While I'm so happy that digital culture is getting mainstream coverage, it's not something anyone can cover. You have to, excuse the pun, really have been embedded in internet culture for a few years to know what interesting stuff looks like and have already found your own niches.
- Kate & Nick, Embedded
Nick and Kate were hired to create the media arm of a professional networking site for creators.
The timing was perfect to devote a news site to influencers and the creator economy, and their audience grew quickly. But a year after they were hired, the parent startup was struggling, and they withdrew funding.
Kate and Nick decided that they had too much momentum to waste and within a week of shutting down the news site, they launched Embedded.
Here are Kate and Nick’s insights on working as a team to produce great content for a growing audience:
On the most challenging part about growing their newsletter: Patience! It's been so rewarding to start at 0 and look at it now and be like, we built this! But when you're at 0, or when you're far away from your next goal, you wish there was just one thing you could do to snap your fingers at have it play out.
On if Facebook missed the creator boat: I’m not sure that whether or not they have missed the boat is really the question … Facebook kind of IS the boat.
On knowing they were onto something big: For me it was definitely when we got listed in this NY Mag list. It's always hard to really believe that people are reading it, even though we watch our subscribers grow every day, so to see it in print was weirdly the moment where I was like, okay people other than us care about this.
How we started is a bit of a long story! I was hired in March 2020 to create the media arm of a professional networking site for creators.
The timing was perfect to devote a news site to influencers and the creator economy, and our audience grew quickly, especially after I was able to hire Kate last summer. But a year after I was hired, our parent startup was struggling, and they withdrew funding.
Kate and I decided we had too much momentum to waste — plus I really liked working with her (which I think is mutual??) — and so within a week of shutting down the news site, we launched our newsletter.
I think what I've loved seeing is the way that online trends manifest IRL. We were the first place to cover Marissa from TikTok's IRL meetups, which are for people who have had trouble making friends or are looking for more, after she herself went viral for friends who purposefully excluded her from a party. The event was so sweet and an example of how social media is, at its heart, a tool for community.
For upsetting, I'm gonna throw it back to one of our pieces when we started as a website, which is about how brands have totally taken over social media in ways that can make it feel really inauthentic.
I’m not sure that whether or not they have missed the boat is really the question … Facebook kind of IS the boat.
I’m also not sure what the purpose of FB is, beyond helping people find lost dogs through neighborhood groups and pointlessly stoking engagement through hateful and divisive content.
But lots of people use it constantly, and maybe they can throw enough money at certain goals, like attracting creators, to stoke engagement with that strategy, too. That said, it’s an incredibly awkward fit for many reasons.
If anything I have become very cognizant of how much dedication, work, and expertise is required of most creator ventures, and how little (money, success, etc) is guaranteed. This simply isn’t sustainable in the long term for many people. But as someone who started out as a freelance writer, I also know how meaningful a sustained burst of creativity can be for someone’s career and work.
Maybe the question is what paying ventures and jobs your can leverage your project into.
There weren’t really specific things that happened to spur each of those milestones. We were somewhat able to leverage an existing brand — basically, the twitter account for the startup-funded news website I mentioned earlier — to give us a good start.
But basically, we published a lot — 5 posts per week — for a couple months, and Kate essentially scooped everyone else on a number of trends and creators. Any kind of exclusive — a first or newsworthy interview, first word on trend, even a zeitgeist-y new idea — will help growth more than anything else.
It definitely varies!
Before we went paid, we were writing posts daily to get our name out there and build a community. Since we went paid, we switched to three free posts, one paid a week.
I try my best to write things in advance, but more of than not I've been cooking on an idea, and then wake up day-of to write in the morning! Then we post to social, and engage with our community throughout the day
We do edits in Google Docs. And we use Google Chat to communicate about newsletter stuff — it’s easier to segregate work from personal stuff that way. Other than that, I use Tweetdeck for our Twitter so I can better track how our stuff is getting shared.
Finally, I could never do Embedded on my own!!
Broadly speaking Kate is the writer and I’m [Nick] the editor, and she creates most of the content and I do most of the work related to the “brand” and business. Beyond that, over time we worked out a pretty specific and consistent division of labor.
For example, she posts on our Instagram and I post on our Twitter.
Substack has made it easy not just to create a newsletter, but a website. And while it’s not an SEO-friendly website, it still allows people to read and discover individual posts without having to sign up.
That said, it’s much more rewarding building an audience through newsletter sign-ups than, say, optimizing content for search or trying to achieve scale through social. Although I should note that social is a key tool for newsletter discovery — along with links from other pubs and dark social like email fwds.
Finally, subscriptions via newsletter are essentially the only viable way to easily monetize written content right now, without shilling for Amazon or whoever by recommending products and using affiliate links
Ah yes you can definitely also runs ads! I feel like you need a relatively sizable audience to do it, and of course, you’ll have to go and sell the ads or classifieds yourself.
