This essay was originally sent as an email newsletter on April 8, 2021 with the subject line "CT No. 76: Platform like a content professional" and a review of newsletter organizer Stoop Inbox.
The attraction and deception of the digital economy lies in how easy it is to seemingly build something out of nothing. All you need is a phone and a brain and you’re on your way to becoming a famous creator, right?
Anyone who has been through the churn of a media company or been the lone blogger at a startup knows this isn’t true, that building a digital platform isn’t some magical fever dream where an audience appears drooling at your door the second you press publish. And it’s not purely burnout-inducing, daily posting “hard work” that defines success in the digital creator economy — it’s a strong business model and an understanding of media (that’s“medium” plural, not the media industry).
Creating an online platform is so easy, even my dog can do it!
Software investments, subsidized by venture capital, tax incentives, and the promise of open source ideals, often start low-cost. You’re probably familiar with the Uber/Lyft model: get everyone to use an expensive-to-build, disruptive service for “free” or heavily discounted, sweeping the perception of the cost under the rug. Now that you’ve apped a cab to your exact location, you’ll never whistle for a speeding car again.
Content platforming software operates similarly: Build your audience with us for free! Then pay us a percentage when you start to charge them! Or make them look at ads you can barely control!
It’s not a scam; it’s a business model, and whether you want to launch a solo creator business or an enterprise content marketing operation, it’s worth deep consideration before you choose the software where you want to build your platform. Creators are building their business with the software companies they choose, and the best content businesses carefully consider who and how they are being hosted.
Digital culture makes it uncomplicated to spin up a platform — far easier than working with a printer to publish a magazine or selecting cameras and hustling for dollars to make an independent film. But once you’ve established an audience, migrating from one platform to another can be time-consuming and costly.
Why? Well, believe it or not there are some consumer protections in content distribution algorithms that guard against abuse and misinformation. Switching email providers means that you have to re-warm your IP. Toggling content management systems is an undertaking. Jumping from one platform to another means that a certain percentage of your audience just falls off, never to return.
Additionally, the more regulated the tech industry becomes, the harder it will be to just hop from one platform to another. Data management, distribution and digital storage actually isn’t as free as the heavily subsidized tech industry spent the past two decades making you believe. Hosting and serving your content to an audience takes energy and resources, and at some point you have to invest in that storage. The costs are often minimal to start out, but as your popularity grows, so does your data footprint and your management bills.
Before you choose a platform for yourself or your company, think seriously about what how you want to create, manage, distribute, maintain and monetize your content. Jumping on the easiest, most popular or cheapest/free-est platform probably isn’t your best bet.
Even when you’re itching to just press publish, spend a few hours thinking about what you want your content to be and how you want to interact with your audience. The best platform software for you is specialized, designed for specific types of businesses, and often has a community of its own.
The four most common content platform software models
Broadcast: Keep 'em watching
Do you like pontificating to a passive audience that is essentially powerless to respond? How about running advertisements that, decade after decade, your audience goes out of its way to avoid? If so, the twentieth-century broadcast media model is for you.
I’m kidding, just a little, since I broadcast. Or, at least I did until December. Content marketing is a broadcast model: show that you know what you’re talking about (thought leadership) and people will seek your services (inbound).
The more well-known broadcast business model is the one the “attention economy” thrives upon: gathering, and then selling, eyeballs. Broadcast media is free or low-cost for audiences who are willing to put up with advertisements that may be tailored to their interests (although as much as Louis Vuitton advertises on the NYT, a website I peruse every day, I’m still never going to be a customer).
Audience: As big as possible — gotta get those eyeballs, even if they’re from jerks
Revenue: Large-scale CPM advertising or none at all, with content creation written off as a marketing cost
Content: Designed to sensationalize and “tell stories” or advance a specific perspective, with the goal of keeping people on-platform for as many ads as they can stomach.
Comments: I mean, sure, people can write comments on broadcast digital outlets because it’s “great for SEO,” but it’s effective at engaging the editors or publishers as yelling at a TV.
CTA: Read, watch
Archival capabilities: Can you put ad units on it? Then, yes!
Content KPIs: Unique pageviews, and other traffic metrics, impressions, reach
Example publishing software: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, any content management system that enables easy embedding of programmatic display ads
Subscription: Nice work if you can get it
The other side of the legacy media coin, subscription, is just that: obtaining revenue directly from individuals who like what you publish. As many have discussed recently, it’s incredibly difficult to build an audience of paying subscribers from scratch, particularly if you’re not doing any original research or you're writing about consumer topics like cultural critique or tech hype.
That said, people and publications make plenty of money based solely on a subscription model. The best ones provide original reporting and perspective, and the worst ones built an audience doing those things and now just write, I guess.
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