What Substack’s Success Portends for Digital Marketing

Email is sexy again. That’s what one might surmise after Substack, the email newsletter platform, announced it was raising an extra $65 million.

But Substack’s success speaks to more than the growing appeal of independence for superstar journalists. It illustrates the growing power of email as a way for both journalists and companies to own their relationship with their audiences.

Consider that the New York Times recently moved to restrict its employees’ personal newsletter activities. Why prevent your journalists from further spreading the content they write for your own site? Because in today’s highly fragmented media landscape, owning the audience is everything. A journalist with a personal connection to thousands of readers may thrive without the middleman — the media company for which they work. Similarly, a company that can directly communicate with its customers is less dependent on intermediaries such as Google and Facebook.

“Substack is, at the end of the day, a way to connect readers to creators,” said Kerel Cooper, CMO of LiveIntent. “The future of connecting with and fostering an audience will be best achieved without an intermediary. There is no algorithm to email. There is no organization in the middle. The successful publisher of the future will own its relationship to its readers, and email offers an easy way for publishers to do just that.”

Why email is becoming more important to marketing

The appeal of gathering email addresses and directly communicating with customers is only growing as privacy changes undermine online targeting. As Google disables third-party cookies on Chrome and Apple degrades its Identifier for Advertisers, email stands out as a means of reaching customers that Big Tech cannot discard or downgrade on a whim.

“As we approach the end of the third-party cookie, [email has] evolved to become the fulcrum of identity and people-based marketing in this new world,” Cooper said. He added that his company, which powers email marketing, allows marketers to bypass the identity resolution problem that comes with customers having multiple email addresses.

“In order to successfully measure a campaign, you need an identity framework that is able to resolve who a person is across multiple email addresses, channels, and platforms. Technology providers like LiveIntent, who have a 1:1 relationship with the email address, are able to provide that resolution,” Cooper said.

Fighting email fatigue

Marketers tout the efficacy of email and deals, but it is common knowledge that email fatigue is a serious problem for the industry. Many workers can hardly sort through the must-respond messages in their inbox; the promotion from the local clothing retailer will have to wait.

Cooper says technology platforms have a lot to offer in this regard by distributing marketing messages across newsletters. This means not every Kohl’s message or campaign will immediately appear to come from Kohl’s, perhaps increasing engagement.

In addition, email can be the basis of identity solutions that allow targeting beyond the inbox. Email can power mobile, in-app, “or even CTV” targeting, Cooper said.

With other forms of identity and data collection waning, email may power targeting even more broadly in the coming years.

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Joe Zappa is the Managing Editor of Street Fight. He joined Street Fight as a contributing writer in 2015, has compiled the daily newsletter since 2016, and has spearheaded the newsroom's editorial operations since 2018. Shoot him an email at jzappa@streetfightmag.com.