Twitter & the Cool Kids Club

When I was in middle school, there was a student lounge off the main hall where we spent break time.

The door was almost always open for anyone to peek in on your way past — and peek 12 year old Rhys did — and yet for years, this promised land was completely out of bounds to me.

It was reserved, by the strict laws of the Collège Pierre Robert middle school in Le Dorat, France, exclusively to last year students.

In retrospect, it was nothing too special. A bare room with a couple of old sofas, an old-school TV that I’m not sure I ever once saw working, and a work surface with a dirty kitchen sink.

To my middle school mind, though, the room might as well have been the garden of Eden itself.

Every now and then, by some act of God (read: a benevolent older brother), a non-last year student would be welcomed into the exclusive club, then later return to us mere mortals to recount the tales of how the other half lived and the juicy last year rumors he discovered.

Upon hearing new stories from the room and the last year students that occupied it, there was nothing we wanted more than to be a fly on the wall of that grimy utopia.

I believe Twitter has recently been making large steps toward creating their own version of that intriguing private lounge.

Before that, though, some news.

In a release on Wednesday, Twitter rolled out (to some) the ability to create audio tweets. Basically, short audio clips limited to 2:20 mins, which can be opened as either video clips, or passive audio clips you can listen to as you scroll your Twitter feed.

There’s a chance this tweet format could help to add some sort of nuance, a bit more of an intimate tone to messages, helping humanize the creator behind them.

Of course, this could already be done with video tweets, but the lower friction to creating an audio clip compared to a video clip is definitely not negligible, which gives me high hopes for the feature as it rolls out in a more widespread fashion.

Right now, audio tweets are limited to top-level posts (no replies), are limited in length (mostly the same as videos), and can’t be created on desktop or Android.

We aren’t going to talk much about audio tweets today. Rather, we’ll expand on what this release, and another recent feature, can tell us about the vision Twitter has for its future.

In most of the discussion and reactions I’ve seen about this release these last days, the general consensus seems to be that this is the groundwork for Twitter to get in the podcasts game.

Sure, it would make sense.

Many users likely consume Twitter content while listening to external audio, in the form of music or podcasts. As such, Twitter would benefit from bringing that extra media consumption onto the platform natively to profit from additional interest data, in-stream advertising space, and higher session duration, as users passively consume a Twitter podcast while actively reading the Twitter feed.

Today, though, I want to explore an alternative hypothesis for Twitter’s recent feature releases, beyond podcasting:

Twitter is racing to build Clubhouse before Clubhouse.

Icebergs

For those that don’t know, Clubhouse is a new invite-only social app that works near exclusively by audio. Users can join in or just listen to people chat across unlabeled chatrooms.

Right now, the app is very VC / tech nerd heavy, by virtue of it being invite-only, and looking for attention in this exact audience. Now fresh off a Series A by Andreessen Horowitz at a valuation of a cool $100 million, I’d say that strategy worked.

Clubhouse has proven to the world that there’s unearthed opportunity in enabling high-quality discussion groups, and reducing friction in starting a live conversation open to others to listen in on, or even jump into.

It’s that last part that’s most interesting about Clubhouse, and the potential land grab Twitter could look to make in the coming weeks/months.

Those 1 on 1, or small group conversations are already happening between interesting, high-profile people on Twitter. The large majority of meaningful interactions on the platform take the form of DMs. While conversations are often started in public tweets and replies, discussions tend to only get deeper when continued outside of the open discussion thread, where anyone can interact with the participants.

As David Perell often puts, standard tweets are the visible part of the Twitter universe, the part we see as we explore our feed. DMs, on the other hand, are the dark matter of Twitter: we know they’re there, but we’re clueless to the secrets they hold.

In other words, DMs and DM groups are the underwater section of the Twitter iceberg: invisible from above, but sprawling once you get a glimpse beneath the water. Clubhouse served as a brilliant way to bring these conversations to the surface.

Drawing of an iceberg representing Twitter public view vs Direct Messages

Live content, breaking down barriers between the creator and the audience isn’t entirely new to Twitter of course.

The platform has had livestream features since late 2016, shortly after it acquired Periscope. Now, the two platforms are intertwined as part of the Twitter Broadcast services.

