After using Mailchimp, Mailerlite, and Substack for my newsletter, I finally made the move to Ghost, to turn Creativerly into a full-fledged publication. Read on to get insights into what reasons led to this move.

Quick backstory first: I started Creativerly back in January 2019. I did not know much about ESPs (I had no idea what ESP stands for), on top of that I had no clue how to operate a newsletter in general. Therefore, I dove deep into the internet and did my research about the whole newsletter topic. Whenever I searched for the technical part on how to send out a newsletter, Mailchimp was the one option that got recommend the most. Why? Because it was (and still is) the most popular ESP out there (at least regarding user number and revenue). When I would start over today, I would avoid using Mailchimp because there are better options that focus on creators and creating content, in my opinion. Mailchimp has been a popular solution for marketing emails for years.

I used Mailchimp for 11 issues of Creativerly. After that, I was forced to switch to another ESP. Mailchimp closed my account, without any warning or further information why it was closed. After trying to get in contact with their support for a few times (and getting back automated answers only) I was done with Mailchimp, and moved on to Mailerlite. Mailerlite is a great tool, I enjoyed using it, it has intuitive features, you can use it freely up to 1000 subscribers, and it is super simple to use. Also, their customer support was top-notch, when I was using Mailerlite, they responded within a few minutes to my questions, which makes it an even better product.

Nevertheless, I still decided to make the move to Substack back in April 2020. At that time, Substack was about to blow up during the COVID-19 pandemic. There was one big reason why I decide to move to Substack. I was done with heavily designed emails, like most people send out using services like Mailchimp, Mailerlite, and others. Since those ESPs are template-based you kind of get forced to use building block to „design“ your whole email. I wasn’t a fan of this anymore. I wanted a more professional, minimal, and streamlined look. Substack delivered exactly that, since their emails newsletters look like blog posts you would publish online.

Creator-focused ESPs

There are a lot of ESPs like Mailchimp, Sendinblue, ActiveCampaign, CleverReach, that mainly focuses on marketing emails. Revue, Convertkit, Substack, Ghost, especially aim at creators, writers, and publishers, and therefore also offer better features and functions, for those kind of people in first place.

On top of that, Substack is great for hobbyists wanting to have a place for their writing online. Creativerly has 850+ subscribers as of writing this, and while I still would call it my side-project, with no initial intention to fully monetize it. On the other hand, I would say that Creativerly is no longer a hobby, but a passion. And therefore, my passion needs a better home in my opinion, and that better home is Ghost.

The drawbacks of Substack

When you search online for drawbacks regarding Substack, you will come across people arguing about Substack’s fees. Substack itself claims to be aimed at professional writers (the platform is full of them and more and more journalists are getting on). They made exclusive contracts with like big writers and journalists like Casey Newton, Anand Giridharadas, or Matt Taibbi. Therefore, Substack also aims at writers who are planning to monetise their audience by paid subscriptions. Since the whole platform is free, Substack is taking a 10% cut of your subscriptions. Rob Hardy from Ungated did the maths on that topic:

As of this writing, Matt Taibbi has the third most popular paid newsletter on Substack’s leaderboard, with “tens of thousands” of subscribers. Now, by all accounts, Matt’s super happy with Substack, so this’ll be hypothetical. But it’s instructive nonetheless.
For the sake of easy math, let’s say he’s got 15,000 paid subscribers at $50/year. That translates to roughly $750,000 per year, without yet accounting for fees or churn or new subscribers.
That means, unless Substack cut him some kind of deal (which they’ve been known to do with high-profile journalists), Matt Taibbi’s singlehandedly paying $75,000 a year in fees.
Can we let that sink in for a moment?

But besides those fees, Substack does not offer any customisations regarding email or your landing page/website, you get no segmentations, tags, or list management. And now let me ask you one question: Would you be comfortable paying a significant amount of fees while using Substack, but getting zero to none comparable features of other ESPs? I do not think so.

