How to grow your newsletter audience
A guide from the former chief publicist for Substack
When I had the privilege of being Substack’s first head of comms, my primary job was helping writers promote their work and grow their audience.
Here is a collection of the advice I would give writers.1 This is focused on Substack and its unique growth features, but most of it will apply to any blogger or newsletter writer looking to build their following.
1. The groundwork: what’s on offer?
Your [sigh] “personal brand”
People hate this term, I get it. But it just means your professional reputation, i.e., what you’re known for. Your “brand” will determine how readers will perceive the value they’ll get from subscribing to you, so you need to define what you want that to be and let that guide your work.
If you already have a well established brand, then the best promotion might simply be, “Hey, if you like Person, then you’ll like Person’s blog.” If you’re relatively unknown or even pseudonymous, you’ll have to be more mindful about shaping a brand, including through your writing.
Your value proposition
Launching a newsletter is like launching a new potato chip flavor. There are already so many varieties on offer that yours has to be distinct (“slightly more salty” won’t work), and it has to be something people want (“vanilla salmon” won’t work either).
Your value proposition is the reason someone should subscribe, and it comprises these things:
What you’re offering to readers — your content strategy and the topics you’ll focus on.
Why you’re unique in offering this — whether a unique background (your experience or identity), unique content (your perspectives or chosen topics), or a unique voice (your style or personality).
Who would benefit from receiving this — understanding your target audience
A common question is whether to be a generalist and try to appeal to a broad audience, or to choose a niche and focus on a smaller, more targeted audience. As with the question of which bear is best, there are two schools of thought. I’m a big advocate for finding a niche. That's also the recommendation from top Substackers like, who often says, “The riches are in the niches!”.
Don’t try to be anotherfor example; you’ll never out-Lenny Lenny. Be #1 at your own thing.
Even if your topic is only interesting to 0.1% of the bazillion people on the internet, that’s still a TAM of a gajillion people. Claim your tiny corner of the internet and conquer outward from there.
Get your mind right
Your newsletter is a startup and you, as the founder, are your own chief evangelist. You have to believe in this project more than anyone else, and — I’m sorry — you’re going to have to self-promote.
You can’t be sheepish and half-ass this. Share your work proudly, with no apologetic throat-clearing when asking for subscriptions. Ignore the haters who hiss from the stands. They don’t matter: they’re not your audience. Your audience will find joy and value in your work, and by connecting them to that work, you’re doing them a service. You have to believe this and remember it.
To promote yourself, you have to get over yourself.
2. Blog basics: settings, strategy, posting
Your writer Dashboard has many Settings to customize. These are the things that matter most:
Publication name: Pick something you like, and don’t sweat this too much. You can change it later if you need to. One of the biggest Substacks, belonging to, was literally just called "TK” for months.
Short description: This is a one-liner or short paragraph describing your publication. It appears on your landing page and affects how you turn up on Google, so you want a compelling, succinct description. Refer to your value proposition from the section above. NOTE: please don’t make elaborate inside jokes with yourself or drop esoteric references here. The point is for readers to understand what they’re getting.
Categories: These are like tags for your publication that help readers discover you. Sometimes writers try to game the categories by choosing obscure ones where they might rank higher, but that means your target audience won’t find you as easily. Go with what’s most accurate.
About page: Introduce yourself, explain your value proposition, and clearly state what subscribers get in return for inviting you into their already-crowded inboxes. Include your full name and past work to make the page easier to find on Google. Also include the type of content to expect, any relevant examples of your past work, and the frequency you plan to publish. Here’s mine. Again, don’t stress about it too much. You can change any of this later.
Welcome email: Personalize your welcome email to new subscribers. You basically want to (1) thank people for subscribing, (2) point them to any notable past posts to get started, (3) ask them to move your email to the primary inbox to signal to their email provider that the newsletter is not spam. If you’re a subscriber, you can check out the welcome email you got from me, with the subject line, “Welcome to Flack.”
Email header and footer: These appear at the top and bottom of all of your emailed posts, and they’re blank by default. You should have at least one of them contain a Subscribe button and a reason to subscribe. Headers are a good place to reiterate your value proposition, in case your post gets forwarded. Footers are a good place to invite people to share or subscribe if they like what they just read.
