Hunter Harris writes the newsletter “Hung Up,” which has over 80k subscribers – ranging from movie stars, publicists, writers, and generally people who generally LOVE pop culture.
She has been writing about movies and celebrity drama most of her life, most recently as a staff writer for Vulture and New York Magazine before leaving to create her own publication on Substack in November 2020.
And she’s built a rabid fanbase of over 80k subscribers in just 3 years.
Hunter still does a ton of freelance writing, getting bylines in major publications including Wall Street Journal, GQ, and New York Magazine.
The Growth Timeline
Hunter’s growth has been really impressive to research. It’s not rocketship growth, but it’s not slow either – and it’s coming from sheer love for the industry and lifestyle.
She had content/audience fit before she even started her newsletter, having written hundreds of articles on the topic.
Once she went out on her own she had over 8k subscribers follow her and join the newsletter on the first day. Since then, it’s been sustainable and steady growth over time.
How Hunter Makes Money
While there is a little bit of affiliate marketing happening in her Substack posts, and maybe a brand partnership here or there, the vast majority of her revenue comes from paid subscribers.
While you can read one post per week for free, if you want to get all of the content Hunter writes for Hung Up, along with community features, there is a cost.
You can pay either $5 per month or $50 per year, making this a low-cost resource for her followers. You can also join as a founding member, contributing $150+ to show your support.
Hunter is a very prolific writer, contributing not only to her own newsletter 2-3 times per week but also writing for major publications.
The Growth Levers
Let’s look at some of the growth levers she’s used to build her audience and newsletter to this point.
1. Complete immersion. Hunter isn’t just writing about culture and celebrities, she’s fully immersed in it. From interviewing celebs to watching a ton of TV, to reading all the news she can find that day.
2. Make your readers feel like part of a community. I have yet to see any newsletter creator pull their audience into their world like this.
3. Behind-the-Scenes content. This is my favorite, and I’m going to be thinking about this one for a while. And no, it’s not your typical “build in public” kind of content.
4. Creating content with friends. I think Hunter has invented something that looks like a YouTube collab mixed with newsletter cross promotion. You’re going to like this one.
5. Teasing the paid content. Many creators on Substack will just cut the article off halfway and say “Pay to read more”, but Hunter takes this a step further.
6. Referral program. A more tactical way she’s growing the newsletter, but an interesting one nonetheless.
1. Be Completely Immersed in Your Field
One of the things I love most about the creator space is that we’re able to fully dive into what we love doing, and make a living at the same time.
Hunter is fully living this. She watches lots of TV shows and movies, and she gets to put it all together via a medium she loves – writing.
She also writes for other publications as a freelancer – about the same topics.
You Know What’s Resonating
By fully living in the space of pop culture, Hunter is knows what’s resonating online, what people are watching, and which types of content work.
Even when she goes out to dinner, she’s immersing herself in these experiences. The conversations, the food, the chatter. It’s all a part of it. Even getting the tables at restaurants is fun for her:
She told Fletcher Peters, “it’s a game. I don’t do online betting, but my Uncut Gems is Resy notifications and getting tables.”
All of these things translate into the topics she talks about, and how she resonates with her readers.
Create Content You Enjoy
Because her life revolves around this style, topic, and ideas, she can confidently create content that she enjoys.
At least how I feel, with writing anything, really, is that if it’s funny, if it’s engaging to me, if I’m thrilled or moved by it, that’s what works. If you try to engineer for what the most amount of people will like or what will be a day after meme, it’s a recipe for disaster.Hunter Harris
She doesn’t have to think super hard or be strategic about what she is going to talk about in any given week.
If she’s interested in it, she writes about it. If not, she doesn’t.
This has allowed her to move faster and be successful at the same time.
Without stressing over whether a specific piece of content will resonate or get shared by her audience.
This is why so many people talk about how you need to be passionate about what you’re building. Otherwise, you’ll spend so much time wondering if this topic or that topic is better.
If you’re not interested in the topic, you’re not going to immerse yourself in it, and it’s going to be hard to write about.
2. Make Your Readers Feel Like They’re Part of Something
☕️ Grab a cup of coffee and settle in, because this is where it gets good.
Hunter does a fantastic job of building community vibes around her content.
She isn’t just writing, sending the content to her email list, and moving on. Here are just a few ways Hunter is turning Hung Up readers into loyal members of her community.
Early on in 2022, Hunter surveyed her audience. She said that the number 2 request on how to make the newsletter better was “more opportunities for discussions and community-building.”
She kept that in mind.
Hunter had been creating discussion posts for paying members once a month before this thread’s feature on Substack was released.
She’d create a post and everyone would interact in the comments. Hunter would be there for an hour interacting as well.
When Substack threads launched in September 2022, Hunter jumped in with both feet. This was an absolute game-changer for her.
It’s a much easier method for having these community discussions, and is more “real-time.”
Any time there is a pop-culture event, or major awards show…or when a football game breaks out at a Rihanna concert (i.e. The Super Bowl) you know where Hunter will be….in the threads.
And it’s working – these threads get wild.
