WordPress.com challenges Substack with launch of paid newsletters

WordPress.com is taking on Substack and others with today’s news that its Newsletter product will now support paid subscriptions and premium content. First launched in December, WordPress.com Newsletter allows writers to automatically send out posts via email to connect directly with their audience, while still being able to leverage WordPress.com’s other capabilities. Writers can opt to use the feature solely for newsletters or they could add the option to their blog to cater to readers who want to receive new posts via email instead.

While, for years, there have been plug-ins and third-party services that allow blog owners to send out their posts via email, WordPress.com’s decision to move more directly into this space was a reflection of how people now prefer to read news and information. As the state of websites has worsened — dominated by clutter, ads, overlays, pop-ups, and cookie acceptance banners — many have turned to email as an easier way to stay connected to writers, journalists, essayists, and other publishers they want to follow.

Given its sizable footprint — WordPress powers 43% of the web, including its open source version — WordPress.com’s shift into the newsletters market is significant.

The initial version of the WordPress.com Newsletter product, however, was not a tool that would be competitive with those trying to run a revenue-generating newsletter business. It offers a host of features for general newsletter management, though, like the ability to import subscribers from other platforms, use ready-made newsletter themes or customizable designs, scheduling tools, the ability to connect custom domains, support for posting via email, and more.

With today’s expansion, WordPress.com publishers will be able to add paid subscriptions and premium content, allowing them to generate income from their newsletter operations. The option to use these features is available to all WordPress.com blogs, even those on the free plan, the company says. But as their newsletter business scales, publishers may choose to move up to paid WordPress.com plans, which will also lower the transaction fees on their newsletter subscription emails.

For instance, free plan users pay newsletter transaction fees of 10%, while those on the Commerce plan pay 0%. WordPress.com is processing the transactions via Stripe, it says, which limits availability to only those markets where Stripe is supported.

By comparison, Substack charges a 10% fee for its customers, also processed through Stripe.

And, similar to Substack, WordPress.com authors can pick and choose which of their posts will be free or paid only at the time of publishing. When posting, they’ll just check the box to indicate whether the post is for everyone, subscribers, or only paid subscribers.

The company suggests the benefit of running a newsletter on WordPress.com is the flexibility it offers.

Because WordPress.com is a broader publishing platform, not just a newsletter platform, creators could expand their efforts over time to turn their newsletter into a website, for instance. They could also collect one-time tips or donations, as needed, to keep their projects funded outside of subscriptions, or opt to run an online store. Plus, WordPress.com’s extensibility provides access to a wider set of plug-ins, themes, and design patterns to customize their website further.

That said, because WordPress.com isn’t focused solely on newsletters, that may mean it will lack some of the more specific tools designed for this market that competitors may offer, particularly for those with large-scale newsletter operations or online businesses.

And it won’t be as competitive on the social side compared with companies like Substack, which has been working to make its platform not just a place to discover and subscribe to newsletters, but also an online community of sorts. The company this year launched features like Notes and Chat which allow writers to communicate directly with readers in different ways than email alone. In fact, it was seen as an attempt to move into Twitter’s territory, angering Twitter owner Elon Musk, who then punished Substack by censoring tweets with Substack links on Twitter’s platform.

WordPress.com wouldn’t come with any built-in social community necessarily, but parent company Automattic recently acquired an ActivityPub plugin that blog owners could use to join the Fediverse, posting their updates directly to Mastodon, an open source Twitter rival that’s gained traction following Musk’s Twitter takeover.

The new paid newsletters options are available today, the company says.