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On The First Full Substack Year
Successes, Failure, and a Near-Complete Lack of Marketing Skills
Because most people found my blog through a particular article, there is a distressing but personally convenient lack of conspiracy theories about my identity. For anyone who hasn’t read that article, I’m not “anybody” in the sense of being a famous person who assumed a pen name; I’m anonymous because I exist in a weird limbo-zone of being just known enough to occasionally generate slight controversy, but not anywhere near famous enough to tank those controversies and come out the other side unscathed if my writing were to damage my employment status.
When I started the blog last November, I actually didn’t have any significant expectation that anyone would read it. I hoped so, but my body of writing up to that point consisted of a half-dozen internet sketch scripts and a few collaborative articles. The main purpose of writing at that time was to relieve depression; I was fairly low and asked my wife to make me a logo for the blog so that I’d feel obligated to write at least a few articles to justify her effort. Everything that’s happened since has been a large and profoundly unexpected bonus.
It being Christmas and I having slipped into a sort of coziness yuletide stupor, I’m going to be a bit lazy by copying everyone else and doing a “my year in Substack” status post. I doubt there will be very many deep insights in this one, so if you aren’t into vaguely worded inside-baseball stuff, this might be the article to skip.
All the Big, Repeatable Wins Come From Big Shares
Most of the people I know who are in the “just getting started” phase of blog-writing tend to hover around the 1-200 hits per article range for a long time, often never getting that “kick start” they need to get the snowball effect going. This is broadly what I expected the blog to do. I’ve had a few projects of different types that fizzled in similar ways, so it wouldn’t have been surprising or even that disappoint to have it “fail”. This isn’t what ended up happening.
My first-ever post was boosted by a long-term internet friend on Andrew Sullivan’s Weekly Dish (thanks, Chris!). That post now sits at about 5,000 views. It’s hard to express how weird it is to expect two or three views from patient friends on a post, get them, then about a week later start seeing updates of 100-200 views every 15 minutes or so. It was bizarre.
My third-ever post was an attempt at a weird meta-point about earwax removal. When I pitched the concept to my wife, I said something very close to “Is it OK to write something you know nobody could possibly care about?”. Right after I wrote it, a friend (thanks, Ryan!) pointed me in the direction of Tyler Cowen’s Emergent Ventures grant, which was described to me as “100k to help new writers and other projects”. I didn’t expect to actually win it due to not being that “heady” of a blog and having a right-wingish alignment and that expectation proved true, but Tyler did end up linking to the earwax article (thanks, Tyler!) I had sent him as an example. That article stands at ~23,000 hits today.
This is the only method for significant “boosts” I’ve found for the articles in terms of things I can cause for free through deliberate effort. If I was to give advice to a new writer on how to find an audience, it would nearly 100% of the time be “find people with large audiences who are aligned with what you wrote, and then ask them/beg them/bribe them/flatter them into linking out to your stuff. A fairly niche blog like Marginal Revolution can push tens of thousands of hits through inclusion in a link storm - there’s no upvotes or community choice involved, there’s just that many people reading his recommendations every day. I’ve never had a link-out in something bigger (Shapiro or NYT, say) but I shudder thinking about the magnitude of the traffic.
The REALLY Big Wins Are, So Far, Unduplicatable
When I say deliberate effort above, I mean that; there’s some absolutely massive boosts I’ve had that I’m completely incapable of making happen again - at least through deliberate effort. If you are are here reading this, it’s most likely because of this article, which was posted on Hacker News by an internet friend (Thanks, friend!). It did unbelievably well. Then this article was posted by someone who presumably came to the blog from that first wave (10k hits), and then this one (~40k hits). But after that, it dried up.
The thing about how the internet share-o-sphere is set up is that it almost entirely only accepts “I found this by chance and think it’s neat” as a format. Worse than that is “My friend wrote this article” - people trust it less, and are less likely to click. Worse still is “I made this, but here’s an emotionally compelling reason why I’m posting it”. Worst of all is “I wrote this and would like people to read it” which is where the vast majority of anyone’s work is categorized.
For the most part this is good - there’s enough bloggers and videographers who want fame that if all of them posted all the time, all the content you’d see would be optimized for how much promotion someone is willing to do, instead of the better “good enough to share” standard. It took me long enough to realize this that I’m pretty sure I badly annoyed Hacker News; for the most part, I just don’t try to post my own stuff in “forum” or “reddit-like” environments anymore; it’s not the way they are designed to work and it’s sort of a jerk move to try and subvert it. All you can do is write and hope it happens again, but you don’t have any way to encourage it beyond that.
Some Kinds of Promotion Are Reserved For The Already Successful
The only way a Substack grows is through tweets. I am like 85% serious when I say this. I have been featured in various Substack leaderboards, newspaper articles, podcasts, radio shows, and blog posts since Platformer began. The only thing that ever moves the needle is some screenshot of a paid blog post getting 500 likes. I wish I had other obvious avenues for growth, but to date it really feels like it’s Twitter or nothing.
That got me thinking, because so far Twitter for me has been sort of nothing; some very nice people have posted my very largest articles, but mostly the traffic from this has been pretty easy to lose in the mix. I’m definitely not the best at Twitter, but the huge difference between “I only grow from Twitter” and “Twitter does nothing” coupled with the idea made me suspicious there was something besides a lack of skill at play.
