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Substack Versus WordPress Newsletter: First Impressions and Migration Tips

Woman thinking "Phew!!" (Cartoon by Hilda Bastian.)

It’s been a relief to migrate my newsletter away from Substack. I’d started on Substack because it was so easy. It was free to me and for readers, there was no advertising, you could take your posts and subscribers with you if you wanted to move – and lots of other scientists and science writers had done it.

My reasons for wanting out are explained here. The bottom line, though, is that I just wasn’t comfortable on a platform that’s a major leagues money-maker for the misinformation-hate complex. And I didn’t want to wait for the likely-inevitable enshittification development or event that made moving urgent. Migrating slowly, while my newsletter and its footprint are still small, had to be easier.

My newsletter, Living With Evidence, is now in WordPress’ new newsletter setup. I’m comfortable with WordPress’ long track record as an open source stalwart with a Foundation, and an established relationship with its founder and business arm. I don’t want to host my own site any more: I shuttered it because I want something that should last beyond my lifetime, without my family having to bother about it much.

I use WordPress’ free newsletter theme – the landing page is similar to the Substack one. This option could be completely free to me, but I pay for its most basic plan to make it ad-free for readers. It’s called the personal plan, and it’s US$5 a month. I’m not using any of the extras that come with it though, so when the time comes to stop, it can revert to free without losing anything – as long as I don’t put in so many large image files that I exceed the storage limit for free hosting. And the dashboard keeps track of how much storage you’re using, which is helpful.

However, as you read on, keep in mind I’ve never offered paid subscriptions or a podcast, so I don’t know how those elements compare – both systems have them. In higher-cost WordPress plans, you can earn from ads if you want to as well. And the higher end enables plug-ins and other bells and whistles.

In addition, although I’ve used both reader apps on my phone, I only write and post on my laptop, so I can’t compare those features. And I haven’t tried another WordPress option – a newsletter add-on to a WordPress blog.

Here’s an overview of the underlying newsletter features that mattered to me in choosing a home:

Longevity for my postsCommercial venture, founded in 2017. Fate uncertain.
(Source: Wikipedia)
“Permanence” is a major selling point for WordPress.

Founded in 2003. In 2021, 65% of websites where the content management system was known, and 43% of the top 10 million websites, were built on WordPress.
(Source: Wikipedia)
Free to the writerYes.Yes. (With a 1GB storage limit in the completely free option.)
Free to readersYes.Yes.
Advertising-freeYes. (For now.)Not on the free plan. But there’s a cheap advertising-free plan.
Download subscriber listYes.Yes.
Export postsYes. (But not associated comments.)Yes – and media library can be exported, too.
Reader statisticsYes.Yes.

I’ve broken down my comments and tips on the migration process, and comparison of the 2 platforms into these sections:

Setting up

This takes more time than you might think, and that goes for both systems. The free WordPress newsletter theme is close enough to Substack’s that you can re-use intro texts. If you’re using barebones free WordPress, it’s a bit frustrating coming up against upselling options when you try to do things. It would have been much simpler and easier if I’d known the limits beforehand, instead of clicking around fruitlessly so much. Otherwise, I think Substack isn’t much easier for the actual setup.

Here’s where you get started. I just re-used the icon, name, and slightly-modified intro text from my Substack newsletter.

In the rest of this section, I get into details that I think might save some time for someone setting up at WordPress.

There are posts and pages. Posts are your newsletter posts. Pages are the “infrastructure” parts. The newsletter theme doesn’t have an “About” section, so I created a page for it, cutting and pasting the text from my Substack post.

Other than the homepage, the theme only has a single page already set up, and it’s called “Archive.” It doesn’t have the full list of archived posts to browse though – only a few recent posts show up there. Go figure! The full archive of posts is actually on the home/landing page. However, the page called “Archive” has a search box. So I renamed that page “Search the Archive”, which makes more sense to me.

