Jennifer Tribe, host: My guest today is Gina Bianchini, CEO of Mighty Networks, a platform for building community.
In this episode, we take a look at why Gina believes that thinking of ourselves as podcasters is the wrong mindset, what people really want from creators (and it’s not just content), how to justify a much higher subscription price than you’re probably charging right now, and what’s driving creator burnout across the industry.
We also review the 3 questions every successful community must be able to answer—and how our Supercasters community didn’t quite measure up to those questions.
This episode was recorded a few months ago so we’ve been working on improving the Supercasters community ever since we got this advice from Gina and we’ve found her tips to be very helpful and effective, so I think you’ll also get some great takeaways from this chat. And remember to join the Supercasters community, go to premium.supercast.com and click the free signup link.
And with that, let’s get to it.
Hi Gina, welcome to Supercasters.
Gina Bianchini, guest: Thank you for having me.
“Content alone will kill the creator economy”
Jennifer: So excited to have you. You've been doing a lot of publishing, a lot of thinking, a lot of work around the creator economy, recently published a creator manifesto that I definitely want to dig into today, but I wanted to start the conversation with a very interesting quote from you that I found on The Information. And that quote was content alone will kill the creator economy. I thought that was so interesting and I want to unpack what that means to you a little bit.
Gina: Yeah. First of all, thank you so much for having me. The second thing that I would just open with is, in addition to having my own opinions about this, I actually wanted to commission independent research about the creator economy. So when we talk about creators and content alone will kill the creator economy, which was meant to be as provocative as it sounded. And also, though, this is all backed up by the largest study done of creators and what is happening is based in more than opinion, but also the lived experiences of creators today.
Gina: So with that as a preamble, the reason that I wrote this piece, content alone will kill the creator economy, was because… I am from Silicon Valley originally. I've been an entrepreneur for a long time. And the thing that we know about building successful software businesses is that you want to have something that is sustainable, you want to have something that is scalable. So for example, in our world, building a network of people, where your software connects people to each other in pursuit of results, transformation, marketplaces have ranged from everything from Facebook and Instagram to eBay and Poshmark, certainly the marketplaces of Uber and Airbnb.
Gina: When you think about what software has learned, it is fundamentally that creating connections between people and doing something that scales is the single best type of business that you can build in this decade. So with that as background, we have now convinced millions of people to aspire to building a content business where my job is to produce a ton of content to build an audience. An audience, by definition, is something that you have to keep feeding because they are following you but they are not connected to each other. And the problem with that is that when you are expected to produce content every day, multiple times a day, what is the outcome of that?
Jennifer: Typically burnout after a while.
Gina: Correct. It's exhaustion. Human beings were not built to be content production machines. And it doesn't mean that there isn't a role for content. It doesn't mean that there isn't an important role for social media. It doesn't mean that there aren't opportunities. But when you think about content alone, it is an unsustainable model that is really a path to exhaustion, burnout, challenges to your mental health. And it just doesn't have to be this way. What we've learned in Silicon Valley over the last 30 years is that the most sustainable businesses to build are these businesses that connect people to each other so that they actually have things that they can talk about and navigate and collaborate on together.
And so when you think about content versus, say, a community where you connect people to each other and it's all in pursuit of something bigger than themselves, content becomes an ingredient in terms of bringing people together. But it's never going to be the thing that allows you to create something sustainable and scalable in the same exact way. So from where I'm sitting, content is a great place to start. But I would even argue that the most successful creators that are starting out today — so these are the folks that don't already have a large audience — the most successful and the most savvy are thinking about creating a community first or a community at the same time as they are building an audience on social media through content. And again, why I wanted to use such provocative language in talking about content is because so much of the conversation has been about content alone, and it is not creating great outcomes. There is a different path and one that I think is really exciting and one that I'm seeing firsthand really work for people.
The difference between audience and community
Jennifer: You touched on the definitions of audience and community, but I'd like to clarify those a bit. So what I'm hearing is audience is maybe a group of people who are consuming content from a creator.
Gina: Yeah, they're consuming content. They're also consuming your content alongside consuming a lot of other people's content. That's the whole point of an aggregated feed of content.
Jennifer: OK, and then community, is the defining characteristic of a community that the members are speaking to each other?
