Content media site Medium announced just days ago that they restructuring through layoffs and office closings as they “renew their focus.” Medium CEO, Ev Williams, noted that, “in building out this model, we realized we didn’t yet have the right solution to the big question of driving payment for quality content. We had started scaling up the teams to sell and support products that were, at best, incremental improvements on the ad-driven publishing model, not the transformative model we were aiming for.”
In short, the business model for online content still eludes us; and I mean us, all of us. I’ve been working in online media since the early days of Yahoo, and witnessed first-hand the evolution of newspaper to online – nothing yet works well, if evident perhaps even in our living in this era of “fake news” the annoying Click-for-More Photo Slideshows wherein media brands endeavor to subsist by publishing whatever drives pageviews and thus ad dollars.
“Medium’s competition,” Lora Kolodny reports in TechCrunch, “includes social networks used by publishers and individual creatives to distribute their work, and other blogging platforms like the 800-lb. gorilla in this space, Automattic’s WordPress, as well as Facebook, and companies closer to Medium’s age, like Patreon, the blogging-meets-crowdfunding platform where creatives get paid directly by subscribers before publishing a news feature, web comic or anything else online.”
Begging an intriguing question: Are those in fact competitors?
The late, famed economist Peter Drucker noted that, “because the purpose of business is to create a customer, the business enterprise has two–and only two–basic functions: marketing and innovation.” Well how is Medium competing with Facebook in creating new customers? “Marketing and innovation produce results,” Drucker went on, “all the rest are costs. Marketing is the distinguishing, unique function of the business.” The innovations herein are the networks, management systems, and crowdfunding whereas the marketing is what distinguishes how and why we use Facebook vs. Medium vs. web comics or anything else online.
New businesses, all of them, whether you are a new tech startup, a local business, or a media entity such as a band, endeavor to distinguish themselves and indeed must distinguish themselves to appeal to customers and investors. How are we to do that through the content we create? By way of our innovation and marketing, no?
Every Smart Startup Is A Digital Media Company
Brian Clark, founder of Copyblogger Media noted in Forbes some five years ago the idea that today’s startups essentially must be media companies. He referred to a long standing conventional wisdom in startup and venture capital circles that TechCrunch coverage is substantial though fleeting, “You spend months in stealth mode, building the delicious new product so cool that you’re worried someone might steal it. Finally, the day comes to ship, and … Nothing. Your TechCrunch moment comes and goes.” Worse, he alludes, your hard work and behind closed door innovation is suddenly out there, in the public, you’re on. Are you ready?
“Smart online entrepreneurs understand that they play both roles with content marketing,” Clark adds, “They provide people something they want to consume and share (content) and sell something … but in this case, what they sell is something extremely relevant to the content, and therefore, to the audience.”
I wrote in 2013, with Cybernance Co-founder and cybergovernance editor Bob Barker, about the evolution of Coca-Cola’s website from the typical corporate brochure-ware to media site and in it suggested that companies need to create a clear, consistent narrative to which others can relate. All Marketers are Liars (says Seth Godin) and evident in what Coca-Cola was trying to do with the redesign, was to aggregate and present engaging content that forms a narrative reinforcing the authentic and relate-able brand that is Coca-Cola.
Sounds complicated, doesn’t it? Consider that the idea that all marketers are liars also sounds a bit like fake news. How do we overcome these trends in questioning content, valuing and retaining ownership of thought leadership, and benefiting from that which we create? How does content influence what investors think of our work?
How content influences what investors think of our work
It starts by establishing an authentic and capable voice. Authenticity establishes that the voice you have is yours, influential, and appreciated. In a sense, that it’s not fake. The capability in your voice is evident in what you write and from where that comes, your experience, as well as the reactions to the content. Subtly though, as an online brand (and these days, every brand is an online brand), your capability is evident in HOW you develop and host your content online.
One of my most frequently given pieces of advice to non-tech oriented entrepreneurs and artist is that you don’t create your web based business upon a dependency of another company. You don’t build your website in Squarespace. You don’t yet have a fundable business if the entirety of your traffic is from Google (or Facebook). You don’t blog on Medium (primarily). Remember Geocities?
