Building a Media Company on Substack
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One of the benefits of doing A Media Operator on Substack is that I don’t have to think about anything other than creating great content. My website is taken care of, list building is handled, and when I decide to start charging, it’ll be a seamless transition.
This same functionality can be extended to a fully baked media business. And The Dispatch is attempting to do just this. In their introductory post, the team said:
We’re launching a digital media company with three primary products: a website, newsletters and podcasts. We aim to make The Dispatch a place that thoughtful readers can come for conservative, fact-based news and commentary that doesn’t come either through the filter of the mainstream media or the increasingly boosterish media on the right. Importantly, we want to build a genuine community, with regular engagement between those of us who work here and the readers and listeners who will pay our salaries.
This is a first for Substack, which has focused on individual writers—like yours truly. For Substack, this is an expansion on a belief they have, which they wrote about in their piece announcing The Dispatch:
This represents the first step forward for Substack in supporting group-based efforts on the platform. We’ve long believed that people don’t really subscribe to “content” – they subscribe to voices they trust. This collaboration represents what that “subscribe to a person” model might look like when pushed a step further, and it gives us an opportunity to further explore how groups of writers can work together on Substack.
That makes sense. By bringing together like-minded voices, you can create a mini bundle in the same way that The Athletic has built their own bundle of sports writers. The voices are independent, but they are united around a single brand—in this case, The Dispatch.
For a political site focused on deep discourse rather than sensationalism meant to confuse voters, this is the right approach that should be taken. You may get tens of thousands of subscribers, which gives you a great business. But it’s not large enough to reach any semblance of scale required for a consumer ad business to work. I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw a liberal-leaning publication announce a similar structure.
This got me thinking, though. Rather than building a consumer political site, could Substack be used to build a B2B media company like some of the ones I’ve profiled on here?
As it stands today, the answer is no.
I believe that any successful media business needs to be sufficiently diversified. Though Substack supports subscriptions, which is the best option out there, there are no clear-cut ways to build a diversified media business that has other means of generating revenue.
Let’s say I wanted to build a new publication on Substack called The Business of Media and I wanted to depend on them to handle the entire back-end so that I could focus on hiring a team of journalists to focus on the content. Here’s what I’d need from Substack.
Business of Media Publication
When creating a niche B2B publication, there are two primary parties that are served. In the case of a business of media publication, you’re talking about media operators like all of you and then the vendors who offer products to those operators. Both parties can be served efficiently through the publication.
For the operators, that means subscriptions. So long as I am creating exceptional content, media operators will be willing to pay for a subscription because I am helping them do their jobs. I would be able to spin up a paid subscription in less than five minutes here on Substack, which is efficient.
For the vendors, though, there isn’t a clear-cut business model on Substack. While some will certainly subscribe as well, for traditional B2B publications, the way the bulk of the revenue is made is through ads.
Rightfully so, when many people think about ads, they think about cookie-based ads that track you wherever you go. But we’re moving into a future where cookie-based advertising no longer works and brands have to choose advertising based on context.
With newsletters and B2B pubs, the cookie-based model has never worked, and I don’t believe it should or will ever work. That’s not how smart B2B publications have ever done business. I talked about this in my piece about why B2C doesn’t do B2B.
The company’s name is Aging Media. I love what they’re doing. They recognize that their business is not in scale. It’s a depth business. Instead of covering everything, they cover one thing. And they do it really well.
Naturally, you can imagine the readers are the people who are working in senior housing. And the advertisers are the businesses trying to serve people who work in senior housing.
If you go to Senior Housing News, there are four ads that are all targeting financing or real estate in the senior housing market. That makes sense considering an executive at a senior housing company might be looking to expand and would likely want to work with one of these financing companies.
This is entirely a context game rather than a programmatic play. The advertisers give Aging Media their money because Aging Media invests heavily in business journalists who cover the industry for people who the advertisers want to do business with. It’s a perfect circle.
Here’s another example: iOS Dev Weekly. Dave Verwer charges $1,500 per week for a sponsorship that looks like this:
It’s a benign treatment that does two things very well. First, it is text based, which means the design isn’t negatively impacted. Second, it is a product that an iOS developer would likely be interested in learning more about. When a publisher can bring together readers and advertisers that are interested in finding each other, it’s advertising that works appropriately.
He also used to charge for job listings before launching a separate iOS dev job board. I did the math a couple years ago and he was earning $150k+ per year between job listings and sponsorship.
I would want to do the exact same thing here on my Substack-powered media company. Technically, I can do this today. I could open my About page and add a section called “Sponsor” and then tell people how to book slots. I could even use the same Stripe account I have to accept subscriptions on Substack. I would have to manually drop the sponsor in each week, but it wouldn’t take long.
I happened upon someone that appears to already be doing this with a crypto newsletter. Ledger is their sponsor and they include the sponsor message in every issue.
I wouldn’t want to go this big, but it works.
What I would want from Substack is the ability to handle the booking through their platform. Provide a simple calendar that shows the next available dates. It’s a self-serve model that the advertiser can use to select when they want their advertisement to run. I would have full control over whether I accepted the campaign and I wouldn’t have to go around chasing people for money. It would also be nice if the sponsorship was automatically slotted in for me, saving me time once I’ve approved it.
