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Is blogging back? Reflections on my two months on Substack
Algorithms, representation in the blogosphere, and that time the kids had tea with Kelly Ripa. Also, thank you. ❤️
Hello, friends. This is newsletter #9. Which means that I’ve made it to two months on Substack! I know it’s not a huge milestone, but I honestly wasn’t sure what I was getting myself into when I first created an account here last November on a whim and an itch to start writing again. I’m really so grateful for all of you who have subscribed and are coming along on this ride with me.
After having stepped away from being a blogger/content creator for so many years, I gleefully forgot all about the endless cycle of self promotion that comes along with it. Building up a following from scratch again through organic growth is a slog, but I’m also happy to not spend any mental energy thinking about damn algorithms (I’m looking at you, IG). In that sense, Substack feels a little bit like the days of social media yore (for now, at least). Who said long-form writing was dead? I personally love getting newsletters I’ve subscribed to in my inbox and I find it so interesting to see an uptick in articles about why blogging for business is returning in 2023. So is blogging making a comeback?
Suck it, algorithms
Back when Instagram was a major marketing tool for our bakery business—we’re talking 6-8 years ago—I became fairly obsessed with cracking the nut on their mysteriously opaque algorithms. I spent hours on Instagram every day (do not recommend) posting photos twice daily, joined comment pods to increase engagement, and read every article about growth strategies that I could find. I watched some of my friends’ accounts soar in follower numbers, and while our account grew modestly, it never gained anywhere near the traction that some of my peers achieved. All of that time spent—and wasted!—was all for nothing. I know when to admit defeat. You win, Instagram!
When we shut down our business in 2020, I was relieved to ride off into the social media sunset. I didn’t care that I lost followers in droves after I officially converted our account to a personal one. I didn’t hashtag a damn thing anymore and my family rejoiced when they were able to eat right away without having to put up with me taking photos of our meals. Sometimes I didn’t post for days—weeks even. It was a release from a social media rat race that I didn’t even know I needed. Sounds sad, doesn’t it? But when you have a business, marketing is a tireless, but necessary hamster wheel of a cycle of staying relevant and visible.
You want me to post the same content, why?
I had a suspicion as to why IG never took off for me. I didn’t post the same kind of content consistently—meaning, the algorithms wanted me to post photos of cookies and cakes every single time. You were rewarded if you “stayed in your lane” stylistically and content-wise, and without it, Instagram didn’t know how to algorithmically recommend my feed because the content was all over the place. But how boring would that have been to post photos of cookies every day? Sure, baked goods are pretty to look at, but we didn’t have a store, nor did we constantly push out new products so it would have been repetitive no matter what. It was a no win situation of my own making. My big business mistake was not splitting off into two accounts—personal and business—but the thought of having to spend even more time on that app made me want to hurl and we couldn’t afford a social media manager.
So when I read somewhere that you should have a niche to be successful on Substack, I just kind of laughed (and maybe cried a little). Substack also makes you pick two categories when you start your newsletter and they didn’t have one called “Life” so I had no idea how to classify mine. Right now it is sitting under Health & Wellness and Culture, because 🤷🏻♀️?
When blogging wasn’t worth it anymore
You have to have a pretty thick skin if you’re putting yourself out there. I had been blogging since 2000 so I learned to let the negativity and criticism roll off my back a long time ago. There were times I even learned something about myself when taking less than positive comments in. But there was one particular comment that appeared when I published a letter addressed to my brother a week after he died in 2014 that put me in a tailspin of regret for ever writing. The post was raw and fresh. I never outright said that he died from suicide in my post, but this person read through the subtext and went straight for the heart when I was already reeling from a death that was so fraught with guilt and so many other complicated emotions. There was no point to it other than to misdirect judgment on a stranger when they were at their lowest point in life. The fact that it was written by a fellow Korean American made it 100% worse because it played into our culture of shame and guilt.
Unrelated, a few months later I started getting harassed relentlessly online. It was racially charged and it went on for months, following me on every platform. This person targeted Asian American women who were “prominent” in media because it was his goal to take each and every one of us down (his words). He would reprint parts of my writing out of context on his own blog and twist them around to fit his narrative to justify his manifesto.
Two things about this:
1. This went beyond trolling as this was clearly a mentally ill individual and he appeared to be a dangerous misogynist.
2. The fact that he targeted me among legit prominent Asian Americans was laughable since I’m not anyone important or famous, but I did sometimes write about racial issues so I guess I was a target. It said a lot about how few “regular”, non-celebrity Asian voices there were out there at the time.
I thought I was stronger than this, but this exposed how much more vulnerable I was than I wanted to admit. It was at that moment when I decided it just wasn’t worth it anymore.
