bar at the bottom to view and post comments. On the main homepage, there’s a discover tab where you can search or view featured writers. Such an iOS app could in theory promote more comments for writers. But again, only if you are a popular writer.
The company has pitched itself as a place where writers can fully own their work and their mailing list — and leaving is easy if they so choose. Substack says it does not want to be like other platforms that have “eroded the media business and stripped writers — and other culture makers — of their financial dignity.” So freedom, ownership and empowerment still are strong on Substack.
The anti-censorship angle is extremely important for Substacks’ branding. Remember it’s aiming to be an Alternative Media Ecosystem, an AME.
Mobile Could Make Substack Grow Faster
Substack says although its main framework has been “flourishing,” it’s time for it to branch outside of email and the web with the launch of the new app. Most people browse on mobile so this makes sense to have a dedicated iOS and Android app, iOS usually comes out first in these cases.
The Verge thinks the app inches Substack toward being a more centralized publisher, though, where the platform matters as much as the writing infrastructure it provides. I’m not sure I agree, but anyways.
It certainly facilitates distribution, discoverability and a more polished audience reader experience. Via an app you can quickly get a feel for the overall tone and possibility and range of Substack’s content as a whole. Just as you could with Medium’s app or LinkedIn’s app or any platform with articles and long-form content. In 2022, the Substack vibe screams “indie”. This is notoriously better than Medium’s ecosystem which has screamed “clickbait headlines” for quite some time.
Substack is pretty strong in cultural and political content generally speaking. It’s focused on fascinating niches from cooking to cartoons to attracting journalists.
Though the app is geared more towards readers (authors can’t draft posts in it, for example), Substack emphasizes that the app benefits writers, too, especially around growing their audience. We can only hope this turns out to be true. Apps like this are notoriously difficult to engineer, design and optimize.
They also need really good marketing to grow the downloads. For that they probably need more funding. They raised another $65 million March, 2021, where they’ve only raised $82 million so far. Let’s be realistic about the app downloads, this is still a small Creator Economy platform in its nascent phase of growth. The iOS app will help establish product-market fit although growth and adoption has been stellar during the pandemic.
Potential for a greater audience due to the iOS app for Substack Creators.
The iOS App Could Deepen Creator Relationships with their Audience
Substack said in the blog post. “It is an app for deep relationships, an alternative to the mindless scrolling and cheap dopamine hits that lie behind other home screen icons. It offers a quiet space to read, where the work itself is given the spotlight and you’re not pulled into status games or trivial diversions.
I think here substack understands that the Creator Economy isn’t just about sharing passion but sharing the Creator’s point of view and creative lens. A subscriber would actually have to “like” the creator and not just enjoy their “product”.
An App Could Improve Writer and Newsletter Discoverability
Substack went on to say that “it amplifies the network effects that already exist on Substack, making it easier for writers to get new subscribers, and for readers to explore and sample Substacks they might otherwise not have found.” That could be, though the network effect on Substack’s ecosystem is not significant yet.
This positions the app as a discoverability tool which I suppose it could be if it grew Substack’s audience quickly or in a way that democratized how buried authors and Newsletter on Substack are discovered before it’s too late and they stop writing. For that to actually happen iOS readers will have to actually financially support Substack writers more. This will be the true test of the app, does it lift our conversion rates.
Will it Improve Conversion Rates?
My personal conversion rate is well below two percent of my free subscribers. I don’t push paywalls and locked content, but I might have to start doing so. I’ve heard some creators talk of 5% conversion rates, which I find nearly hard to believe.
Substack plans to launch new features and functions to the app as it continues to develop it, noting that this is just the first version of the app. As for an Android launch, the company says users can currently sign up for a waiting list. The more ways readers can discover writers ultimately is good for their exposure. What substack needs is actually more topics and tabs on its front page.
Apple and iOS Users May be More Willing to Pay Substack Subscriptions
In theory Apple users are financially better off and might not mind throwing a few dollars into subscriptions of people that move, inform, entertain or inspire them on Substack! (though Apple might take 30% of this revenue, I’m not sure how that works).
Like existing newsletter posts, creators can decide whether they want to keep videos behind a paywall or not. The feature adds another creative way for newsletter publishers to keep their subscribers engaged. Video might actually work better via the Substack app and could also attract some younger creators hopefully.