This is what it looks like on iOS Dev Weekly.
Another common model that many B2B media companies support is the lead generation business. Individuals knowingly trade their contact information for information produced by a sponsor. This is a business model that blends advertising and research. I’d need the ability to have a landing page and I’d need to create an individual campaign for the partner so that when the campaign is over, I could provide the leads to the sponsor. Again, this model is opt-in for readers, not opt-out, so it’s pro-privacy.
I understand that these models run counter to everything Substack stands for, and I respect that. I’d rather the “no ad” approach than selling our user data and throwing ugly ads all over the site.
But advertising is core to running a B2B media business that is looking for diversification. To be clear, this doesn’t require any fundamental changes to the design of our newsletters. It just gives me the ability to diversify where revenue is coming from. Industry Dive built its entire business on advertising that people aren’t offended by. It’s possible if your audiences and vendors line up.
It’s not just ads, though. There are other revenue channels that I would want to see introduced to make this work.
If we go back to my friends at Aging Media, I wrote about their other lines of business:
They have a research and event component to the business. On the research front, they are selling bespoke reports with titles like “The Primary Care Opportunity In Senior Living” and “The New Active Adult Housing.” And then they host a yearly event called the SHN Summit, which is a one-day event. They charge $300 for an operator, $400 for a non-operator, and then $2,500 for a 3-ticket sponsorship.
On the research front, I need the ability to create a landing page where a user can learn about the report and then can give me their credit card for one-off purchases. Let me re-purpose the about page and throw a “Buy Now” button. Once the purchase is complete, they would then receive an email that would include a download of the report.
We could take it a step farther and introduce the concept of a membership whereby users pay for unlimited reports. Perhaps this would cost $1,000+ a year and they automatically get the reports and the newsletter all bundled in one. I would need Substack to support a library feature where a new member can go in and see every previously published report. This nearly exists today with the archive of member-only content.
Here’s how Skift presents their research library in a great, clean way.
On the events front, it’s a bit trickier. I need the ability to share an agenda and easily have people register. The payment processing isn’t that hard, but the ability to then identify who has registered on-site becomes more complicated. There is some event software that automatically connects to ticket-printing software while other events pre-print the tickets. It often depends on the scale of the event.
What might be easier is to give me the ability to create the agenda and then send me over to an event registration platform like Eventbrite. It may not be as native as doing it through my own platform, but they’ve already built out that functionality. That said, if you do want to play in this world, Substack, I think I have a domain name that ends in Stack you might enjoy.
It’s not just revenue, though. There’s one final thing that I would want to feel confident building this diversified Business of Media publication on Substack. I need a custom domain name. There are two reasons for this.
The first is simple. Media brands should control their brands. I own the domain name AMediaOperator.com and I can easily setup a 301 redirect to mediaoperator.substack.com (which I haven’t done yet). But rather than doing this, it would be nice if every URL was just AMediaOperator.com.
This leads to the second reason, which is more important. Substack tells me that I own my content and subscribers. This is a big reason I was willing to sign up. But the subdomain still means that I am building my brand around Substack.
Sonia Simone, formally of Copyblogger Media, wrote about a concept known as Digital Sharecropping and it’s worth thinking about:
Digital sharecropping is a term coined by Nicholas Carr to describe a peculiar phenomenon of Web 2.0.
“One of the fundamental economic characteristics of Web 2.0 is the distribution of production into the hands of the many and the concentration of the economic rewards into the hands of the few.”
In other words, anyone can create content on sites like Facebook, but that content effectively belongs to Facebook. The more content we create for free, the more valuable Facebook becomes. We do the work, they reap the profit.
Let’s look at Facebook. What if you moved all of your marketing to a site like Facebook? It’s local, it’s free to sign up, and it makes businesses feel like they’re doing something cutting-edge.
But what happens when Facebook thinks you’ve done something that violates their terms of service and deletes your account? Or changes the way you’re allowed to talk with your customers?
I want to be clear. I am not suggesting that Substack is Facebook. I genuinely believe this team cares about writers and wants us to succeed. I’m publishing here for a reason.
But there is a risk associated with building around Substack. From an SEO perspective, I am stuck here. Look at the structure of a Substack post: name.substack.com/p/post-name. If I left, I could easily create the AMediaOperator.com/p/post-name URL structure. But because I don’t control the Substack.com domain name, I wouldn’t be able to set up the necessary 301 redirects to point users from the old MediaOperator subdomain to the new domain name.
Google drives a lot of audience for media companies, so having to effectively restart if something were to happen to Substack is a little daunting. If Substack were to go out of business, I could move all my subscribers and my content over to a new site, but I’d be starting from scratch from an SEO perspective. Anyone who has linked to my content would be linking to a 404.
I understand why Substack likes the current approach. It’s cleaner and it arguably gives writers a leg-up. Subscribers might be on one Substack newsletter and they know they’ll get an equally clean newsletter if they sign up for another Substack newsletter. However, for a fully baked media company, we need to be in complete control of our brands.
I am very excited to see how The Dispatch does. I do agree with Substack’s argument that people subscribe to voice’s that they trust. By bringing together multiple voices, you’ve got a mini-bundle that can support a subscription. However, if I were to launch a media company trying to be the primary news source for an industry, I don’t think I could build it at Substack—at least not yet.