I Propose a Solution, Not a Rebuttal

5 unsolicited suggestions to maximize the current and future value and growth of a very promising platform.

Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

Great minds think alike. But so do not-so-great minds. Unfortunately, I fear the latter may be populating our inboxes, news feeds, and recommended content — on many platforms, this one included. In a recent startup shake-up, the very platform on which you’re reading this got pretty candid and vulnerable with us readers, writers, and “customers” about its current struggles. (If you’re reading this, you’re impacted.)

Unsurprisingly, this announcement was met with a plethora of similar responses. People offered up their sentiments, spouted some “I told you so”’s, and gave their forward-looking opinions on whether this update would signal a positive or a negative future outcome for the platform and its inhabitants. However, among these not-so-varied responses, I’ve failed to see one thing: A thoughtful solution.

I have seen some attempted solutions, but they’ve been veiled in self-serving biases or clouded by misguided, ill-informed assumptions (or some combination of both). Like the idea that in order to fix the decline in publication readership, writers should spend more time reading each others’ work. Does that incestuous whirlpool of not-so-sound logic concern you, just a tad? It should. Here’s why: It doesn’t foster growth.

I’d like to approach this issue from a slightly different angle — as a startup growth and monetization problem-solving exercise.

5 pieces of free, unsolicited, unbiased advice from an entrepreneur, startup consultant, and part-time writer

My advice doesn’t come from a full-time writer’s perspective — because I’m not a full-time writer. I’m coming at this situation as an outside startup consultant and marketing, growth, and monetization strategist. Therefore, my below suggestions prioritize the best interests of this platform (the startup), its shareholders (the startup’s investors and owners), writers (partners), and readers (end-users and B2C customers).

A quick disclaimer: My suggestions may not be 100% right, but I also won’t be echoing the sentiments you’ve heard from others in the carbon copy rebuttal posts flooding the platform. At the least, you can say you heard this here first.

Two customer groups

As of right now, this platform seems to focus on one customer group: Readers. There also happens to be a bit of overlap among readers and writers, as many writers also subscribe to be readers. Regardless, if you’re paying $5/month, whether you’re writing or reading, you’re paying for the same thing here, and together, your subscription payments should be lumped into one revenue stream (end-users or readers).

As an entrepreneur, digital business owner, and writer, I believe this neglects to capture an entire second and separate customer group: Writers.

Yes, I think this platform should monetize its writers — as in charge us a fee — for certain features and services. Oh no, this won’t change anything for you or me right now. You’ll still be able to write to your heart’s content whether you pay the $5/month readership subscription fee. However, there are quite a few opportunities for the platform to enhance the user experience, functionality, value, and earnings potential for regular contributors to the platform (writers), and yes, that does include charging us writers for some of those features. Before you get your long johns in a twist, read on — I’ll explain below.

The crux of my initial proposition is that the platform should attempt to implement additional revenue streams, some of which will derive earnings from current and future readers, and others that will capitalize on writers.

The primary objectives my below suggestions aim to address:

  • Increase switching costs for writers (so they want to make a permanent home and robust digital business on this platform)
  • Charge writers for features that will make the platform more valuable to them (at a discount compared to external competitor tools and software)
  • Enable additional monetization opportunities for writers on the platform and share in those additional earnings (via added fees or revenue splits)
  • Better monetize the wealth of valuable data accumulated (without compromising the platform’s morals or crossing ethical lines)
  • Implement a more sophisticated and interest-customized method of lead conversion and targeted marketing to prospective future customers
  • Make a concerted effort (via robust marketing campaigns to cold leads) to increase and accelerate new reader discovery and acquisition (end users)

1. Additional features for enhanced reader-writer interaction, available on a premium (higher paid) basis for readers.

This is actually an idea I stole from a former startup of mine. That startup partnered with influencers and had enhanced monetization features for fans who wanted a more personal connection or individual interaction with their favorite creators. While I realize readers may not view writers exactly the same way superfans view social media influencers, I do believe there’s a subset of highly-engaged readers who would pay up for a closer, real-time, exclusive connection to their favorite writers.

What could this look like? A limited quantity “writer’s circle” for which writers could sell tickets to superfan readers on their profile, right here on that platform. And those exclusive interactions or paid writer’s circles? They could take place on this platform, too.