Twitter Live, though, has never really taken off as a go-to streaming service. To try to kickstart Twitter’s live platform ambitions, and to justify the Periscope purchase, they’ve gone as far as to license exclusive content with the NFL on Twitter Live, but while Periscope has had some semblance of continued interest over time, Twitter Live’s integration with it has struggled.

Multi-line graph plotting the relative search interest for Twitter Live, Periscope and Instagram Live

Twitter doesn’t publish its livestream usage numbers, so the data isn’t as granular as I’d like, but using a proxy for user interest, search trends, the graph above is telling of the relative interest of Twitter Live and Periscope relative to Instagram Live, a leading competitor.

Audio streams or live discussion rooms, on the other hand, could see significantly different numbers.

Birdboxes

Audio discussion streams offer much lower friction to start than video streams.

Physically appearing on video online is a huge hurdle for most people to cross. The hurdle is only bigger when that video is streamed to the world in real-time, without any ability to edit and cut parts before being shared. I’d argue that for the majority of Twitter users, that hurdle is high enough to not be worth crossing.

Adding to that mental hurdle, the recent work from home wave has shown us the limits of video calling: being on camera for long periods of time is exhausting.

Audio streams are very different. Audio talks tend to require much less planning, they feel much more spontaneous. In your car on the way home from work? Hopping on a (hands-free) voice call seems perfectly reasonable. Getting on a FaceTime call, on the other hand, feels much more mentally taxing.

Graph plotting the downward curve of retained privacy relative to the effort required, by different means of communication

Audio streams, in the Clubhouse-style format, when brought to Twitter, would help expand the platform’s Live ambitions, while working towards their mission to help create human connections.

Audio streams take the polished, filtered, asynchronous format of tweet conversations, and make them more direct, more human.

These audio streams / voice rooms act as a weaker proposition than video streams for solo streams, ie. just a single creator talking to their audience of followers. That is the typical live stream format.

As such, these audio rooms would be designed to used to foster discussion, a live, audio version of the day to day discussions between personalities already happening on Twitter. Some of these happen in the open, on our feeds, but the large majority happen in the dark matter of DMs.

There’s nothing particularly secret or private about the large majority of these conversations, but they’re taken to DMs because the Twitter feed is just not optimized for lengthy discussion — largely by design.

Audio solves this.

The resurgence of podcasts in the last couple of years shows that the audience is absolutely there for longer-form discussion. This is only more true when the conversation is between personalities we already follow.

This is largely what has sparked the wave of guesses that Twitter is bringing a fully-fledged podcasting feature to the app. That said, it’s unlikely that Twitter wants to open that can of worms.

The podcasting space is hotter and more highly contested than ever before. In the last 18 months, Spotify has shown that they are not messing around when it comes to long-form and podcast content.

In early 2019 they announced a deal to purchase podcast network Gimlet Media, and Anchor, a podcast creation platform. This reportedly ran them over $340M.

Under a year later, they made waves again by acquiring the huge podcast network “The Ringer” for almost $200M.

A just couple of months after that, the Twitter tech world near-on imploded when news broke of Spotify signing a deal with Joe Rogan, bringing all future and past podcasts exclusively to the platform for a rumored $100M. If you’re curious to learn more on this deal, Packy McCormick over at Not Boring has a brilliant write up on this, which you can read here.

More recently still, Spotify has announced new deals with Kim Kardashian and Warner Bros, to create exclusive new content for the platform.

All of that to say: the podcast space is a difficult one to compete in right now.

Into the Light

Rather than focusing on polished, long-form podcasts, Twitter is uniquely positioned to do what it does best: simplify the medium entirely.

Twitter is in a perfect spot to bring these high-quality, thought-provoking interactions away from external apps like Clubhouse, and onto the platform natively.

Instead of competing in hosting and creating fully-fledged podcasts, why not just be home to the discussions happening in those podcasts?

Creators on Twitter already have a low-friction, highly engaged communities that now don’t need to be lured out of the walled garden of Twitter.

Standard live streams never took off on Twitter because they offered a mediocre way of doing something you could do better, and with a bigger audience, somewhere else.

Instagram Live has strong appeal because the platform itself is so highly visuals-oriented. As such, a video-based stream is a value proposition in line with the main goal of the platform.

