There are no limits to what creators can achieve with an audience. Audiences are the wind of the Internet Ocean. Leverage them, and you can sail anywhere. Some have leveraged their audiences to build a 25B+ views media empire, some to build a billion-dollar DTC business, and some to launch a country-wide burger chain. These days, we're even talking about creators getting ready for an IPO!
How are successful creators transforming audiences into empires? To better understand the process, here’s the framework I use: The Creator Lifecycle.
As a creator, your most valuable asset is your relationship with your audience. It’s the raw material you transform into energy that pushes you forward. Since this relationship evolves and diversifies over the years, I divided the Creator Lifecycle into four steps: Attention, Trust, Commerce & Ownership. Each step has its own goals, ways to monetize, metrics & tools.
As the CEO of your company, your job isn’t to become the expert at everything. Your job is to learn enough about each step so you can set up the right processes, hire the right people & use the right tools. Your job is to scale yourself, freeing up as much time as possible so you can move to the next level.
I hope this framework helps you to think about this strategically!
Like any relationship, that between creator and audience starts with attention: A funny thumbnail on the YouTube recommendation sidebar, a tweet that went viral, an algorithmic recommendation on the TikTok feed. Attention can come from anywhere. For creators, it often comes from media networks’ proprietary distribution. Just like you'd meet someone at a friend's party, media networks are the world's largest party throwers. As a creator, your top-of-funnel goal is to create great content to generate attention and start as many relationships as possible through these media networks. This reach isn't free, though, it comes at a great cost: Control. What media networks give you in free reach, they take away in the lack of connection to your audience. You are essentially renting your audience in exchange for free reach. This is not inherently bad, but it is a trade-off that you have to be aware of. If you're only meeting new people at a friend's parties, your social life is at the mercy of them not inviting you anymore! This doesn't mean you should stop going to parties; it just means that you also need to host your own at some point.
At the attention level, you monetize through ads, whether by interrupting your content (pre/mid-roll ads, banners, etc.) or by embedding ads (brand deals, endorsements, sponsored content). You typically earn your first bucks by renting your audience's attention to other brands and getting paid for it.
There are two types of metrics you need to track at the attention level: Content metrics and Business metrics. On the content side, you'll track metrics like the number of pieces published per week, views, average watch time, CTR, likes, etc., to track and optimize your content's growth & engagement. Are you publishing enough content? Is your audience engaging with it? Is your audience growing? Your North Star metric could change depending on which platform is central to your content, but the goal will be the same: Growth. On the other hand, business metrics are useful to track ads, business development performance, and future cash-flow. How much money are you making with ads? How many brands are you talking to right now? How much are they paying? What deals have you signed for the next quarter? These metrics tightly correlate with your content performance—the bigger & more engaged the audience, the bigger the deals. But that will also be very closely connected to your performance as a sales organization, your ability to continuously track, negotiate, & close the best deals.
Let's take Mr. Beast. In the first few years, he dedicated 90% of his focus to nurturing YouTube with amazing content until he got rewarded with massive awareness. He searched for his content/platform fit, which he found in 2017 with his "Counting to 100,000" video. From then on, the number of people who started casually watching his videos grew exponentially, as did his ads & brand deals revenue.
- Content Calendar & Project Management on Notion
- Sales CRM on Airtable
- Design templates on Canva
- YouTube analytics on TubeBuddy and VidIQ
- Record, edit & master audio/videos with Descript
- 130+ more tools for creators here
Once the relationship starts to deepen, it moves from attention to trust. Just like a friendship IRL, trust can happen in many different ways. Something you do, something you say, or just repeated interactions. To keep the metaphor going, after talking to a person several times at a friend's house, you start to trust him or her. This might be the time to start owning the relationship by exchanging phone numbers. At the trust level, your goal is to move your audience from other people’s media networks to your own digital house, throwing your own parties. This means collecting emails & phone numbers, creating membership-based private communities, segmenting your audience in databases, etc. At the individual level, this is intuitive. You have your contact list and you try to manage it as best as possible. As a creator, you are an individual that scales. So your contact list has to scale as well, becoming a CRM.
At this stage, part of your audience trusts you and feels like they belong to something greater than themselves. You're essentially monetizing that sense of belonging, selling nothing other than access to yourself. Monetizing this access can be scalable (tips, recurring donations, private-community memberships) or non-scalable (1-1 cameo-style video, AMA).
To strategically think about this step, you need to track 1) activation and 2) retention. Activating is about getting permission to contact them directly, through email or text, or on a platform you own (private community, etc.). Are you collecting more emails week by week? How can you create excuses to collect more? Tracking the growth of this base and putting systems in place to grow it are crucial. On the other hand, retention is about tracking who in your audience is regularly thinking about you. Are they opening most of your emails and texts? Are they engaged in the private community you've created? Is your membership and tipping revenue growing?
Out of the hundreds of millions of people who've listened to one of his podcast episodes or read one of his books or blog posts, Tim Ferris gathered 1.5M emails. Over the years, he gradually structured email collection as the cornerstone of the relationship with his most engaged audience members and the pivot to cross-promoting new products.