Gina: Yes. So you may bring them together or convene them with your content. But why are they staying? You basically go from one person responsible for engaging that audience to an infinite, potentially infinite number of reasons to come back because it's as much for the relationships that are being built between members as it is for the content being produced by the creator.
Jennifer: I wonder what your thoughts are on communities where the creator of the community, the leader of the community is really so personality driven. I'm thinking, for example, of the Dave Gerhardt marketing community where certainly people are talking to each other, but what they love most is when they hear from Dave himself. What do you think of that dynamic and is that also fatiguing for the creator?
Gina: I don't think so because well, so a couple of things… they love the best. We know in the world that people want facilitators. They want guides. They want structure and frameworks. So what Dave's providing is all of those things. So when he is talking, he's essentially bringing the energy to those relationships and giving people another reason to talk to each other. That's not a bad thing at all. When you think about that facilitation, facilitation is so much easier than content production that is the only thing you're doing, and that's why content alone. So to me the facilitator, the creator is unlocking conversations and unlocking value, but it's also they're unlocking value because they're giving members a reason to tell their stories.
You're not just getting someone's framework, you're getting then OK well, how does that framework get applied to the situations or the marketing opportunities or whatever those things are across hundreds or thousands or tens of thousands of members. That's really impressive. So now what you have is this ability to say, OK, here's the framework. But oh, man, I listen to Jennifer talk about applying the framework in this way and Gina's doing this other thing. And Wendy had a really interesting idea because she's in a totally different market than I am. I'm going to take that idea and I'm going to take all four of those ideas and I'm going to apply them to my situation.
What's more valuable: listening to a podcast of Dave or watching a video of Dave or listening to a podcast or watching a video of Dave and then hearing the stories and experiences and ideas of 10 or 20 relevant people. It's obvious what is more valuable. You're going to learn faster, you're going to learn more more quickly by being in community around a topic you care about. And you know what? That's why kids go to school together. That's why where you go to college is more about the people that are there with you, not the lectures alone. We can watch a lecture on a Zoom call with a PDF. It's the people that are applying it with you that's so powerful.
Build community as you’re building an audience
Jennifer: You mentioned that some of the really savvy creators in the field today are building their communities as they're building their audiences. And I wonder how you do that. To me, it feels like you want to build critical mass with your audience, and then some of those will peel off into a community. So I would love to hear your thoughts on how you do both at the same time.
Gina: Yeah. So I think that model is the most sort of destructive framework that exists. And here's why. If we take that what I just described is more valuable than an audience alone, just watching the video and looking at the PDF alone, just thinking about it from a course perspective, if we think that that's the case, why wouldn't you want to go directly into a community where again doesn't mean that you're not potentially posting your lead magnet on YouTube. That doesn't mean that you're not doing that. But what I've seen time and time again, it's like, Oh, well, I have to go build my audience first. Why? If you actually start with the community, first of all, you can find much more effective results quickly. Plus, you have... even if you had 10 people in your first workshop, you have 10 more people who are talking about what you're doing to their networks versus if you're thinking that the only way that you're going to build something successful is if you go build your own audience.
That's a lot harder to do, especially today. Because most of the social platforms, how do they make their money? They basically say, Hey, you want our audience? You want to build an audience. Guess what? You got to advertise. So would you rather find 10 people who are going to invite in 10 or 100 more people at the same time that you're building out your course, especially if you don't already have an audience? Or would you prefer to build an audience first, take six more months or 10 more months or 12 more months and exhaust yourself because that's an exhausting path and not have those 10 or 20 or 100 people that are also out singing the praises of what you're doing and what you're building and how it delivered results and transformation for them. It just doesn't make any sense. I'll give you a couple of stats. So at Mighty Networks our platform where you can build content and community together in one place under your brand, the top 250 highest earners — so these are people that are making a million plus a year. Their average social media following, what do you think it is? Making over a million a year.
Gina: Eight thousand. Eight thousand. And so there's no correlation. Again, that doesn't mean if you don't already have an audience having a community isn’t awesome. But we are seeing people make a thousand dollars a month from $40 monthly fees with 30 people, and to make that same amount of money on YouTube, you need millions of views to make that same amount, that's just a thousand dollars a month. To make that on Instagram, you need over, I think, 100,000 followers. So tell me which one is easier: bringing 30 people together around something that's important to them, and then utilizing those 30 people to get the word out to a broader network or going and building 100,000 person following on Instagram or uncovering ways to get to a million plus views per month on YouTube.
