5 creators reveal their #1 growth hack
Five successful media entrepreneurs spelled out the single biggest change they made to their business that drove the most success.
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Hello from Denmark! I’m here to speak at a media conference about how publishers can take their podcasting and newsletter operations to the next level. Luckily, the jet lag made it extremely easy for me to wake up super early to put together today’s newsletter.
More creators reveal their #1 growth hack
Last week, I reached out to several successful media entrepreneurs and asked them all variations of the same question:
What is the single biggest change that you made to your content operations that had the greatest impact on growth — either with your business or your audience? I'm specifically looking for some kind of lightbulb idea you had that, when implemented, generated huge results that changed the course of your content business.
The responses I got were amazing — so amazing, in fact, that I decided to break them up into two separate newsletters. Last week I published an article titled “8 creators reveal their #1 growth hack.” Today, I’m adding five additional responses to the mix.
Let’s jump into them:
Kevin Jones, founder of Blue Wire, a media company with over 275 podcasts, focused mostly on sports, entertainment and culture:
The single biggest change we made in our content operations was creating a strict process for how we recruit podcasters inside of Salesforce.
We had been recruiting podcasters in a free-for-all, melting pot way on excel spreadsheets. Capturing the correct method to this madness was a paramount challenge to get Blue Wire to the next level.
In February of 2021 we created a scoresheet for how we recruit podcasters and moved the content system into Salesforce.
We grade podcasters from 1 to 10 on categories like their Twitter engagement, whether they have a YouTube, are they a beat reporter. We use this score to guide us to find the best free agent talent in podcasting.
Example: Bob Costas scores very low in Blue Wire's recruiting process even though he's a Hall of Fame broadcaster. Lots of former athletes with huge followings but low social engagement also score low in our process.
Once we've identified a podcaster is a great fit for us, we reach out to them via Twitter DMs, email or through a mutual contact.
We are aiming to log as many podcasters as possible that own their IP and could one day become Blue Wire podcasters.
Once we sign podcasters, we then move them into our two other content operation centers: Creator IQ, where we track social impressions, and Megaphone, where we house all of our audio downloads.
Utilizing best in class technology was an easy decision for us as opposed to building our own software.
Operationalizing our approach to recruiting helped explode Blue Wire's business from 120 podcasts across 2M downloads in February 2021 to 275 podcasts across 12M monthly downloads today.
By focusing on certain criteria for podcasters, saying no to most shiny objects such as athletes and big media names, and documenting it all in Salesforce, Blue Wire will double the size of its business in 2022 to $9.5M in revenue and 125M downloads
We are arguably the leaders of our niche: identifying upcoming sports and entertainment podcasters with existing audiences and helping them grow
Randy Cassingham, founder of This is True, one of the longest-running editorial newsletters on the internet:
Let’s start with some context: Cassingham launched his newsletter in the early 90s, before email service providers like Mailchimp existed. That meant he had to manually send out each newsletter and then also manually remove email addresses from his list that bounced back. Once his newsletter hit over 100,000 subscribers, this work became enormously time intensive.
To relieve this burden somewhat, he only sent out the free newsletter every other week, and on alternating weeks he syndicated it to paying print newspapers.
But obviously I was paying attention to the economics, too, and the pattern became very clear: I'd make a bunch of money on book sales, ad placements, etc., when [a free newsletter issue] came out, and then it would peter off, getting to about zero in about a week. There would then be a dead week, and then another [free] issue comes out, and I'd get another surge of cash. In the meantime, there was pent-up demand from the real fans for weekly [newsletters], and that's when the lightbulb came on. It was 1997, and I told readers they could get it weekly again ...for a fee.
In other words, Cassingham decided to launch a paid version of his newsletter. Under his new model, free subscribers received it biweekly, but paying subscribers received a weekly version. This was 20 years before the invention of Substack.
This was January 1997: I had the ability to take credit cards, but not online! No Paypal account either. So [subscribers had to send] checks in the mail, and lots of them, until a reader offered to set up a simple payment system on his secure server.
[I saw an] IMMEDIATE improved cash flow. I had actually taken out a loan on my life insurance since I was getting critically low on cash, but sent the check back because I didn't need it. I ended the year with a 71% higher gross than the year before, and grossed 50% more each year for several years after that. It was absolutely life changing.
Also in 1997 the first ESP came online (Lyris), and I was freed from manual bounce processing. I still had the two-week cycle going, so that fall I switched the free newsletter back to weekly, which practically doubled sales right there, because having the free newsletter was absolutely key: unlike the paid edition, the free edition encourages forwarding to friends, so with double the send frequency, free subscriptions jumped, too. The more free subscribers that came in, the more Premium grew.
