Substack alternatives: 3 ways to build a paid newsletter without code
Off the back of Jacob Donnelly’s recent A Media Operator’s article, “Why I Decided to Leave Substack”, we built a tool-path that essentially cloned Jacob’s tech stack to show you how you can achieve the same workflow. That is, to create a subscription based publication — similar in many ways to what you get with Substack — but in WordPress. With this workflow, Pico manages your subscribers, whilst Stripe handles payment, and Captivate is used for podcast production.
When we were researching Jacob’s tech stack and doing some digging for the content of this blog post, we were really struck by how many posts similar to Jacob’s are out there. We certainly don’t want to do Substack a disservice — it’s a superb platform for many people and many reasons — so we won’t share everything we found. But it really got us thinking about the alternatives available without needing to code. And we want to share those alternatives with you.
If you’re a creator, storyteller, journalist, community manager, or anyone wanting to publish a newsletter and earn money from it, and be in control of what you write, this post is for you.
The pros of building your newsletter independently
Let’s first look at the reasons why someone might want to build a subscription-based newsletter outside of a platform like Substack. To summarize what others have said, it seems like the reasons for building your own tech stack to manage your newsletter are;
It puts you in full control of your content. If you publish with WordPress, your content is saved, backed up, and you can export it anytime you wish. What’s more, you can customize it in any way you like — the options are quite literally endless.
Tools like WordPress are open source. This means you’re not going to suddenly lose your site and your content if the platform changes or goes bust.
You’re in control of your SEO. With your own site, your content (if you want it to) will act like an evergreen SEO machine. Plus, you’re free to figure out the best ranking strategy for you, and you can manage all meta data like tags and alt text.
Your audience is yours. And you can pretty much do what you like with it, so long as it follows GDPR and email best practices. This includes gathering detailed subscriber data rather than just an email address, and segmenting your audience based on intent, recency, subscriber tier, or whatever suits you.
You can charge different prices for different newsletters. You can even sell entirely different products (like courses or webinars) to your already warm audience.
You can take advantage of powerful analytics. Hook your site up to Google Analytics and you can tap into a full dashboard of stats. Learn what works and what doesn’t so you can continuously tweak and refine.
You can add to your stack in ways that propel growth. Want to create an affiliate program? Or track and reward subscriber referrals? What about embedding things like quizzes, or forms? You can do all of that when you’re in control. Just tack on the tools that suit you.
We should also mention that there are some very valid reasons why someone might want to publish on a platform like Substack. These include;
You can get up and running very quickly. You pretty much just need to sign up and start writing, which is great for people who are tech-averse and/or time-poor.
You can leverage Substack’s authority. The same can be said for Medium. There’s a prestige that comes with publishing on these kinds of platforms that might take you years to get close to when building your infrastructure independently.
It can work out cheaper. Depending on how many tools you have in your tech stack, just paying Substack and Stripe’s fees (if you charge for your newsletter) may be more cost effective. But you’d need to do the math here to figure out which is best.
So without further ado, let’s jump into some options available to you to build a subscription-based publication — no (or very low) coding required. Each stack offers something slightly different, and will work better for you depending on your needs or the level of control you want over all elements.
Stack 1: WordPress → Mailchimp → Pico → Stripe
We discuss this stack in detail and show you how to set it up step-by-step over on our tool-path page. As mentioned at the top of this post, the tool-path was inspired by Morning Brew’s B2B GM, Jacob Donnelly. The real genius with this stack is that, just like Substack, it will automatically broadcast your newsletter by email when you publish to WordPress.
You’ll start by setting up a web host and then activating your WordPress site from within your host account. Once you’re in WordPress, you can of course customize your site entirely. You can use an out-of-the-box template or start from scratch. You’ll then install the Newsletter Glue plugin and set up Mailchimp — together, these tools let you send emails whenever you publish a new post to your site.
In this stack, Pico is your subscriber management tool. You’ll use it to manage free and paid content subscriptions. You do need a little code to get this integrated into your workflow, but it’s all provided in our tool-path.
Lastly, you’ll connect Stripe so you can accept payments directly from your site.
This is a super-simple setup. It won’t give you all the same functionality as other stacks suggested here. But it offers you a quick solution if you’re not so fussed about having multiple site pages and leveraging SEO to rank your site, and you don’t mind manually creating emails.
Carrd will serve as your website and front end of your subscription offering. If you’ve not used Carrd before, this tool lets you easily build responsive 1-page websites. You can set up Google Analytics without hassle, too.