Some of these threads get over 2,000 replies from her community:
Given that there is always some show launching a new season or a major celebrity event, there is no shortage of things to talk about.
Not only is this building an aspect of community for her readers, but she is building a habit around her content.
If there is a major award show, season premiere, or series finale…Hunter is going to be with you talking about it.
I don’t know if you can tell by all of my bold and italicized comments, but this fires me up.
With the old format, Hunter created these once a month.
Now, she creates these threads all the time. Lately, it’s been multiple times per week.
Her audience eats these up!
And she uses them to get her Twitter audience into her paid newsletter too:
3. Behind-the-Scenes Content
I mentioned earlier that Hunter is a very prolific writer – not only is she writing her newsletter and social content, but she also writes content for multiple publications.
Sometimes she gets to profile/interview celebrities, other times she’s writing about a specific event that happened.
As with most content, not everything makes the cut.
But she doesn’t just let that content go to waste. If it’s good enough that her readers will eat it up, she goes ahead and shares that in her newsletter.
Here’s an example for you. She had written a profile on Julia Fox for New York Magazine.
She shared a link to the article on Twitter and then shared that tweet in her newsletter (which by itself…super smart – remember Harry Dry’s content loops?)
She goes on to say how those replies were hilarious. Which made people want to click through and read those replies – probably getting her more followers on Twitter in the process.
Then, Hunter tells her readers there were some of the answers that didn’t make the article, but that were super juicy.
This content cannot be found anywhere else.
And it’s touching on one of the big question marks the pop-culture space had around Julia Fox: who wears leather pants on a beach?!
Before this post, people thought it was some weird fashion statement. Now they know the real reason.
My brain is so happy right now. This simple piece of “extra” content is marketing genius in a few ways:
- It’s exclusive – I’ve talked about this before, but having exclusive content is GOLD in the content and digital space. No one can take it from you, if they link to or mention it, they have to talk about you as well, etc.
- It gets people sharing – as a reader, if you saw this “rare” piece of an interview that no one else has, you’re almost compelled to share it with your pop-culture-loving friends because you’ll look super smart for finding it.
- She’s building loyalty with readers – “Hunter is giving me something I can’t find anywhere else.” They are much more likely to stick around because you never know what you’re going to get each week.
Hunter could have just shared a link to the main article and gone about her day. But she knew her people would love that and so she gave it to them.
The brilliance here is that she got paid to write this piece by a major publication, and she’s turning it into audience-building content for her own newsletter.
Remember how Jack Butcher talks about selling your sawdust? This is a version of that.
The Freelancing Flywheel
We’re not done here yet, because Hunter is creating a freelancing flywheel that we can’t just skip past.
Most freelance writers post an article they write on social, collect their paycheck, and move on to the next one.
But Hunter is doing something different, and I have a feeling she’s getting a bigger paycheck per article than other writers.
Remember how she shared the link to the piece on Twitter for her audience that loves that kind of content? That tweet ended up with over 3500 likes, 322 retweets, etc.
But then she shared the link to that tweet in her newsletter, which had over 50k readers who also love celebrity gossip.
And then she shared this behind-the-scenes content, creating so much FOMO for people to go read the whole article – thus driving even more traffic to the original interview.
The business of media is all about attention. By getting these additional eyeballs on that content, Hunter is setting herself apart from the pack.
This visual is oversimplified, but at the core, it makes sense.
Having your own audience to share content with is going to set you apart from other freelance writers. These publications want eyeballs, and if you can give them that you’re going to stand out.
You can bet your ass that next time they have a story that needs to be written, they’re going to remember Hunter’s articles outperformed others by a wide margin and she is going to get the job.
Can you see why I’m so excited about this one piece of content?!
4. Creating Content with Friends
Hunter is also really good at putting out different types of content. A lot of which is content she has created with friends.
Some of these aren’t even meant to be content. Like how she watches a show with a friend, and instead of sitting on a phone call during it (I guess because it’s not 1995 anymore) they have a Google Doc open and they share thoughts throughout the scenes.
It’s hilarious to read their comments, I haven’t even heard of this show but it’s just comedy by itself to read their back and forth.
If you’ve already watched the episode in question, I can only imagine how much funnier it is.
She’s done this Google Doc-type thing with other creators too.
And did you see the link to her friends Substack?
It’s like a YouTube collab meets interactive cross-promotion for newsletters. And I’m here for it.
She did something similar when Megan Thee Stallion when to court.
You don’t need to know who these people are, just that her audience is interested and the event was a big news story for this crowd.
Hunter got a well-known celebrity law expert who was covering this to do an interview with her about the whole event.
I love this because instead of just reporting on what Hunter had seen through this whole event, she brought in an expert to walk through it with.
Plus, it’s a way more interesting piece of content for her audience to read. And again, it’s exclusive.
She’s done this quite a few times and each one seems to get great engagement.
Share Other Creators Work
Hunter is not shy about sharing work from other brands and creators.
And for good reason. A lot of the links she shares are hyper-relevant to what she’s talking about.
Remember that survey she ran with her audience last year? She said the number one thing people asked for was fewer links.