Checking on who Casey Newton knows, we find he has a pre-existing network of journalists of some kind or another who know him, know his work and have pretty big audiences himself. Freddie DeBoer has done pretty well this year too, but also built his core audience in a mainstream-journalism way. There’s nothing wrong with that; both earned their success. But it does bring up the question of who does well on Substack writing mainstream journalism-ish stuff without that kind of background. So I asked:
In addition to Jesse’s suggestion, I thought of Richard Hanania who wasn’t exactly a household name before his Substack. But even Richardson and Hanania had fairly Substantial mainstream contributions and networks before their first Substack posts, and at least somewhat maintain them now.
That’s a really long, inefficient way of saying that depending on your definition of “success” it’s not obvious that Twitter is a useful way to get the snowball rolling on Substack popularity for general-topic writers, if only because it’s not clear that anybody has ever become a popular general-topic writer “from scratch” on Substack at all.
The summary of all the marketing stuff here is this: After a year, I don’t really have any advice for others (or myself) more concrete than just trying to write well, and then doing what you can within polite boundaries to get it read. Of course there’s some priorities in how I approach that - I’m much more likely to email someone with an audience a link to my article than anything else - but for now I’m mostly stuck to the same “write well and hope it works” tactic (almost) everyone else is.
My audience has come from a few different sources, but Substack’s metrics aren’t always the most granular and it’s often difficult to track the proportions of my audience that come from different interest groups. To the extent I can figure out the general shape of where my subscribers are coming from, my read of the data usually makes me think of y’all as mostly belonging to three broad groups: The left-aligned, the tech/start-up readers, and other Christians.
A lot you came from Sullivan’s blog which is broadly but nowhere-near-entirely left aligned. Another portion came/stayed because my most popular article is talking about being poor and how bad it is, which is fairly universal but a little more left-aligned than right aligned.
I can’t say for sure that this is the biggest cohort of my readers, but I suspect it is because I can see when people unsubscribe. While I often write things that people disagree with or might not enjoy, there’s a significant noticeable bump in unsubscribes when an article is right aligned (say, criticizing CRT or the FDA) as opposed to any other topic big enough that it hints at my actual readership being more left-than-right.
I’m thrilled about that for the most part. For one thing, I’m really afraid at some point I’ll be pushing something I haven’t thought about hard enough and won’t get called on it, which seems less likely with y’all around. But it’s also just better. I’m writing stuff that’s necessarily going to be more right-aligned and Christian-aligned (because that’s what I am), but having people around that are generally-not-that is probably a good sign about how I write; if at some point all I have around are people who agree with me because I’m on the right side, I’m not really where I want to be.
An awful lot you are here because you saw me on Hacker News, and that readership is broadly software engineers, founders, product people and the like. Scott Alexander buckets tech and start-up aligned people broadly as “gray tribe”, a sort of not-red-not-blue tribe that tends to think about things in a way fundamentally different than either, and while I probably don’t see it exactly as he does I broadly agree.
I said above that the left-aligned are probably my biggest cohort, but for that to be true I’m also counting on my remembered history of who-subscribed-when, and Sullivan’s traffic has insane subscribe rates well beyond everyone else. I have a suspicion that a lot of very tech-savvy people “subscribe” in different ways that I can’t track and there might be more of y’all than I think.
I sometimes think I might be broadly failing this audience by not doing more cool-science stuff; I’ve been writing a lot more qual than quant as compared to before, and I was never maximally quant anyway.
I have something like five pastors subscribing to me now, and a bunch of people who are by various definitions Christian have reached out for chats. It’s nice to have some people from my primary cultural alignment around, especially because I talk about faith a lot and it makes it easier on me to know that there’s some people for whom that’s directly and immediately relevant. It’s a small but growing part of my readership.
What I don’t know, and I haven’t been able to figure out, is how people who found me in ways primarily related to them being Christian (I.E. a Christian friend, Christian website or a poster-board pasted up in Berean by the testa-mints) did so. Where y’all coming from, traffic-source wise? Let me know at residentcontrarian.substack.com.
The interesting bit about having these three kinds of readers (and others, but these are the big ones) is it keeps me a bit more honest in terms of how I frame things. It’s more complex than this, but think of it as the tech-tribe people tend to want a take that works out a bit more logically, the left-aligned people wouldn’t like it if I misrepresented them too badly, and the Christians just being around keep me from drifting too far from my personal center without thinking about it hard first.
Problems I’m Trying to Solve
Here’s some stuff I’m working on to make the blog better:
I’ve mentioned this before, but I haven’t been writing enough. I’m putting together another article this month which if it gets finished in time (it should) will put me at four articles of some time this month, which is pretty much “on track” for me. I have a lot of excuses as to why that hasn’t been happening recently, but it comes down to some combination of “Moving house, being busy and being stressed” that I very honestly could have worked around; I just need to write more and I’m making sure that happens.
One thing I’m not sure how to handle is the idea of overall blog focus. This is a internet friend’s blog; if you had to describe the overall focus, you’d say “mostly cultural commentary and nerd-stuff explainers.” Here’s another friend’s blog; you’d probably describe hers as “trying to talk about poverty from a conservative/Christian worldview. That kind of bite-sized explanation is a positive; it makes it easier to recommend the whole blog.
I don’t really have that because I’m all over the place. Any given week I might be doing political stuff, or semi-philosophical stuff, or something about how safe it is to eat suspicious import chocolate, or something. I think it gives some people whiplash - they sign up for heartfelt articles about life, and next week I’m railing on a random blogger for being insufficiently in support of loosening seatbelt regulations. I’m not entirely sure what to do about this; ideas always welcome.
That’s about it! I know this was data-light and a little disorganized, but it was about what I could manage given the day. I do appreciate all of you a great deal, and I hope your holidays are going as well as mine are turning out to. Thanks so much for reading, and I look forward to another year with you!