Why Substack needs to compete with itself

Substack has launched its iOS app that basically enables you to read all of your substack subscriptions in the app, instead of email.

For a company that fundamentally wanted creators to intimately connect with their own audience using newsletters, this is a big bet.

The app model essentially is focused on users switching from reading newsletters in the email inbox to the app – in a way, competing with the core model of newsletter, being delivered in the inbox (the most widely used app).

And importantly, Substack is trying to play the bigger content aggregation game (i.e. become your feed reader, bringing back the memories of good ol’ Google Reader), which again is a shift from the core focus.

There are 2 primary reasons for Substack to do this:

Email Deliverability Vs. App

A network service is as good as its usage and here is a simple data point to give you some perspective – Substack’s email open rate stands at ~5% and this isn’t better than any other email service (this is based on several newsletters I have ran on Substack, while same newsletter when using NextBigWhat’s server stands at ~23% open rate).

For a creator, 5-7% open rate doesn’t help (anymore). Substack offers no other leverage for creators – it is just another tool now (a commodity, an email newsletter tool).

Switching to app will bump up this number (in a very big way, if everything goes as per the plan) – as you have a captive userbase that has opted in for the product and the notification.

This will make Substack a lot more meaningful for creators otherwise it is just one more option for creators (apart from the free Revue to Convertkit to Mailchimp).

What business is Substack in?

IMO, Substack is a marketplace for insights – and most insights are not being published on just Substack anymore (creator’s choice of platforms range from YouTube to Twitter threads to podcasts).

While the early strategy of paying a hefty amount to top creators to embrace Substack (for e.g. $250K to Vox’s Matt Yglesias) worked, the reality is that a content platform like this is as good as the content generated on the platform.

Post the initial buzz, Substack’s star writer base isn’t growing exponentially (anecdotally speaking) and it’s time for Substack to go after the long tail, i.e. feeds.

Having said that, content aggregation business, without any curation (and innovation in delivery format) hardly holds any value (after a certain scale) and it’d be great to see how Substack navigates through this phase.

This is the real race of finding PMF for Substack. Welcome to the fight club.

[Would love to hear from you. Ping me on Twitter @cnha]

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