But she stays true to her content format and she quite literally said “no.”
That’s a bold statement to make when your readers are literally asking you for something.
Without the links, her content would be less interactive. Sometimes, your audience will give you feedback that you have to let roll off your shoulder.
Not to mention that Hunter would be able to create the content she does because she can’t be out there photographing every celebrity and creating that news herself.
Instead of trying to keep all the eyeballs for herself, she shares the wealth. This comes back in spades as people also share her content with their audiences as well.
Between her willingness to share and the connections she’s built with writers in the industry – Hung Up has been linked to in Slate magazine, Business Insider, Elle, the New York Times, and more.
It doesn’t hurt that she’s creating content that other writers look for when they’re putting together a story.
5. Teasing the Paid Content
Okay, on to the more tactical.
The free subscribers to the Hung Up newsletter get an email every Friday recapping everything that went down throughout the week.
In these free newsletters, Hunter teases out what the paying subscribers got as a way to introduce some FOMO and get people to upgrade.
I like this a lot, and think some Substack writers can do a better job of this. We usually just see the paid posts with a lock icon in the archive list, but many writers don’t do this in such a structured way.
The repetition of this callout every Friday has got to be effective. Especially on a Friday when people are at work waiting for the weekend and looking for something to dig into.
It’s like saying “Oh hi, you’re bored? Go read this.”
Here’s another one:
People upgrade for content, but they stay for community – and she’s giving them both of these in this one post.
6. Referral Program
In June 2023, Substack launched a referral program allowing you to recommend your favorite newsletters to friends.
Creators can now offer incentives for readers to share their newsletter. Pretty cool!
Hunter seems to take advantage of all the new features Substack has, so as soon as it launched, she sent it to her email list letting them know about the new bonuses they can get for sharing Hung Up. <– That’s my referral link – see what I did there? 😉
If you share it with 3 people, you get a month free. For 5 referrals, you get 3 months free, etc.
Sure, it only costs $5 a month, but if you love the newsletter enough, that’s a great incentive to share it with others.
Even though it’s only been a few months since going live, multiple people have already started sharing with friends:
How You Can Replicate Some of Hunter’s Success 📍
Having worked at major publications for years has given her a leg up in terms of contacts and networking, but she does a lot of smart things we can learn from.
In fact, this might be the most impactful deep dive I’ve written to date. There is just so much we can learn from the way Hunter creates content.
If you want to be the top person/creator/brand in your field, you’re going to have to be hyper-aware of everything that’s going on.
Join the communities, read other newsletters, be present on social media, interact with other creators – live this stuff.
This is something I need to get better at as well. While newsletters and audience growth are something I’m constantly thinking about, I can do a better job.
Without the immersive experience, it’s going to be very hard to stand out. You have to know all of the things going on in the space.
Engage With Your Community
It’s not enough to create content anymore. You have to be engaging with your audience. There is a reason why everyone is talking about “newsletters being dead” and how the game has changed.
The barrier to entry as a creator is so low anymore. You can start a newsletter for free – all you need is a computer and internet access.
That means your level of competition just went through the roof.
But the good news is that it’s not hard to stand out.
If you think about the last time you went to a restaurant, what was your experience like? For me, after the pandemic, service levels dropped like a brick.
The waiters don’t care anymore, service is slow, and yet prices have gone up. It doesn’t leave a great taste in your mouth.
But if you are lucky enough to get a great server who pays attention and food that’s even decent, you’re going to remember that experience.
Polish the Forks
Let’s stick to the pop-culture theme here. Last week, I was watching the Hulu show The Bear. If you haven’t seen it, you’re missing out.
In one of the episodes, the main character, Carmen, sends his cousin, Richie, to work at a fine-dining restaurant for a week. Richie has a rough personality and temper, and couldn’t understand why Carmen spent so much time on minor details when they could just make burgers and some money.
Carmen knew this fine dining experience would change the way Richie thought about restaurants and why service was so important.
Richie shows up at this nice restaurant at 6 am and is told that his job is to polish forks the entire day. Not all the silverware – just the forks.
He was pissed. Why am I wasting my time polishing forks?!
The next day he comes back and they give him the same job.
Again, he’s frustrated. What is the point of all of this?!
And then he asks the people who work there why in the world they go to such extremes.
“Every day here is the freakin’ Superbowl,” the one guy tells him.
This isn’t just a place that serves food. It’s a place where they focus on making sure even the little details are taken care of so their guests can have a life-changing experience.
Of course, the staff goes above and beyond these details, but they know that even having a spot on the fork is something that could derail the experience.
So, they polish the forks.
As a creator, if you set out to create the best experience you can for your readers, you’re going to stand out.
Go above and beyond the typical creator who just tries to check a box each week by sending some mediocre content.
Write the content other creators aren’t willing to spend the time on. Care about the experience of the people you’re writing for. Engage with your audience in a way that stands out.
People remember those experiences more than the hundred other emails they got that week. They’ll come back to your newsletter. They’ll tell people about it.
And more importantly, they’ll become fans of what you’re doing.
Polish the forks.