Twitter, though is thought-focused. You follow someone on Twitter to hear what they have to say, not to peek into what their life looks like. Audio, then, fits the bill perfectly, and this week’s release of audio tweets was step 2 in bringing these backroom discussions into the light.

Wait. Step 2?

Yes. In fact, Twitter has been moving quickly these last weeks to begin building out the Clubhouse of the blue bird world — the bird box if you will. Just me? Huh..

Just a few weeks ago, Twitter engaged what I believe was step 1 in developing the “private conversations shown to the public” angle. This took the form of “Limited Reply Tweets”.

This feature, not available to all users quite yet, lets you limit who is able to respond to a tweet you publish.

New Twitter tweet privacy options dictating who can reply

In adding additional privacy options on a tweet, creators have more ability to have these once-private discussions ‘out loud’ on the Twitter open forum, without having to sift through replies by other users to continue a one-to-one discussion.

This feature enables more transparency in interactions between personalities and acts as a little window into the discussions that now don’t have to happen behind closed doors.

Audio rooms are a natural evolution of this.

By hosting private group calls out in the open for anyone to listen into, with the ability to ‘raise their hand’ to be invited to jump into the conversation, these interactions become even more human and allow that feeling of truly being a fly on the wall of a room hosting an interesting discussion.

By offering the ability to be invited to join the conversation, in a similar way to how Twitter Live and Instagram Live already offer it, you avoid the impression of being locked out of the discussion on a stream.

To counter that feeling, most streaming sites include a live text chat to talk with other users and the streamer.

In order to avoid creating the impression of just another livestream, just this time without audio, I think this interaction would be better served with a request to speak, without the running chat. This keeps the feeling of being that fly on the wall, listening in, rather than being in the audience of an actual show.

The Same and Nothing Alike

A private, yet public voice room feature positions Twitter somewhere at the crossroads (a relevant topic right now!) of podcasting, streaming, and group calls. Nonetheless, it leans towards neither explicitly.

To differentiate from the podcast world, it wouldn’t offer full recording suite functionalities, keeping the discussions raw, unpolished, natural.

To differentiate from typical live streaming, it’s audio only. It’s not about the show, it’s about the discussions and ideas it’s home to.

It’s impromptu, low-effort.

To differentiate from the group chat apps, it makes the discussions private, yet public, allowing listeners to join to get a peek into the private conversations of the people they follow.

A large benefit of audio-only streams is in reducing the attention needed to consume the content.

When you watch a live stream on mobile, it typically requires your full attention.

When you listen to a podcast on mobile, you’re usually doing something else at the same time. Very often, that something else is scrolling your social media feed.

Being home to live discussions, without falling one way into the podcast world, or the other way into the live stream world, is perfectly in line with Twitter’s core mission:

To give everyone the power to create and share ideas and information instantly without barriers.

If you’re not busy, and you get the notification that two interesting people you follow on Twitter are having a live call right this moment, just one tap away, you’re almost always going to end up scrolling your Twitter feed while you listen passively to that discussion, just moments later.

Better yet, unless something comes up, you’re likely going to listen to that conversation right until the end. Maybe they invite another personality you follow into the discussion, maybe they invite someone to add their two cents on what’s being said. Whatever happens, you’re likely there until the end of the chat.

As Twitter’s luck would have it, you’re also now on your Twitter feed, seeing adverts as you scroll, until the end of the chat.

For Twitter, luck indeed!

One Size Fits All

These live rooms carry strong appeal to all different types of Twitter users.

For us strategy geeks, picture this notification:

Twitter notification example

Is there really a scenario in which we don’t click on that?

For the immense audience of sports fans on Twitter, try to imagine a “Stephen A. Smith, LeBron James, and Kevin Love are chatting, tap to listen in!” notification not getting the click of every basketball fan on Twitter.

Or for the absolutely fanatical K-Pop stan audience on Twitter (don’t get me started), the results of a simple push notification of “Jungkook is talking to literally anyone” might legitimately start fires in Twitter datacentres.

Twitter is perfectly positioned to bring these interactions to the platform in a more casual manner than most streaming websites. It would serve as Instagram Live’s more casual, more discussion-oriented (competitor) cousin.

In its mission to facilitate sharing ideas and meaningful discussion, Twitter is well on its way to build its bird box (there it is again) to rival Clubhouse before Clubhouse even launches.

