Why Bidwell Hollow is Moving to Substack and You May Want to, Too

Reasons why an individual or small-team publisher should consider Substack

Nicholas E. Barron
Nov 15, 2019 · 7 min read
Photo by Erda Estremera on Unsplash

When I started my blog, Bidwell Hollow, in January 2017, there was one clear choice for a publishing platform: WordPress.

You’ve probably heard of WordPress. It’s a content management system that’s free to use. It’s been around since 2003. Millions of blogs and websites run on WordPress.

As I was setting up Bidwell Hollow in WordPress, I knew I wanted to grow an email list of subscribers. So I created an account with the email service provider Mailchimp. Mailchimp is free to use until you have 2,000 subscribers. Plus, I had previous experience using Mailchimp, so I didn’t have to start from scratch.

These two platforms, WordPress and Mailchimp, formed the foundation for what I was building: A blog that emailed readers. And things went well. For two years, WordPress and Mailchimp allowed me to publish new content and grow an email list.

But some things have changed since the launch of Bidwell Hollow. I’ve learned more about what my target audience likes to read, shifting my blog’s content strategy. And my personal and professional goals have changed. For example, I planned to make money with Bidwell Hollow by running ads. Over time, though, I realized this wasn’t a reliable way to monetize the blog.

In 2018, a new publishing platform called Substack came onto the scene. Substack is a tool for sending an email newsletter that functions as a blog. But it simplifies the process of gathering subscribers and pushing them your content.

Substack also gives publishers a way to charge for their newsletter. After all, the company’s founders believed independent publishers should have a way to make money without advertising.

I became aware of Substack around the same time I was realigning Bidwell Hollow’s strategy and goals. The more I investigated Substack, the more I realized it was a better home for Bidwell Hollow. Here’s why.

Best and worst of times with WordPress

One of the benefits of WordPress is its flexibility. You can use it in many ways to achieve many goals. But that can also be WordPress’ downside. A platform that’s a blank slate requires you to put time and effort into it. You only get the website you want if you build and maintain it.

Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash

Using WordPress for Bidwell Hollow took a good deal of work. Along with researching and writing blog posts, I had to maintain the backend of the blog. I had to create and update web pages about Bidwell Hollow. I had to format and tag each article. And WordPress relies on add-ons, called plugins, to expand the platform’s system. For example, I had to use a plugin to enable a good user experience for social media sharing of my content. Plus, each plugin requires regular updates.

By mid-2019, I was spending a few hours a week on maintaining and updating the site. This effort took time away from me being able to create new and worthwhile content for my readers.

On the email side, I struggled with Mailchimp for many of the same reasons. Mailchimp can be an excellent tool for email marketing and selling products. But all I wanted to do was email my readers when I published a new article on BidwellHollow.com. Sending emails using Mailchimp required setup and regular tweaking. There were also routine tasks to ensure people could subscribe to my email list.

As I reassessed where Bidwell Hollow was going in 2020, I realized something needed to change. My readers wanted more articles they enjoyed reading. I couldn’t provide it to them, though, without finding more time for producing that content. WordPress and Mailchimp were taking up too much of my time. And these platforms provided no built-in methods for making money.

That’s when I started investigating Substack.

Substack’s benefits

Substack removed many of the backend duties from running Bidwell Hollow.

Substack already provides many of the pages you need for a blog and newsletter. You enter basic info about your newsletter, and Substack takes care of the rest. In one click, you can add subscribe and social media sharing buttons to your content. And you don’t have to maintain an email list. Substack does it for you.

Photo by Junior Moran on Unsplash

Without having to manage these tasks, I would have more time to produce content for my readers. I surveyed my readers a few months before deciding to move to Substack. A vast majority of them said they wanted more articles from Bidwell Hollow. Moving from WordPress to Substack makes that possible.

And Substack provides a built-in method for monetizing a newsletter. As I said, I’d grown weary since Bidwell Hollow’s launch of advertising as a reliable way to generate revenue. For one thing, advertising only works if you have a massive email list. Click-thru rates on ads tend to be low. So publishers need a ton of subscribers to make it worth an advertisers’ investment.

