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Substack Notes by the Numbers
Are they good or bad?
Okey, my first Substack Note went out on the day it debuted:
The question I had a few days ago seems to be answering itself and the numbers are both interesting and terrifying, at least to me.
I pondered if this new Notes feature was truly for readers or is it actually for Substack users. I believe there is a difference and it’s an important difference if we are to unravel the mystery of growth and how to accomplish it.
And I know what you must be saying to yourself, “aren’t we all readers?” Yes, we are. I, myself, am currently subscribed to over 30 Substacks! However, I would argue that not all of our “readers” (ie subscribers) actually have their own Substacks where they write and share regularly. At least, not till recently.
I’ve seen the charts and graphs shared of people who’ve seen quite the upswing of new subscribers. I’ve seen a similar increase as well to my own publications. Probably not to the degree and speed as others but it’s def noticeable.
There are actually two things I’ve noticed about these new subs I’ve gotten in these first four days since the introduction of Notes, and I’d love it if you’d tell me you’ve noticed as well:
The new subs have their own, quite active, Substack. Not just a profile they created.
These new subs are subscribed to hundreds of other Substacks.
The first interests me but the second frightens me to think about so let’s start with my thoughts there.
THE PROBLEM WITH SUBSCRIBING TO HUNDREDS OF SUBSTACKS WHEN YOU ALSO HAVE A SUBSTACK
Well, now that I write that in big bold letters I wonder if I could’ve phrased it differently?
What does it say to you when you receive a new subscriber email notification and see that snippet that accompanies their name:
“Reads this Substack, that Substack, and 248 others.”
I legitimately saw that the other day and thought to myself, “well, good Lord.” I’d love to know if you even think about that as I do? It has woken me up at 5am and insisted I share my ramblings and therefore here I am doing just that.
What bothers me (if bother is the right word) is a few things:
Is this person really writing their own publication and finding the time to read 200+ other publications (regardless of frequency for each that’s still a lot) and living a meaningful work life and personal life? If this is you, teach me your ways!
If, as I believe, they are treating subscribing as users of Twitter treat Follows; as a status symbol rather than a treasured commodity to have and honor that they will always be willing to read what you write when you write it, is that the trend we want to be headed down?
My fear is that soon the norm will be seeing users with thousands (if they don’t exist already) of subs to random Substacks and what once felt like something I wanted to sift through from fellow ‘Stackers, will hold less and less weight the higher their sub-to numbers grow.
I remember in the “early days” (seems strange for me to even say that now as it only pertains to about a year ago) when I would painstakingly look at everyone’s profile, especially of those I admire and think very highly of, to discover some real gem Substacks I would never have found on my own. This is before the days of Explore on Substack.
I’ll useas an example as she brought me to Substack and to her Discord server (both of which I am eternally grateful). However, back then her subscriber list was only about a dozen (maybe less?) until recently when it has ballooned to over 150! Maybe it’s just me, but that makes what was once a carefully curated list of Substacks I considered really worth exploring into one I’m no longer going to bother to look through to find the really worth while ones. I’m not saying that perhaps all 150+ aren’t actual gems. I’d like to think they were subscribed to for an actual reason just like I’d like to think Elle truly is spending an enormous amount of her time reading each and every one of them when something new comes out and taking the time to comment when it’s worth doing so. If it were me, I’d hope at least 80% of them were monthly posters or inactive altogether!
Then, what I realized was that of those 150+ she subscribes to, the new “select few” I could hone in on as “worth my time” to look into and possibly subscribe to myself are those she is a paid subscriber of. I mean, would you pay for something that had zero value to you? Even if it’s for those few precious moments that you drink that $8 latte from Starbucks? Fleeting value but value just the same. Only in this case (though not every case) the value placed on those 10+ paid subscriptions usually means “the good stuff” is tucked away behind a paywall.
SO WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?
I was honestly hoping you had an answer for me with that question. It’s a tough nut to crack and one that I find myself quickly becoming guilty of.
As of my writing this I am subscribed to 36 Substacks. I would consider that to be a lot to be subscribed to, especially considering I subscribe to others who don’t use Substack at all. And as I filter through the list, if I’m being completely honest, I don’t actually read more than half of them. I then have to ask myself why I’m subscribed in the first place?
Was it because they said something once that made me think I’d like what they’d have to say/share every time? Or because they subscribed to me and a level of obligation was there to, for lack of a better phrase, follow back? Or was it because I follow them elsewhere and was positively tickled pink to find they were now on Substack? The answer is a mix of all of these.
Does that mean I will go back over my list with a fine-toothed comb and unsubscribe? Should I do that? Would my carefully curated list of who I subscribe to really matter to anyone else but me and the mental strain it carry’s to know I’m not reading 90% of who I’m subscribed to but no one really cares so why do I bother caring.
At the end of the day I’m sure I’ll have many floundering opinions on what to do especially as someone vying for subscribers myself. I’d like to hope that although I am 1 out of 250+ subscribers for one person that changes nothing and that they will surely read what I send every time. Right? Right!
BUT WHAT ABOUT HIDING YOUR SUBSCRIBES?