I don’t know if everybody knows that the menu on WordPress sites is under the 2 little lines at the top right of the page. That’s the only way to get to “About”. I wished the theme had the option of an obvious link to “About”. That said, I don’t know how often people who are thinking about subscribing to a newsletter actually read that section, so perhaps it doesn’t matter.

There isn’t much you can customize with the free theme – almost everything you might try, you end up hitting WordPress plan upselling. The dashboard section where you can do several things is “Settings.”

In settings, “Reading” is where you can modify the emails it sends when people subscribe. When I tested out subscribing – using a different email to the one I set up the newsletter with – I didn’t think it was intuitive. That’s because hitting confirm isn’t enough – that only takes you to the page where you do the actual confirming, and I didn’t think it was obvious. I used the email text to try to make it clear it was a 2-step process.

You can customize the moderation and commenting setup in the “Discussion” section under settings. This is classic WordPress, and it includes pro-active moderation tools. Substack is lousy for this, so this was a welcome sight.

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Migrating posts

The download from Substack is a collection of HTML files of your newsletter posts, along with some stats for each. I presume an importer for Substack newsletters is on the planning cards for WordPress, but there wasn’t one when I migrated. Import is under “Tools” on the dashboard, and other places like Blogger, Medium, and Tumblr are supported.

That didn’t bother me, as I was expecting to import each post manually, because I wanted to crunch down the size of the images and eliminate as many of them as I could because of the storage limit at WordPress. That was tedious, obviously, and I was awfully glad I did this before I had a huge number of posts. If I’d had a lot of them, I think I would have just gone with a pointer to the Internet Archive.

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Migrating subscribers

This was easy and worked smoothly. I tested out the subscription system myself with a second email address and migrated all the posts before I uploaded the file into WordPress (under “Users”). I deleted the extraneous columns from the Substack file first, which is probably redundant.

In case the WordPress email fell into people’s spam filters, I did a sign off post at Substack after my first WordPress newsletter, explaining that they should have received the WordPress email. (I apologized in both posts for the double-email this meant people would get.)

I don’t think any of the emails fell through the cracks, though the number of subscribers that appeared at WordPress was lower than the number I uploaded. I hope that’s just the difference dead emails make – Substack keeps subscribers on your books when their email address doesn’t work any more. For me, that was about 5% of subscribers, and would account for it. Either way, the backup email from Substack could alert any keen subscriber who was lost that they needed to re-subscribe.

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Signing up and getting the newsletter (reader point of view)

As I already mentioned, I don’t think the confirmation process is clearly explained enough in WordPress. But otherwise, I don’t think there are many differences between Substack and WordPress. In WordPress, you can choose to not deliver the entire newsletter post into the email. I don’t recall that being an option at Substack for free newsletters, and I couldn’t find it in a quick search now of the dashboard.

With Substack, if a subscriber replies to the newsletter email, the newsletter writer gets it as a normal email. That happens with WordPress too, but it also goes into the commenting system for the post. The footer at the bottom of emails tells you that. However, I don’t know if people notice that fine print, so I’m going to be careful, and ask people if they want me to approve it as a comment on the site unless it’s really clear. (Because of past experience, I don’t let comments through without approval.)

Both systems have reader apps. With Substack’s now, you get pinged with their social media system too, which I found so annoying, I stopped using it. With the WordPress reader, you can follow blogs in the massive WordPress ecosystem as well as newsletters. Which is cool. About a quarter of my subscribers were already in the WordPress system, though I don’t know how many of them are regular users of the reader app.

Finally, one of the things many people hate most about Substack is having subscribe buttons all over the place. The writer can stop them, but Substack really pushes them, and insists it increases your subscribers. WordPress doesn’t do this – at least, not in the free newsletter.

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Writing newsletters

This is a major point of difference between the systems.

Substack is very basic – at first I’d get frustrated at what I couldn’t do. On the other hand, that makes it very, very easy to pick up and use. On the other hand, if I’d never used WordPress before, I’d have found it pretty hard. That’s partly because the extra options inevitably meaning there’s a lot on the screen. But mostly it’s because of the block editor system WordPress introduced a few years ago.

