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March 18, 2024 —

Substack: where creativity meets connection

Brand designer, creative mentor and writer Sarah Robertson recently joined Substack and explores how businesses and creatives can benefit from the platform
Using Substack for small business
Using Substack for small business
Sarah Robertson
brand designer, creative mentor and writer,

Photography

Aiste Saulyte
Photographer,
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Since its inception in 2017, Substack has been an online space where writers, thinkers, and readers flock to seek creativity and connection. Whether you’re a budding author, a seasoned journalist, or someone with a story, the platform bridges a gap between writers and readers. But what opportunities does it hold for businesses and creatives?

Demand for digital newsletters has been rising, though Substack feels like more of a hybrid—part blog, part email, and part community. It transcends the constraints of traditional publishing and offers a direct line between creators and their audiences, with monetisation enabling users to derive tangible worth from their work.

As someone who straddles the line between writing free content and sharing paid resources, I’ve witnessed first-hand the software’s capacity to support creative freedom and financial sustainability. So, I’m sharing my path towards running an element of my business within the space.Using Substack for small business

Why I decided to join Substack

I became aware of the app after several clients moved their newsletters over and got curious about how it might support me in my life and work. I subscribed to several publications as a reader and enjoyed the feel of the space, which would usually be enough to inspire me to nest in. But with change afoot in my personal life, I decided to wait and see if I could justify creating my very own publication.

My why arrived in the form of a concept called Brand Seasons, a project with roots in my design, mentoring and writing practice and my work as a brand strategist, stylist and storyteller. After nurturing the idea over the last nine months and building a Substack community around the project—which charts the rhythms in our independent businesses and creative practices—I’m now on the cusp of launching a podcast, followed by a card deck and paper.

Of course, you don’t need a ‘good’ reason to write within the space. It was just my preference to have a concept to run with, something to anchor me, and it felt like the ideal time to try something new. I could justify doing it as part of my daily work.

I grappled with writerly doubts and fears and wondered if the energy invested versus the potential rewards would be worth it. But I tried to make those early days about experimentation rather than get too distracted by the wealth of talent around me.

An online community at your fingertips

The app is a hive of possibility. Not only can you discover other creators and makers, seekers and thinkers, and engage with and elevate them in meaningful ways, but there is a warmth of community and generosity of spirit.

Within my paid community, I offer monthly branding and design clinics and seasonal branding resources, and soon I’ll be hosting online drop-in sessions where members can create content and ask for advice. There is so much you can offer as a business.

The author Alice Vincent regards it as “a fun new toy for writers,” particularly against the backdrop of a dwindling traditional media landscape. She points out that “for years, the opportunities for earning money as writers have been increasingly limited. In granting writers the opportunity to directly charge for their work, Substack is massively – and pragmatically – refreshing.” On a personal level, Alice has found creative freedom: “It’s enabled me to write about parts of my life that I would never have been commissioned to write about, through Savour, and launch a literary magazine and podcast dedicated to books and writing, In Haste.”

I can wholly resonate with this since the app has allowed me to connect with a new audience and helped to carve a path for my freelance writing. I enjoy the balance of writing from both personal and professional perspectives.

Echoing this sentiment of potential and growth is Substack expert Claire Venus of Sparkle on Substack. Highlighting the trepidation many creatives feel towards embracing a paid subscription model, she advises doing “the groundwork to get to know subscribers: talk to them, survey them, relate to them and discover what they value. It’s really a question of value; valuing ourselves and our creativity and what it gives to a subscriber.” A deep connection with our audience, Claire believes, holds the promise of fostering long-term supporters, an idea that inspires optimism in independent business owners like me.Using Substack for small business

Running a business on Substack

Businesses are increasingly looking for an alternative to social media, something that can help them build a brand and connect with a community. And while the platform is geared towards writers, there are opportunities for all kinds of creatives.

Sarah Fay of Substack Writers at Work is an author, Substack expert and member of the platform’s Product Lab. She emphasises the versatility of the space. “I don’t know why every entrepreneur isn’t on Substack and using it to get people to their external offerings. With my private clients, we set up their Substack for that purpose.” She also places significance on direct connection with subscribers. “Followers are fleeting and superficial. Subscribers invite us into their lives by giving us their email addresses. It’s a very special relationship. And we own our content and our list. If Meta or X shut down, all those millions of followers are gone.”

Getting to take our list and content is a crucial consideration in an era where longevity is uncertain. It’s one of the reasons why Substack appeals to me. Plus, organic growth on the platform goes beyond anything I’ve experienced with traditional email marketing.

