The audience grows the creator, part 1

Better products and bold experiments towards incentivizing investment from a creator's best friend

Recently I was part of the OnDeck writer’s fellowship, and something struck me as odd. Out of the 200 writers who participated in the 10 week program, 63% of us said our primary goal was to “grow my audience.” But in workshops led by tens of successful writers from Tyler Cowen to Nathan Baschez to Lenny Rachitsky, the same story came up over and over again: they wrote great content, pushed to build some initial traction, and then hit a point where the audience started growing on its own. For most of them, there was some initial inflection point where influential audience members found them and hoisted them out of the shadows and onto the stage.

It got me thinking - who is really doing the growing here? Lenny Rachitsky’s audience is certainly growing, but he’s not alone out there in the virtual fields tilling the land and sowing the seeds. Of course there’s important and time-intensive growth work done by modern creators: securing guests posts and cultivating relationships and so on. But virality within the audience members reigns supreme as a growth channel in the rise of the creator, and that means the audience is in control. So perhaps we should have all listed as our primary motivation “be grown by my audience” instead.

All across the online world, the role of the audience is changing. Consider the trends from the audience’s point of view. They can connect with the creators they love and grow them virally in return for social status via platforms like Instagram and Twitter. They can build direct relationships (including financial support) with creators they love via Substack, Patreon, OnlyFans etc to allow those creators to maintain the unique voice they value. And as they build richer relationships and continue to invest in the creators they love, community management tools like Discord, Circle, Slack and others ensure that those investments can grow and thrive. 

All of these things mean audience members have more control in which creators will be successful. Smart creators see their audience as collaborators, and tools to incentivize different types of investment from audience members will continue to proliferate. Patronage and growth will still be the dominant forms of investment, but the most attractive investments come from audience members who are themselves creators or influencers. Some of those exchanges are already being coordinated essentially as audience swaps via new programs like OnDeck or HypeHouse. But financial tools and other more explicit contracts can add security and trust to exchanges where a select few audience members want to share in both the risk and the potential long-term success of the creators they believe in. “Owning stock” in a creator, if you will.

The point is not that all creators will soon be sharing portions of their future earnings, or creating their own currencies to reward their community with ownership in exchange for further investment. But some will, and some already are. And rather than living in theory-land, over a series of posts I want to show you where this is already happening, with specific examples and some breakdowns of the products that are emerging as the frontrunners. As I release them, I’ll update the links here. Most of these pieces are in progress and I have some surprise guests to share but this is also a call to any experts who want me to fill in the details. Subscribe to follow along, and please share if you know someone who might be interested or willing to contribute as we go.

My intentions for digging in on this specific area are twofold. First, I’m a product person and a creator myself, and I think not enough is being written from the audience’s perspective about the specific way red-hot products in the creator economy are being built. The second reason is that I’m a scientist and my “day job” is working at ResearchGate, what I think is the most important company in the rapidly changing world of scientific publishing. What most people don’t know is that the business model of academic publishing is flipping on its head; the move online has meant publishers can no longer retain their old business model of charging for distribution and access. There’s a lot science can learn from the digitally-native creator economy to better align incentives for scientists, and by digging in I hope to expose some of those learnings. But scientists have also been creating publicly visible knowledge for centuries, and experimenting with paywalls and subscriptions for decades; it’s a rich well of insight for what can otherwise feel like uncharted terrain for creators.