From direct-to-consumer to direct-to-believers

“Your competition isn’t limited to other organizations that also do news. Your competition is what your true believer spends her time doing instead of reading your Very Important Article.”

No attention = no relationship = no monetization = no business. Make sense? Illustration by Rishad Patel
No attention = no relationship = no monetization = no business. Make sense? Illustration by Rishad Patel

A version of this piece first appeared on Nieman Lab as part of their Predictions For Journalism 2021 collection. 

Whatever you do in 2021, make sure you’re building your media business around something valuable enough to pay for.

It might seem unoriginal to say this in a prediction of trends, but 2021 will be like the past ten years in media: a constant battle for attention. Media continues to compete with every single app on your phone. 2021 will require you to go deeper in building a direct relationship — with not just your users or audiences, but with your true believers. Unless you’re able to capture attention and build a relationship, you can’t monetize, and therefore, you don’t have a business.

We really mean believer, because these people are often buying into a mission they believe in, not just a subscription to a media product.

Worship the believer

Who are your media company’s true believers? It’s in the data, but you probably already know many by their first names. It’s the person who types your URL into their browser — or has had your website open in a tab for months. She shows up at almost every single online event you run. His newsletter open rate is hovering around 84 percent. She’s liking every other one of your tweets.

Your work in media needs to be dictated by how you serve your 100 truest believers. We need their voices to inform our decisions about how we run our businesses, how we think about finding, processing, and publishing media — both in the form of quantitative, structured information and in subjective, anecdotal conversations.

Yes, actual conversations. As privacy regulations encroach, you’ll have to resort to more traditional ways of understanding your believer; you may actually have to talk to them.

These aren’t just conversations about what she thinks about your podcast — these are conversations about who she is. What does she do for work? What problems does she live with? What does she do when she’s bored?

You’ll probably realize a lot of things quite quickly. What is at the core of your media business? What can you do to address her problems — maybe even solve them? What are your operating principles? And who is your competition?

Here’s another realization that will likely follow quickly: Your competition isn’t limited to other organizations that also do news. Your competition is what your true believer spends her time doing instead of reading your Very Important Article. Often, it’s Netflix. Or Fortnite. Or, as Netflix themselves once put it, sleep.

Another realization will come around the amount of content you produce. In those conversations with your believers, ask them whether they really wake up every morning looking for the day’s breaking news. Chances are she isn’t really thinking about your news cycle. So do you really need to be publishing 25 stories a day? Or are you shouting into that existential void of publishing: If nobody’s reading your stories then do they really exist? Fewer, more relevant stories are the way forward.

A great deal of how she consumes media is in her social feeds. This is an incredible opportunity to break yourself out of that ever-churning cycle and own your own conversation with her. All the tools to do this exist on your phone, and they’re mostly free or cheap: email newsletters, podcasts, and good old-fashioned chats over a coffee (or, these days, the friendly neighborhood video platform of your choice). If you don’t ask, how will you know?

Funnelling believers

Remember the marketing funnel? Awareness, interest, desire, action, loyalty. There’s another important stage at the end of this: advocacy. Someone who will stand up and tell everyone else how useful (and valuable!) you are to them. After all, that’s one reason they’re a believer in the first place.

They probably believe in your principles. They probably believe in your work. They also probably believe in you, because you’ve demonstrated that you see them and validate them and respect their opinions. But more than anything, they probably find what you do useful and relevant to their lives.

Your believers are your best advocates. How many people do you have in your Mailchimp mailing list who would do that for you? Having a 10,000-strong mailing list doesn’t matter if none of them will vouch for you. Having 300,000 likes won’t matter if they’re drive-by likers.

Your relationships with these believers are profoundly valuable; they’re making an investment in you. Don’t blow it.

Rishad Patel is a product and design professional. He is the co-founder of Splice Media. Follow Rishad Patel on Twitter.

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