Your Substack strategy is your plan for how you’re going to manage and grow your blog. Think through these things:
Frequency: “How often should I write?” Ideally, at least weekly. (I’m far from reaching this bar myself. We’re all just doing our best out here.) If you’re charging for your Substack, aim for two or more posts a week so people feel they’re getting their money’s worth. But don’t burn out! If you need time off for a vacation or personal reasons, just tell your bosses (your readers). They tend to be very understanding, even if they’re paying subscribers.
Length and format: There’s no right answer here; don't try to fit someone else's mold.is an example of breaking convention, with analytical deep dives sprinkled with memes. Other writers post essays, poems, videos, or drawings. You do you.
Metrics: Don’t get caught up in open rates or clicks, or conversion rates if you have paid turned on. The single most important metric is the growth rate of your free list. With a big enough denominator of free readers, things like open rates and conversion rates are less important.has a great post about this.
Reader service: Make it rewarding to be a subscriber. You can offer a sense of community (e.g., subscriber chats in the Substack app), hold fun contests ('s iconic View from Your Window contest), interact in the comments, or organize in-person meetups. You should also personally check in with your most dedicated readers, who will be your biggest advocates.2
Whether to charge: I suggest having paid subscriptions turned on from the start (another thing I didn’t do myself; I was a Substack employee and it felt weird). You might be surprised how many people will choose to support a writer they enjoy.didn’t paywall anything for months, yet her paid subscriber growth still exploded during that time because people wanted to show their appreciation for her work.
How much to charge: Price point varies by audience. If you write for casual readers, a more accessible rate makes sense, like the $5/monthcharges for Garbage Day. If you write for professionals like does with The Pragmatic Engineer, you can charge more (in his case, $15/month), especially because people will expense it to their employers. You also have the option to set a “founding” tier for people who really love your work — go for it. Set it high (a few hundred?), and invite fate to smile on you.
If you do charge: You should (1) still make your best posts free, (2) offer free previews on paywalled posts, and (3) offer a free trial period.
Posting: bake growth into each post
Here’s how to optimize each of your posts for growth:
Title: The title is what gets people to actually open the email or click the link. The title should preview what the reader will get in return for their time or stoke curiosity in the subject. Shorter is generally better — one of’s most popular essays is called, simply, “Jump.” And this might be controversial, but I don't recommend doing the numbered title thing (e.g., “Flack #47…”). A random number does nothing to enlighten or intrigue the reader, so you’d be leading with the least useful possible piece of information.
Body: I suggest breaking up long paragraphs and mixing up the formatting where it makes sense. Try to always include an image in each post, which will make your homepage look nicer, especially if you use the magazine format (in Settings). Images also make your post look more compelling when shared on social media.
CTAs: Your posts should contain at least one CTA (Call to Action). The most valuable CTAs are to subscribe, share, or upgrade to paid. A lot of writers have a longer blurb accompanying their Subscribe button, describing how their independent journalism is only made possible by the support of readers (does this well). When you add CTAs, just don’t put too many of them (desperate) or put them too close together (confusing).
Post Settings: The most important thing here is your social preview, the card that shows up on Twitter or elsewhere if someone shares the link to your post. You want the headline to be ace and the picture to be interesting. You can also enter a short description, but the description doesn’t show up on mobile which is where most people will see it, so don’t spend much time on it.
SEO: That’s search engine optimization, which makes it easier for people to discover your work. Especially if you’re breaking news, you’ll want to have the right keywords in your post (especially the headline) for people seeking news on that topic to find you more easily.
Big swings: Take them. Invest time in writing one outstanding post instead of 10 mediocre posts. That’s because one outstanding post can go viral and generate more subscribers than 10 mediocre posts combined. Mr. Beast strongly recommends this approach for YouTube growth, and I suspect it’s similar for most other platforms.
3. Promotion: gateways, networks, platforms
Gateways are entry points for people to discover and become interested in your work.
Here are gateways you can use.
Platforms: Where does your target audience intellectually reside? Do they spend more time on Twitter or TikTok? Are they going to professional conferences or listening to podcasts? Show up where they are, e.g., by being a guest speaker or offering interviews.
Topics: Obviously when you write about X, you should promote your work to people who care about X. But the real marginal benefit comes from promoting your work to people who care about topics adjacent to X. To use a simple example: if you write about fintech, don’t just target fintech people; also target finance people and tech people. That instantly exposes your work to a much bigger pool of readers.
