How Erin Moon built a thriving community around her newsletter

We invited Erin Moon, author of The Swipe Up, to host a workshop about how she got to know her subscribers and built a community around her newsletter. Erin originally created The Swipe Up, which she describes as “a newsletter from your internet friend,” as an easy way to share links. Read on for Erin’s insights.

This transcript has been lightly edited for readability. You can watch Erin’s talk in the above video.

Takeaways

  • Survey your audience. If you don’t know who your readers are, reach out to them and ask!

  • Encourage conversation. Start discussions with your readers and keep the conversation going.

  • Let your community shine. Step back and let your readers take center stage.

  • Be vulnerable with your readers. Show authenticity, even when you make mistakes.


It's sort of a weird world that we live in on the Internet. A lot of people have these communities, and my community sort of developed spontaneously, which was a really cool and fun thing.

My day job is that I work for a media and podcasting group called the Popcast Media Group. We do The Popcast with Knox & Jamie and The Bible Binge. My fake job is The Swipe Up, and getting to write for a community of people that have followed me on the Internet. 

I get asked the question a lot: Why are you talking to strangers on the Internet? I’m 37, I grew up at the beginning of AOL chat rooms, when people were leery of strangers on the Internet. But now, we know that strangers can be really fun. 

The reason I started my newsletter was that I thought someone in traditional publishing would take me seriously if I had a newsletter following. I started on MailChimp, but it was massively frustrating to me because it felt really sterile. I didn't have 10,000 followers on Instagram, and I wanted an easy way to share links. 

And thus, The Swipe Up was born. Everybody on Instagram is always like, “Swipe up,” and I wanted a place where I could share my own links. It began as a collection of weird things I loved on the Internet. I was really bummed about the state of the world, and so I just wanted a place where I could collect things that I liked. There were good things on the Internet and in real life that I wanted to share with people. Two friends of mine mentioned that they were trying out this new platform called Substack, and they have really incredible spaces. I dipped in, and I really liked it. 

A few stats about me: I have almost 8,500 subscribers with a 52% open rate. The industry average is somewhere around 15-25%, so we have a thriving and engaged community. The Swipe Up has been called the best newsletter on the Internet, hyperbolically, by my mom.

So, how did we get here?

Use surveys to learn about your readers

I asked myself three questions about The Swipe Up: Who are these people? What do they want? And how do I give it to them?

I had to get to know the people behind The Swipe Up. With the first question, the best way that I found to do this was through a survey. I surveyed my entire newsletter and said, “I want your opinion.” I asked what they liked about the newsletter, what parts they skipped over, what other newsletters they liked, and if they had any other suggestions or feedback.

I began to make connections between what I liked and what they liked, and where we began to go around each other. The survey was helpful for me to understand people not as data points, but as humans. It's always helpful to offer an incentive when you do a survey, like a Starbucks gift card. You have to be open to criticism and feedback, things that maybe you like about your platform but other people don't like. 

The survey was helpful for me to understand people not as data points, but as humans.

So what did I discover? I discovered that these people were just as nuanced and weird as me. You could not put them in a box, and I couldn't cater anything to them because they were not a monolith. That was really helpful for me to know. They were very different, which was exciting for me. I was thrilled that I wasn't necessarily speaking to a bunch of the same people over and over again. 

The next question was, “What do they want?” Before I could ask that question, I had to ask myself: What do I want? What do I want to write about, and what is important to me? The things I really wanted were to be heard, to belong to a place, to contain multitudes, and to have Internet spaces of nuance and learning.

I thought that probably, they want to be heard, they want to belong, they contain multitudes, and they also want Internet spaces of nuance and learning. There's a Frederick Buechner quote—“The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet.” Substack is the place where your weird quirks and the world's desire for community and belonging meet. 

Substack is the place where your weird quirks and the world's desire for community and belonging meet.

Get the conversation going

So, how do you give people what they want? Where do my writing and community-building bring connection, and where are the points where we come together?

My first suggestion is to allow comments. We all know that Substack has [discussion] threads. There are also private Substacks now, which is really cool. I was genuinely afraid to open up the conversation to comments. They're scary, because what if they're bad? Or worse, what if nobody responds? 

I think you have to take the risk. You have to be a part of the conversation, not just the leader of the conversation. Encouraging sharing is so important. Share what's happening in your life. Of course, there are boundaries that we all have to have if we're going to be the ones who are moderators or “mayors” of our community. But if we can encourage sharing and go first, then it’s going to be a lot easier for other people to get involved. 

Also, continuing the conversation. You would never walk up to someone in real life and start a conversation with them, and walk away before they have a chance to respond. And after they respond, you would never end the conversation there. I'm a big believer in keeping the conversation going. And being just as respectful to people on the Internet as you would in real life. 

