394: How Leslie Stephens Grew Her Substack Newsletter to Thousands of Paid Subscribers

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An image of a desk with a laptop on it and the title of Leslie Stephen's episode of the Food Blogger Pro Podcast, 'Substack Newsletter.'

This episode is sponsored by Clariti.

Welcome to episode 394 of The Food Blogger Pro Podcast! This week on the podcast, Bjork interviews Leslie Stephens from the morning person newsletter about social media addiction and launching her Substack newsletter.

Last week on the podcast, Bjork chatted with Maurizio Leo all about business growth through passion. To go back and listen to that episode, click here.

Substack Newsletters and Social Media Use

As content creators, many of us have a love/hate relationship with social media, and know just how addicting it can be. At the same time, social media is a great tool for sharing content and growing your audience! And that’s what we’re chatting about today with Leslie Stephens.

Leslie is the writer behind morning person newsletter, which has thousands of paid subscribers. She joined Bjork on the podcast to talk about her career path before starting her popular Substack newsletter, her decision to study social media addiction, and how her studies have influenced the choices she has made with her newsletter.

In this episode, you’ll hear more about being intentional with your social media use, navigating vulnerability in the online space, and why you might consider launching a newsletter on Substack.

A photograph of a woman on a tablet with a quote from Leslie Stephen's episode of the Food Blogger Pro Podcast that reads "They had seen my content before and were willing to trust me, to follow me, and to pay $5 a month to make that leap [to Substack] with me."

In this episode, you’ll learn:

  • How Leslie started her career as an editor at Food52
  • What she learned while working as an online creator for a major lifestyle brand in LA
  • Why she decided to pursue a Masters with a focus on Social Media Addiction
  • Why social media is so addictive and how to be more intentional when using it
  • Why she started her morning person newsletter on Substack
  • The pros/cons to the Substack platform
  • How she found her newsletter niche and grew to thousands of paid subscribers in just one year
  • How she navigates sharing her personal life and setting boundaries online


About This Week’s Sponsor

We’re excited to announce that this week’s episode is sponsored by our sister site, Clariti!

With Clariti, you can easily organize your blog content for maximum growth. Create campaigns to add alt text to your posts, fix broken images, remove any broken links, and more, all within the Clariti app.

Sign up for Clariti today to receive:

  • Access to their limited-time $45 Forever pricing
  • 50% off your first month
  • Optimization ideas for your site content
  • An invitation to join their exclusive Slack community
  • And more!

You can learn more and sign up here.

If you have any comments, questions, or suggestions for interviews, be sure to email them to [email protected].

Food Blogger Pro logo with the words 'Join the Community' on a blue background

Transcript (click to expand):

Bjork Ostrom: This episode is sponsored by Clariti, C-L-A-R-I-T-I. And I kid you not, I was going to record this half an hour ago, but I was in Clariti and realized there’s an opportunity for Pinch of Yum that is a project we should move forward with. So, I created a video, communicated it with the Pinch of Yum team, and said, “Hey, we should move forward on this and really get to work cleaning this up.” In our case, what I had done is I said, “Hey, show me all of the posts in the past year on Pinch of Yum.” And then I sort ordered that in reverse order by page use.

So, I was looking at pages that on Pinch of Yum in the last year, got zero page use. And I realized we have a lot of really thin not valuable content, and it’s important to clean that up. In our case, we’re going to delete a lot of that content. And we should have done that a long time ago, but we just didn’t get around to it. And it wasn’t until I was using Clariti that I realized that that was something that we should have done. I was able to see that. It’s a lot of old giveaway posts and things like that. So, we’re going to move forward with that and clean up Pinch of Yum.

And that’s what Clariti is for. It’s to help you discover that actionable information, to create a project around it. And either you can follow the project or you can assign it to somebody within your team. And then track the impact that that has by making notes or seeing when you made those changes over time. We bring all the information in from WordPress, Google Search Console, and Google Analytics. You hook it all up. And then you can sort order and use Clariti, kind of like a Swiss Army knife for your content. So, if you’re interested in checking it out, go to clariti.com/food, C-L-A-R-I-T-I dot com slash food. And that will get you 50% off your first month. Thanks to Clariti for sponsoring this episode.

Alexa Peduzzi:Hey, hi. Hello. It’s Alexa from Food Blogger Pro. And you are listening to the Food Blogger Pro podcast. We are so thrilled you’re here today, and that’s because we have a good one for you. Bjork will be talking with Leslie Stephens from morningpersonnewsletter.com. And she has a fascinating background. Not only did she start her career as an editor at Food52, she’s also worked as an online creator for a major lifestyle brand.

And she’s currently getting a master’s degree in something called social media addiction. So, this is just a fascinating conversation, and we are so excited to dive in. And one of the things that she actually talks about in this interview is Substack. And that’s one of the tools that we’ve gotten a lot of questions about recently. So, we are just super, super excited to bring this episode to you today. So, without any further ado, Bjork, take it away.

Bjork Ostrom: Leslie, welcome to the podcast.

Leslie Stephens: Thank you so much for having me. I’m thrilled to be here.

Bjork Ostrom: It’s the conversation, I’ve been looking forward to this conversation specifically because I feel like it’s a headspace that I’m in often, which is a little bit of a battle of extreme fascination with this world of social media and how we use the Internet. One of my favorite things to do actually is after a long flight where you’re landing, everybody has to turn their phones off.

