Almost 90% of Americans now obtain their news on digital devices, and one in five find their political news mainly on social media. A 2020 study by Dr. Tyler J. VanderWeele of Harvard T.H. Chan
The attention economy is making a dramatic shift towards the creator economy and placing influencers at front and center of the evolving digital ecosystem. Venture capitalist Clara Lindh Bergendorff suggests enormous growth potential: the shift builds off of the gig economy (projected value at $455BN by 2023) alongside creative industries driven primarily by Millennials and Gen Z ($2.25 Trillion annual revenue). Expected to grow another $7 Billion by next year, the creator economy is space publishers can--and should--leverage from the newsroom.
The move away from third-party cookies is one of many changes on the digital media horizon contributing to the publisher rush for high quality reader data sets, no longer just high quantity. Publishers who can collect first-party data from readers through subscriptions end up with cleaner, more valuable data that is more attractive to advertisers. Micro-influencers--in journalism, usually stand out writers--can play a significant role driving subscriptions, quality readerships, and higher value advertising relationships.
Because the size of data libraries is becoming less important to the monetization equation, the micro-influencer model is useful for news media brands of many sizes. Influencer marketing expert and entrepreneur, Adam Viener, explains why this works:
“[Micro-influencers] tend to have tighter circles of individuals who deeply value their opinions; thus, they may have smaller groups of followers, but those followers are often more likely to be influenced by their recommendations. As such, they’re probably also more likely to generate sales (as opposed to awareness) for the brands they work with — and sales are becoming increasingly important to brands, even more so than building awareness.”
Micro-influencers can build meaningful relationships with readers and function as an entry point for the publisher-reader relationship through subscriptions. This is a significant industry-wide shift from journalism’s historical model, and it indicates a need for publishers to think about their newsrooms and teams differently.
Co-host of tech and media podcast Exponent and founder of sovereign tech and media analysis platform Stratechery, Ben Thompson has experienced first-hand the power of the influencer model. He nets six figures per year from subscriptions to his writings, and he’s just one of many independent writers seeing that kind of success. He says of the historical news media model, “[Before, writers] would never have gotten the awareness or reach of distribution without their publication, and, in return, the publication obviously benefitted from their popularity and being interesting. It was sort of an even exchange, but the internet changes that completely.” This economic and technological shift can be seen across all kinds of digital platforms from Instagram to Twitch, Tik Tok to Patreon, and it’s given rise to break out stars in myriad industries.
For publishers, this major shift signals the importance of considering not only what value they offer to readers, but what value they offer to their writers, as well. How can the publisher-writer relationship ensure mutual benefit in a way that drives reader subscriptions and revenue?
Publishers unable to answer this question have seen their writers leave--and loyal audiences and advertisers with them. However, talented influencers may also leave when news media brands fail repeatedly to respond to their readers. This damages the reader-publisher relationship that is becoming so essential to revenue generation in both the subscription and advertising spaces.
While there may be many reasons for the recent exodus of Vox’s former editor-in-chief, Lauren Williams, for example, it is significant that she left partly to form her own news outlet explicitly to serve Black communities. This comes only about 75 years after Alice Dunnigan made history as the first Black female journalist to receive White House press and Congress press gallery credentials, and only about 50 years since the Kerner Commission Report under the Johnson administration found that the news media industry was partly to blame for ongoing racial divides in America. Today, Black women are still proportionally underrepresented in newsrooms and news media company leadership, and Black communities are still underserved or misrepresented in reporting and editorial content decisions. The Center for Media Engagement found in a 2020 study that “journalists weren’t trusted [by Black people] to cover Black communities.”
This demonstrates a need for responsive publishers--not only for ethical reasons and because they may lose readerships to micro-influencers--but also because they may lose their own team talent to become micro-influencers who draw unheard or underserved readership outside of traditional publications. Media and culture professor, C.W. Anderson writes for Nieman Labs, “...[journalism] needs to embrace the marginalized and the historically left-out: women, Black and Latinx communities, LGBT and trans people. [It should] engage in what Wesley Lowrey has called a true “reckoning with objectivity.”
This approach is beneficial to these communities, boosts media and brand trust, and ensures ethical journalism, but it’s also expected by younger Gen Z and Millennial readers who will unsubscribe and follow an influencer independently if disappointed by these kinds of publisher practices. That has significant profit implications for publisher brands: Gen Z alone currently represents a total market buying power valued at $100-200 billion (and growing). In the Creator Economy, publishers will set themselves up for success by listening responsively to both their team talent and their readerships.
The stakes are high as publishers regain power in a changing economy, and publishers who evolve with it can join the momentum. Some news media brands like the Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and USA Today have already seen the benefits of building positive, more collaborative relationships with their writers in the micro-influencer space. Four of the Wall Street Journal’s writers have collaborated on Substack; Dave Jorgenson of The Washington Post has a substantial following on Tik Tok; and several journalists from USA Today also use Tik Tok to post content. Publishers can also build micro-influencer followings on platforms like Clubhouse where analyst panels of journalists can reach listeners directly -- and this can create a gateway for paying reader communities.
Li Jin, founder and managing partner of venture capitalist firm Atelier, explained the growing potential of these platforms for all sizes of influencer followings:
“Today, creators can effectively make more money off fewer fans. Sound unlikely? We’re already seeing this shift, according to creator platforms. On Patreon, the average initial pledge amount has increased 22 percent over the past two years. Since 2017, the share of new patrons paying more than $100 per month—or $1,200 per year—has grown 21 percent. ”
Encouraging reader trust with micro-influencers (or groups of micro-influencers) from across the newsroom is one trend publishers can leverage to drive subscriptions and collect first-party data increasingly valuable to advertisers. Responsive listening to readers is another way publishers can build trust between readers, micro-influencers on their team, and their own brand--moving beyond awareness to sales. In either case, publisher size doesn’t necessarily matter if the business model is structured thoughtfully. It’s a whole new world just waiting for publishers to take part.
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