Are you leaning too much on your personal brand?
There's no major trick to making the transition from personal brand to traditional media business.
Welcome! I'm Simon Owens and this is my media newsletter. You can subscribe by clicking on this handy little button:
Hey folks! Today I’m answering questions from readers. If you have a question you want me to answer in a future newsletter, leave it in this thread.
Before we jump into it
So yesterday I got to participate in an amazing Zoom call with several other media operators. It included a founder of one of the most prominent feminist magazines, a lead editor for one of the most well-known financial news publishers, and one of the most popular podcasters.
We spent an entire hour talking about strategies for driving paid subscriptions. The conversation was jam packed with insights from some of the smartest people in the biz. And luckily for you, I recorded it. You can find the video over here.
Ok, now let’s jump into the Q&A…
Are you leaning too much on your personal brand?
Today’s question comes from Liv
Do you think using your personal name as your brand (as opposed to a brand name) helps or hinders your ability to secure sponsorships and partnerships as a means of monetization?
Does using a brand name make it seem like more of an official publication as opposed to a person? And is this a good thing or a bad thing, with regard to sponsorship?
So I’ve interviewed a lot of media entrepreneurs for my podcast and newsletter, and they fall roughly into two categories:
Businesses that lean heavily on a creator’s personal brand: Not only is the person the sole content producer, but their voice/face take center stage. The vast majority of YouTubers, podcasters, and Substack writers fit within this category.
Businesses that don’t lean heavily on a creator’s personal brand: This category includes most traditional media companies. While they might employ well-known personalities, the entire business model doesn’t revolve around an individual person.
There are pros and cons to each of these approaches.
With the personal brand, it’s easier to establish a connection with your audience, and then there’s also the ego trip that’s associated with fame. And to answer your question Liv, I do think it’s easier for creators to find sponsors because the ads come off as personal endorsements, which drive higher ROI. There’s a reason that brands absolutely love to purchase host-read ads from podcasters and YouTubers.
Of course, there are several downsides to businesses that rely heavily on a personal brand.
The first is that it’s difficult to take any kind of extended break without an interruption in content output. For instance, one of my favorite YouTubers is Johnny Harris, and if he got some other random person to stand in for him, I probably wouldn’t watch those videos.
The second is that you can only scale a personal brand so much; if you want to continue growing, then eventually you’ll need to introduce other content creators into the mix.
The third is that it’s extremely difficult to sell a company that centers on a personal brand, at least in such a way that allows you to walk away from the business entirely. A lot of startup founders get into the game because they eventually want to achieve a lucrative exit, but personal brands aren’t great acquisition targets for obvious reasons.
That being said, I really don’t think you need to choose one over the other. There are lots of media businesses that started out as personal brands and then transitioned into more traditional outlets later on. Here are a few examples:
The King of Random
This YouTube channel was founded by Grant Thompson, and he started out by performing random science experiments with his small son. But after a few of his videos went viral, it transformed into a full-time job, and Thompson built it up to over 8 million subscribers.
But then one day he called his manager and told him that he was feeling burnt out and wanted to just shut down the channel completely. His manager talked Thompson off the ledge, and instead they decided to introduce a new co-host to the channel. Thompson then gradually started to step away, and within a matter of months the new co-host was the main face of the channel. From there, that new host started introducing more co-hosts, and eventually it expanded to four separate people who were appearing in front of the camera.
Today, TKOR boasts 15.6 million subscribers across YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok. I wrote a deep dive on how it accomplished its transition from solo creator to full-blown team over here.
Mamamia started out as a one-person blog run by Mia Freedman, a former editor of the Australian edition of Cosmo. Here’s how I described its formation in my profile of the company:
In the early days it was just Freedman on her laptop. “I was writing about six articles a day, trying to do some basic coding, and moderating all the comments,” she said. “This was before social media, and there would be up to 2,000 comments on a post, sometimes.”
Obviously with that level of output Freedman didn’t have the time to conduct any original reporting; instead, her posts were a mixture of aggregation and commentary. “People started to take notice because I had an already-existing profile. I was writing a weekly newspaper column that was national, and I had a profile from my previous work in magazines.”
She also had very little competition. Over in the U.S., there was already a thriving feminist blogosphere, but the equivalent didn’t really exist in Australia. Within only six months or so after launching Mamamia, Freedman realized she had a vibrant community on her hands. “One of the most popular posts I did was a column about the best and worst moments of my week. And then there would be sometimes 2,000, 3000 comments of women sharing the best and worst moments of their week and talking to each other. There was nothing like Mamamia in the Australian market, which is why we had such a first-mover advantage.”