When you land, looking over the shoulder of all the other passengers and seeing what do people do when they haven’t had their phone for a little bit, and where do they go, how do they use it? I remember distinctly this trip that Lindsay and I were doing back from Hawaii. And there was a volleyball team. And we landed, it was kind of late at night or maybe early morning. And suddenly, the ceilings started to light up. And it was all of these volleyball players doing Snapchat.

Leslie Stephens: The glow of the phones.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. It was a selfie flash because it was dark on the plane still. And it was all of them. And it was so interesting to see it. But you have experience not only with food content online, publishing content online, social media, but you also have a deep experience with the shadow side of social media, which is the addiction that comes from it. So, tell us a little bit about your story. And then we’re going to dig into how you operate your business online with all of this information that you know.

Leslie Stephens: Yes, I would be happy to. I mean, it is really interesting because it does build this sort of shadow self. So, I’ll go back and sort of walk you through how I got to this place where I am now. But I began my career working in food editorial. I worked as an editor at Food52. And before then I had several internships at places like Tasting Table, and a couple of smaller trade magazines. And I ended up transitioning out of specifically food to work for a lifestyle brand in LA. And at the time that I began working, about a month after I started was when Instagram Stories were launched.

Bjork Ostrom: Sure.

Leslie Stephens: So, suddenly, I think that any online creator can understand that when you work in this space, you’re really at the mercy of the technologies and what’s adapting. All of a sudden, TikTok is huge, or Snapchat is huge, or Instagram has launched Stories. And you really have to shift yourself to adapt. So, I was hired for that role to primarily be a writer to work for the online blog. But suddenly, as soon as stories launched, the blog feels like this stagnant thing and where everybody is spending their time and where the eyeballs are on Stories.

So, all of a sudden, I found myself in this role that I wasn’t necessarily hired to do, but I was also excited to try to adapt to this new technology. But over time, I was in that position for five years. I began to sort of understand and recognize, I think as we all have, the sort of less glamorous, the more harmful sides of social media. I think we’ve all had that experience of feeling a sense of anxiety or dysregulation, and then going onto our phones to try to self-soothe. And understanding that that actually rarely works.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah.

Leslie Stephens: And so, I became this-

Bjork Ostrom: Encounter.

Leslie Stephens: Yeah, exactly.

Bjork Ostrom: Can you explain what you mean by dysregulation?

Leslie Stephens: Yes, of course. So, it’s really any time that you aren’t really like incongruence with yourself and with your emotions. So, it’s if you have anxiety, or depression, or you’re upset in some sort of way, you could even be incredibly bored and be looking for, I really think of Instagram as sort of a pacifier that people just go to have an excuse to look at something. And I like you, am also very fascinated, constantly looking at other people’s phone use, and seeing what they’re doing, and how they’re engaging with apps.

And I often do recognize that it’s used in this way, which is ironic because a lot of my business is based in Instagram. And it’s based in this online space. And so, that’s something that I’m constantly trying to balance and make sure that I feel like I’m using this app in the way that is for good rather than something that’s just another distraction. But I ended up, a year ago, I began my master’s. I’m studying addictions counseling. The full title of my master’s program is sort of a mouthful. But it’s professional mental health counseling with a specialization in addictions.

Bjork Ostrom: Okay.

Leslie Stephens: And I went there specifically to study social media addiction.

Bjork Ostrom: So, it’s addiction, broadly speaking.

Leslie Stephens: Yes.

Bjork Ostrom: But a focus on social media addiction.

Leslie Stephens: Yes, which is something that I’m kind of inventing along the way. It’s not something that’s officially recognized.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, I was going to ask what that looks like within the course of study?

Leslie Stephens: Yeah.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah.

Leslie Stephens: Of course. So, essentially there are these two different sides of addiction. There are substance addictions, which a lot of us are really familiar with. That’s sort of alcohol use disorder and substance use disorders. But then there are these behavioral addictions. And this can be gambling, sex, online pornography. It’s these things, that any addiction that isn’t a substance. And right now, gambling is the only officially recognized behavioral addiction.

Bjork Ostrom: Oh, wow.

Leslie Stephens: And I’m really interested in being this part of these counselors who are recognizing how damaging social media can be, and also having social media addiction, or Internet addiction at the very least officially recognized.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. Wow. That’s awesome. Awesome in that it’s I think for so many people, it’s so obvious that this is a problem. Do you think it’s just too new? What is the reason for, what are you battling in trying to get that recognized officially?

Leslie Stephens: You’re spot on. I mean, academia obviously moves much more slowly than Instagram or technology can move. And so, even in doing the research, I began the program writing a thesis that I’ve since dropped because I was balancing 17,000 things and something had to go. But at the very beginning, I was looking into this research for specific interventions for social media addiction. And it just doesn’t exist because researchers cannot keep up. All of the research that’s been done is looking at Instagram when it was still just photos. It’s all five years behind, which in Instagram is decades.

Bjork Ostrom: It’s interesting when you also think of what’s happening on those platforms, which is these platforms are getting better at understanding how to keep people around longer.

Leslie Stephens: Yes.

Bjork Ostrom: And a platform like TikTok comes along, and so much of it has to do with the shift from a social algorithm to a content algorithm. And suddenly, it’s moving away from, here’s a picture of your uncle in Florida standing at the beach with his shirt off, which is maybe that doesn’t help you stay on Instagram longer, to some other quick moving funny video that you don’t know the people. And it almost feels like lowest common denominator type content. But then for myself, I find myself like, “Oh, I’m going to flip up and watch one more.”

