[Editor’s note: We updated this article to reflect on current events, initially published in late 2020]

This week I wanted to try something else. Three stories caught my eye and each deserves some spotlight in this column as it provides some valuable insight and lessons for news media as well.

1) Substack is building an online community tool

Snapshot of some of the discussions from the beta testing of the Substack online community tool. (Source: Substack)

This news was a little buried in the latest blog post from the newsletter company. At the moment, the tool is in beta and writers can apply to join. Why is this big news?

First, let’s recap that Substack has become a sort of go-to service for writers who are either fed up with working within a team, or those who are looking for a platform they can monetize their audience directly, or journalists who want to try it on their own.

In this regard, Substack is a near-perfect easy to launch service with enough features to start a small media venture and earn money. It is not without problems and in the near future will probably have to deal with some problems similar to what social media is trying to get a handle on.

To me, the move to build an “inhouse Slack” signals Substack is thinking about the whole stack of tools a professional writer needs if he or she wants to build a sustainable business.

And no surprise, after the core product (newsletter/blogpost/podcast – which the company already built), the very next big and obvious feature to add is a space where writers can engage on a deeper level with their most loyal (and paying) audiences.

Many writers who have launched a paid newsletter (on Substack and beyond – Ghost, Squarespace, …) often provide an exclusive space for paying subscribers to engage with them. Usually, I have seen them choosing Slack and gather subscribers there.

But imagine, as an independent writer you would not have to set up several tools, only one. And on the other hand, you could be serving your audiences on one platform, that’s a pretty nice proposal. Good for Substack.

Lesson: Let me quote the Membership Guide and just to add that the same statement applies for subscription models: You can have membership without having a community – but a community will make your membership stronger. A vibrant online community can provide steady, informal feedback on what audience members care about and add value to your membership program. It can also make the process of inviting audience collaboration easier. (If you haven’t yet, I strongly recommend reading the Membership Guide.)

2) Instagram is considering paying publishers, don’t wait for it

Instagram. (Source: Luke van Zyl on Unsplash)

This week, Axios reported Instagram’s plan to pay publishers for content on IGTV (a revenue share from ads) is being delayed. The social media app was supposed to hold talks in the second half of this year, and it is being moved to an unknown date.

Meanwhile, Instagram begins to experiment with opportunities to pay publishers to make content. It’s a classic move by a tech company to select a few chosen, who get to create funded content. In this regard, YouTube’s monetization rules seem more democratic, although not ideal.

The problem, Axios points out, is that Instagram is being very careful with paying publishers.

This is a key quote from the article: Instagram has separate teams that work with publishers on rolling out new tools and optimizing content. Those teams for now mostly focus on how publishers can build an audience on Instagram, instead of monetization.

Lesson: It is worth mentioning again and again that waiting for social media and tech companies in general to pay news outlets is a false promise (I would even go further to say that it’s an unreasonable expectation) and no one should rely on such things in their future strategies. 

Even successful YouTube creators say they don’t make a living from ad revenue share and most of them have other monetization options, in the pandemic many set up subscriptions and memberships.

More and more publishers find that creating a strong reader revenue model to be a sustainable way forward.

On the other hand, I am not advocating on giving up on social media. It is a great source of new audiences you should bring to your platform (website, newsletter, podcast) and create a meaningful relationship there. Better not wait for Facebook, Instagram, or Google to start paying you substantial or any money.

3) Is social media innovation dead, or just caught up in a hype

In 2020, Pinterest, LinkedIn, and Twitter introduced their versions of the stories format. The companies are not shy saying it has become a trend but at the same time, everyone says it is a format that works for them and wanted to introduce such a feature. How convenient.

The move prompted Business Insider to write an article title Social-media innovation is dead. The message might be a little bit overblown but it holds some truth. Recently, all social media apps have begun to look very much alike.

On one hand, that can be good from the user experience perspective. Users are familiar with the format and more or less have some expectation of what will happen once they interact.

Also, as Financial Times’ experiment from last year proved, you can leverage the feature and turn it into a familiar feature in your news app. FT used the stories format in their app for the myFT feature. This year they published a follow-up to the experiment concluding visit frequency to the App increased by almost 40%.

Lesson: Remember the video hype? A few years ago, many newsrooms “pivoted to video”. The whole trend turned out to be a bust.

Copying the stories format will not make your product magically better. Less so when you do not introduce a different take. Even when Instagram copied the format from Snapchat, the first iteration was already superior in some ways from Snapchat’s original.

The way forward, I think, is to look at these trends and recognize how certain aspects can be used to your benefit.

Twitter’s Fleets or LinkedIn Stories are only an underwhelming copycat of the original format idea with nothing special added. 

On the other hand, Financial Times recognized the familiarity of the feature for most users, and took some parts of the format, repurposed them, and turned built it into their app so that it makes sense and provides additional value (as the results proved).

UPDATE: Since publishing this article in late 2020, Casey Newton wrote in early 2021 that social networks got competitive again. He meant that there are new platforms such as Clubhouse rising that got the industry rattled and everyone is creating clones.

Another example is the NewNew app which offers fans the ability to purchase voting power to participate in the polls and control some of a creator’s day-to-day decisions.

Yet another example that in the future, all social networks will have built-in monetization for creators.