The colossal shift in social media algorithms could lead to the death of the follower for creators, says Jack Conte, CEO and founder of Patreon, in his SXSW ’24 keynote, Death of the Follower and the Future of Creativity on the Web.

In his 45-minute talk, Jack went through the evolution of the internet as a platform for democratized creative distribution. With the origin of Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, creators could actively participate instead of “being a passenger” on the internet. YouTube’s motto at the time was “Broadcast yourself.”

“This moment in history marked a shift for humanity, and for artists and creators especially, because for the first time on the internet, you could do more than just consume. You could create. You could reach other people,” Jack says.

However, what was an exciting opportunity over 15 years ago has evolved into a nerve-wracking model where the creators building on those platforms can see access to their audience drop precipitously with an algorithm change.

This algorithmic adjustment could make the next decade all about direct-to-audience models for content businesses. “We’ll still need social platforms … for discovery, for reach … but those companies will be one component of the many tools that we have as creative people to help us run our communities,” Jack says.

Jack points to a concept introduced 16 years ago by Kevin Kelly, the founding editor of Wired Magazine – 1,000 True Fans. Kevin said the age of the internet means a content creator doesn’t need millions of fans to be successful; they need 1,000 true fans. If that group spends $100 on the creator’s offerings, that’s $100K annually in revenue.

As Jack explains, “This is different than just reaching people. It’s even deeper than followers. This is super fans … Followers are people who want to see more. True fans are the people who buy.”

He knows of which he speaks. He is the founder of a platform where over 250K creators sell subscriptions, bringing in over $3.5B to date.

The hallmark of these businesses is focusing on deeper connections, not just more connections. Five percent of the audience drives 90% of the community and industry. “This is about depth of connection. This is about maximizing attention. This is about deeper fans,” Jack says.

True fan business model

Entrepreneurs who focus on true fans must develop revenue streams that work best with that strategy. You are less likely to sell access to your audience. You are more likely to sell to your audience.

For example, advertising probably won’t work well with a small but enthusiastic audience. Most brands pay for advertising based on potential reach – they want the most people possible to see their ads. Brand sponsorships are often based on total impressions, so they might not be the best revenue stream to attack.

A true fan model should be built around direct-purchase revenue streams. Think subscriptions, memberships, online courses, etc. But before they will buy – and continue to buy – they must have an authentic connection and interest in your content brand.

Here are some ways to do that:

1. Acknowledge the audience: People like to know their actions don’t happen in a void – that a real person is behind the email, social accounts, etc. When someone engages with your content, respond. You could welcome all your new members by mentioning their handles in a weekly post. Like and reply to every comment. 

    Opt to send a personalized thank-you email instead of a boilerplate note when someone subscribes to your newsletter. (A handwritten note can go a long way if you get their mailing address.)

    2. Ask them to get more involved: When you proactively reach out to an audience member, they are more likely to do what you ask and value their connection to you and your brand more. If you see someone with an interesting insight or innovative idea, ask them to write an article for your blog or guest on your podcast. 

      See if an active member of your digital community would be willing to serve as a moderator – or at least give you a heads-up if a posting requires immediate attention. Ask active members for a one-on-one conversation so you can learn more about them, why they’re interested in your brand, etc. Not only does it enhance your direct relationship, but it also provides valuable market research for your business development.

      3. Invite them into the buying process: Continue the ask process by inviting them to buy from you. It may seem odd, especially if you’re not experienced in sales. After all, these true fans already know you sell stuff; you don’t need to become the stereotypical used-car salesperson who just pushes, pushes, and pushes until they buy. But you can connect the dots to help them understand which products might be best for their needs.

        Offer an entry-level or lower-priced product to accommodate all budgets, an affordable test to see if they want to invest more in your business. 

        Package a content product with value-added benefits. For example, sell an e-book accompanied by templates the customer can use to do it themselves. Or let graduates of an online course know about the next-level course that will help them on their path.

        4. Involve them in content creation: Your content tilt may lend itself well to involving your audience in your content, such as quoting or profiling them. If so, do that. Or ask them to create content, such as guest blogs or hosting. If not, look for other opportunities. You could ask for article or podcast episode ideas and give them a shout-out when you use it.

        5. Celebrate with the community: When you involve your audience, they see themselves as part of your business. They are not merely observers of what’s happening; they’re contributing to it. Given that, celebrate your successes with them. If you hit a milestone podcast episode or newsletter edition, thank them for making it happen. Send a virtual (or physical) gift – or at least a note – on the fan’s anniversary with your business.

        Building a direct-to-audience model content business means you don’t have to fret about surviving what Jack Conte calls “the death of the follower.” You’re all about the true fans – those super audience members – not the masses who may glance at your content.

        About the author

        Ann regularly combines words and strategy for B2B, B2C, and nonprofits, continuing to live up to her high school nickname, Editor Ann. An IABC Communicator of the Year and founder of G Force Communication, Ann coaches and trains professionals in all things content. Connect with her on LinkedIn and Twitter.