On platforms doing the heavy marketing lifting

I'm using Substack as an example as I personally classify it as a tool that is great for community building. In my Rosieland mindset, any tool that communicates with people can be classed as a tool to build community.

Marketing always seems to be the hardest thing in life. Apart from, of course, community building, hah.

I noted how Substack has been leading into becoming a service with a great network effect. In a recent post they wrote:

Today, more than 30% of all new free subscriptions and around 10% of paid subscriptions to Substacks come from within our network.

That means a significant portion of new free and paid subscriptions are coming from readers who discovered your writing through the Substack ecosystem.

They've achieved this through creating tools around recommendations, Substack iOS app, writer and reader profiles, leaderboards and Twitter connections.

And the results are backed up in some of the comments too, for example:

The past 30 days, 59% of all my subscribers and 10% of my paid subscribers came through the Substack network.

Free marketing should come with warnings

This support with traction is great and powerful!

It can make such a difference to new writers. In all my years creating businesses and leading community for indie foundersβ€”marketing and gaining traction is the biggest challenge that most don't overcome.

And of course, it makes me wish that perhaps I should have stayed on Substack, instead of going on a roundabout journey and ending up with Ghost. I'm convinced I would have made more progress if I had stayed with them from day one.

But I have no regrets about going my own slower route.

I love Ghost, it aligns with my ethics as a non-profit company. The Ghost team seem to be creating steady and sustainable growth. I trust they will be around longer-term and always put a good product and their ethics first.

I have no wish to tap into the people's Twitter followings. Or be on a leaderboard where I'll always feel inadequate for not appearing, or embarrassed for being at the top. I don't want to be at the hands of how a company decides to create growth. I don't want to compete with all the other Substackers.

I want to:

  • write and create community
  • be in control
  • understand how people find me
  • know why they showed up
  • do the work of sweating hard for every single subscriber
  • create a distributed growth strategy
  • know I have quality over quantity
  • learn to be happy with what I have
  • selfishly focus on creating my own little (rosie)land that finds it's way to survive in this crazy world

Crucially this is about me wanting to understand the process of being a creator. Creators should not hide away from this. As writers, we shouldn't just focus on writing. We should focus on our ecosystem. Our community. Our relationships. Our conversations. Our systems. Our process. Our growth. Our ideas. We should get excited and look for opportunities everywhere.

It is understanding how everything connects that creates our individual competitive advantage. This is our flywheel. And when we have our own flywheel that we understand inside and out it becomes (kind of) unstoppable.

In contrast, Substack has pushed fast growth and with the market slowdown has stopped chasing raising more money. It's hard to know how sustainable and what hard decisions they may have to make in the future. Well-funded companies look attractive until they make decisions that don't support you as a creator or align with your beliefs. And often there is nothing you can do about it.

Don't dismiss it as the way it has to be

We can shrug it off as being part of the 'game' or we can choose to take routes that are likely slower, yet more sustainable and educational.

There will always be arguments for both sides. I'm not anti-Substack, I just want people to become aware of the pros and cons.

People will be happy until the problems arise when the choices that Substack makes decisions that directly impact writers. To some extent, this is already happening with people leaving for Ghost with their moderation and Substack Pro facing real scrutiny. There are likely other reasons and examples out there.

As VC backed companies grow they make decisions that impact individuals both positively and negatively. And when it hits you negatively you have no control over the situation.

It becomes a bit of a lottery, but our life, our communities and businesses don't have to be that way. We should aim for consistency and sustainability. On the face of it, it sounds boring, but actually, it's very, very healthy and attractive.

The platforms suck you in

Substack is ultimately a platform and perhaps that is where the problem lies. They have a huge task of supporting and moderating the ecosystem. They are creating the network effect that is so very hard to say no to, but as writers grow up, they start to feel and see the flaws.

I've seen the downsides happen in the past.

Ning which I started Ministry of Testing on, had great traction and then it all halted when it got acquired. Literally, overnight it felt like they stopped making any updates to the service. All those things they promised didn't happen. I held on for about 3 years (because of the pain migrating) before I moving away.

Meetup is another one that has gone through a whole lot of changes. Meetup did the marketing for you, so to speak, it would notify and encourage people local to the meetup to join. As a consequence it would give you the feeling that people were joining out of real interest, the reality was often the quality was way lower, even attracting questionable people to go ruin your events. Not all reach is good reach.

I feel Meetup was great for a while until people felt the downsides of outdated UX, tactics and business model. The problem became that people looking to start meetups came to expect this as standard. They didn't want to use Meetup, but no other tool out there could help them with the initial traction.

Facebook, Instagram and social media, in general, are guilty of the lottery effect too. We are at the hands of their algorithm. We invest our time into building a 'following' for them to only change it when it suits them.

I remember when Facebook groups were a thing. Then it was 'Facebook pages'. Now it's most definitely back to groups. People are at the mercy of what the company pushes.

Substack is saying a similar thingβ€”they want writers to focus on what they are good at, writing. When the reality is they need to become good business people.

I don't think we realise what we miss when don't do the marketing work.

Don't get lazy with the marketing

Basically, people got lazy and often don't understand they should have been doing their marketing all the way through. We think the tools and platforms are going to save us. They won't.

Meetup-ing is a skill that requires marketing.

Writing is a skill that requires marketing.

Community is a skill that requires marketing.

Business is a skill that requires marketing.

Showing up, doing and understanding the work creates the sustainability we need. Marketing is everything we do. From our brand. To who we choose to talk to. To the words we use...and so much more.

It is hard to give marketing the focus it needs, but once you figure it out it is what will make you win.

To some extent, I think the Indie Web (people-focused alternative to the "corporate web") is what should have been Web 3. It's what we should be getting excited about, but I'll leave those thoughts as a rabbit hole and perhaps something else to explore in the future.

How can we build better communities?

We are on a quest to learn and explore what makes great communities.


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