The years of the great unbundling.
In recent years, the creator economy has triggered a “great unbundling” in media: content creators of all types and genres have left their full-time jobs to go solo and sell their talents and knowledge directly to readers, viewers and fans.
Artists once devoted to social media as their main digital stage also took some of their followers with them to join their Patreon pages, their Memberful sites or watch their online gigs as paying subscribers or patrons.
Teachers, coaches and trainers have set up their digital courses and charged students directly. Journalists have left newsrooms to sell newsletters and podcasts to consumers or to work as independent business journalists.
The creator economy paradigm rewards independence and individuality: it lures content makers and skillful professionals with the promise to be in total control of their intellect, their work, and their relationship with customers. The full promise sounds like this: convert your 1,000 true fans into payers (Kevin Kelly, 2008) and you will make a decent living out of it.
We experience now the first signs of an opposite movement.
After the unbundling, a new “re-bundling” trend has started.
The great re-bundling has started. Or not?
It started with writers collectives like Every or The Fix Media. Then, other pools of experts joined forces to serve the same customers and with journalists creating their peer-to-peer newsrooms for serving local audiences where traditional media struggled to survive.
More recently, legacy media offered creators a new home:
- In February 2021, Forbes launched a newsletter platform for journalists to launch their own paid newsletters with a 50/50 revenue split with the publisher. The value proposition: Forbes takes care of marketing and audience development and gives publishers access to editorial resources (e.g. image rights, access to sources, legal support), whereas writers adhere to Forbes editorial standards.
- Later, The New York Times did something similar with selected prominent names like Kara Swisher.
- November 2021 has been the turn of The Atlantic: it launched a newsletter program to bring writers under its umbrella while retaining their authorial independence. The goal for the Atlantic is to attract more paying subscribers, enough to ensure the company to be profitable by 2022. The names contracted by The Atlantic are popular in North America; some of them used to have their Substack Newsletters or standalone pages. As contributing editors, exclusivity agreements will not bind them but only by adherence to a degree of editorial compliance.
- Social media platforms have been moving, too: Twitter has launched in September 2021 the Super Follow feature, allowing creators to promote and sell their subscriptions directly from Twitter. Facebook, with Bulletin, is trying something similar, with questionable perspectives: for a platform whose algorithm privileges mainstream content and polarizing opinions, most newsletters and podcasts stay at the opposite of the Facebook model – focusing on niches, long reads, and deep dives. We experience now the first signs of an opposite movement. After the unbundling, a new “re-bundling” trend has started.
➡️ Someone says: it is a matter of time until creators will come back under the umbrella of some big publishers or big tech platforms. The result will be a two-class creators society: the many swimming alone in the internet’s sea, the few with a privileged status and backed by the platforms they abandoned before.
⬅️ Some others argue: this is only the beginning of an innovation phase where creators will reinvent the publishing organizations, challenging traditional publishers and platforms, and creator platforms will evolve to become more than creation/monetization tools, helping creators also to market their content.
To understand what is ahead of us, we need to consider the root causes of the re-bundling. They are simple to describe, not so simple to solve.
Re-bundling is not the end of the creator economy.
Re-bundling comes not as a surprise, nor it is the beginning of the end of the creator economy. It is more of a response to problems that affect almost all creators once they go solo.
The freedom of creators comes at a price: to create content might be easy, to market content is a hard job.
The most famous examples of writers and podcasters that accumulated several six-digit revenues were already digital stars: they had many thousands of followers on Twitter or hundred thousand readers on their old news outlets.
The harsh reality for the others is that it is hard to get to the 1,000 loyal fans: audience development, funnel marketing is as much important, in the subscription economy, as the content itself. For traditional publishers, too, it is still a steep path to the transformation from an advertising-based business to a subscription business. Why should it be different for creators?
The issues are multiple:
- To find and to be found: creators need to re-learn the lessons of SEO. They need to look for platforms that help to position on search engines. Many creator platforms do not do a good job. Take Substack, for instance: to optimise your newsletter landing page for Google is not that easy. The Substack platform was not born for that.
- To expose potential subscribers to the right messages at the right time: call it “funnel marketing” or “lead nurturing”. That is a job for newsroom professionals: digital marketers, audience development managers, subscription managers. The solutions are two-folded: creator platforms CRM needs to work better, and creators need to adopt a marketer mindset.
