Let’s start with the ingredients. This build started with:
An existing Ghost website with approximately half of my content already loaded in
A Substack site with a mailing list and all my content all mushed together
An audience with expectations that I publish a certain type of content on a semiregular basis, some of whom want to dive deeper than others
Loosely established content pillars, metadata and content types (i.e., essays and reviews)
An indeterminate non billable period before client projects would pick back up from the fall slump (I thought it would be 8 weeks but it turned out to be 3)
A rough deadline of “for this to be feasible it needs to be turned around before the end of the year and we are already 3 weeks into Q4” (how tech industry of me)
I expected strategic planning to take a bit, but I know some things, so it was probably the easiest part of the whole thing. The Membership Guide was invaluable in helping me research the components I needed to think through on adding a new community aspect to my business. I also deeply understand B2B media and the whole creator/newsletter economy, and I literally wrote my master’s thesis on blogging startups, so, yeah, I just made extremely informed guesses for the following questions:
How much content should be behind the paywall? I went with around 30% of the essay content (or every third essay), with all reviews always free. Guides are behind the free membership paywall. “That’s not much content!” you say, but I’m a new brand, and I have a reader acquisition strategy based largely on organic search.
What should I charge? The ancestral newsletterers have set the going rate between $5 and $10 for a monthly membership. I went with $7/month or $75/year, keeping my free founding 1k members policy, of course.
What’s my navigation and content surfacing strategy? Some people dream about building baseball fields and billion-dollar businesses; I dream about redesigning my website’s information architecture. Pretty much the second I launch a website I immediately envision a new IA. After dissecting analytics for how visitors were (not) using my previous nav, I settled quickly on topic-based nav items with one added point of hand-curated related content beneath each post. Audiences search and think through topic-based nav more quickly than thematic- or content type-based navigation.
Once those questions were settled, I began actually building the thing, which presented its own set of obstacles.
1. Adding structure to unstructured content
Unstructured content is a pile of words and images that are interconnected, but relatively indiscernible when read by computers. PDFs are considered unstructured content: a pile of words and images on a page that can’t be separated from each other. You can add metadata to a PDF, but you can’t break it down into its component parts.
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