How does this increase the platform’s revenue? There are a few ways:

  1. Revenue share only: The platform could offer the feature for free to writers, but take a percentage of the ticket price charged to readers.
  2. Writer fee only: The platform could, instead, charge writers for access to this premium feature on a monthly basis, but omit the revenue split on reader ticket purchases.
  3. Writer fee + revenue share: Alternatively, the platform could implement a combo for maximum earnings potential, charging writers a small fee for use of this feature and also taking a small revenue split percentage of reader ticket purchases.

This was just one example for illustrative purposes, but this type of enhanced feature addition and increased monetization ability could be executed in a variety of different ways, all of which could benefit writers, readers, and the platform.

2. More data transparency to writers, even on a premium (paid) basis. Yes, writers can pay for this — hear me out.

If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it just may be a data-rich platform consistently accumulating valuable user insights ripe for monetization. Or maybe it’s a duck — but in this case, it’s not a duck or even a blogging site; it’s a data-rich tech company, make no mistake.

Here’s where the issues arise: Users value their privacy, and platforms (like this one) value their reputation and integrity. Thus, they may forego highly profitable opportunities to monetize that data in the interest of their users’ privacy and the platform’s reputation. That’s perhaps why this platform may not sell off our personal information to any of the infinite interested buyers. Trust me, if it were for sale, a bidding war would commence real fast.

However, respecting users’ privacy and maintaining the reputation and integrity of the platform doesn’t have to come at such a grave financial cost (or missed opportunity). There are other internal opportunities to enhance the user experience for both sets of customers (readers and writers) by monetizing that data in a tactful, artful way.

How? By offering it up to writers on a paid basis. Writers who want to provide their readers with a better experience or further monetize those readers on or off this platform would likely kill for greater user insights. And a little more transparency doesn’t have to come at the expense of a user’s personal information.

What is valuable data that doesn’t include a user’s full name, email, and SSN?

  • More detailed reader interaction metrics, like click-through-rates, bounce rates, re-reads, etc.
  • Followed tags and interest insights
  • Insights into what other publications these readers follow (or read most)
  • Insights into which other writers these readers follow (or read most)
  • Breakdown of how much time your readers spend daily on the platform
  • Proportional comparison of how much time your readers spend reading your (a writer’s) articles versus all other platform content

Content may be king to consumers (readers), but to creators (writers), data is king. Over 3,000 bloggers use this enhanced stats plugin — and it isn’t even that enhanced. Imagine if we got way better stats and more writers on the platform knew about it.

Serious writers will pay for this. Plus, coupled with the below advice in suggestion 3, it could also lend to an additional stream of revenue for both the platform and writers, as well as a very strong pull to keep them here for the long-term (high switching costs — we’ll get into this in a second).

Could this move the needle?
If there really are about 175,000 earning writers on this platform, let’s assume just 10,000 of them opted to pay an extra $10 per month: That would be an extra $100k/month in earnings to the platform, or $1.2 million/year. You might think that doesn’t sound like a lot to a big tech startup (such as this one), but it’s actually significant, considering it’s more than 3.4% of the platform’s total projected annual revenue ($35M) this year.

Plus, this is one of those easy-to-scale revenue streams that will benefit from sales appreciation as the number of writers on the platform grows organically. And it will help keep writers tethered to this data-rich ship even through the algorithmic ups and downs and alternating reader preferences that befall us.

3. Acquiring, implementing, or adding on integrated tools to connect writers’ B2C offerings directly with their readers (for a revenue split or additional fee to writers)

This is kind of an offshoot of suggestion one above, nicely complemented by suggestion two. However, this one wouldn’t be limited to one type of prescribed offer like the reader-writer interaction I outlined in suggestion one. Instead, I’m referring to the implementation of robust and diverse features to enable writers to build entire businesses on this platform.

Here’s how most writers probably aim to monetize these days:

  • Discover this platform and start writing
  • Aim to cultivate a loyal audience and build an email list
  • Take that audience off the platform for greater monetization via books, products, consulting, courses, you-name-it

In other words, for many writers seeking maximum monetization, this platform is more of a lead generation engine than anything else. Therefore, it follows that those earnings-focused writers might need to use a variety of off-platform tools to make those audience monetization dreams come true.

