Attracting and Retaining Creators

TikTok is a fascinating product, as well as a source of inspiration of mine, that has mastered the relation between creation and distribution of content. On the creator side, it is making pro workflows accessible and easy to use. On the distribution, it is enabling its algorithm through both human-assisted tagging and direct user feedback to create one of the stickiest products that we've ever seen.

In this post, I want to focus on the former.

The fact that TikTok has attracted many creators to its platform is not fortuitous. The trend is partly driven by its ability to democratize pro niches and making them approachable to the rest of us. Features reserved to the most sophisticated power users, such as intricate video effects or audio editing, are now effortlessly available to the average Joe.

This twist to the editing toolkit makes all the difference. It fosters content creation and unlocks network effects on creativity. In other words, the addition of an additional creator spurs inspiration across the board, by making others even more innovative and resourceful.

Since creators are struggling to find a place on the Internet that connects them to their audience, a lot of people have asked why YouTube hasn't tackled this opportunity. However, YouTube has become so vast that its priorities aren't set by niches anymore. Its product is embracing an unimaginably broad array of realities, which prevents them from optimizing vertical experiences that fit each use case on the platform.

The cause of this ossification turns them into the default choice for most creators — since most eyeballs end up there. On the bright side, though, it presents an opportunity for emerging platforms to exploit nascent, small niches with a massive upside that are still irrelevant for them to tackle.

At the end of the day, the cornerstone of any platform success revolves around the creators. It remains a two-sided marketplace, however, bring the top-notch abroad and eyeballs will inevitably follow.

It is reasonable to assume that the platform with the most attractive proposal for creators will reap massive rewards in terms of both acquisition and retention of their audiences.

Hence the question: how do you attract, but most important, retain creators?

I don't have the secret sauce to solve this quandary. However, over time I have learned a few lessons here and there that might serve as a starting point. The nut we are trying to crack here is the clichéd question that has been endlessly asked in the business world. It acquires an especial dimension amongst creators: how do you differentiate, protect, and make your venture unique — or what's the feature of yours that nobody can replicate.

There are four buckets any platform interested in retaining creators should have an eye on. It is rare for any product to tackle all at once, however, a combination of two or three can make a difference.

  1. Sucking the oxygen out of the room — i.e. Uber entering a new city. It has been popularized by many startups trying to capture a new market armed with VC money ready to be burned. Resources that are used to monopolize the market by absorbing the cost of running operations at a loss to spur acquisition. This would be similar to attracting new creators by the virtue of (artificially) paying them more than other platforms would, a risky move that can't be sustained over time. But if done right, it can potentially clean the room and do away with incumbents.
  2. Producing your own content — i.e. Netflix. This strategy has proven very successful to dominate the streaming wars. And while it works for mediums such as TV shows or podcasts, it hasn't worked for gaming. Gamers value abundance over quality and they are quite sensitive to the timing of the content. GoT is as relevant today as it was five years ago. A stream about FIFA 2016 is not as useful for somebody seeking to improve at the game. Under these conditions, it is safe to assume that user-generated content will reign over gaming.
  3. Specific features where a piece of content only makes sense on your platform — i.e. TikTok remixes, or Spotify song embeds within a podcast. Such features are hard but can boost retention with less capital required. Since the content can only be created and consumed inside the platform, it builds a product moat that retains creators within your walls. The feature becomes necessary to produce the content in the first place.
  4. Create a culture — i.e. Twitch emotes. If done right, this will protect and set your platform much further apart than any of the aforementioned tactics would. It is also the hardest one to master because unlike product features, culture works from the outside-in: the product team must "harvest" the necessary conditions — that by no means guarantee success — and the community is the one in charge to make it grow. Think of Kappa: it is not a product nor a feature, it is someone. But its meaning transcends the person. It is something the community understands and only makes sense given that context. It can't be replicated, for the most, because nobody built it in the first place — it just happened.

I'm sure there are many more levers one could pull to acquire and retain creators. These, though, are the ones we've been playing with at Gamestry and the ones I feel more comfortable sharing because I have experienced them directly.

Finally, there is another bucket I haven't explicitly discussed: monetization. In a creator-led platform, innovating around monetization is probably the single most important knob one can turn. It is also the largest opportunity YouTube is presenting. This time around, though, not because of its sheer volume, but because of its horizontal nature. The limitation is rooted deep down in the business model and how it operates. Its incentives to grow force YouTube to reward creators in terms of views, not content quality.

Due to its relevance, this idea is treated in its own post — the next in the series.