And yet, the challenge remains to draw readers in without succumbing to saturation. Substack’s ‘Notes’ feature, for instance, introduced a social element many users didn’t respond well to, with some suggesting their experience of Substack felt faster. And it is social media, except the algorithm doesn’t appear to privilege frequency, only engagement, so you don’t have to be on there regularly to get traction. Sarah advises “posting genuine, quality ‘Notes’ that people will engage with.”

Tailoring your experience on the platform

‘Notes’ can be overwhelming, but the feature can also bring writers together to spark meaningful conversation. It’s about managing your energy on the platform and being conscious of consumption.

One of the things I’ve been most inspired by on Substack is the breadth of writing I see. Some of my favourite authors are there, I enjoy the serialising of memoirs, and I’ve found new writers through those who share my interests. There’s also a generous dose of advice on the platform about the craft of writing itself. But articles with strategies for attracting subscribers, hitting bestseller status, or achieving financial milestones? I find they can overpower the experience. I occasionally read them because they are practical and actionable, and I wrote about my first six months on Substack myself. But I’m mindful of what to take with me and let go of because being there can stoke the flames of comparison, much like any other digital space.

I asked Alice about saturation, and she noted: “Conversations are beginning to happen around quantity and frequency of newsletters, and that’s something I think about a lot: how can we convince people they are getting something they value without bombarding them with content?” And I think that’s the big question. What are we truly giving our readers? How are we encouraging them to join and stay?

Alice added: “I think there’s a real honesty to Substack in that income is generated directly from the people who engage with the content; there’s no room for marketing gloss. People are getting more savvy about branding but are still fundamentally handing over cash for the writing and offerings they want to actively invite into their inbox.”

But will writers need to offer something truly special as the platform grows? I asked Sarah how an increasing writer population will continue to charge a monthly subscription: “My understanding is that there are more than 17,000 Substacks and over 40 million people reading on Substack. Those are excellent odds!”Using Substack for small business

My future on Substack

When I launched, I planned to share the knowledge accumulated in almost two decades of running my businesses. But I wanted to do it differently and take the user on the trail of ideating, creating and launching a project with me. I love documenting progress and welcoming feedback, and it feels good to shape my plans with my subscribers in mind. This is possible because Substack is more than a newsletter. I liken it to a playground where readers and writers can build, grow and share.

As I put the finishing touches to this piece, I was delighted to see Claire touch on the essence of the article in conversation with her members: “My strongest pull is self-expression. I never set out to do this work. It called to me to pick it up and so I did, and I’m grateful to do it.” This sentiment beautifully encapsulates why many choose Substack: the drive for creativity and connection.

Tips for enjoying Substack as a reader

  1. Curate your feed: Start by thoughtfully subscribing to newsletters that align with your interests. Over time, refine your subscriptions based on what adds the most value to your reading experience. Don’t be afraid to explore different genres or topics outside your usual preferences—Substack’s diverse community is perfect for discovering new interests.
  2. Engage with writers: Take advantage of the interactive features by commenting on posts, participating in discussions, and sharing the content you love. Many writers adore feedback and relish the chance to engage directly with their readers, and you can become part of a community and deepen your connection with creators whose work you enjoy.
  3. Use the discover feature: The recommendations tool is great for finding newsletters you will enjoy. It highlights popular and emerging publications across various categories. Regularly checking this page can help you find hidden gems and broaden your reading list with high-quality content you might not have found.

Tips for embracing Substack as a writer, creative or business

  1. Trust your voice: Write about topics that interest you. Creating content that you’re passionate about is more enjoyable and sustainable in the long run. It allows you to explore a range of subjects without confining yourself to a strict niche, making your publication a unique reflection of your curiosity and knowledge. And this authenticity attracts readers who share your enthusiasm.
  2. Embrace play: Don’t be afraid to experiment with themes in your writing or explore various content types, whether it’s essays, short updates, interviews, or multimedia posts with audio and video. A playful approach keeps your newsletter fresh for both you and your readers. Plus, trying new things can lead to unexpected discoveries and opportunities.
  3. Foster community: Share content that prompts collaboration, discussion or feedback. Engaging with your readers through comments, polls, or the new survey function can transform your newsletter from a one-way channel into a vibrant space, enriching the experience for everyone involved and providing valuable insights into your audience’s preferences.

I hope this offers a fresh perspective on Substack not just as a digital platform for publishing but as a space for growing a community. Do you think you’ll give Substack a try?

___________________________

Sarah is a brand designer, creative mentor and writer. She collaborates with clients to define their vision, craft beautiful visuals and discover their voice through her studio, These Are The Days. Originally from Edinburgh, Sarah now works from her home nestled in the Scottish Borders alongside her partner, two children and their curious cat. You can learn more about Sarah on Instagram, Pinterest and Substack. She also shares seasonal Inside Story letters with her email community and co-hosts the Gathering Stories club, a monthly co-working session dedicated to content creation.

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