Here are a few external (off platform) tools they might use:

  • Landing page builder (like LeadPages, ClickFunnels, etc.)
  • Email list manager or CRM (like MailChimp, ConvertKit, Infusionsoft, etc.)
  • Conversion-boosting plugins (exit-intent popups, countdown timers, etc.)
  • User data insights tools and plugins (like Hotjar, Google Analytics, or plugins specific to the other software, tools, and platforms they use)

Imagine the perceived value to writers if this very platform acquired, integrated with, or built on their own in-house version of some of the above tools. They definitely wouldn’t have to worry about Substack eating their lunch if its features and capabilities were just one click away and automatically integrated with a writer’s audience on this platform. And imagine the data available right here! Writers could build their entire digital business on this very website, maximizing the value from the content and audience they’ve already cultivated here.

This would significantly increase writer switching costs (the perceived negative consequence of transitioning to a different platform) and eliminate the use of competitive off-platform tools.

And this platform could either charge a monthly fee for access to the suite of premium writer business tools or take a percentage of all sales made with those tools. Or both. As a writer, paying up for this kind of stuff shouldn’t be a shock to the system if you’ve already contemplated using the aforementioned external tools to build your business off-platform.

4. Pixelization, retargeting, and customized incentives to free one-time readers (who stumbled upon the platform via organic search)

This one isn’t about enhancing the writer experience or making money by charging writers for extra tools and features; this suggestion addresses the other customer group: Readers — and the need to get more of them on board.

Any writer who suggests the solution here to maximize revenue for all (the platform and its writers) is to get us all reading each others’ work clearly doesn’t understand how user monetization works on a platform like this.

The increased read time of current subscribers would only be of increased financial value to the platform if it were monetizing things like daily active user duration (average session time) or engagement. How do you monetize those things? By selling ads. When you sell ads, boasting higher numbers of daily active users and longer average user session times are revenue-enhancing selling points. Why? They mean more available, engaged eyeballs to soak up those advertisements and possibly click one and make a purchase.

When you have an ad-free subscription platform like this one, daily active users and longer average session times don’t actually pay the bills — at least not beyond the monthly fees those users have already coughed up.

That also means there’s a fixed pool of earnings to go around for writers. Reading each others’ work is only going to shuffle around the distribution of the limited pile of money available. If you really want to increase your earnings potential and secure the future of the platform, you’d be rooting for an influx of new paying readers. Fresh blood brings fresh eyes and a new potential audience for your work, but it also increases the size of the overall pot, and this is pretty necessary for all of us (especially if we want to thrive in the long-term).

First, let’s talk about the low-hanging fruit: How do we up the conversions on the one-time readers who find an article via organic search or a share and never return? These people have already accidentally discovered the platform, but they don’t know much about it, certainly don’t know what they’re missing, and if they aren’t promptly converted to paying subscribers, may disappear forever.

Option 1: Get hyper-specific with pixels and narrowly-targeted interest-based remarketing. If a person stumbles across a relationship-related article on this platform, they should be tagged with “relationship lead” and subsequently served ads featuring similar content in the relationship category. Yes, this means the platform will spend money on paid advertising to ensure the equity of their high domain authority doesn’t go to waste with uncaptured leadswhich may be happening now more than they’d like to admit.

Please don’t take this to be the extent of the untapped remarketing capabilities to increase subscriber conversion rates; the above example barely scratches the surface. A sophisticated remarketing strategy can get a lot more complex. Add in some customized incentives, specific to their interests, and perhaps some urgency with a one-time discount and a free perk (informed by their interactions with your ads), and watch those conversion rates soar.

Option 2: Alternatively (or in addition), the platform could require an email opt-in, even to fully read a user’s three free monthly articles. Why? Again, to capture those leads and allow for future remarketing (via email, not ads). Sure, this will minimally deter some readers from getting through their first free article, but do you really think the person who’s that skeptical of opting in with their email is ever going to sign up for a paid monthly subscription service? Maybe, but maybe not. They clearly didn’t come here planning to return, so you may only be losing out on your least loyal potential customers anyway.