- Fragmentation, without aggregation, is a dark forest where finding your path is difficult. How can customers discover you beyond pure word of mouth? How can you showcase your content in front of the right audience and customer groups? The creator economy is so vast – almost everybody can define themselves as creators – that discovery is becoming one of the most critical issues to solve.
- Time is limited, and the consumer wallet, too. It makes no sense to talk about “subscription fatigue” yet. But if you only publish a very vertical newsletter, or a podcast, is that enough to convince someone to subscribe to you (and then to other ten different newsletters and podcasts?). Bundling is a way to get to a critical mass of things people would pay (at once, for convenience). Bundling is a marketing strategy as old as the publishing industry. Magazines are bundles. Bundles subscriptions are nothing new.
- Social media was a frenemy, and it still is. Many creators came from social, and many were unhappy with them. Still, without social, you cannot develop an audience. Big platforms give you access to vast audiences and distribution, but there you are as commodities. Creators still need to leverage the distribution of big platforms, without – here it comes the hard part – adhering with the laws of the algorithm: doing the content they believe in, not the headlines for click-baiting.
- What about news aggregators like Flipboard or Google News? With few exceptions, news aggregators do not fit creators: these platforms need to go mainstream and put the big editorial titles at the centre of their strategies – their models need millions of subscribers and fast growth paths. The word “news” itself is limited: in most cases, news aggregators produce feeds that need more frequent and hard news than sophisticated editorial products.
What´s next? Scenarios and a call for innovators.
There is no one solution to all those issues, but I see some scenarios and some opportunities ahead of us:
- Creator platforms better support creators in customer acquisition. They can add services to their current offerings: SEO, paid promotion, funnel management.. that would be like what many SaaS solutions do for business customers: companies can buy the tool or add on top the consulting service as a “premium” offer.
- Creator platforms specialize in specific verticals – e.g. yoga teachers, arts, business writing -: they become aggregators and discovery platforms for some consumer segments. With online learning and classes, this is already happening. The next step would be to focus on some editorial domains and add publishing capabilities, although with less control on the editorial offer.
- (Big) Publishers take a step further than Forbes and The Atlantic and integrate with creator platforms (buy one of them like Twitter did with Revue?) to put together the tools and the skills that can maximize the incentive for creators to work under a publisher umbrella.
- A fourth scenario is to develop new players in the creator economy ecosystem, whose mission would be to enhance content discovery. A new aggregator type, with some elements of a news aggregator and some as a subscription platform, can use intelligent search and presentation to help consumers discover the content of interest and easily subscribe to content bundles.
A new type of aggregator for independent creators.
These aggregators would deliver convenience to consumers, audience development for creators, plus an entry point to monetizing customers.
Why am I fond of this scenario?
Why do I advocate for it?
- Reason 1. Creators´ content discovery is now the biggest issue for both sides, creators and consumers. Google alone is not enough; social media is more and more unfit. A two-sided editorial platform would help both sides to meet.
- Reason 2. We can monetize larger portfolios in many ways. Accumulating paying recurring subscribers is the goal of almost all creators aiming to set up a sustainable content business, but advertising can still play a role. A vertical creator discovery and aggregation platform would sell contextual advertising based on topical interests (tags pages); could promote topical sponsorships. Plus, an aggregated offer can get paying subscribers in a higher order of magnitude: getting revenue shares from a super-subscription could be financially as rewarding and quicker to achieve than going solo.
- Reason 3. Convenience still matters. We love our content platforms – Spotify, Netflix, Google Podcasts – because they make it easy to find, follow and save for later stuff. We can add lists, playlists, or download things automatically or receive reminders and push notifications.
- Newsletter subscribers have a hard life currently. Unless you are super-organized, a time comes when eventually you cannot manage your mail inbox anymore. Or, you have too many links in your browser.
- A well-functioning container for original content coming from independent creators is missing. The creator ecosystem has focused a lot on providing creators with tools to make their lives easier. It did not focus enough on making easier content discovery and consumption for the audience.
It is time to develop a discovery platform that helps the creator economy thrive and helps consumers find better alternatives than social media. A platform that enhances the lives of passionate content consumers like me with
meaningful content, original voices and innovative formats.
The attention economy grew thanks to its ability to deliver convenience. Yet, it failed at delivering meaning and treating users with respect. The creator economy has the chance to fix this, to serve better content to people craving for that.
That is my call for innovators and product engineers.
Can we develop a new solution for helping creators meet audiences?