Leslie Stephens: Absolutely.

Bjork Ostrom: I think specifically YouTube shorts, which is comparable to a TikTok. And so, you’re getting these over the last five years, these algorithms and platforms that are getting better at understanding how do we keep people around longer? What content, not just what social connection is going to help people stick around longer? So, do you have any thoughts on how to know if you are somebody who is addicted?

Leslie Stephens: Oh, I have so many thoughts that we don’t even have time to go into. So, what’s really tricky is that there’s no specific way of actually measuring social media addiction. There are all these tests that have been developed to understand if you’re addicted to gambling, it’s this really established thing. However, I would argue that most of us are addicted to social media, even myself.

I have all of these tools. I have this complete level of understanding of how it impacts our brains, of the variable reward systems that it uses, which are the same things that gambling machines use, which are basically, they’ll show you a picture of your uncle on the beach, and then right after that, they’ll show you something that’s really, really engaging, like a dance video from a creator that you love, or a food video from a creator that you love.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah.

Leslie Stephens: And they’ll use all these techniques. What I would argue is that social media honestly is smarter than we are. We are just human beings. And there’s only so much that our brains can take in and adapt to. So, I do think that anybody who’s regularly using it is familiar with this addictive sense. And I actually keep Instagram off of my phone. So, anytime that I’m not directly promoting my newsletter, Morning Person, I have Instagram off of my phone because I’m incredibly addicted to it.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, yeah.

Leslie Stephens: It’s just it’s so engaging.

Bjork Ostrom: What was the Netflix documentary that came out a few years ago that was so good?

Leslie Stephens: Yes.

Bjork Ostrom: Do you remember the name of that?

Leslie Stephens: I can’t remember the name of it because all I can think of right now is the Social Network.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah.

Leslie Stephens: I’m like, that was-

Bjork Ostrom: The Social Dilemma. That’s what it is.

Leslie Stephens: Yes.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah.

Leslie Stephens: Yes. And it was so brilliant at showing these sort of variable reward systems. And also this understanding of, it’s so sophisticated now that it’s like if you even slow down on an image, and the Instagram can identify the fact that you’re slowing down in you’re scrolling, the next thing it’ll deliver you is something that’ll suck you right back in. So, it understands.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. We sense that you’re maybe not interested in this, so we’re going to try and hook you back in. It’d be a great-

Leslie Stephens: Literally from post to post, yeah.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. That’s amazing. So, that would be a great film for people to watch, and everybody who’s in this space is involved some way in social media. It’s interesting. So Lindsay, my wife Lindsay, she has a blog called Pinch of Yum, food and recipe content. And just on Tuesday, her Facebook account was hacked and everything went away. Facebook, Instagram, and she’s built a good following on Instagram.

Leslie Stephens: Oh, yeah. Wow.

Bjork Ostrom: And what was interesting for us was to have this conversation around, “Okay,” and we’ve had conversations like both for us personally, but also for others, what does it look like to engage in this content creation that on the other side is content consumption, which at its best is a message that we got from somebody just the other day who said, “My grandpa passed away. And we didn’t get there in time. And we’re all grieving. And we came over and we made one of your soup recipes. And it was so healing and helpful.” Or, connecting with we’ve gone through seasons of grief and connecting with other people on platforms in a way where you maybe wouldn’t in a smaller community.

Leslie Stephens: Yeah. I’m so glad that you bring up the positive side of social media because I do feel like I’m sort of this Grim Reaper about social media.

Bjork Ostrom: Sure.

Leslie Stephens: All I do is I talk about how harmful it is. But at the same time, it’s something that I use. And it’s something that I benefit from, and I really enjoy. And it is something that I think about like other addictions. There are obviously things like alcohol use addiction, but I drink very little, but I drink occasionally. And it’s something that I really enjoy. And we know that this addiction exists, but it doesn’t mean that everybody has to completely abstain from alcohol.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah.

Leslie Stephens: And I think of it the same way with social media. There are absolutely benefits to it. And there are so many creators that you’ve interviewed who I love their content. And I get a lot out of it. And I’m saving their soup recipes and making them when I need to. And there’s something really beautiful and connected to that. And the level of access that we get to so many different people.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. How much of it do you think… And for me, what’s interesting is I talk about this, I’m fascinated by it, but personally don’t really use it. I talked about YouTube. I have a YouTube account for content consumption. Well, occasionally, I have an Instagram account, but I’m following just Lindsay’s personal, personal Instagram. She has one with 50 followers, and it’s her kids and stuff that we’re doing. But I’ve realized for myself that I’m somebody who let’s say 6 out of 10 times, I’m going to be worse rather than better after using it.

Leslie Stephens: Yes.

Bjork Ostrom: How much do you feel like there’s a spectrum? And it’s like for some people, 9 out of 10 times, it’s going to be a positive experience. For other people, it’s 1 out of 10 times. And part of it is kind maybe similar to alcohol. Some people know they can’t have alcohol. And it’s like a know thyself versus well, yeah. What are your thoughts on that?

