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Substack reminds publishers to focus on email as a product

May 3, 2021 | By Allison Mezzafonte, Media Advisor – Sailthru @sailthru

In the publishing world, Substack has grown into a bit of a phenomenon. It’s a somewhat low-tech, self-publishing newsletter platform. However, it’s gotten outsized media coverage from top brands, including The New Yorker and The New York Times. Substack has also managed to attract a number of high-profile journalists from the industry.

So why does this relatively no-frills newcomer – along with its emerging competitors like Buttondown, TinyLetter, and Revue – get so much buzz? Substack and others like it offer a bit of a twist on the typical software offering: They encourage writers to monetize their newsletters through a revenue share agreement. The company is poaching top writers with upfront incentives in order to build their footprint. This is nerve wracking for premier editors and publishers. Will their own star writers get the bug and make the switch?

The rise in popularity of self-publish newsletter platforms is now forcing media brands to consider whether they’re keeping star writers and reporters happy. It is also forcing them to reckon with their own email programs.

Newsletters are often an under-developed product. However, they have major potential to give writers a platform on which they can build a profile for themselves. They can also drive a lot of revenue. In traditional terms, it’s not much different than a writer having her own “FOB” column. These days, it’s not much different than a reporter’s active Twitter or Instagram profile. Rather than fear these emerging players, publishers should think about how to tap into their ability to retain top talent and make money doing so.

Publishers, make writers and readers happy…

First and foremost, the problem isn’t Substack. Email is a channel with enormous potential for many publishers. Substack, however, is a blaring wake-up call.

Some writers may leave for the big advance that they were promised. But many others are leaving because they want more creative control and a more direct connection to their readers. They also want the ability to directly profit from that connection.

There are publishers who have newsletters written by individual reporters, creating a more personal voice and a lighter touch in editing. CNN’s “Reliable Sources,” run by Brian Stelter, is a great example of this. Often writing late at night, Stelter confides in his readers and shares a bit about his personal life in a way that wouldn’t make sense on the website. He has a huge following. And it’s not just for a faceless roundup of the day’s headlines.

Email is an intimate, low-risk channel with which publishers can experiment to give key reporters a more visible persona. Axios has built a loyal readership by allowing reporters to publish emails under their name, encouraging them to create a human connection. Axios’ Sara Fischer is just one example.

Often, newsletters are templates that provide a list of links. Or they recycle content based on verticals of interest like travel or automotive, but with very little personality. Instead, give your travel editor the chance to write an intro paragraph. Or allow a field reporter to provide real-life snippets of what life is like on the job. These elements create more engaged readers and more differentiation from generic pubs.

Despite this proven approach, publishers are likely worried about giving it a go. They have successfully built reputable names for themselves by holding their identity close and in doing so, ensuring brand integrity and quality. Loosening the grip on the brand by allowing individuals to forge direct relationship with audiences sounds risky.  

However, not doing so also creates risk. Stifle the creative potential of individuals who attract loyal followings and suddenly, publishing your own newsletter becomes enticing. Empower those same individuals to help grow the brand and tap into new revenue potential.

…And earn revenue doing it

Speaking of improving email performance, newsletters like Morning Brew, The Hustle, and The Skimm show that entire media businesses can be launched and expanded within the channel with a lot of revenue potential. Individual writers see that. They read these titles and want that same opportunity. The good news is that publishers can give it to them.

Revenue comes from a combination of factors. The first is to create a product that attracts brands. This requires scale, quality content and an engaged audience. Then, the publisher needs to have the tools to optimize advertising with flexible templates, reliable data collection, and good testing capabilities. To maximize engagement and conversion, publishers must incorporate elements like personalization and dynamic content.

Across all of these components, publishers already have major advantages over the upstart platforms. First is the benefit of scale. Even the worst newsletter program at a major publisher is competitive against the entire volume of the independent platforms. (Substack was recently estimated at only 250k total readers.) That scale means that audiences can be segmented. Content can be targeted for more relevance, which provides another major advantage with higher chances of success.

Publishers also tend to have key software capabilities in email like personalization (often tied to customer data from the website, subscriptions, events, and the like). This allows writers to get creative with their content development, offering different elements to readers based on past behavior and content preference, for example. They also probably have tools to create dynamic elements in email. Not every writer wants to pen 1,000 words of prose. Some may be talented producers and want to share videos, TikToks, or snippets of a podcast they recently hosted. Publishers have the tools for them to play with these capabilities, and more.

Substack isn’t a threat if publishers commit to improving their newsletter program. And writers will stay if given the chance. Not only do newsletters provide writers with a relatively low-risk venue for building connections between a brand and its audience, but it’s a revenue machine in the making.

Providing the incentive for writers to make their newsletters successful doesn’t require a jump to a self-publishing platform. In fact, most publishers can provide a much more robust set of email tools for writers with what they already have. This approach just takes a publisher that’s willing to ease up on creative control and allow their reporters’ personalities and names to become a part of the product.

About the author

Allison Mezzafonte has worked in the media and publishing industry for 20 years and is currently a growth consultant, as well as a Media Advisor to Sailthru. A former publishing executive for Bauer Media, Dotdash, and Hearst Digital, Allison serves as a strategic partner to media clients.

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