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10 Tips to Make Your Substack Speak for Itself
Why that first impression should be a lasting one...
I’ve seen a lot of discussion on Notes about how we can all make ourselves known without doing much leg-work. Sure, Substack is great (algorithmically speaking?) for getting us found, not to mention what other Substacks are doing for us on the Recommendations front (more on that later) but how can we help those who are going out of their way to help us? I’ve got a few “unique to Substack” ways but I want to start with a book that I think every writer (whether fiction or non-fiction) should have within arms reach while they work, and that’s’s Steal Like an Artist:
Just reading the description should make you want to buy this book (if you need convincing) not that the title shouldn’t hook you already. Read to the bottom where I’ll share that description for you because it’s so good I had to include it here! Oh, and while you’re about to buy this book (cause you are, right?) might I suggest also getting Show Your Work. It has also helped me at moments of self-doubt when I feel like my creative endeavors aren’t worth it and no one wants to read it. This book has helped me keep going on those days that happen more often than I care to admit. But enough gushing, let’s get to work!
TIP #1: Substack Name
What is your name? And I don’t just mean your Substack name. But the name that I’ll see when I receive your email in my inbox. There are multiple ways to name what you’re doing just within Substack and making sure it’s consistent and unique to you is important.
Dashboard → Settings → Basics
Dashboard → Settings → Publication Details
And if you’re like me, having multiple “contributors” on your publication there is one more place where the name is most important:
Dashboard → Posts → New post → Add a guest byline
No matter what name you choose sometimes you want it to be the same across the board, sometimes you don’t. Just make it make sense. My main Substack name is Erica Drayton Writes (and God willing it will not change ever again!). The reason, as my wife so simply pointed out, is because I want people to search for my name and when they do to actually find it. I am a nobody so if I want whatever I write to always pop up in something like a Google search, all I have is my name. Searching something obscure (yet clever IMHO) like “Pen to Paper Stories” doesn’t really point to Erica Drayton. The choices we make, especially if we aren’t going to rely on Google Search Console and other SEO-related tactics, is important and will translate in the long run.
TIP #2: Short Description
You may not think it’s important to fill out the short description in Substack but it’s probably the MOST important and I’ll tell you why.
Dashboard → Settings → Basics → Short description
The words you use in the description are used when searching in Substacks very own Discovery/Explore page. So, if that keyword isn’t in your Substack name (maybe because it doesn’t quite fit?) then I implore you to put it in your short description. Beyond the Wizard is a great name but it has nothing about Oz or the Yellow Brick Road, two things that are unique to not only the first book but the entire series. And while, yes, it can (if you want) appear on the welcome page which is the first thing newcomers will see, the more important part about it is how it assists the search algorithm.
TIP #3: Categories
Dashboard → Settings → Basics → Categories
Even I’ll be the first to admit that Substack is clearly more skewed towards non-fiction cats than fiction because we are limited to just two, and I wish they would allow us to create out own categories the way we can with Tags, but we gotta work within the parameters we’ve been given. Therefore, at least be present in the Fiction category for heaven’s sake! If you haven’t selected a category I throw my hands up and you might as well never complain about lack of subscribers because you’ve got no excuse here. So, go, now and pick a category for the love of Pete! And while we’re all here, who the heck is Pete?
TIP #4: About page
Now, don’t be intimidated or scared. You knew I was going to get to this eventually. Many ignore this like the plague because it requires us to talk about ourselves! ICK! I hate it too. What can I say about me that would sound or feel even remotely interesting to the stranger who comes along? I am, for lack of a better phrase “a nobody.” Let’s take a peek behind the curtain of our souls on this one because we simply cannot allow the blanket statement that Substack so graciously puts in there for us to be how we are perceived to the world!
Dashboard → Settings → Basics → About page
To their credit, Substack tries to help you along with what you should say in your About page, “detail the benefits of reading your publication.” Just on that statement alone you’ve got the makings of basic content you can put on your about page. I like to rely heavily on sections. If you’ve got them, explain what they are and what each section will provide the potential new reader. It’s not poetry or the Mona Lisa on the wall but it’s not meant to keep a person staring at your about page. You want them to glance it, get the gist of who you are, subscribe and then never visit your about page again. It should be the first impression that makes someone want to “know more.” And that part comes via a subscription button. So put one there! Sheesh!
If you have accolades that are relevant to your publication, no matter how small they may seem to you they may not be to the visitor. For instance, I have multiple collections of Oz books from paperback to special anniversary editions to box sets. That might mean nothing to a visitor in my main Substack but when it comes to Beyond the Wizard, heck yeah! Don’t check my work otherwise you’ll discover I haven’t done what I just suggested. The reason is because I haven’t felt the need. Community is growing at a steady pace already.