Leslie Stephens: I think that you’re spot on. I think it is in part a know thyself. I would say that it is so important to consume Instagram with this awareness of the fact that it is an incredibly manipulative app. And it is often smarter than we are, and it is able to manipulate us. So, I think that it’s just so important to go onto the app with the sense of intentionality. I actually really enjoy using the app. So, my newsletter goes live every Tuesday. So, I’m generally only posting on Instagram on Tuesday. And when I post, I’ll also consume content a lot on Tuesday because the algorithm has put all these really juicy things at the top of my feed.

And I love to see them, and to sort of catch up with the content creators who I really enjoy and feel inspired by. So, that’s what that intentionality looks like for me. It’s sort of setting aside an hour a week to really dive in and enjoy, and let myself fully engage with the app and be immersed in it. And I often walk away from that hour feeling more creative and really inspired by the things that people are doing. I think for me, it becomes an issue for people when they’re doing it without this intentionality, where it is just sort of automatic mindful thing to swipe into the app. And for that reason, I think that it can be really helpful to keep it off of your phone and to only engage with it on desktop, which I think is a still useful way to engage with it, but far less engaging.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. Do you think that’s just because of the interface? It’s less smart in desktop or almost the medium of a browser on a desktop is less loungey than on a couch on your phone?

Leslie Stephens: Yeah, I do. I think that that’s part of it. I think another big part of it is the accessibility of a phone. I think it’s so easy when you’re standing line at the post office to just open up Instagram and start swiping. The other night I actually, I was sitting next to this woman and I would’ve engaged with her, we were both at the same lecture series for this book talk that I was really interested in. And I was sort of out of the corner of my eye noticing that she was just scrolling on Instagram while sitting and waiting for this lecture, this talk, instead of looking around and engaging with me. And I was sort of on the edge of my seat like, “I’m ready to chat with her if she wants to.”

Bjork Ostrom: You don’t want to interrupt.

Leslie Stephens: I want to know-

Bjork Ostrom: She’s like, yeah.

Leslie Stephens: Yeah. And we’re obviously both here because we’re both a fan of this author, and we could have this connection. And so, I think that for me, it becomes an issue when people are doing it instead of really opening their eyes and living their lives. And even spending the time in a post office line looking at the other people, imagining what they’re doing there. Thinking, just being lost in your own thoughts, allowing yourself to be bored, which is incredibly healthy.

Bjork Ostrom: Healthy and also oddly productive I think in a way that consuming content isn’t. And it’s weird that you’d say bored is productive. But I think the way that you think when you’re not being have this low grade stimulus delivered to your brain is different. And I think a lot of times of the walks that I go on, that’s when I would be most creative or have ideas in a way that I never would if I’m looking at Instagram.

Leslie Stephens: Yeah. Why do ideas come to you in the shower?

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. You don’t have, yep.

Leslie Stephens: It’s because you’re completely detached from everything. You’re in this little white box where you’re isolated. And that’s when your ideas come to you.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, that’s great. So, you mentioned your newsletter a few times. You have thousands of paid subscribers that are part of this.

Leslie Stephens: Yes.

Bjork Ostrom: And I know that because it says on Substack down below there, which is incredible. And one of the things, well, first of all, talk a little bit about that. When did you start it, and what’s the kind of premise of that newsletter?

Leslie Stephens: Yeah. So, my newsletter is something that I wanted to start for years. It’s called, Morning Person Newsletter. And it’s available on Substack. And it was something that I was really just thinking about for a long time. I am a big subscriber of newsletters. I love consuming lifestyle content. And I was working at a lifestyle media company. And I just kept thinking of what is the content that I really want to consume? What are the things that I really value out of newsletters?

And so, I began sort of percolating on, and I was really thinking about it for a long time. And then in it must have been 2021 was when I left my position at the lifestyle company where I worked. And in the week between beginning grad school and leaving that job, I launched my Substack Morning Person. But it was something that I had been really thinking about, carefully planning, creating the graphics around, building a content calendar around for a long time before I actually launched it.

Bjork Ostrom: And when you go into launching a blog, when you go into social media, oftentimes, people talk about a niche. What is the focus going to be? Do you feel like the same thing applies with a newsletter? And what does that look like for you? Or, is it more of an opportunity for people to connect with you in a little bit more of a personal way where you’re more intentional with the content creation process? So, how did you go about forming the brand behind it, knowing that it’s also a personal brand?

Leslie Stephens: Yeah. It’s interesting because so much of the newsletter reflects my life. And actually there was a huge pivot this year that we can go into and chat about. But really what I’m constantly asking myself around Morning Person is just what is the person on the other side of this getting from me? I just because it’s a paid newsletter, because the vast majority of the content that you get is when you pay for it. I’m always asking myself, what are people getting? What is the value that I’m able to provide to people? And for me, it’s this obsession with trying to understand better ways of doing things in my life. And I’m constantly experimenting with my own life. And one of the big things of value that I think I bring to other people is that I’m sharing those experiments with them and saying, “Here’s what worked, here’s what doesn’t after obsessively researching it for myself.”

But also providing recommendations. I’m a huge consumer of content. I love books, and movies, and shows. And I’m constantly vetting them. And so, I’m able to provide to my readers, every issue starts with three recommendations. So, it could be for a book, a podcast, a movie, a recipe. But these are things that I have been taking in everything that’s going on that week, been really aware of what’s launching, vetting everything, and then providing that to my readers. So, I sort of think that my niche, while it’s the content that I write is very reflective of my life, and that can sort of go on a couple of different paths, my niche is really this curated recommendations where my readers know that they can go to morning person newsletter and have something that’s really tangible that they can take away from it.

Bjork Ostrom: That makes sense. And I saw this, it was actually on Instagram. There’s a handful, this is how I use Instagram, there’s maybe five people and I’ll type in instagram.com/theirusername.

Leslie Stephens: Yes.

Bjork Ostrom: Which is maybe a hack to get around the feed. But this individual was talking about it was in the context of success. And what he was saying was it was kind of like here’s how to be successful. Number one, define what you feel like success is. Number two, find somebody who’s doing that. Number three, figure out what habits they have in their life or what they’re doing in their life. And then number four, figure out how to do that yourself.

And it seems like what you’re doing is a version of that where people from the outside might say, “Hey, I’m interested in some way potentially replicating some of the things that you’re doing, and I’d be curious to know what those are.” And then on a weekly basis, it sounds like you’re writing to people and saying, “Here are some of the things that I’m doing that I’ve found beneficial as I tweak, and evolve, and enhance how I’m living my life.” Does that feel like an accurate reflection?

Leslie Stephens: Yeah, it does feel like an accurate reflection. And I think sometimes I’m creating content and I’m almost feeling like what gives me the right to give other people recommendations on how to live their life, which is what I feel so much about lifestyle media? And all I can say to that is that I ensure that Morning Person is just completely honest. I’m just genuinely sharing things that work for me.

And I think what’s so wonderful about the platform is that you either resonate with that and you subscribe to my content, or you don’t resonate with that, which is completely fine. And the other important part of my newsletter is that my subscription model is paid. So, what that enables me to do is to not have any brand sponsorships or affiliates. So for me, it’s like an emphasis on complete transparency. What you see is what you get. So, you either enjoy that content and you adapt it to your own life and you enjoy it, or you don’t. And I’m sort of losing the thread of the original question you asked.

Bjork Ostrom: No, that’s great. So, the basic premise is people are interested to learn from you, which I mean, that’s what a lot of social media is, or content online is, is people interested in following along. Maybe it’s for entertainment’s sake, but also a lot of it is for education’s sake. I think in this world it can be a little bit of both. But the benefit of what you’re doing is that it is paid. People pay to sign up. So, you don’t have to have a random sponsored segment. And people are like, “Do you actually like this? Or, you’re just getting paid for this?”

Leslie Stephens: Exactly.

Bjork Ostrom: Because it’s all the affiliate that sponsored, it’s all removed. There’s only one transaction is people who pay to get access to it. And to your point, if they don’t find interest in it or it’s not aligned, then there’s nothing keeping them there. It’s not like it’s a contract or something.

Leslie Stephens: Yes.

Bjork Ostrom: So, then they can drop off, which allows you to speak really freely about, “Hey, these are the things,” and you said this, “What am I doing for people?” And you’re consuming a lot, and you’re curating that, and saying, “For somebody who’s busy and doesn’t want to do all the consumption and curation, here are the things that I think are worthwhile and beneficial in a really pure way by recommending that.” Can you talk about the mechanics of how Substack works?

Leslie Stephens: Yes.

Bjork Ostrom: What is that platform like? And what are the great things about it, the hard things about it? I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on that.

Leslie Stephens: Yeah. I mean, honestly, I’ve been really impressed with being on Substack. I’m a huge fan of being a writer over there. It’s very, very easy to use. The backend of it is really clear. They give you a lot of stats about who’s following you, and who your subscribers are, and how many people have subscribed to you. And they give you really clear delineations also between like, oh, this reader found you because they follow this blog, and this is you got 25 paid subscribers this week because this Substack recommended you.

So, there’s a lot of freedom also within the decisions that you make to create content for different sorts of groups of people. It allows you to filter your newsletter list by highly engaged readers, which I think a lot of online newsletters allow you to do. But yeah, I’ve been really impressed by it. I mean, one of the things for me that’s been really important is because I’m in grad school earning my master’s, it takes up a lot of my time.

Bjork Ostrom: Your master’s specifically?

Leslie Stephens: Yes.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, yeah.

Leslie Stephens: Yes. I’m in the process of having my first novel published. And I’m working on this Substack. So, it’s just vitally important to me.

Bjork Ostrom: It’s a lot. Yeah.

Leslie Stephens: But it’s a lot. Yeah. And so, I need it to be simple. And I really appreciate that it is so easy to use.

Bjork Ostrom: What is your novel about?

Leslie Stephens: It’s speculative fiction. It’s set 40 years in the future. And it’s sort of loosely inspired by the lifestyle industry. I wrote it primarily when I was still living in Los Angeles. And it’s about a sort of Elizabeth Holmes sinister type founder of the wellness technology company.

Bjork Ostrom: Oh, interesting.

Leslie Stephens: And it reads between her story and then two other women. And it’s sort of alternates between their perspectives.

Bjork Ostrom: Cool. When does it come out?

Leslie Stephens: So, we’re shopping. And I have an agent.

Bjork Ostrom: Okay.

Leslie Stephens: We’re talking to publishers early next year.

Bjork Ostrom: Cool. That’s exciting. Yeah.

Leslie Stephens: So, it’s sort of, yeah. But the end of this year was really spent digging into that. It’s for that.

Bjork Ostrom: Sure.

Leslie Stephens: Yeah.

