Going solo is still only a path for the few

“How inclusive can we expect media to be if the only people who can make the jump to solo are the ones who’ve built a large following while working a corporate job with a big media company?”

Like the rings of a tree, we can look back at certain points as important markers in time, the beginning or end of certain trend lines in how media companies make money. There were the years of pinning everything to social traffic and Facebook’s subsequent algorithm changes that so affected many a publisher’s fortunes. The much-discussed pivot to video (about which enough has been written, so I’ll leave it at that). The last couple of years have marked the rise of the solo media entrepreneur. (Of course, some early participants have been there longer; any revolution needs a vanguard.)

This trend is predicated on the notion that the subscription economy can be viable and sound at a scale well below media giants or Netflix. “You don’t need 100,000 fickle followers,” it’s often framed. “You need a thousand real supporters who pay you $5 a month.”

But getting that thousand paid subscribers (month in, month out, churn included) is a true battle for all but the most established writers. Getting even a hundred is too. When a famous journalist walks away from their prominent employer to go solo, we forget that they have essentially been building the top of their funnels for years, to speak the language of a marketer.

What does it mean to start from zero in 2021? What does it mean to have a particular domain of expertise or passion, and say: “I’m going to write — or podcast, or vlog — about this, and it will be my business”?

Let me count the obstacles. Want to broaden the discovery of your content and post it to more platforms? You’ll quickly realize the vast array of tools you’ll have to bring into play — disparate platforms that want nothing to do with each other, rigged on the best of days by Zapier and a song.

Get ready for a crash course on Google or Facebook ad campaigns. And understanding the performance of your referral program. And realizing that to build a slightly interesting referral program, you’ll probably need to go rig yet another service to your publishing platform.

Meanwhile, of course, these are journalists and other content creators we’re talking about. Their passion or talent is usually in the gathering of information and communicating it back helpfully to an audience.

And those are only the technical obstacles. One large business obstacle remains that the “pivot to subscription” leaves out various areas of content where subscriptions aren’t yet as well-received. That includes lifestyle content — anything from fashion to green living to gadgets and parenting — as well as content aimed at younger audiences and economically underprivileged groups. Consider that Condé Nast is still trying to figure out the subscriptions space for many of its lifestyle publications — and it’s Condé Nast!

What does it mean to enable a solo media entrepreneur but to give her no realistically accessible ways to monetize her content until, years later, if all’s gone well, she’s gained enough scale that brand partnerships open up to her? How inclusive can we expect media to be if the only people who can make the jump to solo are the ones who’ve built a large following while working a corporate job with a big media company? We know how many blocks are in front of that latter path.

Where established media figures — to say nothing of large media companies — have spent years carving their paths of discovery, amplification, and brand recognition, they have the scale that makes a subscription business viable. But when we declare this a viable pathway for the solo media entrepreneur, we gloss over how much getting that first direct-paid 1,000 supporters is an uphill fight.

As the space of solo media entrepreneur publishing matures, in 2021 and beyond, it will do so by balancing its ecosystem with more streamlined, integrated toolboxes, with revenue generation and diversification more available in its earliest days.

Ariane Bernard is founder of Helio.

Like the rings of a tree, we can look back at certain points as important markers in time, the beginning or end of certain trend lines in how media companies make money. There were the years of pinning everything to social traffic and Facebook’s subsequent algorithm changes that so affected many a publisher’s fortunes. The much-discussed pivot to video (about which enough has been written, so I’ll leave it at that). The last couple of years have marked the rise of the solo media entrepreneur. (Of course, some early participants have been there longer; any revolution needs a vanguard.)

This trend is predicated on the notion that the subscription economy can be viable and sound at a scale well below media giants or Netflix. “You don’t need 100,000 fickle followers,” it’s often framed. “You need a thousand real supporters who pay you $5 a month.”

But getting that thousand paid subscribers (month in, month out, churn included) is a true battle for all but the most established writers. Getting even a hundred is too. When a famous journalist walks away from their prominent employer to go solo, we forget that they have essentially been building the top of their funnels for years, to speak the language of a marketer.

What does it mean to start from zero in 2021? What does it mean to have a particular domain of expertise or passion, and say: “I’m going to write — or podcast, or vlog — about this, and it will be my business”?

Let me count the obstacles. Want to broaden the discovery of your content and post it to more platforms? You’ll quickly realize the vast array of tools you’ll have to bring into play — disparate platforms that want nothing to do with each other, rigged on the best of days by Zapier and a song.

Get ready for a crash course on Google or Facebook ad campaigns. And understanding the performance of your referral program. And realizing that to build a slightly interesting referral program, you’ll probably need to go rig yet another service to your publishing platform.

Meanwhile, of course, these are journalists and other content creators we’re talking about. Their passion or talent is usually in the gathering of information and communicating it back helpfully to an audience.

And those are only the technical obstacles. One large business obstacle remains that the “pivot to subscription” leaves out various areas of content where subscriptions aren’t yet as well-received. That includes lifestyle content — anything from fashion to green living to gadgets and parenting — as well as content aimed at younger audiences and economically underprivileged groups. Consider that Condé Nast is still trying to figure out the subscriptions space for many of its lifestyle publications — and it’s Condé Nast!

What does it mean to enable a solo media entrepreneur but to give her no realistically accessible ways to monetize her content until, years later, if all’s gone well, she’s gained enough scale that brand partnerships open up to her? How inclusive can we expect media to be if the only people who can make the jump to solo are the ones who’ve built a large following while working a corporate job with a big media company? We know how many blocks are in front of that latter path.

Where established media figures — to say nothing of large media companies — have spent years carving their paths of discovery, amplification, and brand recognition, they have the scale that makes a subscription business viable. But when we declare this a viable pathway for the solo media entrepreneur, we gloss over how much getting that first direct-paid 1,000 supporters is an uphill fight.

As the space of solo media entrepreneur publishing matures, in 2021 and beyond, it will do so by balancing its ecosystem with more streamlined, integrated toolboxes, with revenue generation and diversification more available in its earliest days.

Ariane Bernard is founder of Helio.

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