July 2, 2021
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The Creator Growth Is Slowing Down. Now What?

People are feeling a lot less motivated now about their media projects than they did during Covid. To echo some of the sentiment I’ve heard from creators, some feel the best days are behind us. Where once some were seeing dozens of new paying subscribers week-after-week, now they’re lucky to get a few in a week. The hockey stick has turned into a plateau. The growth has stopped.

Anyone that has worked in media for long enough knows what this feels like. You find early success with what you’re doing doubling in size is easy with a small base number. Even going from 100 to 200 or 1,000 to 10,000. That early success feels great.

But then it slows. Going from 10,000 to 11,000 feels like an absolute slog. What once took a tweet is now taking a lot of effort. And through all of it, you’ve got to produce. You can’t stop. Media is a type of industry where you have to ship new products on a regular cadence.

It’s easy to produce consistently when you’re growing. How do you motivate yourself when the growth has stopped? Even with those monthly subscription dollars coming in, the dopamine doesn’t hit quite the same as a new subscriber.

Fear. Uncertainty. Doubt. It all creeps in.

This is normal. Nothing can go up and to the right forever and so consistently. There have to be corrections. Things have to slow down to recalibrate around this new normal. This past year was an anomaly. There was so much time to consume that people were indiscriminate about what they signed up for.

But we are in an attention economy and now we are competing with bars, restaurants, concerts, the beach, vacations, family, and so much more. Whereas before, people only had time in front of their computer; now they have time for everything.

Creators need to look at their business and plot a path forward. Our decisions during these times matter because we can make a series of very bad mistakes that might make us feel better, but will materially hurt our business.

Audit yourself

The first should be to audit the publication. Why does it exist? Too many of these newsletters were created because people felt that they had a lot to say and wanted to make money doing it. But that doesn’t take the audience into consideration.

What does this product do for the reader? At AMO, I try to break down strategies for people that work on the business side of media. My hope is that people will gain something that they can apply to their media business.

Every once in a while, look at what you’re publishing and ask yourself: does this fit the mission? Honestly, it doesn’t matter how large a publication is, this is a good question to ask. But when you’re by yourself and picking every topic, writing every piece, and editing, it can help to be very critical.

The other side of the audit is to look at how your technology is working. Try and register. How hard is it? Did something break? Can you simplify it? How’s your onboarding? Understand the customer experience so you can streamline it.

We start with this audit because it has no action item outside of observation. Too often, the instinct is to jump into prescribing solutions. Imagine if you went to your doctor, walked in the front door, and she said, “you need antibiotics” without first looking at you.

Mistake 1: Expand coverage

This leads me to one of the big mistakes many creators are going to make: expanding their coverage. If growth is stagnant, why not just expand the coverage so that growth starts up again?

The reason people are paying for your product is because that content helps them. By and large, the creator is all by themselves. By expanding coverage, rather than creating great information about a very focused topic, you start to create even more content on less specific areas of focus. The quality diminishes.

I can already see this happening. Some really focused publications are writing about things that are not even tangentially related to their topic. And yet, they’re writing about it, getting a ton of traffic, and maybe even getting some subs.

But this changes the mission. If I started to write about things outside of digital media, I may get a lot of eyeballs, but it wouldn’t help anyone. This is a big reason I don’t write about Web 3.0. Do I think it’s fascinating? Of course. Do I think any of this technology is ready for media today? No.

I could have seen a big jump in subscriptions over the past few months if I had written about Web 3. But would I really be serving my audience appropriately? Expanding coverage just to chase growth is a big mistake.

Mistake 2: Mess with pricing

If the audit says that you’re delivering on your mission and you don’t make the mistake of expanding coverage, the next thing you might try to do is play around with your price. There are two ways that might feel right, but I would avoid them as options:

  1. Cut the price
  2. Start offering insanely cheap introductory offers

One of the best things Substack did for creators is put a floor on the subscription price. No one could go cheaper than $5.00 per month. If the floor didn’t exist, creators would have sold subscriptions for $1 or $2 a month.

Or, if they decide to keep the price constant, they might start offering insanely underpriced introductory offers. The idea here is that you’d be getting more people to become a paying subscriber. That’s good on the surface, but these cheap subscribers are far more likely to churn.

Adweek did a piece on how The Economist has cut churn and this part jumped out to me:

Like many publishers, especially during a busy news cycle, The Economist uses discounted trial offers to entice on-the-fence readers to subscribe. While its 12 for £12 product did a wonderful job getting subscribers in the door, too many of them failed to stick around. Overstall attributed much of the problem to sticker shock, as the standard monthly price for an Economist subscription is either £55 ($75.76) or £65 ($89.53), a substantial jump from £12.

Like I said above, the dopamine hit from getting a new subscriber is so much better than getting a renewal. However, when running a business, we have to think about new and current subscribers. High churn won’t make anyone feel better.

Rather than playing around with the price, experiment with the time. I’ve long thought about getting rid of the monthly subscription for A Media Operator. When Pico lets me, I’ll transition to quarterly. How can anyone really learn what I have to offer in one month? One option is to try and push more people into staying with you longer.

Accept the realities of media

Covid was a homerun for many creators. The growth was so fast and people thought it was never going to end. But now that the pandemic is behind many of us, it’s time to come to terms with two very true realities about media.

First, media is not a homerun business. From time to time, you may have a big piece that drives a lot of subs. But the reality is, media is a business built on hitting a lot of singles. To the newsletter writers who hit six figures in only a few months, that’s an anomaly. That’s not the norm.

The rest of your time running your business is going to be grinding out for small monthly growth. You can spend more time on audience development to try and speed things up (check out this piece on doing things that don’t scale), but the reality is, the first few years of building a media company are a grind.

Second, it takes time. I know operators who took years to hit their first $1m in annual revenue. Now they’re doing millions of dollars a year in relatively predictable revenue. But it took a long time to get there.

Running a media company is like investing in an S&P 500 index fund. It is not complicated. Sometimes you have a huge year and things look amazing, but the reality is, the S&P 500 still only returns an average of 10% a year. Media is the same way. If you’re doing a good job, you’ll see consistent growth year-over-year. But it won’t be a hockey stick.

Is there opportunity for media companies?

I first wrote about creator burn out back in January. I was starting to feel it. I knew others were. It’s worse now. But I believe this creates opportunity for media companies.

It might make sense to approach creators that operate in your niche and offer to purchase them. You can offer the audience development and support that they need to grow faster. Would they give up a chunk of their business to start seeing faster growth?

I remain convinced that this is a big opportunity in the b2b space. For publishers that haven’t really made the jump into subscriptions, this could be a good way to add that into the mix. You’ve got the large audience that you monetize with ads. Can you push it down funnel to the creator’s product?

As with all deals, these can be difficult to pull off. But I don’t see the burnout going away and people may want a bit of a soft landing. Incentivize them to stick around with upside and these subverticals could be a very good business.

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