The self-proclaimed “home for great writing” is now introducing video. It’s a potentially dangerous path, one which many news publishers have experimented with to varying degrees of success. The company formerly called Facebook once wooed outlets to embrace the format.
With the Big Blue’s massive user base very much in mind, over eager outlets quickly hired video teams and later disbanded them. “Pivot to video” became a cruel joke in the news industry, but the rise of YouTube and then TikTok and its 1bn monthly active users have slowly restored the faith.
The latter platform is known for its short, fast food-esque snippets, while YouTube has helped usher in the long-form era, most notably with video podcasts, documentaries and speaking essays. With competition from Instagram and TikTok, however, YouTube is now favouring shorter clips.
Popular creators also can’t paywall their content on the platform (YouTube Premium offers some YouTube Originals, but these are limited and Patreon has its limits).
This has led creators to take the impetus and build their own subscription services, most notably Logan Paul with Maverick Club and The Sideman with Side+. Others, meanwhile, have used the more raunchy off-the-shelf platform of OnlyFans.
“We recently surpassed fifty million Music and Premium subscribers, including those in trial. And YouTube Shorts continues to see high adoption rates. In the past year, the average number of daily first time creators more than doubled.” – Sundar Pichai, CEO Alphabet and Google, speaking to financial analysts in November 2021.
Substack could inadvertently solve a problem for video creators who don’t have the resources or technical knowledge to build their own subscription service from the ground up.
“We also expect to make significant changes to Instagram and Facebook in the next year to further lean into video and make Reels a more central part of the experience.” – Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg, speaking to financial analysts in October 2021.
As to how the video functionality will fit into the network’s rather rudimentary discovery options – currently consisting of a search bar and leader rankings across a range of broad topics (politics, culture and topics) – that is yet to be seen.
The whole project is fairly early stage stuff at the moment. Substack has started private Beta testing, with some writers being asked to trial the new native feature out.
“The videos will be playable directly on the web in your Substack post, and they will appear in the email versions as clickable images,” we are told.
The company has also stressed that it is following writers’ own digital development, but, perhaps in an accidental omission, it doesn’t mention Substack readers and what they want.
But we do know that more than 500,000 Substack readers (as of November 2021) will pay for their content – some for at least two newsletters, given that there are over 1m subscriptions on the platform.
We also know that when the Andreessen Horowitz backed platform, founded just five years ago, was asked what its role was in the social media ecosystem, CEO Chris Best told CNBC:
“...We think what you read matters…and the current landscape dominated by social media is making us angry and dumb, and is breaking our brains. We need a real alternative to the engagement-based business model that creates.”
So far this media mantra has made Substack a winner in the great print media unbundling, a minor player in the podcast space and it could lead to further and perhaps even greater success in video, where the engagement chase is pushing the biggest platforms to sub-60 second clips.
In the end, will Substack win over all of the thoughtful media creators?