Short-form visual content, particularly video, lends itself to the shorter attention spans of our modern generation. If the long-form blogs of the early 2010s seem dead, how do we explain the rise of Substack?
Substack launched in 2017, but most content creators didn’t catch on until 2021. In many ways, the format is creatively freeing. Writers don’t report to editors, and the length and format is in their hands. It also serves as a functional wish list for shopping; readers can click directly to a product versus searching for a link in bio. Delivery is more targeted, direct to subscribers’ inboxes.
As the creator economy evolves, I predict Substacks will continue to grow with it due to the creative and financial freedom it affords writers, the opportunity for smaller brands to be discovered through credible affiliate links, and the connection it provides audiences with their favorite influencers.
“I feel a sense of freedom with Substack that I haven’t before. I can publish what I want, when I want, and there are no rules about whether something is ‘timely’ enough, or whether there's a strong enough ‘peg.’”
Emilia Petrarca, writer of Shop Rat
However, with more freedom comes more obligation to serve the reader directly.
“I’m still trying to be smart,” she adds. “If people are giving me their hard-earned five dollars, I want to give them content that they’re most likely to engage with. So I’m still using my editorial knowledge to deliver a good product in addition to compelling stories.”
For readers, Substack offers intentionality in consuming content—the opposite of mindless scrolling. And while all the Substacks I subscribe to are written by content creators with whom I have no personal relationship, the written recommendations still feel personalized—as if a friend is in my inbox.
“The intimacy of your inbox is a very powerful thing,” said Jess Graves, writer of The Love List. “Instagram has gotten to a place where it is like a supermarket—it feels like something is yelling at you from every aisle. There’s no guarantee, because of the algorithm, that you are going to see the content from people you care about. But your inbox feels like a cozy apartment where you feel at home. If [the reader] has allowed you into their inbox, the likelihood that they will open your content is very high.”
As the poet Mary Oliver once said, “Attention is the beginning of devotion.” Because I’m choosing who I’ll subscribe to—and often paying for the privilege to view their content—I feel obliged to read each newsletter and interact with the links they feature. And it’s not just a trend I’ve observed in my own consumer habits: Erika Veurink, writer of Long Live, tells me she’s also seeing the payoff on the creators’ side.
“My open rate is around 70% and some links get clicked by thousands of people every other week.“While the stats on my Instagram and TikTok stay pretty consistent, it does feel like a certain item will sell like crazy on my Substack, quite randomly.”
While I still read fashion publications to stay in tune with macro-trends, I feel more inspired and influenced by Substacks for styling advice. I’m typically familiar with any writer I subscribe to on Substack via their previous work on other platforms or editorial outlets. Thus, any recommendation that arrives from them is supported by preexisting trust, and most content feels instantly more relatable. While the outfit’s focus may be a $1,000 Toteme coat, writers in this category typically link to similar styles at more accessible price points.
“The best part of Substack is being able to appeal to an audience that is ‘tapped in’ to the ecosystem of your content already in some way so that you can deepen that connection”
Heather Hurst, PIGPEN
Indeed, my closet is now outfitted with almost every COS product recommended by Laurel Pantin of Earl Earl, a Brinker and Eliza necklace shared by Harling Ross of Gum Shoe, and a pair of red socks (after seeing them styled about ten different ways), thanks to Leandra Medine of Cereal Aisle. Beyond fashion, Substack has curated my shopping lists from home to skincare. I’ve added books to my Goodreads, thanks to Veurink’s recommendations, and tried new fragrances, like Byredo’s Black Saffron, thanks to Graves.
The platform has yet to be overrun by branded partnerships, but I’m curious to see how that could change in the coming years. With creators consistently (and profitably) linking out to brands like The Real Real and J. Crew, it seems like a missed opportunity for brands to engage with loyal customers without diluting the personalized aspect of the platform. For Substack creators, there are a few ways to include branded content without inauthenticity. First, by asking your audience how they feel about sponsored content being included in a specific cadence. Second, by including branded content newsletters in the free subscriber’s content as well. Third, by ensuring that it is only from brands the creator has previously mentioned.
Brands also need to be comfortable with integrated sponsored content (infusing recommendations from one brand with other brands), which isn’t always easy when investing money in a post. But audiences are exceptionally savvy to the hard sell, and readers will, in turn, be more likely to purchase if they aren’t overly pressured into purchasing.
What would those changes mean for Substack as a platform and for its readers? How would exclusivity and pricing change with multiple brands and products vying for inclusion? Substack and its users are certain to evolve in the coming months and years, as all content-driven platforms do, and right now is the time for considering how to capture more community through what Substack offers – an intimate corner of the Internet.
Clare Moore is a Senior Manager of New Business and Strategy at Fohr. She has an exceptional depth of knowledge about influencer marketing strategy… and style, thanks to her highly curated reading list of Substacks. Reach out to her anytime at firstname.lastname@example.org.