As Palmer says, this kind of model involves something quite rare in the journalism community: the ability to trust that people will support you, even if they don’t have to do so. And the stronger the relationship you have with your readers, the more you’ll be able to trust them. This is why Palmer’s Kickstarter campaign was so successful: not because she had a lot of fans (that, in itself, doesn’t work), but because the connection she has with her fans was so strong. As Paul Smalera says, “digital media needs to reconnect to readers”:
For all of the hype around interactivity, big media is still primarily a one-way street. And the rise of programmatic ad-buying will only reinforce that trend. Most old media revenue officers aren’t going to care about connecting to their online audience, beyond understanding their aggregate profile and average value to an ad network. Yet cultivating those reader relationships on an editorial level can unlock all sorts of value, understanding, and yes, even revenue.
Twitter is great at this: readers are quite right when they feel that they know the people they follow on Twitter, in a way they never do just by reading polished content. But there’s more to connecting with your audience than Twitter. Indeed, the best way of all to do it is to venture out into the real world.
Events are one obvious way of doing that, and can be significant profit drivers in their own right. Atlantic Media is fantastic at monetizing its brand by putting on conferences, as are other franchises: the tech world is a particularly good place for such things, as All Things D or Wired or TechCrunch will attest. The NYT has its DealBook conference, the New Yorker has its festival, and of course the business press has branched out into things like the Economist’s gatherings or the WSJ’s whole suite of events.
Big formal expensive events like these aren’t easy to put on, of course — they require large dedicated staffs, and a huge amount of effort. But non-sponsored events like Radiolab Live are a bit cheaper and easier, and anyone can cobble together a Meetup, or even just tell his readers to meet him at the Oyster Bar for an impromptu celebration.
And events are just one tiny part of the non-digital world which digital creators can put their brand on and sell. The whole Kickstarter phenomenon, for instance, is based on the idea that if you give enough money, you’ll get stuff in return. Palmer was offering glossy books and LPs and CDs and even (if you ponied up $10,000) promised to come and paint your picture and have dinner with you. Tomorrow offered a phone message from a porn star. 99% Invisible offered books and shirts and all manner of other stuff. Kickstarter is no tip jar: make no mistake, it has a very large element of e-commerce to it as well. Meanwhile, Monocle has seven stores around the world, plus an elaborate e-commerce site, and Mental Floss magazine makes a good third of its revenue from selling things.
Think of this as the flipside of content marketing: if brands can bypass publishers and create their own content in order to sell the stuff they produce, then publishers can bypass advertisers and sell their own stuff — be it a $40 chemistry cocktail set or a £415 cashmere scarf — to their readers directly.
The bigger lesson here is that when it comes to persuading your readers to pay you money, it actually helps to be small. There’s an exception for finance, of course, and also for the NYT, which is unique in many ways. But the lesson of Palmer’s talk is that while 25,000 supporters aren’t nearly enough to support a band on a record label, they’re more than enough to support a band on Kickstarter — or, for that matter, to keep an iPad magazine going strong. What’s more, while consumers can be very loyal to brands and to publications, in many ways it’s easier to become loyal to an individual, especially when she has an idiosyncratic and unique voice.