The pieces are all coming into place for Twitter to increase the time users spend on the platform — increasing revenue — and to solidify Twitter as the go-to platform for thoughtful interaction.

In fairness, I’m not sure how much thoughtful interaction really happened in that fabled student lounge at Collège Pierre Robert — I transferred schools right before my last year.

Maybe Twitter could fill that void, and be home to those conversations we were so excited to listen to.

In any case, I’ll forever be intrigued by those tales of that exclusive middle school break room.

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Substack & Crossroads for a Revolution

All revolutions start with a rebel, and in the world of writing, blogging and newsletters, Substack, the online newsletter platform, is Silicon Valley’s new favourite disobedient child.

High on its recent explosion in the writing community, it now finds itself at an interesting crossroads that will dictate the path for its future growth.

This is the idea that Blake Robbins proposed in a Tweet, suggesting that the company will soon have to make a choice between positioning itself as a full-on reading and writing community (think Medium), or, as Blake puts, “arm the rebels”, building itself into being the one true go-to platform for independent writers.

The choice fascinated me.

Essentially, Substack will soon have to choose its path to become either a platform, or an aggregator.

In this week’s piece, we’ll dig into what both options would mean for the company going forward, and explore which of the two would pave a road to success.

Heart of the rebellion

Today, Substack’s mission statement is clear:

Make it simple to start a publication that makes money from subscriptions

Digging deeper into Substack’s “About” section, the focus on helping independent writers becomes clearer still:

Over time, we will introduce an ever evolving suite of features and services to better serve independent publishers, helping them do the best work they can and build strong, enduring business.

Substack is lowering the barrier to entry for people to write online.

This mission isn’t a new one. Medium, Blogger, WordPress and plenty of others have all been born out of the same goal. Substack, though, has a more specific focus. Rather than just enabling creators to write. They’re enabling creators to get paid from their writing.

Writing, though, in itself, isn’t a very lucrative affair. This is only more true when you’re writing independently. The money comes from the other side of the equation: being read.

This is what brings up other side of the decision Substack has to make: to have your writing read, you need an audience.

Getting an audience, though, is hard.

To attract an audience, you need to show them what you can offer. But writing with nobody reading is a daunting task.

To help with this, Medium came along. They created a huge discovery network on the website. On the front page of the Medium experience, you’re recommended dozens of articles that could interest you, and suggested many more as you read. This attracts lots of new writers to publish on the site, as the prospect of being able to write for an audience right from the start is an attractive one.

This isn’t without major downsides, but more on that later.

So what should Substack do? Simply arm the rebels? Or pave the way to growing a following? Why not both?

Let’s explore.

To aggregate? Or not to aggregate?

So far, Medium has seemed like the obvious parallel. It’s a writing platform, right? It even (now) lets you make money from your articles directly on the site.

Substack, though, is a different beast.

Unlike Medium, Substack integrated the paid access aspect of the website right from the beginning. Failure to do this is largely what killed Medium as the go-to platform for writers, when they did, eventually pivot to the subscription membership model. It also didn’t do much to help the arguments that building a business on a service you don’t completely control is risky.

Substack, rather than offer a site-wide subscription, funds its rebels directly, by offering a creator-by-creator subscription model.

The monetisation model here is much clearer. You don’t subscribe to Substack, you subscribe to a newsletter, giving you access to premium content, unavailable to the non-paying readers.

In this, Substack looks a lot like Patreon, the independent creator funding platform. It’s a part of what makes Substack a platform. It facilitates the transaction between reader and writer, getting out of the way beyond that.

As a parallel, Shopify, until recently, followed a similar role. It puts merchants front and center, taking a backseat once they’re up and running.

By seemingly reducing the role Substack itself plays in this equation, it serves its creators, and its readers, well. It arms the rebels.

Still, it might seem like it wouldn’t hurt to help one side of the equation (the writer) attract the other side of the equation (the reader). Surely it would only help the site grow, bringing new readers, and, as supply and demand laws would tell us, new writers?

Aggregation, though, shifts away from Substack’s core mission.

At Substack’s scale already today, content aggregation implies a heavy dose of algorithmic ranking. This, though, inherently makes Substack a gatekeeper in the type of content they encourage, and prioritise.

In fairness, they do already have a “top publications” list, but it lists only the top 25 publications on the site, and isn’t made prominent for new users.

