Substack has built a community helping independent writers, podcasters, and creators build theirs. Today, over 500,000 Substack users boast millions of readers and listeners.
Substack started in 2017 and, within just one year, built a usership 25,000-deep. It only continued to scale year over year, largely in part to the dynamic duo of Head of Marketing Bailey Richardson and Product Marketer Katie O’Connell.
Bailey was one of Instagram’s first ten employees, then began exploring the nuances of community building in digital spaces as a partner at People & Co. She received an email from Katie who, at the time, was a student author interested in community building at the business level. The two worked together in a few different capacities until the role of community team kickstarter opened up at Substack.
Now, years later, they’ve each brought their unique philosophies around building community to Substack and identified the key ingredients that make up a well-formed community. They also launched two exciting learning opportunities for interested members: Substack Grow and Substack Go.
We sat down for an enlightening conversation with the pair and learned how, together, they’ve made Substack a powerful case study on community building and marketing.
The Substack framework: 8 tactics other learning communities can take away from one of the most successful examples in digital history
Define the seemingly undefinable
“There are probably more lyrical versions of a community definition or more spiritual versions of it. Ours isn't some incredible wordsmithing, but I think it has pretty clear parts,” Bailey notes during our conversation. It’s the ability to define the undefinable – what a community is, but also the components that make it up – that has helped the Substack model be something worth emulating. Those “clear parts” include:
A specific group of people: Know who you’re talking about, and “have sufficient cognitive clarity around who needs what you're making or what you're offering,” says Bailey.
Regular interaction for retention: Find reasons and ways to make people want to come back together. “The power of a community is that it sort of becomes a groundswell,” says Bailey, “and people might start sharing information or getting to know each other over time, instead of just going to one marketing event once and never talking to each other ever again.”
Shared passion or interest: There are so many things people care about, and those passions or interests evolve overtime. As community builders, we have to find that specific niche or angle that people don’t yet have a space to explore those in.
Why does this formula work, time and time again? It’s because they’re actionable steps, and can be easily measured to determine effectiveness.
“[Have] a way that your most passionate community members might be able to hear from you and you have permission to communicate with them.”
Allow community members to take on bigger roles
While many of your community members want to simply show up, participate, and share, there are sure to be some who would prefer to assume positions of leadership and have active roles in shaping the community.
“Something that I've been trying to learn and lean into more is creating more leaders [within your community] so that you don't feel like the weight is all on your shoulders,” says Katie. “There are so many people that want to show up more as a leader.”
Bailey echoes this sentiment with “You may start doing a lot of the work and a lot of the organizing yourself, but you have to switch modes eventually and get people in the community to lead and organize the things that you once were leading.”
Your members make the best leaders because they can tap deeper into what your community truly needs. Being members themselves, these community leaders are acutely aware of the challenges, goals, and desires of their peers. When you empower and enable community members to step up as leaders, you can pivot your focus to additional member acquisition, improved retention, and creating more foundational ways to better support members and deliver continuous value over time.
Check your assumptions at the door
In the early stages of building a community, it can be easy to make assumptions – you theorize about who your members will be, what they’ll need to succeed, and how you can make that happen. “It's like you're talking in theoretical documents, and spreadsheets or whatever, until you actually really meet people and hear what they want,” says Bailey.
But this idea of checking your assumptions at the door can’t and shouldn’t end once your community is up and running. In fact, Katie and Bailey still host a weekly Office Hours, despite Substack’s massive audience of millions of subscribers who support the platform’s tens of thousands of writers and creators. This gives creators a chance to share their own comments and concerns, but it also gives Katie and Bailey a lens into what these folks need to be better members of the Substack community.
“Having a way that your most passionate community members might be able to hear from you and you have permission to communicate with them,” says Bailey, is the most critical thing you can do throughout the lifecycle of your community building efforts.
“Storytelling about the community and featuring people is really essential to opening up relationships. It's a natural vehicle to start a dialogue with someone.”
Use storytelling to show, not tell
Thousands of subscribers tune into Substack’s newsletter because they do storytelling so well. It’s one of their most effective forms of marketing – and something other communities can emulate, no matter how big or small their followings:
“But we use storytelling by featuring writers and the search for people to write about and the search for people to put on the homepage as one way that we kind of have momentum and a rhythm as a team of going out and figuring out who our community members are,” says Bailey. “We’re sending them notes about featuring them or working with them, so I think the storytelling about the community and featuring people is really essential to opening up relationships. It's a natural vehicle to start a dialogue with someone.”
By reaching out to Substack users to tell their stories, Bailey and Katie have been able to host intimate discussions about their needs, goals, and concerns. Communities at any scale can do this: Get your members in front of you to tell their story and, naturally, you’ll be able to pull on more threads to understand what they’re really looking for.