Freedman was working long days and heading towards burnout. But then her husband Jason Lavigne stepped in to help on the business side:
Lavigne went into his role with a completely different mindset than Freedman. Whereas she viewed Mamamia as a blog that rested largely on her personal brand, he knew it needed to be something much bigger than that. “I thought maybe a big media company would come and buy it and Jason pointed out that there was nothing to acquire. It was just me and my laptop. That's when he started to challenge me about what Mamamia could be. In many ways, he had the vision before I did.”
It didn’t take long for Lavigne to settle on Mamamia’s initial business model: advertising. But he knew that the site didn’t have the level of massive scale needed to truly succeed with standard display ad units. “You couldn't commercialize that traffic meaningfully on networked CPMs, so we had to find another model that would work,” he said. “And the model I chose to plug in was branded content, or what’s otherwise known as native advertising.” Lavigne wanted to position the site as a “premium” brand, not one that simply sold bottom-of-the-barrel programmatic advertising …
… Lavigne’s gut instinct was correct. Within the first year after he came on, Mamamia was generating a whopping seven figures in revenue. They were getting so much advertiser demand that they began to grow worried that the ratio of editorial content to paid posts would start alienating readers, so they decided they needed to bring on writers to create more non-advertising articles.
Today, Mamamia isn’t just one of the biggest independent news sites in Australia, it also runs the largest women-focused podcast network in the world.
Babish Culinary Universe
Andrew Rea was miserable in his day job as a film production editor, and one day he randomly uploaded a video of himself recreating a dish from the show Parks & Recreation. After it went viral on Reddit, Rea continued with the format — taking quirky dishes from famous TV shows/films and attempting to prepare them from scratch in his own kitchen.
Within a few years, he was a veritable star, and he probably could have simply continued on as yet another celebrity chef. But instead, he changed his channel name from “Binging with Babish” to “Babish Culinary Universe,” and he started bringing on other food creators to launch their own series. He also created a revenue sharing program that allowed those creators to benefit from the channel’s success.
To hear the full story of how he handled this transition, check out his interview on the How I Built This podcast.
In nearly all these cases, there was no major trick to making the transition from personal brand to traditional media business; it was just a matter of introducing new creators into the mix. In most instances, the original creator continued to produce content, but the company no longer relied solely on them to drive the business forward. Mia Freedman, for instance, still regularly hosts podcasts for Mamamia, but if she retired tomorrow (or sold the company), then it would only cause a minor dent to the outlet’s traffic. Her personal brand served as merely a springboard to something much bigger.
What do you think?
Do you have a product, service, or event you’re looking to promote?
Here are some previous sponsors of this newsletter:
A membership tech platform
A journalism conference
A personal finance newsletter
A newsletter marketing platform
A publishing analytics platform
A marketing agency that specializes in video production
A newsletter for entrepreneurs
A Creator Economy conference
Want to join in on the fun? Read about my audience size, open rates, demographics, and pricing over here.
Leveraging Twitter Spaces to connect with your audience
Earlier this week, I provided four suggestions for how publishers can better nurture their online communities. I put a call out at the end for readers to tell me about how they interact with their audience. Jenna Spinelle provided a great response:
The podcast network I run has had success doing monthly Twitter Spaces with experts in our field. We promote and recap the space in our newsletter and share the audio from event across our podcast feeds, and ask our community for suggestions for topics to cover at upcoming events.
I’ve participated in a few Twitter Spaces, and it seems like a great tool for casually conversing with a large audience. I’ve been meaning to host my own, but I probably would want to team up with a few other people. Interested? Feel free to reach out.
This makes a good point: too many publishers set their paywalls on autopilot and don't continue to test new optimization strategies. This is why I switch up my calls to action all the the time in my newsletter. [The Fix]
Mailchimp seems to be banning all crypto-related newsletters on its platform. [Decrypt] This is a weird move, considering how mainstream crypto is at this point. I understand the notion of banning crypto scammers, but a blanket ban on all crypto products?
Star creators are getting more and more leverage over the tech platforms that compete for them. [The Verge]
Why are so many podcasters using Zoom to record their interviews??? [Podnews]
Do you like this newsletter?
Then you should subscribe here: