Noah Smith recently wrote a great post giving advice for people who want to write on Substack. He’s a lot more successful than me, so my advice is probably less valuable, but I also might have a few unique insights given that I built up my free email list without any prior online presence. I didn’t have a Twitter account (or, if I did, I think it had only about 50 followers), so my modest achievement of getting over 1000 subscribers did take quite a bit of effort. Here’s a quick explanation of how I got the modest number of subscribers that I did get, and how you can (maybe) emulate that. The tactics mentioned here work for me, but they may not work for you or be the sort of thing you want to put on your Substack.
1. Contact people you admire
I had six subscribers on here for quite a while. That jumped to about a hundred after one of my posts was shared on a popular blog that I read. The reason that the blog post was read by someone I admire, and then shared by them, was simply that I emailed them asking for feedback. I didn’t expect them to share the piece, I just genuinely wanted to know what I could be doing better. But they did share it, and I got readers out of it.
But getting someone to share your piece isn’t the only reason to contact the writers you admire - the advice they give can also be extremely useful. I spoke at length to one journalist who I read and they gave a ton of advice specific to covering academic papers that was very useful and made my writing better.
2. Post on Hacker News and Reddit
I never read Hacker News before I made a Substack, but a few of my pieces have hit the front page there, and that has been an enormous driver of traffic. I don’t actually post my own stuff there (although I did for a while), because I don’t have a very good sense of which posts are likely to do well there and I think it may be frowned upon, but just being aware of the fact that articles that get to the front page of HN get a ton of traffic is useful. I’ve written a few articles that were sort of intended to be more targeted towards the HN crowd that have done fairly well because they’ve hit the front page there.
Reddit is an interesting one - I find it extremely easy to use because I’ve been browsing it for years, but I get the impression that the learning curve is fairly high for people who aren’t used to using it. The key insight is that you need to find a subreddit that is relevant to the topics that you write about, rather than sharing your work indiscriminately. For me, that’s /r/SlateStarCodex, /r/TheMotte, maybe occasionally /r/TrueReddit, or even /r/Philosophy if I’m feeling like I might hit it big. These have been significant drivers of traffic to Samstack. I’ll probably share this post on /r/Substack, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that generates a few subs.
3. Use the Substack ‘Recommendations’ feature
Since the introduction of Substack’s recommendations feature a few months ago, I’ve gained a ton of subs. Of the 533 subscribers I’ve gained in the past 90 days, 315 have come directly through Substack’s Recommendations feature. I recommend a lot of blogs that I like, and quite a few of them return the favour. I suppose I’m slightly concerned that these readers may not be as engaged as people who come to the blog through other means (and I may try and figure out whether this concern is grounded in reality at some point), but having extra free subscribers doesn’t harm my growth in any way. The main tactic here I think is to recommend blogs that you like and then ask those people if they’re willing to recommend you back (probably only if they’re already subscribed to you but don’t recommend you, or if you’re certain they’re aware of your Substack).
4. Interview people
I did an interview with Sam Bowman, which was something I’m happy I did for a few reasons. It was a lot of fun and a nice change from my usual writing. I intend to do a few more interviews in the future and have some lined up (watch this space!). But one of the other benefits was that Sam shared the article, which gave me a nice small boost in subs, and that he’s continued to follow my blog since. He has kindly tweeted out a few of my pieces that he’s enjoyed, and I’ve probably gained about 100 - 150 subs from interviewing him. Interviews might not be the right fit for your Substack, but for mine they seem to do quite well in terms of hits, drive subscribers, and make for a nice change from me giving my views on things or summarising interesting academic papers.
5. Twitter can be powerful (but I suck at it)
I’m not very good at Twitter. You should still go and follow me here (please!), but there’s something about the platform that I’m just not suited to. I don’t really take much pleasure in quote-tweet dunking on people, which seems like the main way to grow these days, and maybe I’m not witty enough to think of funny things to say every few days in under 280 characters. That being said, there are a few advantages of Twitter.
One is that sometimes people find me through Twitter, especially when I reply to their tweets (which I don’t do to purposefully drive engagement, because that would be annoying). Another is that when I tweet out my articles, they often get a nice bit of traffic through retweets. A third is that group chats exist for Substack writers, where people can share tips and ways they’ve grown their blog. So, Twitter is useful for growth, and probably especially useful if you’re better than I am at it.
6. Consider writing often and keeping it short(ish)
This tip probably doesn’t apply to everyone, but I get the sense that Scott Alexander has given people the impression that they need to write extremely long and comprehensive posts if they want anyone to care about your writing. I think this is completely untrue - reading a 10,000 word post on whether Ivermectin works is interesting sometimes, but most people prefer shorter posts.
I also think it’s pretty hard to predict which of your posts is going to take off, so spending a month or two crafting one amazing longread doesn’t really guarantee that it’s going to get a lot of traffic. For obvious mathematical reasons, it’s better to write 5 posts that have a 1% chance of getting a ton of hits than it is to write 1 post that has a 3% chance of that sort of success. This post also makes a good case for why writing short articles is a good idea:
If every time you write a blog post it takes you six months, and you’re sitting around your apartment on a Sunday afternoon thinking of stuff to do, you’re probably not going to think of starting a blog post, because it’ll feel too expensive.
This seems to be the opposite of what most people advise, so maybe take it with a pinch of salt.
7. Link Roundups
I do a monthly round-up of all the interesting stuff I’ve come across that month (see here for the most recent example). This has a few advantages: it’s very easy to do if you read a stuff online while still being valuable. I like reading other links round-ups to check out stuff I might’ve missed that month so I’m assuming that other people might also enjoy them. The other advantage that I’ve only recently discovered is that if you tweet your round-up and tag a few of the people whose content you included, they’re likely to share it and give you a few extra clicks.
I also think more generally that sharing stuff you find interesting on your blog, including within articles, is underrated. Not everything you have to write has to be your own insight, you can provide value just by directing people to other content that’s really valuable. Guzey has said something similar here:
Consider a university professor teaching a course. Does she say anything original? Do you think she should cancel her course because somebody else discovered the things she wants to teach? Or does she have to cancel her course simply because there is a similar course at some other university?
8. BONUS: Post on the EA Forum and LessWrong
I actually haven’t used the Effective Altruism Forum or LessWrong to promote my own posts, but I get the impression that they’re extremely useful if you’re into either Effective Altruism or rationalism. I’m pretty sure that Scott Alexander kinda got famous by posting on LessWrong, and a few of my friends got a load of traffic by cross-posting their stuff on the EA Forum, so those both seem like good options if the sort of content you post seems like it would work well there.
All great ideas and reaching out to people you admire is always worth the risk!
I've been using my Twitter account as my primary means to draw in readers/subscribers but I've also had success on other platforms.
Excellent advice, and thank you for sharing it! I've tried a few of the strategies you describe (posting to Reddit and HN, using Twitter to funnel people to my blog) with some degree of success. It's hard to determine how much to attribute to each of those methods since I haven't seen any very significant bumps in my subscriber count. Like you, I had a long stagnant period at first - I was under 30 subs for the first four months - and then I seem to have hit a steady ramp-up of about three or four new subs per week. Now I'm at 164. I will certainly try to show my work to people who I admire and ask for feedback; that's something I'm honestly really bad at, though - which is probably why I should do it!