People: Collaborate with influential people in your field or writers who have adjacent audiences (maybe you cover finance and they cover tech, and you collaborate on a fintech post). They’ll likely promote your collaboration to their audience. I also recommend commenting on other people’s work; they’ll often engage in return and their audience will get a free sample of your writing.
Use the Substack network
Make sure you take advantage of the many features Substack has built specifically to help writers grow faster.
Recommendations: If you’ve seen people sharing their Substack growth graphs where the line suddenly steepens, chances are they turned on recommendations. Basically, you can recommend other writers to your readers, and those other writers will be notified that you did, and they may recommend you in return. Definitely use this feature.
Endorsements: Similarly, you can endorse other writers and have them endorse you. The endorsements show up on your homepage and function the same way book blurbs do, by vouching for you to readers.
Guest posts: Collaborate with writers who have overlapping, larger, or adjacent audiences, by guest posting on their Substack or vice versa. You can also offer to interview other writers and have them interview you — basically, feature each other to get exposure to each other’s audiences.
Special offers: If your newsletter is paid, you can offer discounts, free trials, and gift subscriptions, which all help grow your paid subscribers. The craftyat Substack recently built Substack Boost, which automates the process of tailoring and sending marketing offers to subscribers at key moments.
Pro tip: If you’re on a different newsletter platform, you should switch to Substack. Then you can do all these things.
Many of your potential readers are people who will encounter you on other platforms. Here’s how to make the most of those encounters to turn them into subscribers.
Twitter: Add your Substack link to your URL field and in the body of your bio (since only your bio will show up in people’s notifications).
I strongly recommend connecting your Twitter account in the Substack dashboard’s Settings, which means your Twitter followers (who have opted in) will get notified that you’re writing on Substack and be sent a link to subscribe.
Whenever you publish a post, tweet a summary or a teaser. Screenshots of post excerpts tend to do well, and remember to include a link to your post. Twitter may still be stifling tweets containing off-platform links, so share the link in a reply to your own tweet.
Facebook and Instagram: Put your Substack link in your bio, in the body of relevant posts, and in the first comment. Jessica Reed Kraus is the platonic ideal of promoting her Substack via her Instagram.
LinkedIn: Add your Substack link to your headline, summary, and experience sections. I did it and you should too, especially if you’re writing about industry or professional topics.
Email: Include a link to your Substack in your email signature. It doesn’t have to be overly promotional; it can be a simple hyperlink.
Online communities: Share your work with relevant communities on Hacker News, Reddit, Quora, and elsewhere.
Interviews: When you do a podcast interview, ask them to put your Substack URL in the show notes, like Jim O’Shaughnessey kindly did for me here. When you do a TV hit, ask them to note your Substack on the chyron. When you win a beauty pageant, have them print it on your sash?
4. Springboard off big moments
Big moments are opportunities to capture attention. They can lead to big jumps in subscriber growth — if you know how to use them.
The launch of your Substack is your first and most important “big moment.” Milk it. Email your contacts and post on your social channels about what you’re launching, tease what you’ll be writing about, and obviously share the link to subscribe. Some writers prepare a whole week of posts in advance so they can post very frequently right at the start and build momentum for their new subscribers.
Make sure to link your Twitter account in Settings so your followers (who have opted in) can be notified that you’ve started a Substack.
Huge news stories direct a lot of people’s focus toward the same topic at the same time. If you have a unique perspective or idea about that topic, write a post and share it around. If you have a related post in your drafts, tailor it for the moment using the news story as a hook. I did this with my post about rules for talking to reporters, which found a natural hook with the SBF news cycle. You can set a Google alert for specific topics or just keep your antennae up.
Once you’ve shipped your post, share it on social media. You can also send it to press or event organizers to offer interviews on the topic, or offer to guest post for other writers as described above. Just move quickly — most news cycles are short, and so are people’s attention spans. Fast beats perfect; ship it before it loses relevance.
Make your own
You can create your own “big moments” to draw attention and intrigue: launch a new series, announce a new offering, drop an unlikely collaboration, or celebrate a milestone. One-year anniversary posts have become a Substack tradition, and they typically do well, especially combined with a special offer on paid subscriptions.
Don’t just wait for a big moment to come along; if there is no wind, row.
You don’t need to do all of these things all of the time. Do what you can, be consistent, and give it time. You’ll be amazed at the audience you can build.
If you’re a Flack subscriber, please reply and tell me your growth goals for 2023. Let’s check in next year and see how you did!
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