You don’t build upon dependencies that aren’t dependent on you. Never in the history of the internet has any 3rd party media site remained unchanged to your benefit.
San Antonio based Geekdom Fund’s Michael Girdley, “It’s ok to be dependent on another platform as long as the platform will never have a reason to screw you. (ex windows and ERP systems).”
There is a sophistication to HOW, WHEN, and WHERE you create content in the various platforms are not necessarily competitive with one another. Medium is not Tumblr, which is not Instagram, nor Facebook, nor Wix, nor WordPress. Medium’s pivot by no means they’re going to end up in the cemetery Geocities built but it is a healthy reminder that HOW and WHERE you create your content signals a distinguishing characteristic of you as an entrepreneur.
Marketing (distinguishing of what you do) 101: knowing what to do, how, and why. The fact that the question of using Wix, setting up a blog on Tumblr, or writing on Blogspot still frequently comes up reveals one of startup entrepreneurs’ most significant gaps. Far too many entrepreneurs tell me their time building their company is better spent investing in the product development and blogging on Medium because it’s not worth the time to launch their own blog and build an audience. That’s the very definition of an unfundable entrepreneur.
Why do I suggest, vehemently suggest, that such an approach defines one as unfundable? Consider the culmination of the points herein. 3rd party content sites live and die of their own volition. With hundreds of millions of dollars available, Medium is pivoting. Smart entrepreneurs provide something to consume and which is sold. Creating content only or first on 3rd party sites, regardless of the efficiency, sells what they have to sell to their customers, abandons any data you might derive from the audience, and leaves behind the opportunity to create equity with your own domain and audience.
“It’s a hub and spoke philosophy,” notes Startup CMO Brian Talbot (and in full disclosure, one of the mentors on our roster). “Your domain is the hub. Social media channels, traditional media activities and your marketing execution are the spokes that extend your reach to audiences, and bring them back to your hub so you can further the relationship “in your house”. Your house is not dependent on external tools to exist.”
How though do we apply that in practice? Is setting up your own site to support content really that easy?
Frankly, it’s not so much a question of ease but ROI. Return on Investment. That is what your investors seek, is it not? Setting up a site to host your own content is indeed fairly easy (which is why not doing so highlights a fundamental weakness in your business) but more important is conveying that you are able to create content in the most valuable way possible so as to deliver the audience and value you need to your business. How do you do that?
The Model for Creating Content – CMS, Social Networks, Content Sites, Media Brands
With your content hosted on your own domain, rather than with a third party site, there are three ways in which to extend your reach: Social Media, Content Sites, and Media Brands. Understanding and executing this is critical to conveying to investors that you know what you’re doing and, more importantly, to establishing your market and competitive advantage.
Start by hosting your own content. The secret is largely that simple. How you do so is up to you but your own domain should be publishing your content. That’s the key that eludes most entrepreneurs who believe that 3rd party sites with existing audiences and turnkey solutions are more valuable. Start with a Content Management System (CMS), whether that’s GoDaddy and your own Drupal instance or Austin favorite WPEngine providing for you WordPress, make sure your site is intertwined with the content you create such that it’s yours and yours alone. You own the audience, experience, and analytics (data from which to learn) and should you choose to move it or redesign in the future, you can. The step to the right decision in working out how to go about this is that such a decision is the epitome of Marketing, not Web Development. Turn to a good online marketer as an advisor or consultant if you don’t already have one on the team, and work with them to work out HOW you should be creating content. If you’re a media entity, we can help you here; this is wherein we specialize as an advocate for media businesses. Anyone who advises you that integrating your content with your site, be that as a blog or directly in the experience, is prohibitive or not a priority is lying or doesn’t know what they’re doing.
Don’t misunderstand me, this question of where first to publish isn’t always easily answered. Should you not build, for example, your eCommerce site with a third party web service such as Shopify or BigCommerce and does that not publish on their platform and not your domain? Yes and no, but that’s moreso Software as a Service, like using Salesforce to have a CRM. It’s the platform for your commerce business. But your website and the content you produce is your online business, you don’t build it on something that may disappear or pivot. Only innovation and marketing create value, and failing to create an online experience of your own that shares the leadership you have to offer the market shows that you don’t know how or don’t care to invest in building and retaining your own audience because building a site with content is relatively easy.
