August 20, 2021
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OnlyFans Change Is Reminder To Own Platform

I launched A Media Operator on August 9, 2019, which means that we’re a little over two years old. Some of you have been with me since the start, so thank you for that.

For the first time in my professional, online publishing career, I launched on a platform. I wrote, edited (loosely), and published the first issue on the same day that I set up my Substack. Nothing had ever been easier in my professional life.

It was unbelievable. I understood very quickly why so many writers were flocking to Substack. The ease of spinning up was unparalleled. Admittedly, it remains unparalleled. But from day one, I had a nagging irritation with the fact that I was running my newsletter on someone else’s platform.

Building on someone else’s platform is like having a landlord. You are renting exposure to another entity’s audience rather than owning your own audience relationship. It’s a great opportunity when things are going well for you; but what happens when the rug is pulled out from under your feet? What do you do when the platform shuts you down?

This is something that creators on OnlyFans learned all too easily on Thursday. According to The New York Times:

OnlyFans, a social media platform where users can sell subscription access to content, said on Thursday that it would ban sexually explicit imagery starting in October.

The company said in a statement that it would block users from posting explicit photos and videos at the request of its “banking partners and payout providers.” OnlyFans said it would still allow people to post imagery containing nudity that complied with its guidelines.

“In order to ensure the long-term sustainability of the platform,” the company said, “we must evolve our content guidelines.”

Many solo creators built their livelihoods on OnlyFans. Two million creators have collectively earned more than $4.5 billion over the past five years, according to The Times. And obviously, not all of those creators are “sexually explicit,” but the tune has changed. Originally, OnlyFans distributed one kind of content, but come October, it’ll be something different. And if the BBC’s investigation is true, there are a lot more issues to be had with OnlyFans that this change will likely not matter for the business’ lasting.

In scenarios like this, the creator is left without any recourse. The first piece of feedback someone might give is that the creator should just launch on another platform, jumping from platform to platform as this happens. But the problem with this feedback is that they have to start over.

Think about it… Who owns the credit card processing? In this case, OnlyFans does. Therefore, creators need to get people to sign up, input their credit cards, and get the renewal started all over again. What percentage of people are going to follow?

This isn’t just poking at OnlyFans, though they are the culprit of this piece. The same can be said for any platform where the content—and business model—are controlled by anyone other than the individual. That could be Patreon, Twitch, YouTube, OnlyFans, Facebook and the list goes on.

When you are building your business on someone else’s land, you always run the risk of losing. One day, the landlord decides to get rid of you for whatever reason.

It helps to understand the two, broad categories of platforms.

The first type of platform is like what I described above. They own everything and the money that comes to you is ultimately at their discretion. Even if you’re doing product placement within a video on YouTube (so bypassing their sales team entirely), you still depend on YouTube for distribution, which ultimately dictates whether or not you can have a business. Twitter also fits into this category (even though I find it to be one of the looser platforms out there).

The second type of platform allows you to own your monetization. For the newsletter writer, that’s owning their list and, just as importantly, owning the payment processing. Substack, for example, is a platform that gives you both of these options. When I left Substack, I took my list and my paying subscribers (I only lost one, who for some reason was upset I had chosen Pico).

While I am not a proponent of building on either of these types of platforms in the long run because they could still shut you down for content reasons, the second type at least gives you ownership over the audience in a much more direct way.

Some might say that this is an edge case and that it’s unsurprising that OnlyFans is finally making this move. But as more platforms try to police their content using technology or overworked, low-paid employees, it only takes one mistake and your entire content operation could be shut down. I’ve seen this done in crypto, cannabis, politics, and anything where subjectivity is needed.

So, what do you do?

It has to be a two-prong approach.

Step one is to own the property where monetization takes place. In the case of A Media Operator, that means that I built using WordPress and Mailchimp. I use Pico as my registration system. I own the content, not anyone else. If Mailchimp decides it doesn’t want to work with me anymore, I can take my list and go elsewhere. The same with Pico. No platform has control over my business.

Step two is to use the platforms in a sort of rent-to-own model. There is no harm in trying to convince people on social media, Google, YouTube, and other platforms that they should check out your stuff. But the goal should be to move those users from the platforms to your property. Marketing can take place elsewhere, but monetization should take place on your property as much as possible.

In the case of OnlyFans creators, they had step two figured out perfectly. They would market themselves on Reddit, Instagram, TikTok, and various other platforms. They would then direct users to their OnlyFans. Perhaps in the future, they will direct users to their own platform. (I understand that this is also a banking issue, but let’s deal with one thing at a time.)

Unfortunately, this isn’t just a problem with content. It’s also an issue with dependence on traffic and dollars. Let me explain…

How many websites got hit unbelievably hard when Facebook’s feed deprioritized publisher content? I still remember when the Panda and Penguin algorithmic updates were released by Google, how hard publishers were hit. Many publishers rightfully got dinged by Google, but many were also punished unfairly because Google changed its rules. In both cases, traffic plummeted.

The risk with step two is that you become overly dependent on the platforms for their rented audience. That’s why the goal has to be rent-to-own. Somehow convincing people on platforms to register for your site, subscribe to the newsletter, or whatever action you want is the fundamental business need. That way, if the platform decides to cut you off, you still have an audience.

And then there’s monetization. According to The Information:

The Google-owned video giant [YouTube] has become so adept at selling ad space through automated auctions that it is now massively underpricing those publishers that sell ad spots directly on their YouTube programs. One digital media executive told The Information that his firm is now selling as little as 10% to 15% of its YouTube ad space directly, down from as much as 40% three years ago. That’s because YouTube charges as little as a quarter what the publishers charge for spots they sell on their YouTube programs, the executive said.

Publishers were doing everything right on YouTube, creating great content, building audiences, but because Google wanted to make more money (which is its right), it cut into publisher monetization.

The moral of the story is pretty straightforward. To some extent, we have to look at platforms with skepticism. On one hand, it’s great that they can drive traffic to our businesses and, in some cases, we can directly monetize. But believing that these sources of prosperity will last forever is a dangerous bet. It almost never lasts.

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