Bjork Ostrom: So, one of the questions that I have specifically around Substack, and this ties into some of the social media stuff as well, is if we get markety, and just maybe a little bit eye-rolly, but you think of the funnels. And a funnel being you have the top of the funnel, you know this world. But for anybody listening who’s not familiar with that idea. And that’s the broad reach. And usually what you think of that is social media, maybe it’s a blog. And from that, you’re marketing down into maybe a paid thing, or maybe it’s an email sign up that’s free that eventually gets to paid.

So, loosely speaking, that’s kind of the idea for anybody who’s not familiar with the funnel of how that works. I’d be curious to know how you think of that as you think intentionally about social media? Trying to be smart about how you’re using it, and that you still are using it, and you’re still using it in a way where you direct people to the newsletter. But also, it’s balancing the importance of it with the importance of not losing yourself in it. What does that look like in the world of Substack and essentially, how do you market the newsletter?

Leslie Stephens: Yeah. So, I’m probably not doing this in the most strategic way that you could. I’ve actually had some conversations with members of Substack’s marketing team, where their advice to me has been, “You make your most valuable content free content. And then you make your paid content the sort of additional bonus content that if people really love what they read, then they can go ahead and pay, and get extra bonus issues that are written by you.” And so, that’s the model that they suggest.

I think that it really helps you build this free user base of subscribers that then ends up converting into a paid subscription. And so, ideally that’s what I would be doing. Ideally, my Tuesday issue would be free to everybody. And then I would be creating this additional bonus content fairly regularly that would be available to paid subscribers. And for me, I have not been doing that mostly because I just don’t have the time to be able to do that.

And so, what I’ve done is I’ve just basically said, “My newsletter is paid. If you’re a free subscriber, you get the first two to three recommendations.” And Substack allows you to add a paywall anywhere that you want in the newsletter where you can add a line where at that line it says, “Okay. If you’re a free subscriber, you can pay to keep reading the rest of this newsletter.” And I’ve been experimenting where I put that paywall.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah.

Leslie Stephens: So, for the past couple of issues, I’ve put it underneath the recommendations. So, free subscribers get all three of the recommendations that I make every week. And then if you’re paid, you get the meat of the issue, which is really sort of more lifestyle content that I write. It’s where I get really honest about what’s going on in my life and I’m sharing openly about everything. And if you’re a paid subscriber, you get that.

And then in terms of using this sort of broader audience, I’m lucky that when I began Substack I had a small number of followers on Instagram, but substantial enough that it was able to really get me started on my Substack. I have I think now around 24,000 followers on Instagram. And so, I post there every week just to let people know, “Hey, here’s the topic that I wrote about on my newsletter this week.” And to see if they’re interested in subscribing. And that fairly regularly contributes to a couple of paid subscriptions.

Bjork Ostrom: Sure. And so, it seems like substantial to have thousands of paid subscribers in essentially two-ish years.

Leslie Stephens: Yeah, just over one year.

Bjork Ostrom: Do you feel like that’s realistic? Or yeah, a year? Abnormal growth? Where do you feel like that lands in your understanding of other Substack accounts or people who would sign up to start publishing content on Substack?

Leslie Stephens: Yeah. I think it’s fairly unique. I’m really lucky in that a lot of the people who follow me on Instagram are people who followed me because of my writing in previous lifestyle content, because I’m not a great Instagram creator. So, they definitely don’t follow me because I’m making great Instagrams.

Bjork Ostrom: Okay.

Leslie Stephens: And so, there was this foundation of trust where a lot of the people who followed me were already people who knew, “Okay, I really connect with her writing. And I enjoy what she has to say.” And so, I think that I had from the jump when I first posted on Instagram that I was starting a Substack, I had a lot of people who I’m so grateful had that trust in me that I was going to create content that they would be interested in because they had seen my content before, and were willing to trust me to follow me, and to pay $5 a month to make that leap with me.

And so, I think that it is unique that I was able to get so many followers from the get-go. And then I almost doubled my followers recently actually, because I’ve been opening up about something that I’m going through that’s very vulnerable, which is that I’m in the process of separating from my husband. And I’ve been writing about that on my Substack, which has been a difficult decision to make. And it’s something that a lot of my family members don’t agree with.

Bjork Ostrom: Sure.

Leslie Stephens: But I really have always felt like one of the problems that I have with lifestyle journalism is that it’s not honest.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, it’s a highlight reel. Yeah.

Leslie Stephens: It’s always showing this aspirational, beautiful. It’s a highlight reel. And so, it was sort of this opportunity for me to say, “I’m going to practice what I preach. And I’m going to do it in this way that is as respectful as possible to my husband, and allow him to read every post before I publish it.” But it’s something that I feel like if I’m going to be talking about all the good in my life and look how cute my pantry looks, and my capsule closet looks like. And if I’m going to be writing about-

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. Look how organized my life is.

Leslie Stephens: Yes.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, yeah.

Leslie Stephens: And if I’m going to be putting this image forward, which I do think that there’s value and importance in that content, and that’s content that I look for, I need to also be writing about, “Hey, here’s this thing that’s happening in my life. These are the ways in which my world is falling apart while I also have a capsule wardrobe.”

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. Yeah, yeah.

Leslie Stephens: There needs to be this balance.

Bjork Ostrom: It’s human. Yeah.

Leslie Stephens: Exactly. I want to be human. And I don’t want anybody to feel like I’m just a robot because I’m not.

Bjork Ostrom: And I think so deeply what people want is to know what other people are truly experiencing in life.

Leslie Stephens: Yes.