By the by…. none of this means you don’t use 3rd party content sites to extend your reach! Marketing 201 is knowing how to take your online experience and leverage social media, search engines, and media sites on your behalf. Doing that effectively starts by creating that content on your behalf.
With your content published to your experience consider the three ways in which you can achieve greater reach: Social Media, Content Sites, and Media Brands. Let’s break these down so you appreciate what to do with content you’ve already published:
- Social Media – With your content published, turn to social media sites to extend the reach of that content. This is where the rubber hits the road in showcasing your sophistication. Medium is, arguably, a social media site as the content created there, though more in depth than what we think of on social media, is akin to content created on Facebook and Twitter. It’s content affiliated with YOU. It’s a social network. Share the content you’ve published to your domain with Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Medium, and other social networking sites.
- Content Sites – The distinction in where you share is evident in noting that LinkedIn is not like the others. Content Sites are sites similar, where content is published, but where content is published for a distinctly “other” purpose. Publishing your article to LinkedIn is your professional person publishing that content. Quora, a wildly popular question and answer site, is another example of a Content Site where you can repurpose your article for another purpose: answering related questions.
- Media Brands – Lastly, turn to supporting other bloggers and news media reporters. In this context we’re not syndicating your content so much as establishing your thought leadership as an individual, brand, and company. Your content sparks ideas and opportunities for reporters to cover similar topics, quote you, interview you, or expound upon your ideas. With your story told your way, present it to others to tell it their way via TechCrunch, Huffpost, Forbes, local news, trade publications, and even national media brands.
What you’re doing through this content model is developing and retaining your own equity while building audiences and influence through other channels. Notice that within Social Media you can start building an audience NOW, following others and sharing content – you need not have a brand, business, or article to get going. The audience built there serves the audience you establish on your own domain while the content you create on your own domain reaches different audiences, in different ways, when you turn to LinkedIn, Quora, and other Content Sites to repurpose your ideas. It’s the collective audience and influence that traditional Media needs to identify compelling stories worth visiting, with you, for their own audiences.
It’s important to appreciate that early stage marketing is not growth hacking, merely customer acquisition, nor akin to corporate marketing. In your earliest iteration as a media entity such as a band or video game producer, startup, or local business, establishing and defending a share of your market determines your every future possibility. This is the role of marketing from before you even start; knowing what to do, how, and why. Yes, Medium does offer a white label service whereby they can host your content in such a way that it looks like your site. Yes, WordPress can run everything for you. Yes, Wix, SquareSpace, or BandSpan are incredibly easy to enable and often seemingly ideal for what you’re doing. Under various circumstances, those are indeed the best way to start; just make sure the decision you’re making about your content service the long term objectives of your new venture – is it the ideal way to develop an audience, influence customers, and appeal to partners and investors?
Brian Clark went on, that thinking holistically about content, like a digital media company, creates an “unfair advantage.” Retain more equity (which is after all, what you want to do as a new business with investors isn’t it?): Having an audience allows you to bootstrap longer, perhaps indefinitely. The audience will not only convert to customers and clients, but it will spread your content for you, constantly filling your pipeline with new prospects.
When we wonder how Medium (or Twitter, or Quora, or Facebook, or…. or or…) is worth so much with a broken business model, it’s because of the audience they command. Your success as a new venture, and appeal to investors, has so much more to do with your influence of your audience, and your ability to convert visitors into customers, partners, and employees, on your terms rather than those of a 3rd party, is worth far more than having an early stage product in market with a few paying customers influencing decisions. After all, take it from Medium, once you have that audience, and investment, you can pivot.
Today as CEO and Founder of MediaTech Ventures, O'Brien works in Venture Capital Economic Development, serving the investment and venture capital economies directly, through thought leadership, consulting, and startup development.More, a regional Director of the Founder Institute incubator and mentor in DivInc, Galvanize, DivInc, and various startup Accelerators.
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