Some people hate the block editor, with the heat of a thousand suns. And I get why. I really struggled with it here at Absolutely Maybe when WordPress rolled it out. Now, though, I appreciate lots of things about it, even though I still have a few grumbles. But there was a learning curve, and I didn’t find a quick and easy guide to using it (though I’m sure there is one). I muddled through, finding tips to solve individual issues I was having.

If you’re not adept with the block editor, you’ve got 2 options. The first is to plan to spend some time finding a guide or tutorial you like. The second is to opt out into classic editing mode. For the free newsletter, there’s only one way to do that, as far as I can see, and that’s in each new post, not as a site setting. Here’s how:

When you start a new post, there’s pale text saying “Type / to choose a block,” with a square block with a plus sign in it. Click on the plus sign, and there’s a search box. Type classic into that. You’ll see an icon come up, called classic. Click it, and a window will pop up telling you it’s classic editor – click save, and you’ve got an old-school post to work with.

On the plus side for WordPress, I think it’s harder to accidentally post a newsletter – in Substack, you could inadvertently do that via preview. I think preview is much better all round in WordPress.

With WordPress, you need to add a featured image in the spot for this in the toolbar at the side of the post. You need it, to have a thumbnail to show up in the list of posts etc. However, in the free option, you can’t stop that featured image from displaying at the top of the newsletter. So if you add it in the post, it’ll be appear twice. (This isn’t an issue at Substack: That picks up the first image to use as the thumbnail, wherever it’s placed in the post.)

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Visitor statistics

Both systems have some analytics, and while they give you useful data, I find both frustrating, too. In WordPress, if you pay for a higher plan you can get advanced in-house analytics, and the ID you need to use other services. But the free/basic setup is quite limited.

I’m still getting used to this. And WordPress’ help documentation on blog statistics hasn’t been expanded to cover the newsletter-specific aspects of what they’re showing. Here’s hoping that’s in the pipeline.

One of the frustrating things at Substack was the way numbers weren’t broken down into, for example, how many views were people reading the email or people visiting the website. Or even having all the current totals of views of posts in the one place – I had to keep a separate spreadsheet, updated from time to time, to get an overview.

In WordPress, the reverse is the problem. For example, it separates website visitors from email opens – they’re even in different sections of the dashboard. (One’s under “Stats”, and the other under “Users”.) But at least I won’t have to keep a separate collection to get an overview of all the posts. On the other hand, it’s not as informative about what links people click on in newsletters.

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Substack vs WordPress reader communities

One of the main selling points for Substack is that it gives you access to a huge pool of potential subscribers. I just took that as a given. But now that I’ve moved across, I’m starting to question how big a deal that actually is. It will take some time for me to find out if the WordPress community is a source of new subscribers. At the moment, the proportions of my subscribers that are members of Substack and WordPress communities aren’t massively different.

A big proviso here is that I didn’t participate much in a major way that many Substack newsletters grow – lots and lots of mutual recommendations with other Substacks. So the migration might affect my newsletter’s future less than it might for others. It’s too soon for me to tell.

What does that all add up to? I’m much happier to be at WordPress, and more confident in its longterm prospects. I’m looking forward to the ways WordPress newsletter will develop instead of worrying about what will happen. I think it’s probably a bit harder to get the hang of than Substack is, but it has better features – especially for moderation and commenting. That alone is worth it.

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You can check out my newsletter, Living With Evidence, here.

I’m on Mastodon. Interested in Mastodon? Check out my Shortcuts to Giving Mastodon a Try.

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Disclosures: Nothing to declare on this topic. I maintain a list of financial disclosures in the About section of Absolutely Maybe.

The cartoon at the top of this post is my own (CC BY-NC-ND license)(More cartoons at Statistically Funny.)

  1. Thank you so much for this post. I’d finally convinced myself to get over my strange, vague misgivings about Substack and was about to set one up; I’m really grateful that google sent me here first! Not only have you substantiated my concerns, you’ve shown me a better path… that just happens to be on a platform I’m already familiar with. Really appreciating you right now!

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