Discover more from Situation Normal
I hit 1,000 subscribers. Here's what I learned
While I was away on vacation, Situation Normal hit 1,000 subscribers. Actually, let me rephrase that. After nearly two years of hard work, I accomplished my subscriber goal for Situation Normal!
Normally, I write slice of life humor about hapless bud tenders, missing the cutoff for McDonald’s breakfast, or a time share salesman pitching me while we're in line at the Harry Potter wand store.
This post will be a little different. I’m going to play it straight, or as straight as I can play it. Countless writers in this community have taught me tons about running a newsletter. I can’t repay that debt in full, but I can start by sharing what I’ve learned on my journey to 1,000 subscribers.
If you’re a Situation Normal regular, I promise Sunday’s story about vacationing in Cleveland will be a banger that rivals the Alaskan cruise story (if Juneau, Juneau).
If you’re new here, make sure to subscribe before we get to the “learnings.”
Goals don’t happen overnight (or on schedule)
I began writing Situation Normal on Substack in November of 2020. I had 125 subscribers—mostly Facebook friends who had enjoyed my slice of life stories for years, plus a handful of fans from self-publishing novels and writing fiction on Wattpad. My goal was to reach 1,000 subscribers by November of 2021. I missed my deadline by roughly ten months.
Was I bummed that it took me longer to hit my subscriber goal than I had planned? Yeah, a little. But I picked the arbitrary number and the arbitrary deadline to serve as a North Star for my journey. Missing my self-imposed deadline wasn’t a bad thing. On the contrary, it helped me focus on something more important: progress.
On the one-year anniversary of Situation Normal, I could point to the following markers of progress:
I was halfway to my goal.
My stories were finding their audience, which told me I was heading in the right direction.
Growing my audience four-fold in one year, while short of my initial goal, was a win I could build on!
Viral is great, but steady growth is better
By far, Situation Normal’s largest jump in subscribers came when Morning Brew shared my story about a home improvement project gone wrong. In less than a week, I added 184 subscribers!
My first thought was: how do I get Morning Brew to share more Situation Normal stories like my lizard king trilogy, or the time I pretended to be Marty Ackerman to fool a tarot card reader?
I sent the Morning Brew team a thank you note, but they didn’t take the hint. So, I tried bribing them with artisanal macaroons, tickets to Burning Man, and enough Bitcoin to buy everyone at Burning Man an artisanal macaroon.
The bribes didn’t work, but Situation Normal continued to grow because every week a handful of readers would share my story with their friends. That’s when I realized that growth comes in two flavors: Get Rich Quick and Compound Interest.
The growth I saw from Morning Brew fell into the Get Rich Quick category. Like winning the lottery, a subscriber windfall is great, but you can’t bank on it because you can’t control when, or if, one of your posts will go viral.
On the other hand, Compound Interest growth is something you can control by putting out consistent work and asking readers to share stuff they enjoy.
Growth is a function of community
When Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, he said, “One small step for a bunch of nobodies, one giant leap for me!” Thankfully, Neil’s audio was on a delay, allowing NASA’s crackerjack PR team to change the astronaut’s words to, “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.”
Armstrong’s words are the ultimate expression of community support. But even an Earth-bound dude who prefers moon walking GIFs to actual moon walks knows that newsletters without community support will fail to reach orbit.
Writing Situation Normal is my responsibility, but Situation Normal grows because multiple communities help it grow. Here’s how👇
Every time I post, my community of readers share Situation Normal stories with their friends. (Thank you, readers, you’re amazing!)
As of this writing, 20 Substack writers recommend Situation Normal to their readers through the Substack recommendation tool. (Thank you, writers, for the endorsement, and thank you, Substack team, for building a great product!)
Existing Substack users discover Situation Normal because I participate in Substack Office Hours and I make it a point to leave comments on newsletters I enjoy.
As you can see from the chart below, multiple sources contribute to the growth of Situation Normal.
Social media is overrated
When I decided to launch a newsletter, my goal was to build a platform that was immune to the weird whims of social media algorithms. I also wanted to minimize my social media use in order to increase my creative output and improve my mental health.
I haven’t managed to quit social media yet, but my mental health and creative output have improved. I’m (grudgingly) back on Facebook because some people I love are there, and because there’s no better tool for tracking the birthdays of people you haven’t spoken to in decades. I’m on Twitter because I’m a sucker for the misinformation goat rodeo, even though I know it rots your brain. I also lurk on TikTok because stupid pet tricks bring me joy.
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But here’s the thing: social media doesn’t really matter. At least, it doesn’t matter much in terms of my subscriber growth. After nearly two years of publishing Situation Normal on Substack, I’ve gotten 34 subscribers from Twitter (where I post daily) and 14 from Facebook (where I’m a ghost). In total, only about 5 percent of my subscribers come from social media.
While 5 percent of my audience is significant, it’s a disturbingly low figure considering how much time and energy I put into Twitter. Whatever I’m trying to get out of social media, my newsletter data tells me it ain’t growth.
Taking breaks is a good thing
Isaac Asimov published roughly 500 novels. But I’m not Isaac Asimov, and while I can’t prove it, I’m positive he had a little help from a robot co-writer.
I’m kidding. Asimov didn’t get any help from a machine. He was a machine. But I’m human, and like all humans, sometimes I need a break.
As I noted at the top of this post, I hit my subscriber milestone while on vacation. New readers discovered and subscribed to Situation Normal when I wasn’t posting new material. That’s a great feeling.
A similar thing happened during a previous vacation in June. I took two weeks off for an Alaskan cruise and added dozens of new subscribers. The reason? Many of the Substack writers who recommend Situation Normal continued to post new material.
As a bonus, I returned from vacation refreshed and ready to put out new stories. Plus, the cruise gave me a story that remains my second most popular post to this day. Breaks haven’t hurt subscriber growth, but they have helped creative output.
Perfection is the enemy of a good newsletter
Baseball legend and accidental wordsmith Yogi Berra once said, “If the world were perfect, it wouldn’t be.” That’s basically how I feel about publishing Situation Normal. If my humor newsletter were perfect, it wouldn’t be.
When I first launched Situation Normal, I wanted every story to be perfect. Yes, the copy had to be clean, but more than that, I felt as if my entire newsletter lived and died with each post. If I hit a home run with a story, I expected to add dozens of new subscribers. But if I struck out, I worried my audience would unsubscribe en masse.
There are a few problems with this mindset. First, you can’t hit a home run every time. Second, while I have a sense of what will likely work with my audience, I’m lousy at predicting winners. Third, living and dying for the perfect post (whatever that is) makes me risk-adverse, which undermines my creativity.
Discarding the perfection mindset is easier said than done, however. Sometimes I get into a rut where I play it safe with stories I just know (somehow) are the platonic ideal of what slice of life humor is supposed to be. Sometimes those stories work, sometimes they don’t.
But Situation Normal works best when I take chances. Case in point: I feared my story about working as a PA on Richard Nixon’s funeral might cause readers to unsubscribe because Situation Normal is about humor, not history. I also worried the topic might spark a flame war in the comments. But subscriptions grew and the comments, including one from Nixonland author Rick Perlstein, were lovely.
What’s the lesson? Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Whenever I lose sight of that lesson, I remind myself that I publish twice per week, which gives me 104 chances per year (not counting vacations) to engage my readers.
Some stories will be home runs, others will be doubles and singles, and sometimes, I’m gonna strike out. To paraphrase Yogi Berra, publishing a newsletter is 90 percent mental, and the other half is beyond my control.
Celebrate your wins
I began my writing career more than twenty years ago. I’ve made my living writing journalism, fiction, personal essays, jokes, ad copy, screenplays, white papers, ransom notes, and lies.
Regardless of the form, failures always outnumber wins by a wide margin in the writing game. On the one hand, the fail-to-win ratio sucks. But on the other hand, you can’t win if you don’t fail first. It’s what Joseph Heller wanted to call a Catch-18.
Failure is the price we pay for our wins. It’s important for writers to celebrate those wins not because winning is awesome, but because failure, while necessary, has a way of grinding us down if we don’t take a moment to appreciate our triumphs.
Situation Normal has a 1,000 subscribers and counting and I’m celebrating!
Stick around and chat
Normally, I end each Situation Normal post by posing a few questions for discussion. But given the nature of this post, I’d rather let you ask the questions.
If there’s something you want to know about my journey feel free to ask your questions in the comments. Or, you can just say hello and tell me how things are going with whatever project you’ve got going at the moment. I’d love to hear from you!
Please consider sharing this post!
Sharing this post helps me, but it might also help someone else. If you found something I said useful, please spread the word👇
Join the Situation Normal community
If you’re new here, I’d love it if you stuck around. Smash that subscribe button, and I’ll send you slice of life humor most Wednesdays and Sundays.