Plus, for those who do opt-in with their email, you’ve significantly reduced 50% of the friction between their first read and a subscription purchase. Now they’re only one step away from inputting their credit card and reading to their heart’s content for just $5/month.

Option 2 Cons: This will likely slow SEO leads and increase site bounce rates (since any barrier like an email opt-in will do that).

Option 2 Pros: Now you have the emails of all the people who were interested enough to opt-in for just one full article, so with a little bit of artfully-crafted email marketing, perhaps a temporary discount, and a sense of urgency here and there, you’re likely to convert quite a few of these newbies on your list to happy customers.

5. Greater focus on new reader discovery and acquisition — not on making “better” content. You already built something people want; go find them.

Unlike the prior four suggestions, this one is a little bit vague, but it’s also the strategy game-changer with the greatest potential impact.

The idea here is to divert the focus from simply producing “better” content, and instead transition that focus (and those resources) to new reader discovery and acquisition. What this platform may have forgotten is the fact that they’ve already built something people want. Clearly — as evidenced by their 700,000 paying subscribers at the start of 2021 (you read that right).

But startup success doesn’t end once you’ve built the cool thing, and it may not increase by tweaking and improving that thing. As much as it sucks, at some point, every startup has to take a good, hard look at the numbers and decide: Is the product the problem or is it the marketing?

When the product is the problem, you’ll know. Your customers will actually tell you. They’ll complain. Leave bad reviews. Drop off altogether. Cancel their memberships. Turn their back on you and possibly badmouth your company in the process.

When marketing is the problem, nobody tells you. Why? Because the people who would tell you are the people who don’t know. The people who’ve never heard of your company but would so greatly benefit from your offering may be out there…but you haven’t found them. Or they haven’t found you. When sales slow, that’s when you look to the marketing. When a subscriber base flatlines, it’s time to ramp up the cold lead discovery strategy and conversion optimization plan.

When your platform and its partners (writers) feel limited by the size of the total pot, that’s when it’s time to turn to cold lead marketing. Not to make what you built better. It’s already good. And luckily for a platform like this, it has hundreds of thousands of passionate contributors ensuring that it remains valuable, content-rich, and high-quality for new users to enjoy.

But at some point, someone’s going to have to hunker down and do the hard part: Go tap the untapped market of new, cold leads (future readers). You already built it, and 700,000 did come. The rest may need a flashlight (or some traditional paid marketing, not just PR and SEO) to show them the way.

A new perspective or five

I don’t purport to know everything, and I’m incredibly limited by the public information available to me, just like everyone else. I’m also lacking a crystal ball or psychic abilities to guarantee the expected outcome of any of the aforementioned suggestions post-implementation.

However, I do know a few things with certainty:

  • It’s a lot easier to point fingers, poke holes, and identify shortcomings than it is to formulate viable, valuable, thoughtful, well-informed solutions.
  • In order for any one of the three parties to thrive (the platform, its writers, and its readers), all three must thrive simultaneously. I believe some of the above solutions aim to aid in enhancing those tri-party benefits.
  • If you (a person who benefits from this platform) feel worried about its uncertain future, its owners and founders are probably 100x more concerned. This platform is someone’s baby, and just like all parents (or entrepreneurs), there’s an element of “figuring things out as you go”. Nobody has all the answers the first time around. No two startups behave in exactly the same way. Founders deserve grace, support, and respect. Starting, running, and growing a company is no easy feat, and doing it on a public stage where your smallest misstep makes major news headlines doesn’t make it any easier.

I wasn’t hired as an external business consultant to write this piece. Nobody asked for this. But maybe somebody will find value in it — be that an aspiring entrepreneur, a marketer, or Ev Williams himself.

Before you read another emotional response post, disgruntled rebuttal, or merciless jab at the very person who makes this platform possible, perhaps challenge yourself with the task of bringing something new, innovative, and meaningfully helpful to the situation.

If you aren’t adding value, what are you doing?

Wall Street Investment Banker → Entrepreneur & Startup Consultant. “Top 10 Entrepreneurs of 2020” Yahoo Finance. CEO of Beta Bowl. Mom of 3 furbabies ❤

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