By Kevin Sutherland, Strategy Director at VIDA Media
Trends in niche publishing and creator-led startups are a bellwether for the future of media.
Back in May 2020, the team at VIDA published a list of the most interesting, exciting, innovative Next Generation Media brands in the UK. (Editors note, NDA was included on this list)The response was incredible and helped us to develop an ecosystem of entrepreneurs, creators, platforms, investors and venture builders that together are powering the growth of the sector.
The common themes and trends we observed across the 30 niche publishers and startup media brands have, if anything become more prevalent and important since then – content businesses driven by purpose, creating content that helps build community, serving the audiences that are underserved by existing media, and building diverse revenue streams from day 1.
As we complete the shortlisting for the 2021 Next-Gen Media report for publication in April, we’ve seen a number of developments and new themes emerging. So as part of NDA’s focus on publishing this month, here’s a preview.
The Passion Economy is alive and well in the UK – The term, coined in 2019 by Li Jin, as a term to describe creator-led startup businesses that “build audiences at scales and turn their passions into livelihoods,” is evident across many of the B2C startups on our list. The economic impact of COVID has accelerated this with creative side-hustles becoming an active career choice outside of the established media and publishing companies. Jarrod Dicker of the Washington Post has written on this topic, imagining a future where the media companies of tomorrow are more like the record labels of today, investing in and supporting the growth of a community of individual creative talent. We’re starting to see demand for this in practice with more and more entrepreneurs seeking a partner that can offer not just investment funding but also resource, capacity and specialist expertise to help them grow.
For the B2B sector, it’s all about the Knowledge Economy – Successive lockdowns sent established B2B publishers pivoting towards virtual subscriptions, events, networking and learning experiences. But most startup B2B media brands are specifically built on this model and many have benefitted from behavioural shifts in favour of digital.
Both the ‘passion’ and knowledge economies are in fact examples of something even bigger – the rise and rise of community-based business models – creating products, content and experiences together with your audience over developing products and services to sell to them. Startup and niche media brands are especially able to leverage this in an appropriate and authentic way to grow their audience and income
This means that investor sentiment and focus has turned to community-driven models so that many investment pitch decks in this space now position media and publishing startups as community businesses with media and publishing revenue streams.
All of this is, of course, made possible by the ever-growing tech-stack of platforms that enable creative and journalistic talent to publish, distribute and monetise content independently, and sustainably without the resources, and budgets of big media, enabling startups to reach sustainability sooner.
On the commercial side, the last year has seen niche publishers double down on subscription or membership revenue, and a growing number of inhouse studios have been launched to develop brand partnership income. (Many lack the scale for display and programmatic revenues, and have concerns about joining publisher and affiliate networks citing loss of control and risk to their brand). And Direct to Consumer (DTC) products that were once seen as innovative are rapidly becoming ‘BAU’. Looking further ahead, innovation from creator tech platforms is creating the potential for totally new ways for publishers to commercialise their audience, their community and content, for instance via tokens, and User Generated Capital.
The emerging and growing themes we’re seeing in content include:
- Sustainable living and lifestyle content brands becoming more activist and climate-focused
- B2B Content startups focused on Net Zero Business and ethical investing
- Communities for niche lifestyle / lifestage-cohorts – from Gen-Z activism to “powering through the menopause”
- ‘Niches within niches’ – from food content focused on specific ingredients to vertical niche social networks
- Holistic health startups – food content + group / live exercise + ongoing community experience
- Media and communities focused on women and sport
As ever, the major concern for next-gen media startups is the ability to scale fast enough before their bootstrapped cash or investment runs out. And the past year has made this much harder. But two events In the last week alone give cause for optimism with the launch of Atelier Ventures, a $13m fund to invest in the businesses of the passion economy, and the news that The Hustle, a next-gen media business focused on startups, business and tech is being acquired – by Hubspot.
These developments represent entirely new future funding and exit routes for founders, and new M&A opportunities for publishers and media corporates alike, all driven by Next-Gen Media and startup innovation.