[Nick] I think I vacillate between those mindsets at least once a week, honestly. (I recommend turning off all unsubscribe notifications.) But the first post of Kate’s to really blow up, a few weeks after we launched, definitely got me excited. Also, when I book our weekly My Internet interviews now, most people I ask already know what it is, and that feels like an important shift.
[Kathryn] For me it was definitely when we got listed in this NY Mag list. It's always hard to really believe that people are reading it, even though we watch our subscribers grow every day, so to see it in print was weirdly the moment where I was like, okay people other than us care about this.
Oh man, I think most of them are covered there, but there are definitely apps that I think have broader creator communities than people expect. Pinterest is definitely a big one we're seeing a revival on, especially with Gen Z.
I also think we're going to see more influencers writing newsletters. There are already some that really remind me of the early 2010s blogging era, and I'd be very pleased to see that make a comeback. Here are two I've been into recently:
[Nick] I’ll take the second question! Although I don’t actually have a great answer …. I’m not aware of a particular source for newsletter recommendations. Weirdly Substack does a terrible job of this, although I’m sure they’re thinking about how to change that. I think I have mainly discovered them through Twitter and links from other newsletters. There are a lot of good newsletters mentioned in this New York magazine piece that we are included in.
[Kathryn] As for uncovering trends, you really have to be a passionate user!
While I'm so happy that digital culture is getting mainstream coverage, it's not something anyone can cover. You have to, excuse the pun, really have been embedded in internet culture for a few years to know what interesting stuff looks like and have already found your own niches. When someone who hasn't been interested in internet culture suddenly is told to cover it, that's when you start seeing the same viral content on every outlet—most recently the Alabama sorority rush content.
That's just not interesting to me because 1) you didn't have to look hard to find it and 2) every outlet covers it to the point that I don't want to hear about it ever again.
I'm much more interested in the smaller, less viral, but equally dense communities that form across YouTube, TikTok, Instagram, Twitter etc because I think they're much more accurate representations of how real people connect on the internet. I think a good example of that is what we coined "the gentle guy internet".
[Nick] We don’t have an exact idea of our audience, because the only data Substack collects is emails. But based on the names I recognize from the emails and who follows us on social media, I would say …. yes and no.
You might think our main audience would be people working in the creator economy, but those people didn’t discover us right away. Instead, we have had a core audience of media people from the beginning, I think in part because so much of the media is trying to mobilize to cover creators, and those reporters and editors need Kate to tell them what’s happening! Certainly we’ve seen many of her discoveries covered later in much bigger outlets
[Kathryn] Some of the readers are people who never would have dreamed would want to read my writing, but then we see them on the subscriber list, and it's like, HOW? It's a mix of people in media, in the tech industry, and I assume regular people who are just interested in finding fun stuff on the internet! The latter is who I think I gear most of the content towards, and am most excited to grow an audience people looking to have a better relationship with social media and their mental health, which is the subject of our paid posts.
[Nick] Mainly Twitter — people sharing Embedded’s tweets or Kate’s tweets linking to Embedded, users sharing those tweets or the stories themselves, and finally, the people we interview sharing those interviews. Same goes for Instagram, but of course IG isn’t optimized for sharing links in the same way. And of course, other publications linking to us.
These are better funnels than SEO IMO because they’re more closely aligned with making good content as opposed to gaming an algo.
[Kathryn] Weirdly, though, I think that last part has always given the biggest bump. Twitter is good for a steady trickle of followers, but the times when we've had huge JUMPS in followers have been when another newsletter recommends us!
[Nick] I would actively try to promote relevant links of ours to reporters and writers, probably.
[Kathryn] Probably relying more on word of mouth/sharing/collaborating with the newsletter community! We've formed some good relationships with people like Ryan Broderick of Garbage Day, Charlie Warzel of Galaxy Brain, and Rachel Karten of Link In Bio, and I think cold reaching out and making an effort to be part of the community of writers helps because then you're all in conversation and things organically get shared!
I love creators who are authorities in very niche communities. The nicher the subject, the more passionate the community. I love this creator whose whole thing is playing and recommending games that make you feel cozy!
We definitely want to throw a party when we reach a good milestone and when it's safe to do so, and I know Nick and I are always thinking about ways to lean into the community aspect of it, whether it be a Discord, or something else that lets our readers not just talk to us, but have conversations with each other.
[Kathryn] Patience! It's been so rewarding to start at 0 and look at it now and be like, we built this! But when you're at 0, or when you're far away from your next goal, you wish there was just one thing you could do to snap your fingers at have it play out, when really the only answer is to keep writing, be consistent, remind yourself why you're doing it, and you'll realize that it's the little pieces of work one after another that get you there, even if it takes time!
[Nick] Yes! And I would add … Kate and I explicitly discussed keeping it as a part-time thing, to leave room for stuff that will … make us more money. But even with Kate producing most of the content, I often find that I’ve spent an entire morning working on the newsletter when I didn’t “have to.” It’s because I love doing it! But I have to remind myself to not treat it like my main thing