Marketing Opinion Email

Want to understand the Substack craze? Think of it as evolution

By Adam Berkowitz | Chief of Staff

May 19, 2021 | 8 min read

Substack, the online platform that empowers journalists to produce their own subscription-based email newsletters, is no longer just gaining steam; it’s in full gear. Writers flocking from major publications have launched their own newsletters to monetize their work on their own terms. And people are biting: as of February, Substack has amassed over 500,000 paying subscribers, up from about 100,000 from March 2020. But what’s the origin story of the Substack craze? And is it just a phase, or is it here to stay? Here’s the condensed evolution of the Substack trend.

Dinosaurs in valley

The use of the email channel has evolved over time

Emerging from the primordial swamp

It’s ancient history now, but think back to the early days of email. Unsolicited spam wasn’t a curio you found in a separate folder like it is today. Spam was part of your information feed. In between an email thread from a relative you didn’t want to call and a friend who was living abroad were sundry emails from retailers you didn’t ask for, calls for funds for deposed monarchies you’d never heard of, and cures for disorders of which you weren’t aware.

It was an awful experience, but out of that struggle came progress. Without the widespread disdain for what a pit of depravity the email channel was, we never would have created pressure on the government to enact The CAN-SPAM Act of 2003.

The CAN-SPAM Act is the rare regulation that’s comprehensible by the vox populi, and thus endeared people to the email channel. It is enforcement reformed email, and made the inbox a haven for consumers to engage with content they had asked for from brand or publishers, with a value proposition they understood. It sparked an affinity for the inbox that Substack and other indie authors today enjoy and take advantage of.

Developing feet

With the email inbox established and slowly winning the trust of people, publishers began to develop their email playbooks. The email newsletter became their connection to consumers – a little reminder that they could send to those who had raised their hand and said, “Sure, tell me what you’re up to.”

Through the process, publishers learned what time of day drove the highest open rates. They learned how they could leverage the insights from an email open to drive their dynamic paywalls. And they learned that email readers were incredibly engaged and that email inventory drove performance, whether through dynamic ads or direct sold models.

The success of the email channel drove publisher resources to email, and hence many journalists now have experience writing email roundups, designing email templates, and developing email as a medium for journalism. That class of journalists with email experience are now all ripe candidates to be potential Substack authors.

Denying the evidence

Much like a certain subset of American activists who refuse to believe that dinosaurs once roamed the earth, there arose some denialism of email’s power during the postmodern era of the digital age.

Publishers were falling over each other to hand their best inventory to Facebook and the walled gardens, buoyed by enthusiasm from false metrics purporting to show success. Publishers, like all of us, read earnings reports for the walled gardens and were astounded. The walled gardens were getting rich, so why weren’t they? Of course, the reason was that the logged-in nature of the walled gardens meant they were a place where performance advertisers could run their campaigns efficiently while ensuring their marketing dollars were well spent.

Publishers realized they only had one logged-in channel free of intermediaries: their own email program. They doubled down on their email efforts. Publishers themselves destigmatized the email channel for journalists, who otherwise might have felt it was a stodgy channel. The result was that journalists working at these organizations institutionalized the value of email: they saw its worth as comparable to that of flashier platforms like social media. This destigmatization laid the foundations for future Substack writers ready to embrace one of the oldest digital channels.

Evolving to mimic the prey

Watch any Planet Earth episode and you’ll see how animals evolve to mimic their prey. Maybe calling publishers ‘prey’ to advertisers is a bit dramatic, but it’s clear that publishers and advertisers are on opposite sides of the coin.

Advertisers saw that the publishers they relied upon for audiences were leaning on the email channel. In turn, they mimicked the model. They wanted those logged-in audiences for themselves. They tapped editorial talent to create brand newsletters that skirted the line between promotional and newsworthy enough to not get deleted. They hired former publishing employees to develop their strategies, and they set to work to create their own email assets. They could use those assets not only to further relationships via email, but as a bridge to connect with those same people (with the email address as the fulcrum) across social media, online and even in other emails.

Companies like Dollar Shave Club, which disrupted the traditional CPG world by using 1:1 channels like email in order to create a direct relationship with the customer rather than relying on social media or big box stores to develop that relationship, were rewarded with an acquisition. This inspired more companies to invest in their email programs, and thus future Substack authors knew their choice was becoming more crystallized: whether to stay in journalism or go to the client side. In either case, however, they knew that they would need to be able to run an email program dexterously.

The platypus

Platypuses evolved to be the only mammal that lays eggs. They have venom in their feet. They don’t have nipples, so they sweat milk to feed their young. They also glow in the dark. It’s untraditional, but it’s working for them.

Right now, that’s where we are with Substack. Clearly Substack is subsidizing some authors to create momentum, but there is obviously a market for subscription solely in the email channel. Is that a simple subscription model to one author like ‘Good Morning It’s Basketball’, or is it a subscription model that grants access to more premium content away from email across several authors like Sidechannel?

It’s unclear what’s to come, as it’s early days yet, but it feels in many ways like a return to what publishers felt when they first became enamored with email. People are experimenting with an incredibly flexible tool. Publishers once used the assets they derived from email programs to perform marketing across platforms, to build lookalike audiences, or to simply send more email. Today, it’s a return to experimentation with email at the core by Substack authors, even if the model looks a bit funky to traditional publishers – like a platypus.

Yes, much has been made of subscriber fatigue. I am myself subscribed to several premium email newsletters and sometimes I look at the bill and realize it’s competing pretty heavily with all of my traditional subscriptions. Still, clearly there’s something there. Forbes is launching an email program similar to Substack, Twitter acquired Revue and Facebook is launching its own email newsletter initiative. Clearly, there is something of value left to be uncovered in the email channel. Will individual journalists be able to realize its full potential like publishers can? Time will tell.

Adam Berkowitz is chief of staff at LiveIntent.

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