The Substack Network Effect: Zooming In
So Newsletter Recommendations compound in weird ways over time.
Image: Substack cofounders Jairaj Sethi, Chris Best, and Hamish McKenzie in their San Francisco offices on March 16, 2022. Photo: Krista Schlueter. via Vanity Fair.
I’m not very high on the Substack network totem-pole, when I reach out to big stars of Substack on Twitter or LinkedIn, I mostly get ignored. Which is totally okay!
Full disclosure, I’m new here. So this isn’t exactly surprising. Nobody knows who I am, and that’s fine. It’s preferable sometimes.
At first I was extremely skeptical about Substack’s Newsletter recommendations, I tried it out out (tested it on 90 Newsletters, wrote detailed descriptions), nobody reciprocated. I stopped doing it. But all is not what it seems!
But Substack is the one with the actual data, and they are pretty positive it works. So let’s think about this: (And hey, I’m glad it works for some folk!)
Recommendations improve niche visibility
Newsletter recommend others in their niche
If you can get a Leaderboard Substack Newsletter to recommend you, you are guaranteed tons of free traffic.
This is the easiest initial traffic spike to get, so get your networking chops on.
Motivationally it can also be good to mix with other Creators in your field
I used to enjoy the solo-utopia of WFH on Substack, but now in 2022 the network effect of the platform is, well, more than considerable! If you have business acumen or great soft-skills this puts you at an incredible advantage. Same if you have a good Twitter following!
The Product Feature that Saves Substack
While Substack walks the edge of the culture wars as dramatized by the New York Times and other mainstream publications, its new product of recommendations (that went live in mid April, 2022) basically partially solves its discoverability problem.
While I haven’t benefited that much yet form this particular product feature personally, I can see how others have:
It Compounds over time (significant ROI in the long-game)
Conversion rates - whatever your conversion rate is, in theory more free subscribers leads to more paid conversions.
Network effect scales as the app goes live on Android (TBA)
Lowest hanging fruit for new Substacks Newsletter and Podcasting Creators (Anchor links are now live on Substack since June 10th, 2022)
Anchor is that crazy easy app to use to record Podcasts on your mobile device.
So if we were to take on positive slant on this, Substack employees have painfully gathered tweets from their Creators on this. It’s sounds generic, but network effect and audio immersion are keys for Creators success on Substack in 2022 and it took me an absurdly long time to actually come to this realization.
We should also make note of this, after all they (Substack) are the ones with the data!
(Green turns to Gold, at the right time).
The Two Golden Apples of Substack Immersion and Discoverability of 2022
In 2022 if you can only do two things on your Substack, make audio content/podcasts and optimize your networking with other Creators in your Niche, since doing these two things could drive monetization that is a make-it-or-break-it moment for your time here.
Podcasting how blown up during the pandemic, just ask digital media, Creators and platforms like Spotify. This increases audience immersion and Substack offers it, so why not!
Doing network Newsletter recommendations effectively simply means you need to get people who are more established than you are to reciprocate your recommendation of them. This means either cold calling them or literally just recommending them and having really good lead gen that they notice, and decide organically to recommend you as well (performance reciprocity).
Unfortunately I’m not an expect at networking, but you get the general idea.
So let's head to Substacks’ favorite data point, the Twitter influencers! What are they saying? The bigger you are on Substack, i.e. the longer you have been doing it, the more this product feature actually makes sense. (Recency-evergreen bias of most platforms).
So when a new Substack Creators gets a huge spike in traffic, what actually happened? Just a few things are possible.
They made it on the leaderboards (increasing their visibility by x multiples)
A significant niche peer started to recommend them (which can be seen in stats)
If you know of other triggers let me know
But the Substack Newsletter recommendations are so new (Part of April, May, June, there’s now growing evidence in the data the trickle of free subs compounds over time and starts to add real value).
Even just a trickle, can one day become a waterfall. It’s the butterfly effect of the network effect in online publishing. It’s better than “going viral”, because it’s sustains future growth.
Suffice to say that Substack is rewarding collaborative networking instead of competition. This creates more win-win type thinking, and is a bit like apps biasing their feed to positive sentiment. The drama and attention whoring and clickbait is the “noise” that you want to reduce.
From a product standpoint, this is all substantially good stuff. But it’s how it compounds that’s the magic here.
As your Newsletter becomes more mature and your peers respect you more, your Substack growth goes from 5,000 to 10,000 free subscribers exponentially faster than it took you to go from 0 to 2,000 free subscribers basically on your own. That’s when Creators see a sustainable spike.
Think about that long and hard guys. It’s important.
This ultimately makes Substack more revenue which is kind of the point of their business model.
I don’t know Elle personally, but I’m happy for her. Not just serializing fiction on Substack but learning how to navigate and monetize with NFTs (someone is singing songs poems on TikTok).
Early Signs of Network Effect Supremacy on Substack
Like I was saying we are roughly 75 days into this experiment, it will not be difficult for me to find “social proof” that Substack wants us to have on its Newsletter Recommendation feature.
Gains dramatically improve the longer you do it and the more you grow
Gains involve Creators helping each other
Podcast integration is the single biggest thing to improve conversion rates to paid for Creators on Substack.
Top of Funnel: Network effect via Newsletter Recommendations
Bottom of Funnel: Good audio content and or Podcast / Video (in Beta)
Gergely Orosz @GergelyOroszEvery now and then I get asked why I use @SubstackInc for my newsletter and not @TryGhost (which my blog runs on). It's because while Substack charges me *a lot* more, it helps the newsletter grow more than what I pay. Some examples: 1. Network features https://t.co/29T4IYKil9
Several of the top leaderboard Creators actually go much further with LinkedIn content as we have seen with Gergely (.e.g. making posts about each other’s content) and his mates.
What’s your Substack Network effect percent?
Way to go Elizabeth! Being good at sales may be more important than being good at marketing in the end on Substack. Reminds me of Connor MacNeil (who takes you from Twitter to Zoom). Well all have our super-power, what’s yours?
Business Dev as a Creator?
Doing Substack Grow
Feeling the human aspect of growth
Getting rewarded for taking risks
Substack is a great online challenge that reminds you that you have to persevere until the Universe gives your break. If others can do it, why not you?
Video of Substack Grow
Watch Ali here. Graduate of Substack Grow Year 1.
So where is he now? 43,000 subs. @abouelatta_ali
How many Subs would you need to pay rent?
Going back to Elizabeth, so what did she REALLY say?
Substack @SubstackIncHow does a writer grow their Substack from scratch? In the first year of What to Read If, @ElizabethHeld found "gentle outreach" added up—helping her grow from 0 to 2000+ readers. Elizabeth shares the art of a cold email in three steps [🧵] https://t.co/01aCa4pCgv
So Make friends!
So reach out!
So do sales like your subscriptions depend upon it (Okay kidding, not really).
Seriously though, the Creator Economy is social.
Oh and Adam could retire doing Market exec gigs soon if he wanted to. You may have to sometimes click the Tweet to see the numbers.
Remember, the Recommendation feature launched in mid April, 2022. (April 12th, I think).
Adam has 80k Twitter followers, so he’s okay. But he drew us some nice lines, let’s zoom in on that.
See the spike in April? Guys that a straight line, up!
Anyways I’m out of room, there’s like dozens more tweets like this.
Thanks for reading! I hope it gave you something to ponder. Word of mouth can also be a seamless product feature. This enables Creators to do what matters to them most while cross pollination runs on auto-pilot in the background. That’s the power of Newsletter Recommendations and the Substack Network.