Bjork Ostrom: And we all have these things inside of us that we’re carrying. And as soon as, in my experience I feel lik, as you are willing to share those, others are too. And what it does is it makes you realize like, “Oh, there’s actually a lot of hard stuff that that’s happening in people’s lives.” But a shadow side to social media, which kind of brings us back to the top of the conversation, is it can potentially make it seem like that doesn’t happen.

And I feel like there’s loneliness that can creep in when you start to look at others’ lives and you’re like, “I’m feeling these things that don’t feel good, or going through these things that are really hard.” And then you look at somebody else’s life and it’s like, “Well, gosh. They have an awesome life with no problems.” And then that contrast feels so bad, for lack of a better word. Yeah.

Leslie Stephens: Oh, it feels terrible. And you can feel like the only person in the world who’s going through something when the fact is that every single person is going through something. And in the space that I’m in, which is sort of this women’s lifestyle journalism space, so many of the creators, at least I think 99% of the creators who I follow, are married in heterosexual relationships with babies. And even when I was going through what I was going through, I felt like I’m the only person in the world who is separating from their husband and who isn’t following this track that look at all these women, they’re so happy. Why can’t I make my relationship work and be as happy as these women who have their husbands and their babies?

Because that’s all you’re seeing when you’re scrolling on Instagram. And as soon as I wrote my first post that sort of admitted that I’ve been going through this change, I received hundreds of emails from women, hundreds. And I truly, I was so nervous to write the first post. And I woke up as soon as the issue went live at 5:30 in the morning. And I mean, I have tears coming to my eyes now just thinking about reading so many responses and just seeing how much it resonated with women who are writing, “I’m going through something similar right now.”

Bjork Ostrom: Yes.

Leslie Stephens: Who were feeling alone.

Bjork Ostrom: Alone. Yeah.

Leslie Stephens: Who were feeling like everybody I’m seeing on Instagram has this perfect life. What’s wrong with me?

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. It’s a gift. Vulnerability I feel like is a gift. And that’s an example. And you feel like, or you can see people resonate with that.

Leslie Stephens: Yeah.

Bjork Ostrom: So, thanks for doing that. What a hard thing, but what a thing that gives in such a significant way. So, it’s cool to see. How did you know that that was the decision for you to do that? Because my guess is it’s not always the right decision for some people. You talk about that spectrum, and some people being more comfortable sharing about things than not. Lindsay, in our seasons of grief is somebody who has felt comfortable sharing with that.

And similarly, people have resonated with that. And for me, I’m not opposed, but it’s just not naturally where I go. So, for those who are on the other side and thinking about how much do I share about who I am and what I’m going through, do you have any advice to process those decisions knowing that you recently went through that?

Leslie Stephens: Mm-hmm. I mean, you have to have boundaries and you have to only share what you’re comfortable in sharing. And the fact that I’ve been so vulnerable, I’m not suggesting that any other creator have to do this. You have to do what feels right to you and what you feel safe sharing. And I’m a person who I share very openly in my real life with my friends. And I often talk about things. So, I’m fairly comfortable sharing things about myself, and knew that I would be comfortable sharing. That being said, I do have boundaries around what’s going on. The version that I’m sharing on my newsletter, while it’s all true, it’s not the full story of everything that’s going on.

Bjork Ostrom: Every little detail. Yeah.

Leslie Stephens: Yeah. And for me, it was I’m still going through it. It’s still a very activated space for me. It’s still changing, and moving, and very, very vulnerable, and feels like an open wound. And so, what I’m writing about are the aspects of it that I feel safe writing about it. At the same time, I’m still exploring a lot of the parts of everything that I’m going through and not sharing every single aspect of it. I think that there is this difference between sharing vulnerably, and being authentic, and being open, but also setting these boundaries and protecting yourself and your space, and allowing yourself to go through things without this expectation that you share everything with the people who are following your story.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. That’s great. And do you feel like, last question for this, do you feel like some of it has helped? Is it part of it is a processing for you? Because I’d imagine for myself in being forced to put to words something I’m going through that it almost organizes or helps me sort through my own thoughts with it.

Leslie Stephens: Absolutely. I mean, I’m a huge journaler and I’ve become an even bigger journaler since going through this process. So, I can’t say enough good things about just putting a pen to paper. It helps bring whatever is in here that you aren’t able to share in your mind down to paper. And then you can read it. And really I think it helps so much in the processing. In writing about it, I think because I have been doing so much journaling on my own, I think that the thing that’s most valuable has been the responses that I’ve received from other people.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah.

Leslie Stephens: It’s really opened myself up to, I’ve processed it on my own. The version that you’re reading on the newsletter is sort of this version that I’m very intentionally is the one that I’m putting forth in a way that’s respectful to all the parties involved and is what I feel safe sharing. That being said, from these emails that I’ve received from readers, I’ve actually gotten coffee with a few of them. So, I’ve reached out and said, “Hey, I’m going through something really similar. I’d love to chat.”

And with them, I talk to them and tell them the full story, and hear what they have to say. And that connection from going from an offline stranger into an online, very, very genuine friendship and connection is something that’s been so valuable to me. And is we were sort of talking about that, that can be the beautiful part of social media and this connectivity.

Bjork Ostrom: Yes, totally.

Leslie Stephens: And I love the phrase that you said earlier, when you’re going through these seasons of grief, that can be this opportunity to find some. I would’ve never met these women otherwise. None of my friends are going through divorces or separation. And all of a sudden, I have this little community of women who are going through the same thing. And I found them all through writing about it on my newsletter.