At Bidwell Hollow’s rate of growth, it would be a while before advertisers would run ads in my emails. Plus, over the previous two years, I’d run ads in email newsletters like Bidwell Hollow. These ads produced marginal results. If I don’t believe advertising delivers an acceptable return-on-investment, how can I take advertisers’ money?

With Substack, though, you can charge a monthly fee for premium content. Substack recommends publishing one or two pieces of free content a week. You then publish another article or two that is only available to paying subscribers.

It’s a model more aligned with my worldview. I create something, and someone pays to receive it. I’m not trying to convince someone to advertise. And I’m not beholden to a large company’s paltry affiliate marketing revenue. Substack allows for a simple transaction between publisher and reader. You make something someone wants to consume, and they give you money to receive it.

Looking at the pros and cons of WordPress and Mailchimp alongside Substack’s, the decision was easy. Bidwell Hollow’s future aligned more with Substack than WordPress and Mailchimp.

The results

Was moving Bidwell Hollow to Substack the right choice? It’s too soon to tell. The extra content that moving to Substack gives me the time to create begins publishing on Nov. 18, 2019.

One way I’ll measure success is if readers react to this content by liking and sharing the articles. Another metric is subscriber retention. If people unsubscribe, then the new material isn’t resonating with subscribers.

Likewise, let’s say Bidwell Hollow’s subscriber rate increases. Such a move will show that people are enjoying the new content. And a faster growth rate can also be a sign of increased visibility of my newsletter. Discoverability isn’t one of my reasons for moving to Substack, but it could be an unexpected benefit.

The number of readers paying for premium content is another success measure. All the articles on Bidwell Hollow will be free until Feb. 10, 2020. On that date, I’ll publish the first article that’s only available to paid subscribers. Substack generally sees about 10-percent of a newsletter’s subscribers becoming paid subscribers. As of this writing, that would be about 87 Bidwell Hollow readers who agree to pay $5 a month for the premium content. We’ll see how it goes. I’ll keep you posted.

But in some ways, the move from WordPress and Mailchimp to Substack is already a success. With Substack, I’m able to perform the essential functions as I was using WordPress and Mailchimp. Except now, it takes less time and effort to do so. And that’s the main reason I left WordPress and Mailchimp behind. Substack’s created a platform that makes it easy to produce and distribute content. It’s so easy that a solo publisher such as myself can’t pass it up.

Is Substack right for you?

What about you? Should you consider using Substack? If you’re an individual or a small team, publisher, I recommend considering Substack.

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

This recommendation is particularly true if you want to make money off of your content. Having an email list of dedicated readers is the most valuable thing to a publisher. An email list opens you to various ways of making money. Building and maintaining an email list is easy with Substack.

By not managing the backend of your newsletter, you’ll have more time to create more content. Giving your subscribers more of what they like is the second-most valuable thing you can do. After all, your email list will wither without good content.

There are drawbacks to Substack. You have fewer customization options than you do in WordPress. For example, you can’t change the font in which your newsletter publishes. Or, you can’t rearrange how you format your subscription page.

And Substack isn’t the right solution for your eCommerce shop or corporate website. Substack exists for individual or small-team publishers who produce a regular email newsletter. Substack may not be the right fit for you if your needs are broader than delivering a newsletter.

But if you are a small email newsletter publisher, give Substack a look. You might like what you see.

Nicholas Barron is a writer in Washington, DC. He publishes Notes for Writers, a weekly list of the best tips and guides for writers.

Bidwell Hollow

Where Writers Come Alive

Nicholas E. Barron

Written by

Focused on writing, books, and storytelling. Newsletter for readers and writers: http://bit.ly/getbidwell Pronouns: he, him, his 🏳️‍🌈

Bidwell Hollow

Sharing stories about famous authors and poets and writer interviews. Visit BidwellHollow.com for more.

Nicholas E. Barron

Written by

Focused on writing, books, and storytelling. Newsletter for readers and writers: http://bit.ly/getbidwell Pronouns: he, him, his 🏳️‍🌈

Bidwell Hollow

Sharing stories about famous authors and poets and writer interviews. Visit BidwellHollow.com for more.

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