Audience Building · · 4 min read

RIP Followers?

Jack Conte (CEO of Patreon) gave a fantastic keynote at SXSW 2024.

The talk was called "Death of the Follower & the Future of Creativity on the Web," and it combined Jack's personal story of coming up as a creator in the early 2000s with a warning about the incentives facing creators on the web today.

Jack Conte at SXSW 2024

It's a wonderful presentation – emotional and inspiring, but also pretty long (46 minutes). Because I think it touches on some fundamental concepts related to the creator economy today, I wanted to give you the Cliff's Notes version and my reaction.

The evolution of the creator economy

Jack was a struggling musician playing to empty rooms when he stumbled upon early YouTube. He became one of the first musicians uploading to the platform. He started getting subscribers and it solved his problem of reaching people with his music.

This is central to Jack's talk – the idea that the early Internet (mid-to-late 2000s) solved a problem of reach. Suddenly, it became possible to get your work in front of people, and those people could subscribe (or follow) your work. Seemingly overnight, this created a new world of possibility for artists, making Kevin Kelly's 1000 True Fans model real.

But things changed in the 2010s. Social platforms (led by Facebook) made the business decision to algorithmically rank content in your feed based on the most engaging rather than chronological. Now, to reach your fans, your content had to outperform the content of other creators they've chosen to follow. He calls the 2010s the age of Ranking.

Things have gotten even harder since the 2020s. In the 2020s, social platforms (led by TikTok) made the business decision to algorithmically rank content in your feed based on the most engaging content on the ENTIRE platform with default For You feeds. Now, creators aren't just competing with the content of other creators you're following...but ALL creators on the platform.

This For You shift (in progress) is what he says may be the Death of the Follower.

And that undermines the previous beauty of the internet because "followers" are no longer assured to SEE your stuff. Social platforms still help you reach more people, and those people can still choose to follow you, but the connection behind that follow just isn't as strong.

However, being a follower is still a step towards what you really want, which is to be a true fan. It's hard to imagine creating a fan without them following you first.

via Jack Conte's presentation at SXSW 2024

This is a new paradigm, and it's a bummer, but it's not all doom and gloom, and it doesn't mean creators can't still make a great living online.

Where we're headed

Subscribers and followers aren't as powerful as they once were, but they're still a step in the right direction. Jack is encouraged by the opportunity to connect with your fans directly through third-party tools that aren't built on ad revenue the way social channels are.

Disclaimer: This is where the presentation becomes a pseudo-ad for Patreon, but it's coming from a good place.

Jack's argues that creators should strive to grow their base of true fans. Loyal fans. Superfans. He advocates for designing your business (yes, creators are a business) to depend on a direct-to-fan model (true fans) rather than an advertising model (reach). He points to platforms like Kajabi, Fourthwall, Patreon, etc. as a great way to build direct-to-fan relationships.

OK, that's the summary, so...

My Take

I agree with just about everything Jack says here. Patreon bias aside, he's being honest about how competitive "attention" has gotten. For You feeds have made it harder and harder to compete for attention that isn't hyper-focused on a narrow topic.

One area where he and I agree is the focus on leveraging social platforms for their reach while understanding that you build true fandom elsewhere. I call these Discovery Platforms (social, YouTube, SEO) and Relationship Platforms (email, podcasting, SMS, and communities). The best way to get people into your Relationship Platforms is by leveraging Discovery Platforms.

We have some slight disagreements about the business model. Jack delineates ad-based revenue models (going for massive reach) and direct-to-fan revenue models (selling products/services/experiences to your fans). He implicilty seems to advocate for the latter, which I agree – direct revenue (as I call it) gives you a LOT more control and resilience. But it's really challenging for some creators, especially in entertainment. Indirect revenue (advertising, sponsorship, affiliate) still powers a lot of businesses and should be considered seriously. You can have both – but direct revenue is definitely the more valuable of the two.

The bottom line is that platforms providing discovery (reach) are unreliable long-term. They make decisions that are in their business's best interests, which may not be aligned with YOUR best interests. So you want to make design your business to be sustainable without relying on those platforms. A direct-to-fan business model is so powerful.

Once you have the foundation of a direct-to-fan model, leverage the discovery those platforms provide you for as long as you can. There is a lot of upside – you just can't always depend on it.

Recommended: This essay on designing your content strategy ↗

Watch Jack's Full Keynote here:

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