Collapsing the Funnel: How You Can Replicate Substack's Success
Publishers are ignoring the most important page on their website
Substack’s success has been written about extensively.
There are many reasons for this, including branding, simplicity and positioning. But, I want to focus on one overlooked element: Substack’s marketing funnel.
Substack has optimized their funnel structure in a way that every creator, publication or any group that collects emails, should replicate.
The best part? It’s extremely easy to do. We use it at my publication Passage and it’s been effective at generating new donors (I’ll show you exactly what we do in an upcoming case study).
But before we look at the exact tactic Substack uses, let’s talk about the media marketing funnel.
The Normal Marketing Funnel
Marketing funnels are a series of steps your audience takes before taking your key action. In most cases, that’s purchasing a subscription.
I’ll use my outlet Passage as an example. We’re a small outlet, so our funnel is relatively simple and probably similar to most small to mid-sized publications.
We start with someone reading a story. Then they give us their email address to access our newsletters. From there, they are included in an onboarding funnel that pushes them towards higher value content (courses, our podcast and other newsletters). Finally, they become a paying subscriber.
Substack’s funnel is different. After someone submits an email, they are immediately presented with a subscription purchase option. Here’s my page as an example.
Weird right? What about that complex marketing funnel? In fact, it’s a brilliant decision and one you should consider copying.
But before I explain why it’s so smart, you need to understand why the technical reason why the page works so well.
Varying Conversions Rates
For most media publishers, there are few chances to fully capture your audience’s attention with one specific action.
The best way to illustrate this is email sign-up rates on articles. When a reader is presented with a sign-up form on an article, the percent who sign-up is low, usually around 1-2%.
Here’s an example of ours at Passage:
Compare this to a high converting landing page. Here’s the landing page for popular business newsletter Morning Brew:
There’s not much text, there’s no scrolling, no menu buttons and only one thing you can do.
According to interviews, Morning Brew converts around 35% of landing page visitors to their daily newsletter. We get similar numbers at Passage for our email sign-up pages.
Remember, for every 100 people who visit an article, 1-2 will sign-up (1-2% of visitors). But for high converting landing pages like Morning Brew, they can expect between 20-40 people (20-40%). That’s a massive difference.
The percentage of people taking an action, whether email, sharing or any other actions, are lower on articles because attention is either scattered (too many things to do on a page) or focused on consuming your content.
That’s not a bad thing. Articles are a publisher’s main product. Why would someone sign-up when they’re on your site to read?
But what if there was a natural location on your site where you could capture attention like a high converting landing page, without interrupting the reading experience?
There is a place like this. I call it the email redirect landing page: it’s the page someone is redirected to after giving you their email address. And it’s the most underutilized and important page on your website.
The Importance of Email Redirects
Email redirect landing pages replicate a high converting landing page in two ways by:
Focusing a reader’s attention on one action
For every email sign-up, there are two potential actions that can happen:
The form loads on the page, usually showing a thank you message, and people stay on that first page. Many sites do it. THIS IS BAD.
The form redirects a user to a different thank you page. THIS IS GOOD.
Some publishers understand the importance of the email redirect landing page, and place their highest value action on it.
Here’s Morning Brew’s thank you page after signing-up on their landing page.
Why is this such a great page?
Like the landing page, it only offers one action
Because Morning Brew generates revenue from ad sales, they want to maximize audience size. The survey identifies people who might be interested in other newsletters they offer, through their job titles, thereby increasing the future profitability of their list
My friends at the Peak, a daily business newsletter for Canadians, ask readers to mark their emails so it’s easier to discover in their inbox. Their core objective is likely to increase deliverability so more people open each email, thereby maximizing ad revenue.
Let’s go back to Substack. After a reader signs-up, the email redirect landing page is a subscription offer. Here’s Popular Information’s email redirect page:
Substack has identified the number one objective for their readers - growing subscriptions. Rather than redirecting readers to a list of articles, Substack places the main action - subscribing - without any distractions, in front of readers who are primed to act.
It’s one reason why Substack has been so effective. By optimizing subscription sales early, utilizing the value of the email redirect landing page, they’ve collapsed the marketing funnel and helped users generate higher sales.
Not So Fast…
Before you go and copy this strategy, there’s a reason why it’s worked for Substack: optimizing the redirect page for sales is effective for publishers and organization with large, engaged audiences.
For example, Matt Yglesias generated over 5,000 paying subscribers to his newsletter Slow Boring in just one month.
It worked because Matt did the hard work of building an audience over many years. When presented with the opportunity to support his work, coupled with a simple sign-up process, fans were more than willing to support him.
Rather than creating a large, complicated funnel like most publishers, Substack’s structure enabled quick subscription sales for those with larger audiences, by integrating subscription purchases into email redirects.
Matt Yglesias has almost 500,000 Twitter followers. So can smaller publishers find success with this strategy?
The answer is yes, but with a caveat.
How You Can Copy This Strategy
I just spent the entire article praising this strategy. But there’s some bad news - copying Substack’s funnel exactly won’t work for everyone.
Substack’s sign-up flow is suited for people with large, engaged audiences who haven’t yet been monetized. Most small to mid-sized publishers will not have a Twitter audience like Matt Yglesias, Judd Legum or Glenn Greenwald.
But the good news is that even if you have a smaller, but engaged audience, you can find success with it.
We use email redirect landing pages at my publication Passage. The results have been extremely encouraging. In a future members-only post, I’ll explain how we use them to generate subscriptions for our email courses (stay tuned).
I’m assuming that most of you don’t have 500,000 Twitter audiences. So here are a few strategies you can use if you’re a small-to-midsized publisher.
Kill thank-you messages on sign-up forms
Most sign-up forms have the option of switching between redirecting to a different page and showing a thank you message. Flip every sign-up form over to a redirect, with an important action on the redirect page. Do this now. Seriously, stop reading and fix it.
Put high-value actions on email redirects
If you aren’t optimizing for paid subscriptions, use an action that is of high value and high friction (harder to do). Morning Brew collects additional user information to sell more ads. The Peak asks people to make their emails more easily discoverable. This could be signing-up for a podcast, following you on social media or attending a webinar.
Integrate end-of-page sign-ups that redirect
Articles should include an end-of-page sign-up form or pop-up. End-of-page is better because you aren’t interrupting the reading experience. Set it to redirect and you’ll be surprised at how many people take action.
Use subscription sales redirects with email audiences
Running a survey to your email audience? Asking them to sign-up to a new newsletter? Unlike first-time visitors, email sign-ups have a pre-existing relationship with you. They’re primed to make a purchase.
Think about the different actions on your website and who is likely to do it. If the action is more likely to be taken by someone already on your email list or repeat visitor, this is where you should put a subscription ask on the redirect page.
Use it on redirects when running ads
Alot of publishers are starting to experiment with Facebook ads. The redirect landing page should include some sort of action that pushes them closer on the funnel to purchasing a subscription. This could be a podcast sign-up, following you on social media or signing up for some other service or product you offer.
Want to know how to integrate this strategy on your own site? Comment and I’ll respond!
And if you can afford it, please consider supporting Media Growth Lab so I can write more stories like this.