3 things that make communities work well
Jennifer: Certainly amassing those huge audiences and then monetizing through advertising, which is the pennies per thousand model is difficult and takes a lot of effort. And that's part of why we recommend subscription podcasting so heavily because you are getting paid for those people to engage with you and they want more content from you. I'm wondering, though, about the work to keep your audience engaged, especially when it's so small. I mean, I'll be totally transparent. We are building a Supercasters community. We've tried a couple of different platforms and the struggle that we have is cultivating conversation. There’s lots of people in there who could learn from each other, but nobody's posting anything.
Gina: Right. So here's a couple of things. One, are people clear about the results that they're going to get from the Supercasters community? Is it hey, we're going to talk about the podcast episodes or is there a meatier challenge in the whole thing and is it really clear who it's for? So the three things that we've seen that make paid communities work really well: a very clear what we call ideal member — who is the community for. So it's not just hey, we're all fans of Supercaster, but rather we are bringing together aspiring podcasters or we are bringing together aspiring creators in health and wellness to be...see how much more specific that is. That is how to create a lot of value.
Second piece of that: people in transitions, people aspiring to what it is they want to do next. So how does Supercasters deliver to somebody, a cohort, a community, great information, great knowledge as they are navigating a transition in their lives. Then the second piece that you need is OK, towards what end? What am I going to get from it? I might pay $5 a month for access to interesting episodes before... It's still a hard model versus where you can pull people together around a specific goal, specific result that people want to get, which is where you can increase the price that you would be charging in any given month. And then the third thing is great, how are we going to get there? So if it is just about let's learn and share together, that is too general in 2022 or if it's just about we'll talk about episodes, that's too general for 2022.
So rather the way to actually build a compelling small community that is membership-driven is who's it for? What are we going to do together? And what results are we going to get as a result of doing those things together that go deeper? So I have a feeling by just what you told me that the way that you've set it up is, Hey, we run this podcast, we have this membership community, come in and talk. And or post. And the problem with that and we talk about this and we're about to release a bunch of stuff on this, is you actually need a culture guide as well. And that's not guidelines. That's not here are all the things that you don't do. It's literally helping people understand what they do do. For example, in this community do we DM people? What do people post? And the reality is that people really love to respond with comments or answering polls as a way to break the ice, as a way to get comfortable.
No one's going to show up and start posting right off the bat because it would be like showing up at a party. Especially all of us who've been in our house for two years, we're a little bit feral as human beings, so the idea that we're going to show up in a community and know what to do is really low. The only people that show up and start posting in a community are spammers. Rather, what we need to have to make communities so effective is just simply here's our culture. On Tuesdays, we do this. On Wednesdays, we have the question of the day. One of our most popular resources is the art and science of asking a great question. And we have hundreds of them and our goal for 2022 is to create a thousand compelling questions that break the ice, that get people talking to each other. The tools in your toolbox are so much greater when you move beyond oh, people should show up and talk and they're not talking. It's not hard, it's just you have to kind of know and think about it a little bit differently
Finding a common purpose
Jennifer: It sounds very much like a community works really well for a coach, a course creator. What about for a podcaster who might be like, for example, one of our podcasters is just reality TV commentary. They have a thriving Facebook group. But I wonder, in terms of your model is like, what are we going to do together, what podcasters like that, what the answer to their question would be.
Gina: Sure. So clearly there's interest. It doesn't sound like they're having the problem that you just described. You have to diagnose what the problem is before you can deliver on it. So you just gave me a problem and I spent a little bit of time diagnosing it up. like, OK, well, if engagement is the problem... They don't sound like they have a problem with engagement. Now they might if they move off Facebook. I doubt it. We don't see that is actually happening all that often. But what I would say is how do you take that interest and harness it into something a little bit deeper?
So the answer to your question of can podcasts create thriving communities? For sure. For sure. We see that all the time. One of my favorite examples is a retirement investment podcast started by a guy named Roger Whitney. It's called the Rock Retirement Podcast, and he turned it into what is today a thriving membership community because going back to the prior example, people don't want to just hear from Roger and his guests, they want to know what other people are doing. So just take that example, and then we'll come back to your reality TV example in a second. But you could imagine, like, the thing we're going to do in the Rock Retirement podcast community is help you come up with your retirement plan, your epic life. That sounds fun to think about.
