Opening Super Followers' Wallets

Talent's new opportunity for subscriptions

My mind is still pretty pre-occupied with thoughts about content, talent and subscription. I think this is a combination of Apple/Spotify’s upcoming subscription podcast thing, a really interesting post on ‘Sovereign Writers’ from Ben Thompson and some questions I was asked about this newsletter by Simon Owens on his Creator Collab Substack.

Talent has always been something that’s in-demand by media owners. Investing in talent generally comes from either supporting someone up and coming (and incurring the cost of money and time to get them where you want them to be) or by paying more for someone that has something that you would like. The general business analysis is whether that investment gives a better return than if you continue with an existing operation.

I’d probably argue that media operations (like all jobs) also have a lot of people who fulfil a function that other people, with some training, could also do. Not talentless, but not often part of the talent equation.

To be successful, media needs to be solving a problem for a consumer (informing, entertaining, educating being three that jump to mind) but they also require attention. Talent creating high value/visibility programming is often an essential part in generating that attention.

Over on the talent side, there’s a few things that are considered before an offer is taken up. Firstly, money vs freedom tends to be pretty core, but also important is how the role supports the talent’s career. This might be prestige or visibility, marketing or helping them go into a new area of interest. It’s sort of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs with a side-order of ego satisfying.

For talent, new platforms provide new opportunities and the competition between them puts talent in a strong position. However there’s a limit to what talent can achieve on their own. For their own growth it’s been essential that they’re part of a media platform so they can keep reaching new audiences. To maintain their value, talent needs to constantly grow and renew their relationship with fans. Without continuing interest their value from broadcasters can decline.

The tension between talent and broadcasters/publishers is often because collective success is misaligned. Businesses often invest in talent hoping to deliver disproportionate return on investment and generate super profits or to re-point interest that a talent generates into broader interest in the brand. The talent only gets to re-visit this value exchange at contract negotiation time. This can then result in a greater tax on the broadcaster/publisher or a re-assessment for the talent if the publisher/broadcaster hasn’t been able to deliver on that return on investment (or fear it will come to an end soon).

Whilst measuring value is perhaps easier for the breakfast show jock or star columnist, it’s more difficult for the specialist presenter, or section editor.

The middle-ranker hasn’t historically had the pull of the star and this has resulted in a more limited range of opportunities. The money/reach of a broadcaster/publisher has meant the power has generally stayed with the media company.

Substack, often used as a shorthand for paid newsletters, has provided an opportunity for many writers to choose a different direction for their talent. Both columnists and specialists who’ve created an audience only need a small proportion of those to pay to subscribe to solve the money issue for a writer.

A fiver a month, less 15% for transaction costs nets around £4.25. 2,000 subs and you’re doing £100k a year.

Is there more security or less going for a full-time journalist at The Times to owning your own subscriber-base and freeing you from editorial control? Of course, you need to be able to reach an audience. You need to be able to generate enough interest to maintain your subscriber base.

A lot of successful Substackers have been writers with a decent Twitter following. That number is a useful proxy for popularity. But also social media success shows that a content creator is able to engage and interest an audience. Not a bad place to start when trying to build a subscription business.

Twitter itself has been thinking along these lines and in a recent analyst day it talked about its own new and acquired products. It’s just bought Revue, a newsletter service that’s similar to Substack. It’s also talked about Super Followers, a feature that allows Twitter users to take subscription payments from followers to give them new benefits. This could be a newsletter, or protected tweets, or subscriber-only access to Spaces (its version of Clubhouse).

For someone with a following on Twitter, this is definitely a lower friction version of the Substack model, combined with what Patreon has found success with.

Patreon, the voluntary subscription model, monetises fan interest and rewards with perks - nice to have extras. These perks, granted based on your payment level, do work to encourage sign-ups, but there’s also a large proportion of Patreon supporters who are just that - supporters. They’re giving money to support a creator, it’s the content they already provide that they see as the value.

Someone who runs a Patreon told me the merch they bought for their level is sitting at home because many of their Patreon subscribers can’t even be bothered to send a postal address over.

The Twitter Super Followers model is one where the product is a hybrid of perks and the content they’re used to receiving. The user can also keep growing their fan base by balancing the free content, and that they make available behind the pay wall.

Facebook also seem to be building their own product around Facebook Pages that does a similar thing too.

In the audio space there’s no specific podcast functionality flagged in Twitter’s new feature, though Spaces allows individuals to host live audio moments. I think it’s hard to do a regular radio show on Spaces - there are many better ways to deliver that to consumers, hello podcasts - but having specials on pay-walled Spaces certainly opens up opportunities.

With Twitter combining Free and Fee in a well-used app, it’s the closest talent can come to having the best of all worlds - money, control and audience reach.

For broadcasters and publishers, there needs to be more thought put into the talent/media relationship. How is it best to align both sides’ needs? Talent’s social media success was previously seen as a positive brand halo. With those platforms providing new models, should media and talent work together to set out how they can use all the tools at both their disposal to help shared aims and goals?

Media has a lot of skill in audience growth and digital strategy. For talent, maybe that’s going to be as valuable as having the number one radio station in the past? Are there opportunities for large media companies to build platforms that allow talent to monetise more directly their own success? Perhaps subscribing to a news columnist in a newspaper app should share revenue with the columnist? Maybe a DJ’s podcast should be a rev-shared in-app purchase. I think building these recurring revenue streams is more likely to let you keep hold of someone than gambling at a contract renewal every few years.

The internet has always been the great destroyer of legacy business models based on monopolies. For media and publishers, there’s probably a limited time to think about new ways of working with specialist talent, because direct routes to audiences are starting to proliferate.

For mid-level talent, the key danger is not being able to participate in the new opportunities that these platforms provide. The more generalist and beige you are, the less of a chance you’ll have to participate in these new opportunities. What do you have to offer a super follower?


I’ve been all over the place this week. So, if you want even more Matt (Super Follower subscription not required)…

  • I was a guest with Jane Garvey on The Media Podcast where we talked BBC re-location, Facebook and Australia, the Society of Editor and Megan and Hazzer. Listen.

  • As no-one from Radio 2 wanted to natter, I also popped up on Radio 4’s Feedback to talk about how R2 are changing the demographics they target. Listen.

  • You can read my one line quote in the New York Times. I won’t spoil it for you. The piece is a pretty good roundup of the UK podcasting scene.

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