Substack is Known for Newsletters but Could Expand
So while Subtack starts with Newsletters, it could end up being a Podcast and Video platform for Creators as well. Substack has a varied range of independent artists, journalists and political analysts. But can it attract more mainstream creators and entertainers?
The launch of the new app will likely help Substack better compete with other companies in the continuously expanding newsletter market. It’s not even clear how Substack’s real competitors are, though some say Facebook’s Bulletin, Medium or even Twitter’s Revue (acquisition) could be. In the Creator Economy you might even say that Patreon and Ghost are also Substack creators to some degree.
Note About Subscription via iOS App
This is important. But though readers can subscribe to new publications via the app, they can’t upgrade to a paid subscription or subscribe automatically at a paid level, presumably to avoid Apple’s 30 percent in-app purchase fee. Subscriptions can be updated on the web via the publication’s page in the app.
So writers might get more traffic from the App but not necessarily a huge uptick in new paid subscribers! How many mobile users, would put their phone down and go to their computer to subscribe via the web? This is not just an added click, but actually another behavior that would be required. As a Marketer I know that that greatly reduces conversion adoption.
Substack already takes 10% and Stripe takes another 3%. To have Apple’s 30% would obviously not be feasible!
See it in the App Store
Currently it’s ranked #29 in Lifestyle.
Substack exists because what you read matters, and great writing is valuable.
Use the Substack app to:
- Collect your newsletters in a dedicated Inbox
- Be instantly notified when a writer you’ve subscribed to publishes a new post
- Read posts in simple and elegant view
- Discover new writers on Substack
Notifications and Discoverability are the Big Takeaways for Creators
I think from a writer’s perspective getting a way for your readers’ to be notified is potentially huge! A more engaged audience is a more motivation one.
The app will also give Substack more signals as to what’s really good writing and what good metrics look like for its Newsletters and Creators. This data will help them optimize the product and reader experience better.
It’s important to note that Substack, the subscription newsletter platform, does not have an algorithmic feed but let’s readers find Creators pretty much independently. Though on their front page they do list Newsletters that are the highest earners or have the most followers.
So if you are among the top in any of their categories, your exposure and earnings are greatly magnified. If you are not, (which may be simply because you made a Newsletter years after others did), you may not get much discoverability baked into Substack’s website and apps.
Written Creators are a bit like the lost ark of Creators on the internet. They have largely been replaced by video creators, podcasts and even interactive creators like those who makes games on Roblox and entertain us on apps like TikTok. Substack believes that What you Read Matters.
As a Creator I just hope readers will be able to find something on the Substack App that suits them that’s of a relatively high quality. The problem with Medium’s app was that just simply wasn’t the case. What does quality work consist of in subjective commentaries on politics? I think we know what quality journalism sounds and feels like, and it’s locked away being a paywall already in 2022 in the New York Times, Financial Times, WSJ, Axios or some such place.
The Substack App could make independent writers more viewable. That’s ultimately a very good thing for the Creator Economy.
Can an iOS App make Substack more of a mainstream gig for more serious writers? That is the question.
Substack clearly thinks downloads of its apps will help writers when they say that: For writers, your connection to your readers gets upgraded when they choose to install the app.
The App will be however more a judgement of the company’s gaining popularity. Medium’s iOS app has a pretty high rating and ranking in the News section. Though I’m not sure much of its content has anything to do with News.
Is Substack an Alternative Media Ecosystem?
While Substack’s ideology is interesting, it has to be Creator centric to succeed. There’s not a critical mass of journalists active on Substack to call it a media ecosystem. However it’s cool to imagine it is, and that I’m an indie media startup within said Alt Media Ecosystem.
However Substack does not give a solution to how discoverability could work without an algorithmic feed. They just leave Writers to their own devices to gain an audience. I’m not sure this App is a replacement to a feed, it’s just another product feature for Substack’s growth as a business.
If a writer doesn’t have a sales funnel, an Ad budget, is an influencer on some platform or has a substantial Email list already, they are in a tough spot. Let’s be honest.