What niche thing do you have that you can share in your about page that someone visiting would be impressed by and therefore subscribe? Maybe you have a fascination for serial killers and in college your wrote a dissertation on female serial killers and now, decades later, you’re writing a series with a female serial killer who’s getting away with it because they are still not taken seriously in the annals of time. Am I talking about myself? Do I have a serious obsession with serial killers? Mind your business! We’re talking about you here, not me…
I expect to see about pages that speak to you in some fashion, so get to work, people! And share your about page link in the comments if you want my advice. I’ll provide it to anyone who wants. I’m not an expert but in using the Steal Like an Artist blueprint I’ve seen my share that work and don’t work and I’m willing to delve deeper with anyone who wants.
Let’s take a moment to remember this is a marathon not a race. Is that the saying? So, if this is becoming too much for you to wrap your head around, go back and work on the first 4 tips then come back to this one when you’re ready. I’ve started multiple Substack publications so for me now, I have all this stuff answered before I even begin and just copy/paste it in when I’m ready to go. I want you to be able to get this stuff out of the way so you don’t have to go back with trepidation if you don’t want to. All of these areas should be a sort of “set it and forget it” model. Not that we ever do. But it’s good to dream!
TIP #5: Welcome page
After someone has chosen to subscribe your work is far from over. Imagine, if you will, you’ve been selected to have one piece of art in a room with other artists who also have just one piece of art as well. Your publication name and short description were on the pamphlet handed to the strangers who walk in, at the door. They read that and are interested so they are now looking for you. The about page is the guide (road map, if you will) on the floor that will help them get to you. The more they read there, the more they are excited to see your work. Then they spot you. Your one piece of art on the wall. They love it! They want to shake your hand and tell you! So they subscribe in the hopes that in doing so they will get more. And they will, of course, but first… let’s be nice and say hello or even thank you, shall we…
Dashboard → Settings → Basics → Welcome email to paid and free subscribers
If you have paid turned on then you might consider having a different welcome email. Especially, if paid actually gets something unique and different than everyone else. You want them to know you appreciate that they are willing to pay for your work (whether it’s monthly or annually) and what you intend on providing to them for their monetary support. I recommend, and I can expound on this in another post if you want (let me know in the comments) making your “rewards/perks” things that cost you nothing to provide and that you spend very little time needing to do. Honestly, I prefer this option to be based on just wanting to give and not put some fancy thing tied to it that way you can just continue to create without added pressure.
However, we are not off the hook as a welcome email is sent to everyone so you need to at least put something in the free subscribers email. What should that something be? Well, if you wrote an about page it doesn’t hurt to regurgitate that and I’ll tell you why. If you’re reach is far then it’s likely that your subscribers don’t realize that Substack has a unique page (like a website blog site) where they can see an about page. I’d love for Substack to share the stats on visits to my about page and how many non-Substack users who subscribe to my newsletter via other channels (like my personal website or Linktree) have no idea I have an about page and therefore never see it. Because of this I feel it does little harm to do an almost copy/paste approach in your welcome email, especially if you don’t know exactly what to say. You must say something! Don’t be shy!
Start with a simple thank you for subscribing. That person has chosen to read your email when you send it. Even if you see they are also subscribed to 250 other Substacks. I try to ignore that now when I see it. I’m nearing subscribing to 50 Substacks myself and that doesn’t include all the places where I’m subscribed outside of Substack. It’s a lot of emails but I’m highly organized so it never seems overwhelming or daunting.
The point is, if you just say thanks, explain the frequency of your emails and the content they should expect to receive that is really all there is to it. Nothing to fret over. A few sentences for good measure ought to do it. Go on, write me a lovely welcome email and if you want, I’ll subscribe so I can give you my thoughts on that welcome email and if I’m interested, I’ll stay subscribed!
TIP #6: Images
They say a picture is worth a thousand words. I’d settle for a handful of words but they should be worth something. Substack gives us an opportunity to express ourselves visually and even if you are like me, NOT an illustrator or artist by any means, is no excuse for not having something visually appealing. I love a good font! I’m also self-taught on Adobe products like Photoshop. I’ve also used Canva from time to time. I’m more than willing to help you create something if you have the need for it. Here are the many, many, many places where you can and should be using images to your advantage:
Dashboard → Settings → Basics → Logo, Wordmark, Cover photo
These images for Beyond the Wizard did not happen overnight. I spent a few months getting them halfway decent. I’m sure they could be better if I were a professional but I used the tools I had access to and I came up with something that, upon sight, would let someone know what they were signing up for. That is all that can be asked of you.
If you are sharing your posts on social media, having a social preview image is important. And now that Substack has given us access to free images within the post as we write it makes this part even easier. I love uniformity so I will go the extra mile to create a standard image that I use for all posts that are the same, such as my First Edition emails.
TIP #7: Header / Footer / Banner
If we are sticking with the idea that our communication with our audience happens via email, then we must take a look at our headers, footers, and banner image. I use the plural for header and footer because if you have paid turned on then what a paid subscriber will receive is different than free subscribers. I can share more on just these sections that would make this even longer than it is. Let me know in the comments if you want to learn more.