But representation still matters
I was doing some digital cleaning (yes! I love organizing of all kinds) and came across old photos of the one time I agreed to do a sponsorship post. This was pre-Instagram and we were invited to a girls’ tea party that was hosted by Kelly Ripa at the Plaza Hotel to raise awareness for Ovarian Cancer. It was also a plug for Electrolux’s new washer and dryers (I know, mom bloggers sponsoring washer and dryers—insert eyeroll. Also, I hated being called a mom blogger). Obviously, I did not care about the huge, full size appliances that wouldn’t even fit inside my NYC apartment, but I agreed to it because the kids, who were 4 and 6 at the time, would get to have fancy tea at The Plaza! I pulled the kids out of school that day and they arranged to pick us up in a car and had outfits and gifts laid out for all the girls. It was soooo fancy! Was this what I was missing the entire time I was blogging?? I was so easily impressed by the car until I realized that half the bloggers there were flown in from around the country. Um, ok.
The point is, we were the only invited guests there who weren’t white. These photos reminded me that there were so few bloggers of color back then and this is what kept me writing. I never had any aspirations to be a voice for anyone else other than myself, but at some point I realized I was a relatable voice for some Asian Americans back then, simply because there were so few of us.
We’ve really come far since then. We have so much more diversity in content creators on all the social platforms, Medium, LinkedIn, and here on Substack, but we GenXers tend to get overlooked because nobody cares about this demographic. Couple that with feeling invisible as an Asian American to begin with…and well, I guess I still think that there could be room for one more aging Asian American voice out there. Representation is still important, no matter what your age—or maybe especially because of your age.
So what have I learned from the last two months?
I don’t think I realized how much I missed writing, but writing is a full-time job.
Mark shared the observation today that he thought I might be getting a weeeee bit stressed about coming up with a newsletter every week. I immediately waved his comment away because I didn’t want to hear it even though there might have been a tiny shred of truth there. I mean, my life really isn’t all that interesting. It was really hard to juggle the blog when I had a full time job and a business to run, so a once-a-week post on Substack seems much more manageable, but I still spend at least a day and a half on each newsletter (or am I just a really slow writer? 🤔).
I started writing here to make myself accountable as a way to stay on course towards a better work/life balance, and now that there are nearly 500 of you subscribed so far with an average 80% open rate (I know that number won’t sustain long term, but wow)…well, I definitely feel accountable! But this has been my favorite part of my sabbatical/downshift/funemployment/whatever-this-time-is. It’s given me a purpose in this transitional time in my life.
The one time I go for a consistent aesthetic is the one time I can’t sustain it.
I had the harebrained idea to draw all my newsletter cover images so that I can get back to drawing and maintain a certain aesthetic look. This is going spectacularly well. NOT. I might have to rethink this since I haven’t had time to draw and these covers don’t even show up on mobile or in email 🤦🏻♀️.
I’m trying to not be painfully awkward about paid subscriptions.
Does anyone remember that commercial where a man who’s sitting in front of his computer suddenly gets up and starts nervously dancing around the room before sheepishly tapping the submit button with his mouse and running away? This commercial goes waaaay back and was probably for some early e-commerce site. Well, that’s how I felt when I turned on paid subscriptions last week. I am terrible when it comes to self-promotion. I don’t know if it’s poor self-worth, feeling like a sell-out or our old familiar friend, imposter syndrome, but it made me terrible at monetizing my own stuff in the past. It just felt wrong for me to sponsor products I didn’t use or care about. This is actually ironic because I was a partner in one of the early blog networks in the early 2000s that helped shape what monetization, ads, and product sponsorships in digital media would look like, so clearly it wasn’t about making money off content entirely. I think it’s because I never saw my own personal blog as a business.
What I do know is that since then, supporting content creators has been normalized, so it kinda feels better, I guess? I just have to get on board the train. That said, for now all weekly newsletters will remain free—and maybe forever, who knows, but there may be some posts in the future that might be for paid subscribers only because I might write about topics that are (more) personal. And also, recipes! Mark and I were discussing since he is now a 9-5 kind of guy, that he sort of needs a hobby after work because really, how many food and zombie shows can you watch after dinner? So we plan on bringing back recipes and will be republishing older ones from the blog. We also plan on releasing some cookie recipes from our business for paid subscriptions.
As I said to him the other day as we were brainstorming ideas, I can’t believe I’m thinking about being a content creator again! If you reached the end of this very long newsletter, you are a rock star. Brevity has never been my strong suit. See you next week!
Some shout outs!
Thank you THANK YOU to those who have upgraded to paid subscriptions. You have my undying gratitude.
I also want to thank my friend Victoria from SFGirlByBay, Lynn from The Yellow Pages, and Viktoria from With Love from Sweden for putting my newsletter on their recommendation list. I am super grateful to anyone who decides that my newsletter is worthy to share or recommend. From what I can tell about Substack, SEO isn’t great, so building your mailing list is all about old fashioned organic growth, word of mouth, and yes…marketing!
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