Yesterday, Substack emailed to say they’ve updated how their stats work. Writers can now see how readers are engaging with their writing in a visual medium that makes it easy to wrap your head around.
So I logged in to see how it works. Omg, you guys, it’s gold stars. lol.
But not like the rest of the internet does gold stars, because they turned it around backwards and it’s freaking brilliant.
But first — what the heck is Substack?
Substack is what you’d get if Medium and Mailchimp had a child. Plus, a little more because it’s the gifted child.
Substack is content and email in one platform. And I say ‘content’ instead of ‘writing’ because it does podcasts, too. Your podcast episodes will be available via email, on your Substack page, and in all the major podcast apps, too.
It can also do group publishing, sort of like Facebook groups, but without Zuckerberg making rules in the background. So you could have a community group with 10 mods and 500 readers, or a group where everyone can post to it and you’re the owner, kind of like how the partnered pen works here.
Confused yet? It works like this…
When you set up a Substack account, you give your account a name and some tags, just like on Medium. The tags help people find your content, because unlike a mailing list, you don’t have to go out and find your own readers. Readers can find you right on Substack, just like they can on Medium.
When you type a “post,” you get to choose whether to only post online, or do you want to send it by email to subscribers, too? Plus, you can segment your list and send an email that’s private, and not posted publicly.
Some people use it very much like a newsletter. Other people use it to write like they do on Medium or News Break, with the bonus that all posts can be sent to everyone that subscribes.
There are as many ways of using Substack as there are people using it and it’s totally worth spending an afternoon reading their guides and case studies.
Your substack can be free or paid. Or you can have both free and paid. If you run a paid substack, they keep 10% for processing and administration. There are no monthly fees and no cost if you’re running a “free” list.
I’ll post reference links at the bottom in case you want to learn more.
Back to the brilliance of the stars…
Everyone knows how gold stars work, right? You buy something online and the merchant asks you to “rate” the product. Right? So you give it 4 or 5 stars if it was great, or 1 or 2 stars it if was mediocre at best.
That’s not how Substack does it. No one rates my writing in stars. That would tell me nothing because taste is subjective. Instead, my readers get the stars, and only *I* can see them.
Let me explain how brilliant this is…
Jane loves my writing. She opens every newsletter and leaves comments sometimes. She gets 5 stars. She is a bona fide 5-star subscriber.
But not all subscribers are Jane. Especially if you offer a freebie for signups. If you look at my list, down at the bottom are all the people who signed up to get the freebie I used to offer and they’ve never opened a darn thing since.
Know what those people are? They are 0-star subscribers.
Last year, I was offering a “Medium tips” guide as incentive to sign up. When I scroll to the bottom of my list, I can see the people who signed up, took the download and never opened an email since. Not even one.
Here’s what it looks like…
Fyi, you can sort subscribers by all sorts of criteria. Have a look!
UX is super important and Substack got it right…
A lot of mail providers ‘can’ do way more than what people do with them. I moved a client off MailChimp because their list was growing so fast it was costing a whack of cash every month and they weren’t using the features.
Know why? Because they’re confusing and complicated. And yes, there’s great mailchimp courses for sale. It happens every time some piece of software is confusing to use — it opens a market for “how to use xyz” programs.
Look, no one should have to go buy a course on how to use a service they’re paying for. That’s just nonsense.
Every email provider displays usage stats in some form, but they make it so damn complicated few people bother. They just keep paying their monthly fees and emailing as if every subscriber is the same. They aren’t.
If I want to know who my “best” readers are — it’s simple and visual. They are the people with 5 stars.
And because “opt in” freebies are sent by autoresponder, the people with 0 opens over all time are the freebie seekers. They don’t give a damn what I write and they probably don’t even remember my name. They saw the opt in, went and got it, and never opened a thing since.
Shouldn’t we know that stuff? Shouldn’t it be easier TO know that stuff?
How Substack’s New Gold Stars Will Help Writers Get Results
Now let’s play a game of pretend, okay? I’m going to give you some real life scenarios where you can get real results because of those brilliant gold stars.
Scenario #1: You’re an author…
Being the smart cookie that you are, you started a substack while you were writing the book. So “one day” when the book was done, you wouldn’t publish to crickets.
So now the book is done and you want reviews and first day sales. You going to make that offer to people who have never opened one damn email you sent, and only wanted the freebie you offered? Hell, no.
You’re going to sort by stars and pick the 5-star people. Those are your people. And then you’re going to send them an email that is never published publicly and ask them if they’d be willing to review your book.
Know what else? If there’s too many 5-star readers, you can sort further. Look at other engagement. Who has commented most. Who shares or opens most. Handpick your very best readers. Give them the perks.
Make them an offer you don’t make to the people who open once in a blue moon. Tell them you handpicked them because you are so grateful that they love your work and you want to share this moment with them.
You know what you’re going to get? Results. Reviews. Sales, even.
Scenario #2: You’re launching a paid newsletter
You’ve been writing for free for months on end. Building your list. Now you want to launch a paid list. Are you really going to start all over, trying to get paid subscribers. Hell, no.
Substack lets you “gift” a paid subscription to anyone or everyone.
The idea is that if you gift someone for a period of time, they can “try it out” nd see if they like it. If they do, maybe they’d sign up for the paid version.
You going to send that to all the people who don’t give two hoots about the work you’ve been doing? The people who opened once, or never at all?
Nope. You’re not. Because you’re smarter than that. You’re going to sort that list and handpick your best people. And then, same as above. Reach out privately and tell them you’re launching a paid list, and you want to gift them a subscription to say thanks for being one of your best readers, ever!
Do you see what I’m talking about, here?
Scenario #3 and #4 and #5
Maybe you’ve been using Substack to do a newsletter and now you want to do a podcast. Or you want to start a community, where multiple people create something awesome together. Or you’re starting a new Medium publication and you want to find people who might want to write with you.
Handpick them. Nice and easy. Sort by the stars.
No need to open the help file and figure out how to segment a list and then figure out how to save that list and how to send just to those people. That’s crap. Tools are only as good as the ease of use.
One other thing no one tells you. All those people at the bottom of the list? The ones who signed up for your opt in and never opened a single email since? Delete them and your open rates will go up.
I’m not saying having an opt-in is a bad idea. It’s not. Some people will download the free whatever and discover they love your work. Often, free is a really good way to let people sample what you do. No different than tasting that new pasta sauce at Costco when they do the product demos.
But also important to remember that there’s a segment of people who have a “free” folder on their desktop and it’s filled with hundreds or thousands of things they’ve downloaded. Because, free.
Those are the people who see the emails come in and hit one of two buttons. Spam or delete. With most providers, it’s complicated to know who they are, so you keep emailing them. Now, you don’t have to.
More references if you’re interested…
For a writer, those little gold stars are like a gift from the heavens above. They are, hands down, the easiest way to understand who your best readers are and change what you’re doing so you get actual results.
If you’re interested in learning more about Substack, here’s more info…
- Setting up your Substack for the first time
- FAQ for writers
- How to use your dashboard
- Guide to group publishing
- Guide to setting up a podcast
- Substack newsletter and writer’s guide
- Full list of Substack resources
- And last — my substack is here
“Pull up a chair. Take a taste. Come join us. Life is so endlessly delicious.” ― Ruth Reichl