You may not know this, or maybe you do and intentionally want to show off the large number of Substacks you’re subscribed to, but you can hide them from your profile. So, it’s quite possible that someone who subs to me might show that they’re subbed to 5 but really it’s 500. They’re just hiding them all. I wonder if hiding is just for their profile and the true number, whether hidden or not, will reveal itself in the email notification? Hmm…if you know the answer or would like to help me test it, let me know in the comments.
Okay, let me now step back to what I find interesting about all of this. Excuse me while I scroll back to the very top to remind myself of what I said!
Ah yes, fellow users of the platform. In this case I don’t think it’s our fault, or anyone’s fault. The issue is the barrier(s) to entry.
I love Substack, truly I do. It swooped in and saved me from the absolute hell I was in with Mailchimp. However, if I were not a writer and just a person looking to subscribe to someone else because I like their content and I sign up to that someone who happens to use Substack, it shouldn’t be as difficult as I think it is to maintain and grow the connection with that content creator. Let me explain.
THE ANNOYING BARRIERS
I’m going to lump them all together though they are each very different, but let’s discuss all at once the app, Chat, and now Notes. In order for just an average subscriber to use these things they have to create even the most rudimentary of profiles within Substack. This can be annoying to the subscriber who might have been excited to know they can read that one content creator in a cool way that is akin to an e-reader. Or that they can Chat in real-time. In both cases they used to be app only features but are web based now.
Until they discover it’s really a way for Substack to hammer them with “you should create a Substack” in as many different ways as possible. The problem is that not everyone in the world wants to write or be a writer. Yes, the common phrase of “everyone has a story to tell” is true but not everyone wants to tell it nor should they be forced to think they need to.
More and more I see the app morphing into something I’m excited to use. But the more I, a writer with five publications, am excited to use it that means it can become less exciting for the average reader who just wants to read whoever they are subscribed to and not have to jump through different hoops (ie tabs) to do so.
As much as I lament the days I used Mailchimp the one thing I can say is that my subscribers never had to create a Mailchimp account to subscribe to my newsletter or maintain a deeper connection with me. Mailchimp wasn’t trying to convert my readers into users of their platform. Thank god!
And I know, I know, Substack is different. They aren’t exactly a newsletter, though we are encouraged to send emails to our email list. They aren’t exactly a blog, though we can post just to our publication without sending to our email list. It’s not exactly Patreon, though we are encouraged (incessantly) to turn on the paid feature and if that doesn’t happen, they created pledges which isn’t exactly paid but it’s their way of pushing it onto us eventually. It’s not exactly Twitter, though we have Notes, a way to share whatever whenever to everyone or no one (ah the good old Twitter days). It isn’t exactly a forum, though they have Chat which in many ways behaves the same.
When you go down the list of all the “what Substack isn’t” you can start to question what it is. And the more I question with each new amazing feature that “isn’t quite this but is a little bit that” the more confused I become on how exactly I’m supposed to use it.
I wouldn’t be surprised if the introduction of vertical video short form content is next on the app? Or whatever new fad thing is out there that can surely be integrated into what was once a secret sauce I couldn’t quite figure out but thought was amazing.
A year out from my being a part of Substack and I can’t help but feel the sauce has now become over seasoned. And I’m not sure how much more exciting new features I can take before I decide to cut out all the noise and just focus on the features they had when I arrived and ignore everything else.
I fear I’ve gone off on a tangent and for that I apologize.
Circling back to the annoying need to create a profile to use the app, Chat and Notes.
The reason so many of us are subbed to so many other users is because as much as Substack would like us to invite our subs who they know aren’t on their email list, it likely isn’t happening as quickly as they’d like. Think about it. How many of us have imported our lists from someplace else? I’m sure they have a number of users with profiles on one side and a number of total subscribers across all Substack users on the other. That imbalance is making them, as it would any business in the business of needing to make more money to survive, wonder how they can turn those subscribers who may never have even visited Substack.com into users who willingly provide their email to make a profile and join the fold. The simplest way is to disguise these features (that they can only promote to those of us who have an account with them) as a new way to connect with our subscribers and urge us (even creating the template email for us) to share it with our list. Bring on those new users they shout!
But all it’s doing is giving us legacy users a new place and way to share our content with each other.
Don’t get me wrong, I actually LOVE Notes because unlike Chat which only shows me users I subscribe to, Notes shows me other people. A way to collaborate and share ideas without needing to subscribe! If Substack would couch a feature as something that is for us, which I truly believe Notes is, I think it could become something truly amazing for a really long time. Finally, a place for creators that isn’t bogged down with ads needed to keep it afloat. Just really great content from people I may never have discovered otherwise. Now that’s awesome.
I will end with the fact that I tried to use their Threads feature once and found no real practical use for it. Never using it again. I have not shared the Chat feature for much the same reason when it was announced. Notes is a user feature and not a subscriber feature so I see no need to waste their time with a generically written template explaining to them how they need to inevitably create an account with Substack to use the feature.
I fear Notes can become too bogged down with non-users wondering what they are reading as actual Substack users share really awesome content and that will force us to change our Notes from that of usefulness to that of self-promotion that no one will read, many will mute, and then it will turn into what we all know it’s currently not, Twitter!
I pray that Notes stays the way it is and isn’t forced to be yet another shout into the void place I used to visit back in these good old days.
Wow, this was way longer than I thought! If you stuck with my ramblings this long I commend you and I thank you and most of all I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section.