Bjork Ostrom: In my heart of seasons, one of the biggest supports that I’ve found is the realization, whether just the thought of it, or by actually connecting with people, that there’s almost nothing that you can be experiencing that you are singularly the only one experiencing.

Leslie Stephens: Oh, yeah.

Bjork Ostrom: But social media can kind of make it seem like that.

Leslie Stephens: Yes.

Bjork Ostrom: And so, when I remember that, “Hey, this is probably in some ways it’s universal, not in that everybody’s feeling it, but that lots of people have.” And then even better, if you’re able to then actually make those connections to talk through that with somebody and say like, “Oh, man. It’s not the same thing, but maybe we’re feeling some of the same things.” And for whatever reason, that’s so helpful.

Leslie Stephens: Totally.

Bjork Ostrom: To process through that. So, I’m sure after the conversation, like any of these interviews we do, there’s tangible things that people can come out of it and say like, “Hey, this is something I’m interested doing, Substack, whatever it might be, intentional use of social media.” But the other thing I think that would be true coming out of this is people would want to follow along with your story. So, can you talk about where that would be, and the process for signing up, and becoming a subscriber?

Leslie Stephens: Yes, I’m happy to. So, you can find my newsletter at morningpersonnewsletter.com. And that’s how you subscribe to it. As I’ve mentioned, the majority of my content really is there. You can follow me on Instagram, which is @lesliesteph, L-E-S-L-I-E-S-T-E-P-H. But truly the majority of what I’m writing and really involved in and my most interesting content is over on morning person newsletter.

Bjork Ostrom: Cool. We’ll link to that as well. Leslie, it’s a really great conversation. Thanks for coming on.

Leslie Stephens: Thank you so much. You asked such wonderful questions. And I just I so enjoyed being on this. It was really wonderful to talk to you.

Bjork Ostrom: Thanks, Leslie.

Leslie Jeon: Hello there. Leslie here. And thank you so much for listening to this week’s episode of the podcast. Before we sign off, I wanted to give you a quick heads up about all of the exciting new membership content that we have coming to Food Blogger Pro this month, the month of February. So, in case you didn’t know, aside from the podcast, we also have our membership where we share new courses. We have the Community forum. We have Live Q&As, exclusive deals and discounts. There’s just lots of amazing things that are involved in a Food Blogger Pro membership. And we’re constantly adding new content and updating old content so that the membership is improving in value for all of our members.

So, in case you want to learn more and potentially join, you can head to foodbloggerpro.com/join to do so. But in the meantime, I’m going to let you know about the content we have coming this month. So first up, we have a new coaching call replay that will be going live on Thursday, February 2nd. So, in case you didn’t know, this year, we launched our brand-new coaching calls. And in these coaching calls, Food Blogger Pro members get the chance to chat with Bjork one-on-one and work through some of their biggest blogging questions. So, they get the chance to ask those questions to him and then hear his advice.

And what we’ve been doing is uploading these replays of these coaching calls to Food Blogger Pro so that other members can learn from them and get inspired. So, we’re doing one coaching call per month. And we’re excited to share a new replay of one this month on February 2nd. So, be sure to check that out on the live tab on Food Blogger Pro on the 2nd, once it goes live. And if you want to slip in an application to potentially have your own coaching call with Bjork, if you’re a member, you can head to foodbloggerpro.com/coaching-call-application to do so.

Then on Thursday, February 9th, we’re hosting our member only live Q&A. And it’s an exciting one because it’s going to be with Casey Marquee, our SEO expert. And it’s going to be about, any guesses? SEO. So, Casey is so knowledgeable on this subject. And we know that a lot of you enjoy chatting with him in the forum to get your questions answered. And we hope that this Q&A will be an even better opportunity to pick his brain and get his thoughts on your best SEO questions. So, you can head to the live tab on Food Blogger Pro to add this Q&A to your calendar so you don’t miss it.

And you can also submit a question ahead of time. But be sure to tune in and join us on Thursday, February 9th at 4:00 PM Eastern once we go live. Then the next week on February 16th, we’re going to be sharing a couple new Quick Wind videos. And they’re going to be all about some different features on Tailwind. So, in case you didn’t know, Tailwind is a fantastic social media management tool that I know a lot of our members use. And they’ve been releasing a lot of interesting and exciting new features the past couple of years. So, we’re going to be sharing these new Quick Wind videos just to give you an overview of some of the different features that you can use on Tailwind, and how it can really help you out with your business as a food creator.

So, stay tuned for those. We’re really excited to share them with you. And then last but not least, on Thursday, February 23rd, we’re going to be sharing a new Foods Trending This Spring article. So, we’ve heard from so many of you that you really like these articles. We share them seasonally. So, each season. And the point of them is just to give you a recap and heads up about all of the foods that will be trending in the upcoming season. And this is to help you as you’re planning out your blog content calendar, just to give you some ideas and inspiration for recipes that people might be searching for.

So, we cannot wait to share that one with you. But that’s an overview of everything coming to Food Blogger Pro in February. If you haven’t joined our membership yet and you want to join so you can get access to all of this, you can head to foodbloggerpro.com/join to learn more about our pricing options and potentially join us there. Thanks again for tuning in and listening to the podcast. We appreciate you so very much. And until next time, make it a great week.

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