Substack is the new poster child. A prominent VC firm funded it which is betting the “stack” on a future “media business”.
The premise is simple. Offer a subpar content management system (CMS), a billing system (integration with payment processor Stripe) and a mailing list. Any business wants the relationship with customers and the billing system. However, Substack plants itself as the middleman. That’s where it takes the cut.
I did have a look at the system and was disappointed because it offered no fresh take on the existing system. A WordPress blog (or it’s hosting) is infinitely superior. I had a look at the other CMS’s (like Ghost) and Medium, and realised that a platform which allows for seamless migration makes perfect sense.
While there is an uptick of the blogs from some academics who provide insights in their niche ecosystems, I find that the general purpose blogs are fading away. Google bought blogspot to encourage (and market) blogs, and then left it to squander it – like they did to Google Reader, it has done more harm than good. Twitter (and other social media companies) hit the final nail in the coffin.
There are a few oncologists who explore this medium. Personally speaking, reading and writing consistently has enriched me beyond measure. My ideas have become fluid. I can perceive issues better. There are unique efficient workflows for link discovery, and I find joy in automation. It made me spend time efficiently. I can visualise links better. I can discern patterns to comprehend the whole picture. That’s why I find it surprising that people don’t take to writing more often. The end goal is not to grow the readership – it will eventually come if you have compelling content. A blogging system fuelled with the idea of “likes” or “comments” is then likely to fail because you’d burn up the fuel fast. One needs to take a long-term perspective on writing and grow it along. It took me some time to get a “steady format”.
Coming back to Substack (and it’s “wannabes”). It is surprisingly easy to replicate such a business. In the cloud era, the scale doesn’t matter. For any startup that needs to make a similar mark, you need marketing to “polish the turd”. WordPress grew out of a modular system of extensions, and having an ecosystem of businesses offering services around it. Yes, it is commoditised but so are the newsletters. Email marketing is notoriously fickle because you’d need the owners’ inbox (and therefore attention) to understand where it is coming from. Most users, I know, have poor email hygiene.
Success for a newsletter depends on hype, promotion and discoverability. That’s where Substack holds the keys (and is their secret mojo). Getting paid to “feature” the best will be their next business model. This is what is called gatekeeping. We all know it can be lucrative.