Dashboard → Settings → Publication details
TIP #8: Sections
You may think this an afterthought, and in many ways it is. My sections sort of came together when I realized they existed and how great it was to use them. They are like an “audience” if you are coming from Mailchimp. Of course, everyone will likely be subscribed already to all of your sections but you can, and should, help them to understand how they can pick and choose which they want and don’t want to receive. I’d hate for someone to unsubscribe because they don’t care to receive my First Edition emails every month (though who wouldn’t want that email?!).
Dashboard → Settings → Sections
I suggest making each section you create make sense. With regards to my Beyond the Wizard Substack I am creating one section per book. Now, if I wanted to, I could create one section per author and then use the Tag feature to separate each book or visa versa, which, now that I’ve said that I think I just might add a Tag for each author… Whatever you decide to do as long as you know the bigger picture reason it’s an OK decision in my book. Also, I would suggest you make that decision early on in your Substack building career. The last thing you want is after hundreds (or thousands) of posts to be splitting and dividing them in four different ways. That would be a lot to manage.
NOTE TO SUBSTACK TEAM!
I hope you’re reading this, and if you are, the ability to edit posts in bulk when it comes to moving them from one Section to another or adding/removing Tags, would be AH-MAY-ZING!
TIP #9: Customize your theme
Some might argue that it’s not as important to putz around with your theme if people are coming to your Substack homepage once and probably never again. Not all of our readers are like us, constantly visiting and revisiting our favorite Substacks and taking copious notes on what their doing and how. But I would say, think of that first impression. Even if they decide to “Read More” when they hit that Welcome page, the last thing you want is for them to see something so basic. Especially if you have the tools to make a few key changes that fit your style. Now, Substack only allows for certain fonts and themes to be applied but I actually prefer it that way. It forces me to spend as little time as possible on the aesthetics. What I probably spend the most time on is the color scheme. Nothing wrong with basic black and white to start out with and when you are ready to add that splash of color, GO FOR IT!
Dashboard → Settings → Website → Site Design
As you can see with my Beyond the Wizard Substack, color just adds to the mood I want people who visit to have. The green for Emerald City and the Yellow for the Yellow Brick Road. Subtle but makes all the difference.
Here are my Homepage settings if you’d like to copy what I’ve done. I like that I could add a Section or Tag on the Homepage and went with The Oz Gazette so people who come to the main page will see that not only are we reading chapters but there is a monthly newspaper as well with other bits of cool Oz-related news.
Tip #10: Don’t stress the big or small stuff
I know this can be overwhelming but only if you allow it to be. Remember, most, if not all of this stuff is cosmetic. You set it and hopefully never have to think about it ever again, unless you add a section or turn on paid or make some other drastic change (like with your Substack name…) then you might need to revisit some of these Tips to update as you go.
Have fun with what you’re building. Make sure YOU like it. Don’t listen to others who may say something doesn’t work for them or look right to them. You have to live with your decision and be okay enough to let it live on while you go off and work on your next bit of content.
Bonus Tip: Recommendations
I hesitate to put this here but I feel I need to say something about it because they helped me a bit in the early days. First, not everyone is required to recommend you, even and especially if you should recommend them. It’s not a quid pro quo and we shouldn’t think of it in that way. Come at it from a standpoint of recommending a Substack that you really connect with and be sure to say why in the little reason box.
I will check out who someone I like is recommending and sometimes I will end up subscribing to that person as well. It’s paying it forward without any need of thanks. Try it if you want, but if you are only doing it in the hopes that that larger publication will recommend you then hold off because you may come away with the idea feeling bitter.
Personally, I have received several people (most recently) recommending my publication and including a reason why which allows me to include that in the Welcome page! Pretty cool. It’s like that sentence you see on the cover of a book by an author you recognize so you buy that book cause you like that author and if they like it enough to blurb on it, what have I got to lose? Does that backfire on me? Sure, but recommendations get more eyeballs on you and on that other person so it can’t hurt.
ONE MORE THING
When you have the time, the best thing you can do for your Substack is go through each and every area of the Settings in your Dashboard. Really read each option presented to you and if you are able to Edit something, click that button and just see what it says before disregarding it.
It can be an all day affair but just doing that will put you leaps and bounds ahead of most people who create their publication and leave all the little things as default.
Don’t be a default! Be a creative creator!
Steal Like an Artist Amazon Description
Ten years after its initial publication, the message of Steal Like an Artist remains powerful: embrace influence, follow interests wherever they take us, forget old clichés like writing about what you know—instead, write the book that you want to read, make the movie you want to watch. And above all, find the space you need to be wild and daring in your imagination and your work.
This 10th anniversary edition includes a new afterword by the author, discussing the book’s influence and how “stealing” has been misunderstood, and offering a unique, personal perspective on a book that’s touched so many.
Unlock your creativity
Steal like an artist.
Don’t wait until you know who you are to get started.
Write the book you want to read.
Use your hands.
Side projects and hobbies are important.
The secret: Do good work and share it with people.
Geography is no longer our master.
Be nice. (The world is a small town.)
Be boring. (It’s the only way to get work done.)
Creativity is subtraction.