A Moment of Clarity In the Business of Content Creation
Who Is This For?
- Content creators (i.e., anyone using social media to make money). People like Greg Isenberg and Peter Yang have asked, how can the average content creator make more money? It’s a real problem—TikTok influencers are trying to forecast their reach/engagement projections to make Christmas (exhibits 1 and 2.) Spotify decided a stream was worth $0.006 to $0.0084 per play. Nobody has a practical answer, so here’s mine. (Note: I hate the words content creator, but that seems to be what we’re all going with. So I’ll use it, but will be kicking and screaming!)
- Consumers and buyers. If you want independent creators to survive—or maybe even thrive—you need to support them with your dollars. Don’t pay homage or lip service… pay money! Each dollar you spend with them directly is much more supportive than the dollar you spend at a platform—here’s why.
- Art critics and organizers. I love and hate William Deresiewicz’s The Death of the Artist, but technology and the free market organizes people’s collective actions. We need to collectively stand up and organize ourselves to counterbalance it.
TL;DR: Platforms’ business models lead them to price creative work like sweatshops price manufacturing. This is why for the cost of an album per month, platforms like Spotify can give customers—like you—access to millions of songs. The main problem is on the supplier side—also you—when content creators rely on platforms for all aspects of their marketing, which includes their earnings. The solution is to take it all back, one marketing aspect at a time. This piece explores why and how.
In 2013, I got to work with one of my favourite recording artists and leading thinkers in technology—Ryan Leslie. It was a few months after Ryan announced he would not publish his new music at iTunes or Spotify. Instead…
In order to buy Ryan’s new album, you had to text his phone to get a purchase link. The outcome was Ryan sold a fraction of the albums he used to, but made exponentially more money. Altogether, is album sales and tour tickets made him $2 million. All by cutting out the intermediary. I believe I watched Ryan tell this story in an interview, but if not then it’s my fault:
Imagine a young musician who had 3,000 or so Twitter followers. Let’s say the musician DMed each of the followers, telling them he had a concert and a ticket was $25. If even just 1% bought tickets (and usually people don’t go to concerts alone), he’d have made $750. Since we’re in a pandemic, substitute concert with livestream and digital recording. That’s the equivalent to 90,000–125,000 streams, which seems difficult for the same musician to do with 3,000 Twitter followers.
The question is basically the latest in an age-old problem—how do we get people to pay for creative work? In an age where cheesesteaks are $4, one place sells it for $120. Nipsey Hussle sold $1,000 mixtapes—hell, Wu-Tang sold a $2 million record. Or a Twitter power user can make $100,000 off a video recorded on a laptop that he took a few days to make; another can make six figures on iOS icons. Forget the streams and the engagement—that’s how people make money!
In each of those situations, from Wu-Tang to the hypothetical young musician, the content creator could make more money because they controlled their marketing.
How Platforms Control Your Marketing
Money is supposed to be a signal for value. But what’s valuable to me might not be valuable to you. That’s why marketplaces existed in their most fundamental physical forms in the first place.
For example, if I was selling a book for $50 and you wanted to buy it for $40, we can talk at my shop. If you wanted to buy a page for $0.01, I could say no. If nobody came into my shop, then I’d have to figure out who would find my book valuable enough to pay $50, and set up my shop (and announce the location) to appeal to them. Or, I’d need to lower the price and see how they responded.
Let’s apply that analogy to the internet. Platforms embody the marketplace idea, promising to provide you with free rent (a place to host your stuff), conveniences (connecting with friends, technology to accelerate and simplify the creative process), and fun (dopamine hits off Likes, communication with GIFs, etc.).
In exchange, an unwritten part of the bargain: they control four marketing elements:
The biggest problem the average content creator faces right now is they have outsourced these four marketing elements to platforms. For the average content creator, a platform controls everything. Here’s how:
A content creator’s content is their product—articles, paintings, photos, apps, and such. A platform’s algorithms, incentives, and rules dictate the product. The content creator needs to make things that they believe will get vitality or engagement on the product. Otherwise, they won’t get the reach they need to make money.
When this happens, content tends to converge—and everything looks and sounds the same, despite being from different people. Content thus becomes a commodity. If you’re a content creator, you also need to closely follow the platform’s rules—if you don’t, you run the risk of them demonetizing your product or removing it, sometimes disconnecting you from your audience altogether.