- Gather live tips with StreamLabs
- Accept donations with Patreon
- Redirect your top fans from your social media bio with Flooz
- Create your private community with Circle
- Gather and send texts to your top fans with Community
- Gather and send emails to your trusted audience with ConvertKit
- Host your website with OnUniverse
- Manage your members with Pico
- 130+ more tools for creators here
Once your audience trusts you, they can probably buy something from you. Thus begins one of the most exciting parts of the creator lifecycle: Commerce. I'm not talking about your audience buying something they discover through you; I’m talking about your audience buying your products. Why work so hard to build engaged audiences from scratch but then still promote other brands’ products or services instead of your own? Because commerce is hard - or, I should say, it *used* to be hard. Think about the product creators have historically sold the most, merchandising. Just five years ago it was still very tricky to sell great merch as an indie creator. You usually needed to "have a merch guy" that not only understood your design needs but also could handle the production process with providers and, more importantly, master the e-commerce intricacies! Fast forward to 2021: you can use Spri.ng and all of that complexity melts away for you. You can essentially have a Merch-team as a Service. What has happened with merchandise will happen to all the product classes you can think of: Games, Classes, Cloud-kitchen restaurants, DTC brands, etc. An incredible number of founders are building platforms to empower creators with tools to own the funnel’s commerce. They're not agencies; they’re full-stack Commerce-teams-as-a-service. They don't treat you like an artist, they treat you like a CEO, and they want to help you build your commerce empire.
This one is easy. Sell something to an audience that trusts you, make a profit. Digital products can have incredible margins because they have zero marginal reproduction costs (classes, games, exclusive or premium content series, etc.). Physical products have lower margins, but as these new platforms remove more and more complexity, the opportunity cost lowers. As the CEO of your company, your job is to gradually stack several layers of commerce revenue lines and make sure you're making a profit out of them.
To track the health of your commerce business(es), you'll have to understand & track a few e-commerce metrics like CAC, LTV & unit economics. They are pretty basic; it essentially boils down to 3 main questions: 1) How much does it cost you to get a new customer? (This shouldn't be much because you have the privilege of not needing external marketing, you already have an audience that trusts you) 2) How much does a customer spend on average? and 3) Do they come back to buy more? Your goal is not to become an e-commerce expert but to understand the world well enough to surround yourself with the right people and the right tools.
One of the most successful moves from trust to commerce has been Kylie Jenner’s launch of the ‘Kylie Cosmetics’ DTC brand. Her entire first batch of LipKits sold out just one minute after sharing it with her 140M Instagram followers. More recently, MrBeast launched his cloud-kitchen burger chain in more than 300 locations overnight.
- Sell merchandising with Spri.ng
- Launch your DTC brand with Genflow
- Launch your class with Teachable
- Sell your event with RunTheWorld
- Launch your restaurant brand with Popchew (soon)
- Create your own game universe with Manticore
- Sell digital downloads with Gumroad
- 130+ more tools for creators here
Once your audience has gone through the attention, trust & commerce steps, the final one is ownership. The goal here is to share the financial upside with your most engaged (and usually earliest) audience. What does it mean? Well, you know how when you're starting a business, your rich uncle might lend you some money to kickstart it? That's what family does; they put skin in the game. And at this point, for some part of your audience, you're family as well, and they want to chip in. It’s the evolution of Kickstarter-style crowdfunding. Your audience isn't just donating or pre-ordering things so you can make your project a reality. They invest in you as the ultimate embodiment of their belief in your future success. They love you so much they're ready to risk money just to prove they were right before anyone else, potentially becoming richer in the meantime. Just like your uncle.
Either your audience invests in your business or they invest in your content. Investing in your business means they'll get a share of your upside as a whole (e.g. investing in your holding company), while investing in your content means they'll share the upside of a specific piece of content (e.g. investing in one of your albums, songs, artworks, etc.).
The metrics attached to the financial performance of you as an asset are quite simple. How much are you worth? Or in other terms, what is your valuation? Again, no need to become a financial expert, but understanding the basics of ownership structure will help you to think critically and avoid bad deals. For decades artists (especially musical artists) have been dragged into bad deals with toxic people; they could have avoided 80% of those bad deals if they had understood the fundamentals of their ownership structure. Learn this initially for your fans, but ultimately for yourself.
Grammy-award artist ‘Portugal. The Man’ issued their own PTM Coin, powered by Rally, to offer access and benefits to fans who buy or earn the coins. 3LAU has launched digitally-collectible songs on the Ethereum blockchain. Jack Palmer has used crypto to raise funds to produce a new essay in exchange for ownership of the work. And creators are now looking at Fairmint to let their fans seamlessly invest in them as well. One could even argue that Elon Musk is following the same pattern with Tesla. Die-hard Elon Musk fans are buying and holding $TSLA stock as fans would buy & hold a Creator Coin.
- Let your fans invest in your company with Fairmint
- Mint your own Creator Coin with Rally or Roll
- Tokenize your essays with Mirror
- Tokenize digital art with Zora
- Let your fans invest in your content pieces with Foundation
- 130+ more tools for creators here
I know, this is a lot! Most of you already have enough work to do at the attention level, attempting to reach content/platform fit with great content. So how are you supposed to do all of these other things? But that’s exactly my point - you’re not supposed to. A startup CEO isn’t the best developer or the best marketer or the best product person. Their job is to surround themselves with the best. As the CEO of your own media company, your job is to understand enough of each function to surround yourself with the best people and set up the right tools & the most effective processes. This is why you need to learn enough about each function (goals, metrics, tools) to delegate it successfully & healthily.
In the next articles, I’ll go more deeply into each of the steps and share frameworks, tools & use-cases of creators having successfully mastered them! If you have set up similar processes as creators, please do reach out :) And feel free to subscribe to my newsletter to get the latest articles!