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Best Seller Badges and Community Goodwill
On November 10th,published an article that introduced a new feature called the Substack Best Seller Badge. It’s described as:
The feature drew an immediate reaction from the writing community. That reaction was largely negative. At the time of this writing, there are 445 comments on the post and most of them are decrying how unfair the system is for one reason or another. The most common complaint is how it makes authors feel and how this introduces an element of competition to the platform. Eventually, Chris Best showed up to reply. His comment is now pinned as the first one in the comments section.
Maybe Substack isn’t Wrong?
I understand the frustration that writers feel, but those feelings need to be balanced with the health of the platform. I would like to be using Substack decades from now. It offers great features and wonderful discovery tools that seem to be improving on a daily basis, but more than those things it also offers community. I enjoy reading things written by the authors I’ve met here and I don’t want that to go away. The only way that can happen though is if the company continues to be profitable.
As a reader, best seller lists and star ratings help me to identify books that I might enjoy. It’s been that way for decades. Why wouldn’t that same approach work on Substack?
The Underlying Reason for the Pushback
The comments list several reasons why a best seller badge would be a bad thing. They cite a variety of reasons for why they oppose these badges, but I think one of the big, unspoken reasons for the resistance is the feeling of being left out or left behind. I believe that there’s a worry that highlighting what is perceived to be quality content may dissuade would-be readers from trying out non-badged publications. And that does seem like a valid concern.
Why Not Flip Things?
Instead of placing all of the focus on drawing attention to publications that are already doing well, let’s create a system that promotes publications that are on the cusp. Ones that are close to breaking through. Personally, I believe such a system could exist alongside best seller badges.
Here are some ideas:
Identify some metric that Substack believes make for a good newsletter: consistent delivery, read-through rates, comments, etc. and create a badge for publications that meet that criteria.
Make a badge for velocity. If someone gets a sudden influx of new subscribers highlight that in some way.
Highlight and recommend popular articles. If an article has gone viral within the Substack ecosystem, why not call attention to it on the main page? Create a new section called Hot Reads or something.
Highlight publications that have newly transitioned to paid publications.
When a Free Publication reaches a number of subscribers so that it’s plausible for them to make the switch to paid give them a badge that indicates this in some way. It may very well encourage the author of that publication to pull the trigger and begin trying to convert their readership.
I can understand why a top down approach makes sense from the company’s perspective, but I believe a bottom-up approach would strengthen the entire system. Personally, I think Substack should do both. Offer best seller badges, but present them along side other badges designed to help the little guy. I believe this would make things more palatable. More than that though, it establishes Substack as a place for all writers—not just the ones with tens of thousands of paid subscriptions.
I think there is a lot of value in focusing on the newsletters that have hit their groove and found their voice. That’s where growth can come from because it’s going to be easier to replicate a publication with 1000 paid subscribers than it is one that has 1 million paid subscribers. Invest time and energy in helping people reach that plateau and you’ll help Substack’s bottom line and generate good will.
Starting a newsletter is an exercise in trial and error and it’s fraught with persistent insecurity and doubt. I believe that’s why there was such an outcry over these badges. It seemed tilted to favor the winners. Adding a few more badges for people who are still on the journey could provide a meaningful road map to publication authors as they try to navigate their way to that best seller badge.
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