This is death—a content creator’s competitive edge should be their style and thought process. People buy Van Gogh because the content is something only Van Gogh could make—he represents something different, unique, and interesting. People will not buy Van Gogh knock-offs for the same price.
If you’re a content creator uploading your content to a platform, you don’t get to control who it reaches, nor even where it lives on the Internet.
Consider Vine—the moment the service went down, so did years of creators’ content. This has happened with MySpace, and is at risk of happening again with TikTok. In other words, longevity is a gamble.
The platform pays you what they report your content earns. Your rates are tied to engagement, which is never guaranteed. For example, if you’re on Quora, you might’ve seen earnings drop. Oh, and even if you get paid, you can also get kicked out for no reason.
I once heard a writer describe self-publishing at Medium like working for a client; I would agree, but only to add that the client was constantly switching their opinion on what they thought, and paying a penny of the value you created. (As the editorial director of Wonder Shuttle, I’ve done my fair share of client work.)
The algorithm or an editorial team controls how many people you reach. If an algorithm is constantly changing, as many platforms do, so is keeping up with it. This can become a significant part of your job as a content creator—it can even brew a cottage industry (search engine optimization for Google is the most extreme example).
Even more unreasonably, the average content creator also doesn’t get to reach all of the followers they’ve earned unless the algorithm enables them to. Facebook’s decline in organic reach is an example of this. You don’t even get to talk to each of your followers—even if you manually take the time to message each follower, a platform will prevent you from talking to more than a couple of hundred of your followers. You are automatically, and unfairly, categorized as a spammer.
There’s undoubtedly a lot more nuance, and I could write up a whole essay on each section. (Maybe I will!)
Why Platforms Pay so Poorly
The average content creator needs to see each piece of their work as an asset—one that can disappear at a moment if it’s only stored at a platform—and also as art. If Marcel Duchamp’s toilet can be art, so can content, if you have the audacity to declare it.
If it’s not clear yet, I really have no intention of knocking platforms. I love watching Netflix for $12 per month… less so for $20, but I’ll make due. I think Medium’s $5 all you can read is an incredible deal, and I’m glad readers can access writing and writers can make some money off it. But it’s not enough money for them to sustain an entire living.
You need to take back your marketing. And it only takes one move to take back three of the marketing aspects. Make a product, price it, and place it where you can sell it and own the data.
How I Took Back My Own Marketing
When I spent more time writing this year, I knew that writing exclusively at Medium wasn’t going to work for me. The platform wasn’t incentivizing long-form content at the time, and I wouldn’t be able to write fast enough to feed the algorithm. Plus, many of the 10,000+ followers I’d accumulated over seven years weren’t active at Medium anymore. What a shame!
Fortunately, I knew what I learned from Ryan Leslie. So I made time to write a book. If I had less time, I could’ve just strung together an essay collection and tried selling that (at a lower price). I leveraged the relationships I built through Medium’s publications, and promoted the book there at Forge. I also promoted it at my own social media platforms, LinkedIn and Facebook… where nearly all of my first $1,000 came from. (Again, platforms are great for promotion!)
I now have a list of over 50 people who have paid $29.99 for an ebook (less for pre-orders), some of whom have told me that they’d buy anything else I made. They like my products. They trust me. If I ever wanted to release another book, I would be able to reach out to them for support.
That’s the idea—create something worth paying for, host it and own the data, and promote it through platforms. This is tough the first couple of times, and even the best fail.
- The most important thing is to place your content somewhere which provides you with customer data, and allows you to export it—like Gumroad or Shopify. Try Ryan Leslie’s Superphone or Mailchimp. (e.g., not Amazon, Twitter, Instagram, etc.)
- If you’re thinking about a product and want to see how many people will order it, set up a pre-order page and promote it first—all you need to do is write the descriptions, maybe upload a prototype or a mockup screenshot. Talk to your friends about it; see if they share it or if they just politely buy (or don’t buy!). Talk to your potential audience about it, see if they would put a credit card down for it.
- Start downloading every single piece of content to your own storage. Download each video you film to your iPhone. Download each article to a text file or Word document. Organize it. Build the habit. Eventually, extend this habit to all of the content you’ve uploaded before if possible.
- Record your process. How you do something might be valuable to someone. I started filming my own writing process using QuickTime (and then Screenflow) whenever I had storage.
Platforms are still great for promotion. This is what they’ve always promised—so promote there. Take back everything else for yourself, and offer your audience another way to support you. One in which you have control of the price, placement, and product.