Under this new structure, subscribers to the paid version got an expanded version of the newsletter that contained additional content.
In 2007, small business coach Paul Lemberg wrote about it in his book "Be Unreasonable", saying that “This is True may have been the first viral marketing success.”
The turn of the century was very, very good for This is True.
The only thing I did wrong was not charge enough! Another lesson for another time, I guess.
Ari Lewis, co-founder of Payload, one of the leading newsletters about the space industry:
I'm going to answer two things: Growth & Revenue.
On the growth side, I would add the max amount of people LinkedIn would allow me to add a week until the app would not let me. I'd make sure that each person I added worked in the space industry. Once I did that, I'd send them a message asking them to sign up for the newsletter. I don't know the amount that signed-up, but I would not be surprised that at least 10% of our audience — but potentially as high as 25% — have signed up because of the message I sent them on LinkedIn. The best way to jumpstart a newsletter is to personally ask people to sign up.
On the revenue side, it would be going to conferences. Our industry really values personal touch. Historically, our industry has conducted the majority of their business deals at conferences. For me, I'd say more than 50% of revenue we generated I either met the decision maker at the conference or held a meeting with them at a conference that led to the sale. In B2B media businesses, clients still love meeting in-person.
Snigdha Sur, founder of The Juggernaut, an online magazine targeted toward the South Asian diaspora:
Paid [marketing] is usually not a sustainable growth strategy unless you have signal. The way you get signal is to *not* do paid at first and see how your articles perform. Wait about 1-2 weeks. Then put paid marketing spend behind your best performing articles. This might be obvious but I feel that marketing departments often are too quick to put spend behind something. You want to figure out if it is truly a global vs local maximum first. …
…The results? Content is often a hit driven business. Sometimes one article can lead to hundreds and even thousands of subscribers long after you’ve published it. Oh and our strategy is to do about 90-95% evergreen and 5-10% news cycle related. That increases the longevity of each piece to basically infinity.
Mia Freedman, founder of Mamamia, one of the largest independent media companies in Australia:
We swam against the tide when most media brands pivoted to video at the urging of Facebook. We didn’t have the budget or the capability to compete in the video space at the level of our competitors so we pivoted to audio in 2012. Actually, we didn’t pivot, we just added it to our slate of written and social content.
There was no barrier to entry and no capital required. Our first podcasts were recorded on an iPhone sitting in a cupboard. And then we just build our own studio from supplies we bought at the local hardware store. We had no idea what we were doing but it didn’t matter.
Podcasting was still so nascent then and would be for many more years. We leveraged the audience for our written content into podcast listeners by embedding relevant audio into written articles and then as we launched new shows, we moved those readers and listeners around our network.
Many women were new to podcasts and we had first mover advantage many years before any of our competitors even dipped their toe into audio.
It took a long time to bring advertisers along. Most were slow to catch onto the fact that women were disproportionately large podcast consumers and it wasn’t until we could show them 82 percent unaided recall of podcast ads in our shows that they started paying attention.
That and the fact that Apple quickly told us we were the largest womens podcast network in the world.
The other decision we took early on was that all our podcasts are owned and operated. Having the control and IP ownership on all our shows means we can maintain quality and avoid talent management. A lot of big podcast networks owned by radio companies have been established in the last couple of years in Australia and it’s just been a land grab for them to try and nab as many independents as possible but what happens is that the talent just move from network to network. There’s no longevity there and the margins are much lower because it’s all a rev share.
Todays we have 50 podcast for women across every category from parenting to finance, pop culture, sport and news. And nearly 50 percent of our audience and revenue is generated by audio.
As a major added bonus, because of the loyalty of podcast listeners, audio has been a primary driver and turbo charged paid subscriptions across our network.
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Apple liked to pretend it was holier-than-thou when it came to its advertising and privacy policies, but then it decided to double down on its own advertising products. [9to5 Mac]
The tech publication Protocol was kneecapped right out of the gate, seeing as how it laid off half its staff mere months after launching. It's not surprising that it never recovered from that setback. [CNN]
I'm surprised it's taken this long for Patreon to launch a native video player given that YouTubers make up a substantial portion of its creator base. [The Verge]
What's the RPM (revenue per thousand views) that YouTube pays out to its creators? It can range anywhere from $1 to $29, depending on the type of content your produce. [Insider]
This is the third long profile I've read of the Axel Springer CEO in the last few months. I'm getting the sense that he's trying to brand himself as the next Rupert Murdoch. [New York]
It's cool to see a media outlet that started out as something deliberately small and niche cautiously expand into new verticals. [NYT]
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Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at email@example.com. For a full bio, go here.
Which media conference in Denmark was it?
Great post Simon. Appreciate your intensive deep dives!