I hit 2,000 subscribers. Here's what I learned
At the start of 2023, I made a list of goals for Situation Normal. I never used to do this kind of stuff because I used to think that setting goals was for people who were trying a little too hard to “crush it,” without realizing that you should only use a phrase like “crush it” ironically.
Then I met my wife. Christina has a knack for crushing it, whatever it happens to be, and she uses the phrase “crush it” however she pleases. How liberating! What was this woman’s secret? I made a list.
Hard work? ✅
After watching Christina in action, I began to wonder why I wasn’t crushing it. I’m smart-ish, I told myself. And I work hard. Really hard. But then it hit me like a ton of feathers, which hurts just as much as a ton of bricks: I struggle with my confidence.
Christina and I have one of those closed marriages that seem to be out of fashion these days, but we make it a point to keep our lines of communication open. So as I prepared to launch Situation Normal, I let her in on my biggest fear.
“I don’t think it’s going to work,” I told Christina. “My friends like my stories, but maybe they’re just being nice. What if I launch this thing and it turns out that strangers hate my work, or worse, don’t even notice it? Won’t that prove that I’ve made a big mistake launching Situation Normal, and an even bigger mistake by becoming a writer? It could flop, and that’ll confirm that I’ve wasted twenty years of my life, right?”
Obviously, I had raised the stakes. That’s what writers do, but it’s also what anxious minds do. Raised stakes are good for stories, but they’re bad for your mental health.
I was hoping Christina would give me a pep talk. But Christina surprised me with a hard-nosed business question.
“Define work,” she said. “What are your goals for Situation Normal, and what metrics will you use to measure your progress?”
HOLY FUCK BALLS!
That was a really difficult question to answer. Actually, it was two questions I had no idea how to answer.
I shit my pants, figuratively. Then I panicked, literally. But eventually, all the figurative shit and literal panic gave way to a good conversation about how people start with nothing and build something.
Obviously, there’s a lot of stuff that goes into building something out of nothing. But all of that stuff has to be in service of a goal. Your goal is your North Star. But as Christina told me, your goal is also the secret to building confidence as go.
“You measure your progress as you go, and that’s like putting deposits in a confidence bank,” Christina said. “Then one day, you hit your goal, and right there you’ve got proof that you can do it, because you done did it!”
Initially, my goal for Situation Normal was 1,000 subscribers. Actually, I wanted the goal to be 500 subscribers, but Christina challenged me to challenge myself, so we settled on 1,000.
I wrote my ass off, told everyone I knew that I was writing my ass off, and looked for peers who were writing their asses off.
Did I hit my goal?
Spoiler alert: I did.
But also, spoiler alert: I missed my deadline for that goal by ten months. I wrote about what I learned on the way to that goal here.
This post, however, is about what I learned on my way to my next goal. But before we get to the learnings, let’s take a look at the list of goals I made at the start of 2023.
I made that list in a private file with a bunch of other information, like my social security number, Elon Musk’s Twitter password, and my recipe for fajitas. Since I can’t share that other stuff, I’ve recreated my goals with ink and paper. Please excuse my messy handwriting.
For the sake of clarity, I’ll restate those goals in legible bullet points:
2,000 free subscribers
100 paid subscribers
Platform Not Safe for Work (my novel)
Make more original art for Situation Normal (see above👆👨🎨🎨💪)
Take more risks on stories I’m afraid to write
Since I made this list in the beginning of January, I figured these would be my goals for most of 2023. But as it turned out, I hit the first goal—2,000 free subscribers—less than a month into the year, and then I kept
My other goals remain a work in progress, but I want this post to focus on the things I learned from hitting that first goal on my 2023 list. After all, most newsletter writers probably have a similar goal, so hopefully what I have to say helps a community of writers who have been so very generous with me.
Question: How do I go viral? Answer: You don’t.
If you scroll up to look at the screenshot I shared of my Substack dashboard, you’ll notice a nearly vertical line at the end of January. Looking at that line, you’re probably asking, “How did you do that, Michael, and can you tell me how I can do that too?”
Unfortunately, the answer to the first question is: I didn’t do that. And the answer to the second question is: you can’t do that either. The reason behind both of those answers is the same: my shit went viral. But saying your shit went viral is another way of saying you benefited from something that’s beyond your control. If something is beyond your control, there’s absolutely no way to make that thing happen in the first place, or replicate it as part of a growth strategy.
Now, I realize that every writer in the 21st century wants to go viral, or they’re supposed to want to go viral. Why we’ve come to associate a virus with something that’s supposedly good is beyond me. But back in the 20th century, before social media platforms and the rise of the attention economy, we probably would’ve called this kind of rapid growth “getting rich quick.” And just so it was clear that getting rich quick was nice in theory, but problematic in practice, we would’ve added the word “scheme.”
When I set my goal of reaching 2,000 subscribers in 2023, I had about 1,600 subscribers. At the time, increasing my audience by 25 percent in one year seemed like a goal that was both challenging and reasonable. After all, it had taken me nearly two years to go from about 100 subscribers to 1,000. Also, at the time I set the goal of reaching 2,000 subscribers, I was adding one or two free subscribers per day. I figured—incorrectly, as it turned out—that I’d hit 2,000 subscribers toward the end of 2023 by consistently putting out good work and asking people to share it. That was a plan I could execute on because the things I needed to do were within my control.
But let’s indulge in a hypothetical for a moment. What if I had set my free subscriber goal at 2,000, but moved moved the timeline from a year to a month? I know, I know, that’s what happened. But suppose, for a moment, that I had told Christina that I intended to add 400 subscribers in a month.
“That’s kickass,” she would’ve said, “but how are you going to do that?”
“Oh, don’t worry about that,” I would’ve replied. “I’m gonna go viral.”
“How are you going to go viral, Michael?”
At this point in the hypothetical, I would’ve been pulling all kinds of marketing jargon out of my ass:🍑👇
Deploy hashtags strategically to maximize reach & engagement.
Tickle the algorithm—assuming algorithms are ticklish, which I’m pretty sure they are not.
How would Christina have responded to my stream of jargon? Here’s a guess.
“Sounds like your plan is hope,” Christina might’ve said. “That’s not a plan.” Then if she was feeling saucy, Christina could’ve quoted her dad: “Hope in one hand, shit in the other, see which one fills up first.”
OK, back to reality. In reality, viral moments can and do happen, but usually they happen to other people, and often times they come with fickle audiences and shitty side effects like trolls, nasty comments, and paralyzing anxiety (more on the downsides of viral growth in the next section).
Am I glad I went viral? Yeah, for the most part. But I didn’t plan on going viral because I knew that the favor of the internet gods was beyond my control. Just as important, I would’ve hit my goal anyway, albeit at a slower pace.
Writing a newsletter gives me ship of Theseus vibes
If you studied philosophy, read John Dies at the End, watched the series finale of Wandavision, or regularly fall into a Wikipedia-holes, you might be familiar with a thought experiment called the Ship of Theseus. Basically, the thought experiment asks: does an object that has had all of its original components replaced remain the same object? Here’s a little more from the Ship of Theseus Wikipedia entry:
According to legend, Theseus, the mythical Greek founder-king of Athens, had rescued the children of Athens from King Minos after slaying the minotaur and then escaped on a ship to Delos. Every year, the Athenians commemorated this legend by taking the ship on a pilgrimage to Delos to honor Apollo. The question was raised by ancient philosophers: After several centuries of maintenance, if every part of the Ship of Theseus had been replaced, one at a time, was it still the same ship?
In contemporary philosophy, this thought experiment has applications to the philosophical study of identity over time, and has inspired a variety of proposed solutions in contemporary philosophy of mind concerned with the persistence of personal identity.
It’s entirely possible that the Wikipedia entry for the Ship of Theseus suffers from its own Ship of Theseus problem. After all, some anonymous Wikipedia editor may have replaced every single word in the entry with new words, leaving us to wonder if the original entry is still the entry? But that’s another question for when I’m feeling super-meta.
The relevant question for everyone who writes a newsletter is this: Is the newsletter I launched in 2020 still the same newsletter I publish in 2023?
The name of my newsletter is the same, and so is the URL, and if you collected the hundreds of stories I’ve written here, you’d say they’re of a piece with each other. But Situation Normal, like many newsletters, isn’t just a static story collection, it’s also an ongoing conversation with an audience that’s both growing and changing.
Which brings me back to the Ship of Theseus. Most days, I think about relatable jokes, not obscure philosophical questions. But after my audience grew by 25 percent overnight, the Ship of Theseus helped me make sense of what was happening to Situation Normal.
For context, I’m going to share a screenshot of the traffic spike I saw when I went viral. Typically, my traffic on days that I post is around 2,500 views. On days that I don’t post, my traffic hovers around 400 views. On the day I went viral, I had 16,644 views.
Looks amazing, right? But what was happening underneath all that data?
For starters, the vast majority of visitors didn’t stick around—16,000-plus views netted around 400 subscribers. This is what I mean when I say that viral moments mostly bring in fickle audiences.
As far as I know, most of those fickle readers were lovely, thoughtful people who just weren’t interested in my newsletter. But collectively, those fickle readers rode in on a viral wave that also carried toxic crap.
For the first time in the two-year history of Situation Normal, I had to delete comments that contained hate speech, deal with a troll who turned out to be my mom, and work harder than you’d think to ignore some really rude comments that were directed at me personally.
But the biggest challenge was the Ship of Theseus problem. Suddenly, I had 400 new subscribers who weren’t part of the conversation the last time the Situation Normal community gathered.
On an emotional front, that was a little scary. My friend Alex Dobrenko, who also writes in the comedic personal essay universe (CPEU™) at his hilarious and heartfelt newsletter Both Are True, calls this kind of anxiety, “big first day of school energy.” It’s paralyzing in the way stage freight is paralyzing. The only way around that fear is to go through it. But to go through it, you have to understand why the Ship of Theseus is relevant to running a newsletter.
