Do you get excited reading about email newsletter platforms? I do. And there were two notes in this week’s article about Substack which made me clap my hands. First, they’ve hired Nathan Bashaw, previously of Gimlet and Hardbound, who is someone I believe thinks about storytelling, content and software in compelling ways. Way to go Nathan!
Second, that they’re not ignoring the Discovery elements of Substack’s platform:
Imagine a spectrum where on one side it said “Utility Platform” and on the other end it said “Community Network.” So many publishing platforms get “stuck” on the Utility side. They keep building the longtail of software features to assist creators in serving their audience but leave it to the creator themselves to find and grow that audience.
The real value to creators — and I’d argue this is what YouTube got so right early on with Related Videos and Homepage features — is to also drive them audience. If you’re able to do this, you get lock-in, you get to share in the upside you create for them. For whatever reason, this seems especially difficult in the text space — Medium and WordPress come to mind as valuable publishing platforms which haven’t solved Discovery.
Why? Well, “Discovery” is difficult, both in design and implementation. Just lazily tossing “Related Newsletters” in the bottom of a template isn’t the most creative or effective implementation. And generally driving Discovery involves some degree of eminent domain by the company — it’s seizing pixels on the creator’s space in order to promote other content. Essentially creating a house ad unit. There’s tension in this — you kinda need to implement it very early, and make it default. Shipping it later in a product’s life, and/or making it “opt-in” (ie you get promo’ed in other people’s newsletters if you open up the same promotional space in your own), limits its scale.
So I’m glad to hear that Substack is thinking about this early and I hope they push on it a bit. My guess is it’ll be the difference between create a very nice Utility Platform vs an explosive Community Network.