Storytelling is an equally strong marketing lever that allows your prospective members to resonate with existing ones and align their own stories with the ones they’re reading about. When you’re showing rather than telling, the connection is that much deeper.
Keep your doors open
One of the most effective tools for retaining members doesn’t require fancy software or flashy events.
“The reality of a lot of the writers on substack is they’re one-person businesses. It's on their shoulders to stick with the writing week in and week out, month in and month out,” says Bailey. “Helping them have an opportunity to connect, get inspired by other writers, and also maybe get some emotional support – you're basically like a coffee shop owner. You need to just make sure that the coffee store is open. And sometimes people are going to be able to come in, and sometimes they aren't. It's your job to keep the door open.”
By simply being available as community leaders or by giving folks the spaces they need to connect whenever, however, is one of the best ways to retain members. When they do show up, Katie says, “celebrate thoughtful participation.” Even in a community as large as Substack’s, Katie notes that she’s identified regular, thoughtful participants and thanked them personally or sent them swag.
Keeping your doors open means allowing feedback loops to flow endlessly. When you know what your members truly need, you can shift from building “for” a community to building “with” a community. That distinction is crucial to effective, sustainable community growth, and it gives your members a chance to really be involved in the creation process.
Make asynchronicity feel like synchronicity
With a community as global as Substack’s, synchronous events can be difficult to pull off as folks in different time zones aren’t able to join, but Katie and Bailey have managed to recap and recount the value of these synchronous events in asynchronous formats for people to access on their own. They’ve achieved this by:
Creating events where the Substack team is present for part of the time, but leaves the rest of it open to free member discussion
Live Zoom components of events for more auditory listeners as well as a written memorialization that is more evergreen for folks who want to read or refer back to it again and again
Understanding how members learn best and the features they need in place to provide value has been critical to the success of Substack’s two learning experiences: Substack Go and Substack Grow.
“We rely on these writers who have become stewards of the space to help us keep it a vibrant and valuable place for writers.”
Form learning experiences around a key insight
As mentioned, Substack’s unique learning experiences, Substack Go and Substack Grow, were born around insights extracted from talking with and observing Substack members.
One of the biggest insights Katie and Bailey learned was the need for guidance: Guidance on how to run a business, guidance on how to use subscription tools, guidance on how to really use Substack to grow support – and this not only addressed a critical need for the users of Substack, but it opened up an additional revenue stream for the business.
By opening up applications to the broader community and also personally identifying a few key players they knew would define the culture and the stakes for participation within this learning experience, Katie was able to create a really robust teaching that focused on this idea of guidance.
To drive this insight home, Katie leaned on the writers themselves even more so than the brand’s own lessons. “We wanted to bring writers’ voices forth just as much as Substack’s guidance, because it's one thing for us as the brand to say something, but it’s another thing for a writer who's succeeded on the platform to say it,” says Katie. “Writers can see themselves in these role models much more than they can see themselves in the numbers.”
Be the first people at the party
Startups and smaller communities today face a ton of pressure to show fast ROI and rapid growth, but Bailey insists that starting from step one will be the thing that gives you permission to jump ahead to steps three and four quickly. “For certain startups, they think community building is marketing. You probably are not going to have a ton of money sitting in your back pocket to fire off ads or make acquisition plays. I think those tactics are better, typically, for later stage businesses where you have a clear value proposition and your fires are already going,” Bailey says.
She uses the analogy of being the first people to the party in order to get your initial community really excited and rallied around what it is you’re doing. “I often think that doing the work to get the first group of people really excited about whatever you're building is the only way to get permission to get to step three or step four.”
When you’re able to get that first 10% invested in your mission, you can start to enact the scale and growth tactics that will help you actually start to see ROI and other signs of success. There are no shortcuts and, in many cases, you’ll have to use methods that aren’t scalable in an effort to get those early adopters bought into your community.
The future of community from Substack’s dynamic marketing duo
“I just hope everyone finds the community that's most meaningful to them,” Katie says. “And maybe that's like a cheesy answer. I'm really excited about in-person communities starting to come back more, and I hope that there are more opportunities for those opportunities to be fun, but also for them to be rooted in emotional support and guidance and things that help people move forward in the world.”
Bailey follows up that, in order to do this, the conversation about format is going to be increasingly more important. “I think more three-dimensional: The more your senses are getting engaged, the more emotional it is, the more meaningful it is for the people who are participating. And that doesn't mean that everything needs to be kind of like a physical event. Just giving people an invitation to a place to meet new people and be generous and kind and curious. It's a really beautiful thing to create an invitation to people to come meet new folks that they otherwise wouldn't know and to make a space where that feels good. I think people are really hungry for that.”
Creating spaces where people can come together not just to learn or converse but to hear, touch, and experience new ideas is critical. It’s a trend that has both Katie and Bailey excited for the future of not only the Substack community, but the future of all learning communities.
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