You would never walk up to someone in real life and start a conversation with them, and walk away before they have a chance to respond.

If you need to, you can set up expectations, like “Hey, I'm going to be dipping in and out of this conversation, I would love to hear your thoughts.” Set up expectations so you're not the one that everyone is necessarily waiting on. Once they get used to the idea, they will take over in the best way possible, and it's so much fun to watch and see that happen.

One thing that is really important is not shaming people. If you want to complain about your day on my thread, that's okay. If you want to be honest and admit that you are just now beginning your anti-racist education, you can do that. If you want to talk about how you really love white chocolate mochas from Starbucks, and that makes you feel basic and people embarrass you about it, that's okay. 

We let people live and learn. I think part of the problem on the Internet is that we expect people to have fully formed opinions and be at the end of their process. My space is about being committed to seeing the good in the middle or the beginning of the process, knowing that not everyone is fully formed and ready to go.

Let your readers take the spotlight

The next point is that you are not the star. I think this is really hard for people who have based their following on personality, but you have to let the community and the content be the star. Don't feel the need to necessarily keep inserting yourself. 

You are not the star. I think this is really hard for people who have based their following on personality, but you have to let the community and the content be the star.

One of my favorite things that has happened on my weekly thread is a narrative developing with several of our commenters. One commenter let us in to this part of her life where she is starting to see this guy, and we get updates every week. It's like our own serial rom-com. It's been wonderful. It's not serious, but we're getting to know her and getting to know what's happening. 

We had one of our commenters get married a couple weeks ago during quarantine, and she hopped onto the thread the morning of her wedding just to say, “Hey, I'm getting married today—thanks for this, this was a fun thing to read.” So, I emailed her and said, “Karen, we need your wedding picture. Do you have anything? Can we please see it?” She was so kind to send us her wedding picture. We got to post it, and everybody got to comment about how great she looked. It was a really fun way to prop up other people in the thread.

People love on each other. They know that this is about the community, and not necessarily about me. Developing community is something that I really believe in. It's hard to virtually love on people; it's remarkably easy, however, to be a weird Internet creeper and stalk people so that you can care about them. 

We often have people in my comment thread who mention, “Oh, we just found out we're having twins.” Or, “We're getting married.” Or, “My wedding was canceled because of the coronavirus, and I'm super bummed.” Find these people on social media. Be a creeper. Ask for their baby registries. Ask for their wedding registries. Send them gifts. It can just be a small thing to let them know that you and the community are thinking about them. 

When quarantine started, it was super overwhelming for me and a lot of other moms to be all of a sudden at home with our children, all day. I was expected to homeschool them, and I was completely overwhelmed. The Swipe Up community had the idea to start a pen pal program. We matched adults, and we matched kids. It was really fun, and some are still pen pals.

We also created something called an "I Gotcha" spreadsheet. It was just a place for people who could be like, “Hey, I lost my job and our power bill is due. Can anyone help me?” People who were able to help could Venmo, Cash App, or PayPal them. We were able to really help people pay their bills, and that was a really cool thing that came out of the community.

We created something called an "I Gotcha" spreadsheet. It was just a place for people who could be like, “Hey, I lost my job and our power bill is due. Can anyone help me?” We were able to really help people pay their bills, and that was a really cool thing that came out of the community.

Be vulnerable with your readers

It’s important in your writing to ask questions and to want to get to know people. I've always said that a lot of the Internet is just people wanting to be heard, and we also have to listen. We have to look at things from a different viewpoint, and hearing what other people have to say is important. 

Another thing that I really love, as a big Brené Brown fan, is modeling vulnerability. I'm a total mess-up. I blow it all the time. I'm literally just a person who makes mistakes, and is weird, and fumbles often. It's really important to have honesty. Of course, we have boundaries and things that are private, but it's important when you are sharing to model vulnerability. 

You have to be okay with being wrong, being called out, and apologizing when it's important. A lot of this is just being a human. Respond like a human, because you are a human. There's this veneer that we want to put up so that we look like an expert or someone who has it all together. What I've really enjoyed is getting to be human with other people on the Internet. 

Respond like a human, because you are a human. There's this veneer that we want to put up so that we look like an expert or someone who has it all together. What I've really enjoyed is getting to be human with other people on the Internet.

Going back to the original question, “Why are you talking to strangers on the Internet?” I'm not, anymore. I'm talking to strangers who are my friends—my frangers. They are encouraging, wonderful people. What started as a way that I hoped people in traditional publishing would notice and pay attention to me is now just a really lovely community of people who are diverse, strange, and nuanced. 

When they feel like they've worn their real life friends out, or need a certain amount of anonymity to process or grump or understand something, they have a space for that. It's just a very kind space. And I think that stuff doesn't have anything to do with me—it has to do with them, and the way that they've taken over wanting to put this space on the Internet.