Jane Genova
Jane Genova

During COVID-19, the Holy Grail has been to market differently—both for how marketing and public relations firms promote their clients, and, yes, themselves.

What had been effective pre-COVID-19 is yielding diminishing returns. Digital expert Neil Patel reports that because of the pandemic, for example, organic traffic and conversions are down. He also notes that only nine percent of B2B marketers assess their business as “very effective” in content marketing.

Since 70 percent of marketers, documents HubSpot, traditionally rely on digital content, that space has been a dominant focus in the drive to try fresh approaches. “Digital content marketing” includes video, blogs, podcasts, infographics and e-books. Currently, the situation is glut. The objectives range from customer acquisition and retention to branding and thought leadership.

Therefore, those in the promotion loop should welcome experimenting with Substack as a new way into the targets’ minds, hearts and pocketbooks. However, they might hesitate because the tactic seems counterintuitive. Unlike traditional digital marketing content, the Substack outreach is based on a paid subscription model. Monthly subscriber fees range from $5 to about $120. There is no advertising.

Substack is a digital platform for a paid newsletter, distributed via email. The format, though, also allows for free content. The best analogy for that paid/free model are hybrid news digital sites like BusinessInsider and TechCrunch. Both started out with total free access. Over time, they evolved into a mix of free and what is behind a paywall. For building a subscriber base, the free material, if substantial, can serve as a complimentary introduction.

In 2017, Christopher Best, Hamish McKenzie and Jairaj Sethi launched Substack as a solution to the reductions in force at newsrooms. Like the medium of blogging, this platform allows writers to publish without a formal infrastructure, gatekeepers or middlemen editors.

Brandname writers like Andrew Sullivan and recognized tech influencers such as Azeem Azhar can earn as much if not more revenue than they had in their official association with establishment media. In addition, there is the influence cool from being in the loop of this innovative concept.

The Substack package includes:

  • Simplified navigation. Just about everyone can manage the technology.
  • Website, that is content management system, for all posts. That allows for not only text but also audio (as for podcasting), video (as for YouTube), photos and infographics.
  • Control over what is free and what is paid.
  • Option for readers wishing to be “supporters” to contribute more than the subscription price. That adds a fundraising opportunity.
  • Defender feature which provides pre-publication review for legalities and up to $1 million for legal fees if legal action is taken.
  • Monthly commission of 10 percent of revenue.
  • Payment from readers managed through Stripe, which bills a transaction fee in addition to the Substack commission system.

The Substack concept caught fire. Widespread media coverage helped that.

The primary selling point is that Substrack, along with its competition like Ghost, provides premium content. That is, information and perspective that are not available elsewhere. That eliminates the chore of plowing through what is out there, hoping to access unique material. A major reason paid newsletters fail is that, as Josh Spector found, they attempt to sell “more” rather than “different.”

Will those in the promotion industry experiment with the multi-dimensional benefits of using a Substack type approach?

The fee is a key deterrent. Substack represents a radical shift from the freebie ethos. Digital got off the ground with that freebie strategy. It was the era before the erecting of paywalls. For revenue, there was advertising, at least back then. Currently in COVID-19 time, advertising has fallen off even for BigTech like Facebook and Google.

What should be obvious is this: In the present economically challenging environment, overall free can be on short time.

But more to the point about free is that it has been proven out that human beings tend not to value what they do not pay for.

When Rami Sethi offered his $2,000 course for free, no one logged in. When he not only charged a fee but raised it higher than $2,000, sales were brisk.

Part of the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania legacy has been the 99-cents Floating Theatre (1971 -1981). When University of Pittsburgh professor Richard Mennen founded it, he made the strategic decision to charge a fee for that drama innovation. There was the argument that it did not have a shot to stick if it had not been free. But Mennen took the risk of assigning a fee. Without it, he judged correctly, the initiative would not blossom into a respected brand.

The ideal fit for a Substack kind of application is the organization which operates on prestige. A paid newsletter with premium content can enhance that perception of differentiation. The revenue collected, as with an elite law firm, can be plowed into funding social justice initiatives.

Another fit would be startups with breakthrough ideas, needing funding.

There are also innovative nonprofits which have not been effective in fundraising.

In an Axios podcast, Substack chief executive officer Best indicated that a challenge is to retain its authors. They can migrate to competitor platforms such as Ghost. Ghost’s advantages, for example, range from more sophisticated technology to a fixed monthly fee versus the commission model. Therefore, marketers and public relations players would be smart to review a variety of platforms. Those who are tech-savvy might feel more at home and get a better financial deal with a competitor platform.

As with all early adopters, marketers and public relations firms which leverage the tactic of paid newsletters can create a special presence, both for clients and for their own reputation.

Along with that is the reality of the use it or lose it dynamic. Should the opportunity not be seized in a timely manner, those late to the party might not generate the results their early-adopter colleagues have achieved.


Jane Genova (https://yourcareercoachingwithjanegenova.blogspot.com/) is a career coach specializing in professional services, higher education, retail, nonprofit and middle management. Sliding scale fees, complimentary consultation ([email protected]).