This article was first published on DCN.
Seems like everyone is a podcaster these days. There are millionaire teens on TikTok and it seems like every yoga instructor has a million subscribers on their YouTube channel. You see big media companies rejoicing about their fan following on Spotify, YouTube etc.
These platforms share their audience, advertising revenue, and subscriptions revenue with the original content creators. They allow publishers and creators to grow their following and create their fiefdom of anonymous fans. Most of these platforms have started accepting voluntary contributions and passing back a portion of the contribution to the creator. Twitter calls it Tipjar, YouTube calls it Applause, Twitch has Cheer, TikTok has Gifts. However, this fiefdom is limited within the walled gardens of the platform. There is absolutely no way for a publisher or creator to port over their fans to another platform or build an email relationship with the platform’s audience.
The winner-take-all dynamics are just as prevalent on these platforms. Very few pieces of original content will garner outsized views or listens, enough to justify significant monthly payouts. Having spoken to 100s of creators and media companies, we have learned that the platform payouts and terms of revenue are riddled with opaqueness. It's just like how Heinz (analogous to original content creator) does not have any control over their revenue terms with Walmart (analogous to platform). For most creators their primary source of income is actually through sponsorships; either as influencer marketing campaigns, podcast readouts, or mid-roll video placements.
In all of the above scenarios the original content creator does not own a direct relationship with the platform’s audience but rather with a non-traceable user of the platform. Some creators try to link-out from these platforms in an effort to build a direct relationship with the user and start building a reader revenue stream.
Some of the most common Link-In Bio companies like Linktree (Linktr.ee), Later (Linkin.bio) or Buy Me A Coffee provide a landing area for creators to start building a direct reader revenue relationship. On the flip side, almost all platforms curb the use of external links primarily to restrict monetization inside the walled gardens of the platform. Instagram for example does not allow web-links in posts. Creators can have only one link in their Instagram bio. In late 2017, YouTube tightened rules around videos with external links.
In the context of audio and video content, few publishers and creators have dared to branch out and go direct-to-consumer (D2C). Beyond plugging in standard advertising revenue options through various ad-networks, the D2C decision hinges on sustainable reader revenue potential. This has intensified in light of the ongoing regulatory discussion around solving for “dark patterns” or subscription traps. Globally, regulators (Federal Trade Commission in the US; Competition & Markets Authority in the UK; Reserve Bank of India in India) are revising consumer protection policies around recurring payments and mandating subscription renewal reminders with one-click cancellation options.
The Business of Engagement
This would bring mayhem for direct-to-consumer publishers and creators whose subscriber base is filled with zombie subscribers. Almost half of U.S. podcast listeners are lighter, casual users who listen to less than 3 episodes (across podcasters) in a month. This raises concern over their propensity to subscribe to a paid podcast subscription. A recent study by Northwestern University’s Spiegel Research Center shows that:
- 49% of digital subscribers do not access their paid subscriptions even once
- 54% have accessed their paid subscriptions just once in one month
Given the regulatory headwinds, it is becoming crucial for publishers to diversify reader revenue sources beyond all-you-can-eat subscriptions. One of the top five reasons subscribers cancel their subscriptions is because of the inability to consume all the content their subscription offers. So, while reader revenue is on everyone’s mind, subscription alone will not suffice. Unbundling audio and video for pay-per-content requires sophisticated technology.
Every publisher and creator with quality audio or video content starts off with piggybacking on platforms. They consider sponsorships as their main source of revenue. But the moment of truth comes when the sponsorship gravy train stops and platform revenues do not add up compared to the cost of production for quality audio and video. That’s when a clear direct-to-consumer and reader revenue strategy takes its rightful place in the limelight.