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Saturday, November 28, 2020

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Social media has come under increased scrutiny in the past 12 months with consumers and creators alike looking for viable alternatives to connect with each other outside of the ‘big social’ giants.

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One of the primary criticisms these platforms face is around the data collection and privacy practices they employ to monetise users. Facebook, in particular, has felt the impact of this public scrutiny during the Cambridge Analytica scandal as well as more recent allegations when questioned by the House Judiciary Committee about alleged anti-competitive practices. Likewise, Twitter has based its revenue model off of selling user data to advertisers.

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With recent events raising eyebrows for both consumers and brands, several boycotts have taken place, reducing potential revenue from ads. The alternative that is being presented to those looking for options away from ‘big social’ is primarily that of private communities. These offer an independent and private space for people to connect with others who have similar passions no matter how general or niche.

As a result of these trends, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey has suggested that the company is exploring the option of moving towards a subscription-based business model. A job listing from the platform last month included details for a role “building a subscription platform, one that can be reused by other teams in the future.” Though the exact details of what this subscription could look like have yet to be clarified, it clearly signposts a change in attitude among the major social media platforms in how they generate revenue.

Building a More Direct Link

Though subscription-based social media platforms aren’t entirely new for communities, harking back to the golden days of print magazine subscriptions and local members-only social clubs, they are a clear departure from existing social media industry templates. And this change was apparently well received by those close to the platform with the news being accompanied by a 12% jump in share price for Twitter. This should come as no surprise – as subscriptions could be a potentially lucrative new revenue stream, if successful. But what exactly is a subscription based service and what does it change from the existing online community model? 

The main consideration for how a subscription changes the state of play for brands and creators is that it creates a stronger bond between users and the community they are signing up to. If users are paying for access to content and a community of like minded individuals, expectations are established on what they are going to receive in return. Users will also be more willing to engage in their community that they have committed to being a part of. Rather than a whimsical tap of the follow button, community members have actively weighed up the decision of joining and what it will cost them, knowing that now they have committed, they want to engage and be a part of it. These characteristics differ from the current norm where platforms prioritise quantity over quality and can make sweeping changes – even if unpopular with users – without needing their explicit approval.

We see most platforms currently operating where users are in an unwritten and ill-defined contract of how each of these parties interacts. For instance, content creators and brands on Facebook or Instagram do not have full control of how the platform manages their community. In this sense, the community is ‘owned’ by the platform rather than the user (or users) who created it. For the platforms, these communities are revenue streams where highly engaged users are a source of ad revenue as they profit off their engagement with content creators. 

Taking Charge of the Community

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Subscription based platforms allow brands and creators to regain control of the value of their communities and reach the full potential revenue that has been largely locked within third party social media platforms up to this point. Rather than being reliant on the money provided by advertisers, they are instead directly generating revenue through engaged users who want some form of ‘superior’ service – a service that is now free to be as niche and specific as the community desires. Under a subscription model, creators no longer need to pander to content algorithms to reach more than 6% of their users but can reach 100% of them, all of the time. 

A subscription model offers creators the possibility of independence from the social media giants and the chance to increase the value of passionate communities. In a platform owned by the content creator and not a tech giant, there is the freedom to diversify revenue and create new avenues for products and services. Whether you are an independent creator or a large brand, self-ownership of the community spells a world of benefits.

Though the titan forces of big social may feel worlds away from independent creators and brands, they share much in common. Direct ownership of revenue streams is a clear benefit in the long run for those looking to create more sustainable business models. By allowing stepping away from the more comfortable and well known approach with social media being the primary medium of community engagement, more direct contact and value can be achieved from community members. These individuals can find themselves with far more agency and profit than they currently enjoy. Whether this will lead to brands unsubscribing from big social altogether or subscribing to the new, promising alternative remains to be seen but it’s clear that subscription based models have their role to play in the future of online communities.



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