Coming to back to reality TV example, so what people are probably engaging around is identity, they're investing their time watching these shows, and they need other people to talk to about how ridiculous it is or how much they love it, or Oh my God, I have to have a place to share my feelings about this show. That is a totally reasonable way of building a community. Now there's also some really cool things that you could do together. Imagine you started a collaboration challenge. We call them quests. But imagine you started something that's like, what the next great reality TV show. Imagine this community that clearly has a following could go to TV studios and pitch or go to the next production companies and pitch the next great reality show.
You're telling me that that's not a super compelling, interesting thing for a community to do that, by the way, would raise the profile of that podcast, make heroes out of the members of that community, bring energy and enthusiasm to that community in ways that are there but maybe ebb and flow a little bit today. And then tell me that the press doesn't want to have a story about how this reality show came out of an online community that was started by this podcast. The place I would want to go for the people that are super into talking about reality shows is the community around a reality show podcast. That would be fun.
Think bigger than podcasting to earn higher income
Jennifer: I've looked at some of the research that you've put out, and I think the average membership price is about $40 per month, is that right?
Jennifer: And for podcasts, just industry averages, we're looking at five to fifteen dollars per month. Obviously some subscription podcasters, they're also building communities, so one of the perks that a subscriber would get is you also get access to our Facebook group, our Discord or whatever. ... Do you think that with the podcast as the front door that you could bring it up to $40 or $50 a month and people would pay that for a podcast that has a community attached to it?
Gina: It's all in how you're framing your own opportunity. Is the thing you're doing a podcast or is the thing you're doing bringing together a set of people who want to find each other and that the means by which you are doing that is a podcast or a channel on YouTube or an Instagram account. You're limiting yourself by thinking about the feature or the mechanism more than it is about what is the value that... The value that you are creating is not in how you deliver your content, the value that you are creating or even the audience that you're building, the value that you are creating is giving people a reason to pay attention to something that they care about and a way to manifest their identity, which then could be reinforced by other people. So just coming back to our reality show example.
So somebody is probably going to pay five bucks a month as a quote unquote perk for access to the Facebook group. But would they pay $40 a month or the equivalent of whatever that annual fee is to be a part of an exclusive awesome community of reality show die-hards that are coming up with new reality shows for production companies and TV networks. It's totally different. You can keep doing the exact same thing that you're doing. It's just the outgrowth. It's how you package and how you position these things that really matters. Or coming back to the Rock Retirement podcast. If he continued to think about what he's building as just a podcast, he probably would have done, you know, $5 and then a Facebook group, although his audience was like, Whatever you do, do not start a Facebook group, we do not want another Facebook group. And this was a few years ago.
If he would have just thought about it as his podcast content, he wouldn't have created a half million dollar business for himself over and above on what he's doing the podcast for. Another example is a phenomenal Mighty Network guy named Martinus Evans, who has an Instagram account called 300 Pounds and Running. He represents the back of the pack runners, slow runners. His community? The Slow AF Run club. You can look up AF if you need to. And it was only when he started the Slow AF Run club that he unlocked more revenue streams for what he was doing from his Instagram account and his podcast.
And he was never going to get the Adidas global ambassador role that he has or sell that book deal without them knowing, not just that he had a following, but he had an active community that was coming back for virtual races and training programs and all of the things that he's been doing. And so the question again just comes back to what is your niche and what are the things that you can do that bring joy, that bring education, that bring knowledge and identity to the people that you already have in your world? And then you can think about the channels of delivery differently. But if it's all about the podcast as a thing, you're limiting your own mental models for what's possible.
Web3 takes communities to the next level
Jennifer: I like that idea of switching away from thinking I am a podcaster and this is my content and what I do versus I am a community enabler. I am a solver of problems or a bringer of joy, as you said. Facilitating connections between people. A lot of the things that you talk about in the creator manifesto, bringing power back to the creators. Not relying on the platforms. No intermediaries between you and your audience. Groups that work collaboratively and even own work collaboratively. A lot of these are hallmarks of web3. And so I wonder how you think about community in the context of web3 and some of the things that are developing.