Other than this list, and 6 creators on the front page of the website (oh, and a search bar), discovery of new articles and writers is entirely dependent on the writer to attract the audience themselves.

The combination of all this, the fact they’ve so far stayed away from aggregation and on-site discovery does limit Substack’s platform power. In the same way as the Shopify example, by taking a backseat to put creators front and center, the company becomes a middleman — it simplifies a process, but right now does little to attract readership.

Positions of Power

There is the question, however, of whether it makes much sense for Substack to aggresively seek to increase this platform power, at least in its current state.

They currently take a 10% rake on all subscription revenue, which isn’t insignificant (considering they already had 50,000 paying subscribers across the site this time last year).

Furthermore, their platform position, focusing on providing only tools to independent creators, better fits their differentiated value proposition from similar publishing websites. It focuses on the 1 to 1 experience of newsletters rather than blogs.

This is where Substack is interesting.

Plenty of blogs include mailing lists (including this one 😉), which makes them double as a newsletter. Where Substack does this differently, though, is in making the blog the newsletter itself.

By building a platform specifically focused on the email inbox, Substack is able to nurture this 1 to 1 connection in a way that most content marketing focused/corporate blogs can’t. They feel spammy. Even the rare corporate blogs I’ve signed up to rarely get opened when they reach my inbox. Their content isn’t designed to interest the reader, it’s designed to attract eyeballs. If they can do both at once, great, but they rarely hit the mark.

If working to empower individual creators is the goal, then, the platform model, rather than one of content discovery and aggregation, seems better suited to reach it.

This is a subjective view, but the quality of the average Substack article far exceeds that of the average Medium article.

Increasingly, Medium (curated publications aside) has become home to SEO filled word-count focused fluff. The low barrier to entry and promise of instant audience growth attracts low quality writing.

The newsletter format, the chronological presentation of Substack newsletters massively reduces this, and increases the overall quality of content on the platform. It’s not even close.

That said, there is some nuance here. New York journalists and Silicon Valley tech writers / VCs have fallen in love with the platform. This obviously skews the average quality of the writing on the platform, and isn’t representative of the global writing scene as a whole. For this reason, it might be difficult to expect that this same quality writing level will remain steady as the platform inevitably looks to expand beyond its relatively niche community of today.

I’ve observed the birth, growth, and death of plenty of online communities, across writing, videos, design, and many more. Through all of them, some sort of derivative form of Godwin’s Law nearly always applies: as the number of users on a platform increases, past a certain tipping point, the average quality of the discussion (here, content) almost always declines.

Limiting the cross-discovery of writers on the website itself impacts its potential to attract new users on both sides of the equation. On the other hand, it also helps maintain the bar of quality Substack is rapidly becoming known for.

Differing Incentives

There is undeniably opportunity for Substack to build on the mistakes of Medium and become the new home for independent publishing on the web.

Over time, Medium devalued what a ‘follow’ meant for both creators and readers. It’s gone hand in hand in recent years with media platforms’ general moves towards algorithmically generated content suggestions.

For most of these sites, which generate revenue through advertising spots, this move makes perfect sense. In doing this, the platform is aiming to increase a user’s average time on site. The more time a user spends on the site, the more times a user can be shown ads. The more a user can be shown ads, the more revenue the platform makes. The platform has an incentive to help get content in front of users’ eyes.

This incentive is not shared by Substack.

From their initial launch, their advertising policy has been crystal clear:

Publishers will own their data, which we will never attempt to sell or distribute, and we won’t place ads next to any of our own or our customers’ products.”

Unlike other sites, Substack doesn’t need to increase time on site to increase revenue.

Let’s go back to the Medium example. Medium needs to optimise for new article discovery at all costs.

This is due to Medium’s central payment structure. They grant access to their entire library via a single subscription plan. If I’m an individual creator trying to make money off content I believe to be high quality content worth paying for, this is a weaker proposition. Each creator receives a much smaller slice of the subscription revenue pie.

It’s this benefit of individual subscription revenue which drove a large number of the top Medium writers away from the site — mostly onto personal publications. Invariably, on a platform where the size difference between the most popular and least popular creators is large, the top creators find themselves sharing a part of revenue to long tail, small size creators when the pool is split.

This is where Substack shines.