Still having an App is better obvious than having no app. According to Alexa rankings, substack’s audience actually intersects with CNBC and WSJ’s audience. This implies that Substack’s emphasis on cultural topics is missing an important business emphasis demographic in its product. Substack’s finance and investing community is interesting however.
Getting Past Google’s “Promotion” Folder
Since on average people receive 120 Emails a day, competing in a Promotion folder is obviously a losing cause. A substack app does give a solution to this for sure. As ever, you retain total ownership of your content and mailing list, but now you also get instant, reliable delivery (no more Promotions folder!).
A higher read-rate
Probably a higher conversion rate (if you are really good at CTAs)
Potentially more views, impressions and free subscribers
Notifications - so more loyalty and retention among your audience. (lower reader churn rates).
= All of this does lead to increased revenue.
As Substack grows, the total revenue also gets splashed down to other Newsletters, even if in an unequal way. More Newsletters will become legit part-time and full-time gigs for Creators.
The app acts as a curated collection for all the Substack newsletters subscriptions, kind of like an RSS reader specifically for Substack writers.
Android users will have to wait. That includes yours truly.
Getting your readers out of Email is actually really important. Think about it, users can view a feed of the latest newsletters they subscribe to instead of sifting through all the other spam and work emails in their inbox. Substack in the “More” tab also has then a button called “Get the App”, which I will use once again:
So Substack wins if you get more reads in their app and you win if Substack gets more downloads of the app. The Creator is tethered to its Creator Ecosystem. Where or not Substack is an AME (Alternative Media Ecosystem) really is debatable. Getting your readers reading you on the iOS app is probably a good idea.
Will the app recommend writers in some way to the readers on the iOS app? That is the question. Substack needs to up its list of tags for Newsletters from three to five, to better differentiate the niche of its Newsletters.
Download the app for iPhone and iPad here.
For Android users, sign up for the waiting list here.
Controversy and Marketing
Substack is not without its controversies of course, which I think is a bit endearing. Every Creator Ecosystem has its vibe, it’s relationship with creators and a push-pull of whether it’s worth writing on. I chose Substack because I knew it was the best thing for me out there. Other journalists and creators might not feel the same way.
Substack is way too small of a company to even consider moderation, censorship and misinformation in any serious way. That it lets its users write however they like is a luxury in such a fake internet. I’m not a fan of a lot of the political content on Substack, but I’m not a huge reader of political content anyhow.
But Substack’s controversy could actually drive an audience on iOS. That edgy vibe could be like a PR thing that makes them seem more like an Alternative Media Ecosystem to some members of the American public or even other countries.
Whatever the case may be, app download will be the key metric to watch. For Substack to grow it needs continued momentum and more writer making it big. Not just the same writers making more money.
Substack tethering itself to an image of being a censorship resistant platform also is compatible with the DeFi future of decentralization advocates who work in the Web3 community. This could appeal to younger writers and creators who might be attracted to Substack’s corporate philosophy.
Substack likely has less competition on the Web than it will have as an App. But some Creators will be able to keep an Apple product user transfixed to keep the app on their phone. Substack needs the data on who those creators are and what they tend to write about.
So that in a nutshell is my takeaway on the new iOS app for Substack.
McKenzie mentions that in addition to curating Substack newsletters, the app can also pull in any RSS feed, mingling your favorite blogs and websites with the platform's newsletters.
Some reviews I read even suggested this was hands down the most interesting feature in the app! Is Substack planning to go further down the RSS reader route with its app? Who else could it join up with to make a Super-app for the Creator Economy?
Hopefully there will be a Substack option to add a tab on SmartNews. On mobile that’s already my Super-app for News where you can add nearly any publications (including Medium) as a separate tab.
The Substack App has Enormous Potential
The Subtack app is currently available for iPhone and iPad. An Android version is also in the works. The app could also help popularize Substack’s audio and video content in the near future. Substack Reader lets users tap into a writer's related content, including podcasts and videos.
Launched in 2017, Substack provides a publishing platform for monetizable newsletters covering a variety of topics, including politics, tech, finance, culture, parenting, music, comics and food. I’m excited to see if the iOS app boosts the engagement of Creators like myself and Substack’s success as a whole.
Since readers receive recommendations for new authors in the app, it may be Substack’s solution to discoverability, one of the major pain points of why Newsletter creators give up writing on Substack.
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