Normally, I add a few subscribers per day. One or two new people, or even a dozen new people, aren’t going to be able to pull off a vibe shift in a room of 1,600 people. To paraphrase Walter Sobchak, one or two people showing up in a room of 1,600 have no frame of reference because they are like children wondering into the middle of a movie…
But what happens when 400 new people suddenly enter a chat that holds 1,600 people? At that point, all bets are off, and a potential vibe shift might be underway. Or, put differently, a viral influx of new subscribers is the Ship of Theseus problem on steroids.
Setting aside my anxiety, as if that’s really something you can do, I realize that this is actually a good problem. But there’s a big challenge here because you want to make sure that you’re giving long-time subscribers what they signed up for, while welcoming the new arrivals into the conversation. A few things can help on that front:
Write a special note for your next edition to both welcome the new people and alert your regulars that a lot of new people just joined the party.
Write a milestone post to reset the conversation.
Trust that some of your more vocal community members will help you to continue to set the right tone simply by contributing their amazing comments.
Feel the churn.
Feel the churn!
My friend Geoffrey Golden, who writes the endlessly amusing interactive fiction newsletter Adventure Snack, likes to say, “feel the churn.” Geoffrey says stuff like this because he’s very funny, but also because he knows his shit.
Churn, in case you don’t know, is what people in the newsletter game use as a shorthand for the people who unsubscribe, or are periodically removed from your email list.
The first time Geoffrey told me to feel the churn, I didn’t really get it. Actually, I was a little annoyed, not at Geoffrey, but at the situation. I was growing by ones and twos, but I was churning by twos and threes. In other words, my growth trajectory felt like one step forward and two steps back.
At that time, I didn’t want to feel the churn because I felt like the churn was the thing that was holding me back. If I could just stop people from churning, I thought, Situation Normal would take off like a rocket ship.
But that’s not what happened. Instead, I continued writing, and the churn continued churning. Along the way, however, I learned to stop worrying about people who unsubscribe and love the churn.
I know, I know, it sounds bananas when I say I love churn, especially if you’re measuring your audience in single, double, or even triple digits. But here’s where I’m coming from, and why I think you should learn to love the churn too. The people who unsubscribe aren’t your audience, and because they aren’t your audience, you’re better off without them.
That’s a hard pill to swallow, but as soon as you swallow it, you get a really special gift: the ability to draw a laser-focus on the people who show up to read your newsletter. Treat them right, and they’ll treat you right by telling you what works and what doesn’t, sharing your work, and standing strong in your corner as you face the indifferent, and sometimes mean, internet.
There’s no “I” in team and there’s no “Me” in Grow
When I was a kid, my Little League coach used to say, “there’s no ‘I’ in team.” I wasn’t the best speller in those days, so it took a few seasons for me to pick up what my coach was putting down. But eventually, my coach’s point clicked, and as I grew up, I realized that his lesson was applicable to anything humans endeavor to build.
I’m the only writer at Situation Normal, but growing this newsletter is a team effort. The first member of that team is Christina, obviously. She’s my cheerleader, coach, creative director, and business and strategy wizard. But zoom out a little and there are more faces in the team photo.
There’s Alex Dobrenko, who coined the CPEU™ concept, which is helpful because before he said it, I really didn’t have a word to describe what I do. Also, Alex and I went through the same growing pains just a few weeks apart, and when the shit hit the fan, he was like, “Michael, I got you.”
Alex and I are part of a slightly larger team that includes Anne Kadet, who writes Café Anne, and Jane Ratcliffe, who writes Beyond. The four of us have had similar growth trajectories on Substack, which is why it’s a safe bet that if one of us has a question, the other two also had the same question, and (hopefully) the fourth person has an experience-based answer. (By the way, the Ship of Theseus section came out of a conversation the four of us had about growing pains).
Then there’s Geoffrey “Feel the Churn” Golden, who was one of the first writers on Substack to assure me that the thing I was doing was, indeed, a thing. Also, in case you don’t know, Geoffrey is the co-creator, along with Jackie Dana (Story Cauldron) of the Fictionistas writing community, which is a larger team I turn to for all kinds of useful information and support.
There are my occasional collaborators, Amran Gowani (Field Research) and Dennard Dayle (Extra Evil). They’re both very funny writers, and our collaborations push me creatively, while helping me cross-pollinate my audience.
Speaking of cross-pollination, there are the 56 publications on Substack that recommend Situation Normal to their readers. And of course, there’s the team at Substack that built a sweet recommendation engine, along with all the other tools that help me reach you.
Which brings me to the heart and soul of my team—the situation normies. As of this writing, there are around 2,300 situation normies. I’m proud of that number because it’s a helluva milestone, but what really makes me proud is that so many strangers have gathered around my stories to form a community.
I literally cannot do this without you, situation normies! Thank you for everything you do, and thank you for helping
me us to achieve this milestone.
Stick around and chat!
If you’re new here, or a returning champion, this is the part of Situation Normal where I usually ask a few questions to get the conversation rolling. But this is a milestone post, and since the stuff in here is (hopefully) useful to the writers and creators in this community, I want leave this space open for any question you may have. So, go ahead, ask me anything👇
Love this practical advice. So glad there are other NSFW substacks out there. I hope your goal is 5,000 for this year!
don't you just hate it when your partner is right? :)