You’ll need to open a Gumroad account, then customize your membership levels and newsletter offerings as shown in this tutorial. Then use Zapier to connect Gumroad with Mailchimp, so that all new Gumroad customers are added to your email database. Gumroad handles all the payment side of this workflow, so you don’t need to worry about installing a payment gateway of any kind.
We’ve not mentioned Ghost yet, but in a way we’ve saved the best for last. With Ghost, running a subscriber-based publication could. Not. Be. Easier. It’s an all-in-one, done-for-you, out-of-the-box newsletter publication tool. You can manage your website, subscribers, payments, and analytics, all in one place.
Even better is that it lets you do much of the same Substack functionality but in an open source way. In other words, you own all your own content and don’t pay transaction fees per subscriber. Unlike Substack however, there are no free versions of Ghost (except for the 14-day free trial).
Once you set up an account with Ghost, you’re out of the blocks. After sign-up, you’re immediately taken to your shiny new site that’s pre-populated with a template and articles ready to customize:
Adding content is easy, and really quite fun: you can customize to your little heart’s content using a rich editor. There are plenty of app and tool integrations available — perfect if you want to add videos, forms, Stripe payments, Buffer social scheduling, etc. Once you’re ready to unleash your content to your fans, just like example stack 1 above, you can publish and email (once you integrate whatever email tool you use) with just a few clicks — nice! You can also segment your audience for control over who gets what.
Finally, if you want to be in control of your site’s performance and SEO strategy, there’s an app for that: Google Analytics is available on the app integrations page.
With this particular example stack, you can very simply add ConvertKit (or other email tool) and Stripe as integrations through your Ghost account to connect them to your site. That’s it. Told you it was easy!
A non-exhaustive directory list of tools to manage every step of your paid newsletter stack
There are so many tools available at your disposal that it’d be impossible to list them all here and keep the list up-to-date. So, below is a very non-exhaustive list of a few of the tools we like and would recommend.
This is the obvious choice. While the argument that it’s wholly “no-code” (especially if you’re building a stack around it) is tenuous, you can still do a hell of a lot if you don’t know how to code. You can get started quickly and easily, and you can always hire a developer if you need specific help. Or, you can literally clone the steps in our tool-path and you’ll be on your way to publishing independently.
Just like WordPress, Joomla! is also open source. It’s usually thought of as a more technical or advanced CMS and website builder than WordPress, but offers many of the same great functionality.
A major difference however, is that it’s more difficult to get going with Joomla. With WordPress you can choose a web host and opt to have WordPress installed on your hosting account, meaning you don’t have to install WordPress yourself. Most Joomla hosts don’t have this built-in option, so you’ll be out at sea alone. More on that here.
MemberSpace is what we use here at Makerpad. It’s pretty awesome. When you integrate it into your site, you can lock any parts of your site and make them accessible only to member levels that you set. So, if you want to add a paid-user login and put certain content behind that login, you can use MemberSpace to achieve that. Something that sets MemberSpace apart from similar tools like, say, MemberStack, are their revenue recovery features. MemberSpace will automatically send emails to recover failed payments and abandoned carts.
If you’re following the tool-path mentioned throughout this post, you’ll want to use Pico to manage your subscribers. A few unique features that set Pico apart from other member management tools include;
As with the other recommendations above, Memberful integrates with a host of other tools, and will embed easily on your site. It handles all aspects of membership set-up and management, including recurring billing, account management, transactional emails, protecting content, and file downloads.
Worldwide accessibility makes PayPal a great option. But just be mindful that unlike Stripe, it doesn’t cater to recurring billing, which might trip you up if you’re trying to charge for a regular newsletter.
Mailchimp is ideal if you want a nice UI and easy-to-use features like drag-and-drop and a comprehensive template library. If you’re wanting advanced audience segmentation, Mailchimp utilizes machine learning to create dynamic audience lists.
Made for creators, ConvertKit is the typical blogger (or newsletter publisher)’s go-to email tool. It doesn’t offer many templates and the email editor is very simple — but these are both deliberate moves by ConvertKit.
The UI for MailerLite isn’t necessarily the most contemporary, but it’s a super-affordable option for individuals and SMEs (their premium plan is a teeny $10 a month). You can get pretty granular with audience segmentation too, which is beneficial if you’re delivering nuanced offerings to your subscribers.
Descript is super-handy for doing everything production-based on your podcast. You can transcribe your audio files, do remote recording, take advantage of slick editing features like overdub (generate audio of your own voice speaking), add subtitles, and more.