Gina: Hopefully if anyone is still with us in this podcast, you would assume that what I have been talking about transitions really nicely into a web3 world. So what is web3? So web3 is about shared upside and shared ownership in a community and creating value as a community so when you create whether it's an NFT or whether it's a token, the value of it isn't in that sort of one transaction. It's in what happens to that asset over time. So how do you build... again where we started at the beginning of this conversation was how do you create value over time? You have lots of different reasons to come together. So it's not just about the creator pushing out content to an audience. Value comes in how does an asset grow in value? Well, that comes from the community.
So how do you create shared upside in the community? Well you want to have really clear member roles. Can't really do that with an audience. You need to do that in terms of the connections and the collaborations between members. So the most valuable NFTs today, the most valuable tokens, have the strongest communities with a lot of other things to do. There's a reason why Board Ape Yacht Club is being talked about as a modern day membership club like the Soho House in the real world, and everything we have talked about is completely aligned with that. So does Mighty Networks play in web3? Yes. Does Mighty Networks… will it play even more comprehensively in web3 over the next 6 to 12 months? Absolutely. And is it consistent with what we have always believed in terms of people own their own stuff, that they contribute to a community and the creator owns the community that they are building? And if that creator wants to have multiple creators and a different kind of ownership structure that is based on different models like voting structures, all of these things. Absolutely.
That's how I think about it. It's this idea that somehow we're going to go directly from creators produce content and build audiences… Oh my gosh, now we're into NFTs. If all you're thinking about is how a piece of content becomes an asset, you will create an asset that has no value associated with it. The only way to create an asset that has value associated with it, that is going to go up over time, so actually power through speculation is by building a community that is creating together, that is surviving and evolving together. And that is fundamental to my beliefs and our beliefs and why we started last year at this time with content alone will kill the creator economy.
Jennifer: Looking ahead to what's going to happen in the industry this year and some of the trends, do you think that we’ll ever see diminishing prestige from the big creator platforms because of the way they treat their creators and that more and more creators will just abandon those platforms? Or what do you see happening in the next 12 months?
Gina: I don't think anything's going to change in the next 12 months. I think it's going to be a slow, potentially unnoticeable move away from the volume of content production on these platforms. Sadly, I think you're already seeing it with Facebook. The fact that Facebook just reported for the first time in their history that they didn't grow in the U.S., actually that was two earnings calls ago. We are seeing that it's not just people moving from Instagram to TikTok, it's also people choosing other paths and also spending more time in these new and emerging communities with their own cultures.
That is what is happening. It will not be overnight. It's not going to be a hashtag #deleteFacebook or #deleteTikTok. That is not going to be what changes things. What's going to change things is that the experiences that people can have in these communities that are built around assets, that are built around interests and passions and goals, that are built around a creator being the facilitator and the convener of people with common interests coming together to meet, build relationships, collaborate, create new things on their own because they actually have an asset where everyone is showing up with something that they bring to the table to create new things. Mix and remix culture. Because of that we'll just see a slow migration to not just one new world, not just one platform, but hundreds of thousands and then millions.
Jennifer: Thank you, Gina, for joining us today.
Gina: It's my pleasure.
Jennifer: That was Gina Bianchini, CEO of Mighty Networks.
What do you think about Gina’s statement that content alone will kill the creator economy? Have you felt the burnout as a content creator? Have you had success building a broader community around your show - or have you struggled with building a community? Tweet us @supercast and let us know your thoughts.
Or jump into the Supercasters community by becoming a Supercasters Premium subscriber. It is absolutely free, and in addition to the networking community where you can talk about this issue and all kinds of other podcasting stuff, you also get access to a whole bunch of bonus content to help you grow your audience and your revenue. To become a Premium subscriber, go to premium.supercast.com and click the signup link. Super fast, super easy, 100% free. I’ll see you there.
Until next time, I’m Jennifer Tribe. Thanks for listening.
- Mighty Networks
- Gina Bianchini (Twitter)
- From Dependence to Independence: The Rise of the Independent Creator (white paper)
- The Mighty Guide to Asking a Great Question
- The Retirement Answer Man (podcast)
- The Slow AF Run Club
- The Mighty Community