The lack of customisation

The second biggest drawback of Substack for a lot of folks is the lack of customisation. People complain about the fact, that every single Substack post/newsletter basically looks the same. In my opinion, this issue is based on personal preference. Personally, I want to focus straight on content. As a designer myself, I often find myself overhauling the design of my side-projects over and over again, instead of focusing on the project itself. Since Substack does not provide any customisation features, it helped me build up a writing habit and focus straight on constantly improve my content. Nevertheless, I am indeed missing the possibility to inject my personality while using Substack. Ghost solves that by offering Themes, so you can at least customise your landing page/website.

When a service just like Substack literally gives you zero possibility to express your brand, I do not think it is a platform I would like to use forever. Substack was great for some big wins in first place, but it would be the wrong move in my opinion, to stay and grow Creativerly on that platform.

Therefore, it was about time to finally make the move to Ghost.

Moving away from Substack - why Ghost is a great option

I am not the only one moving away from Substack. Over the last year we saw a lot of people grow on their platform, but then make the move towards something else. Although Substack is aimed at professional writers, it is working out well for folks who just want to get started and an idea tested.

Here is a quick summary, why I am such a big fan of Ghost. First of all, it is open-source software. I like to support open-source and privacy-focused software and companies, so that was immediately a fit. With Ghost you are not „locked in“, whenever you decide to switch to any other service, you can export your subscriber list and your whole content archive. On top of that, Ghost is incredibly fast. Your website, posts, and everything else loads with lightning speed. This is a huge plus when it comes down to User Experience, because it will not look that professional, if someone finds your publication online, head over to your website, but the content will not load. If you are already using a certain kind of tech stack, Ghost will come loaded with hundreds of integrations to speed up your whole workflow. One of my personal favourites with Ghost, is the fact that their editor supports markdown, which boosts my workflow, since I basically lay out every single newsletter issue, blog post, and interview with markdown based text editing. Therefore, I simply need to copy and paste my post from iA Writer to Ghost (I could even publish them straight from my iA Writer account), and all the text editing and formatting will be there.

No one is perfect

Anyways, when you decide to use Ghost, you will also come across some drawbacks. Just like with Substack, email customisations on Ghost are some kind of limited. Nevertheless, the team at Ghost keep on pushing updates to the platform. One month ago, they pushed a small update to newsletter design settings, that now let you change the typography (choose between sans-serif and serif font), show or hide your publication logo and title, and add a dedicated email footer to your newsletters. Small steps, but important ones, and especially moving in the right direction.

For most people, one of the biggest drawbacks with Ghost will be the relatively steep pricing of their managed hosting service called Ghost(Pro), which will cost you $29 per month. I personally could also not justify to pay $29 per month, and therefore decided to self-host Ghost using DigitalOcean’s Droplet. I have a basic programming, terminal, and server-management understanding, but it was still a hassle to get everything working properly. In the end, I needed some assistance and decided to contact the Ghost(Valet) service, a premium support service by the Ghost Team. It needed some email back and forth, but I am super excited and thankful that everything is working now and you are able to read those lines here. My major issue with self-hosting Ghost was to get the Mailgun integration running properly. Mailgun is the email deliverability service Ghost is using for sending bulk emails. You do not need to use Mailgun since there are integrations for other ESPs, if you are already using something like Mailchimp, EmailOctopus, or Buttondown, to send out your newsletters. I just wanted to keep everything tied together, and since Ghost itself uses Mailgun for their managed hosting service Ghost(Pro), I also decided to set it up for my self-hosted version. If you are currently struggling with setting up Mailgun for your Ghost publication, here is a great and quick tutorial by Newsletter Crew.

At the core, Ghost will provide you with all the necessary tools to launch a paid membership business. I do not plan for now to add a paid version of Creativerly, but on the other hand I also do not want to rule it out. Therefore, just having the possibility to easily integrate memberships and a paid version of Creativerly somewhere in the future, is great.

Excited for the future

I am excited about the future of Ghost and the future of Creativerly. As always, if you have any questions, feedback, suggestions, whatsoever, just let me know, my DMs and email are always open for you.

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