Substack offers some semblance of a meritocracy. The better your content (and distribution network) is, the more income you can make.

Substack knows that it’s unrealistic to imagine that the average paying reader (around 10% of overall readership) will pay for more than 3-4 newsletters max each month.

This means Substack has an incentive not to focus on content discovery, but to empower writers to write valuable articles that people want to pay for, in order to drive subscription revenue.

Alternative Trade Routes

Those 3-4 paid newsletters, each sending roughly 3 articles a week, on top of the free newsletters rapidly adds up time-wise.

Reading the long-ish form content that Substack has come to be known for presents huge opportunity costs — time, here, is a zero-sum game. The 15 minutes spent reading one writer is 15 minutes spent not reading another. This is evidenced by the state of my Instapaper account.

The benefit of email as a distribution channel for writers is that it cuts through the noise of social media and blogging sites. Julian Lehr wrote a brilliant piece which touches on this (and gave me the above heading).

The risk, in the near future, is that this alternative trade route for content quickly becomes clogged, as creators continue to leave the noisy party of social media in favour of the quiet backroom of email.

With this in mind, Substack would do well not to aggregate in a widespread fashion, for risk of devaluing their role as an interesting speaker in this backroom party. The platform’s focus on the direct-to-newsletter format rather than the blog format means it doesn’t even need to cut through the noise, it circumvents it.

Substack emails have a badge of quality associated with them. This recognition as being a consistently interesting speaker in the inbox is because you know you only ever get emails from Substack from writers you’ve specifically chosen to subscribe to.

Leaning away from this 100% creator focus risks devaluing this goodwill. It would relegate them to the ranks of the numerous other and newsletters and ‘content roundups’ I ignore everyday in my email. This risk is even greater with the chance of being pushed to the Social or Promotions tabs of Gmail, at which point it’s impressively difficult to get back to the main inbox.

To compare to Medium once again, Medium spams the inbox most days by default. Their company branding is put front and center, with a huge Medium logo at the top of each email, and 8-20 articles that are rarely tailored to my interests, simply resharing the top articles of the front page to their huge email list. Medium rarely gets my email click.

Becoming an aggregator makes this type of email nearly essential. Sure, Substack could work on better tailoring the articles recommended to me, but I’m still unlikely to read many of them. I never signed up to get those articles. The implied badge of quality is one of the most important assets to the platform and its creators. Aggregator status would put this at risk.

That said, Substack wants to grow, and while their current backseat role for creators might be enough for now, over time, the appeal of wider ranging opportunities will be too strong to ignore.

Platform Opportunities

I recently came across this chart from Maxime Eyraud.

It maps the positioning of 50+ media companies, content platforms and more across 5 core activities of players in the field: funding, creation, distribution, monetisation and engagement.

The player which stands out the most within the table is undeniably Substack. It spans all 5 main services of content platforms, even reaching into funding — namely taking the form of the $100,000 grant fund donated by Substack to independent writers experiencing financial difficulties because of the COVID-19 crisis.

That said, it’s the distribution/monetisation section that most interests me. Similar to the Shopify/Etsy/Pictra trio beneath it, there’s massive opportunity in this sector for Substack in the not too distant future.

Independent creators have never had as many choices when deciding where to publish, share and monetise their digital creations. Right now, Substack is emerging as the go-to for writing. But in the long term, it doesn’t have to constrain itself to its current sector.

Gumroad is quickly building itself into the digital storefront for independent creators working on ebooks, courses, video content and more. Over the next 2 years, Substack’s lead competitor will rapidly be solidified in the form of Gumroad.

Both offer a platform for independent creators to share their creations to the world. One focuses on written content, the other, about everything else.

This is where it gets interesting.

Gumroad isn’t blind to Substack’s recent success in the indie creator circle. Within the next year, I can see Gumroad building out further email integration, spanning into more newsletter-focused features.

For Gumroad to add a Substack style newsletter offer as a new category of content would be a relatively minimal operation. For Substack to add a Gumroad style digital wares hub, on the other hand, would be a large shift from their current project. Let’s focus on a 2-3 year+ timeline.

Over the long term, Substack’s horizontal expansion has huge opportunity relative to Gumroad’s. Better yet, Substack has a big advantage in the battle to be the home for independent creators.

Currently, if Gumroad creators want to gain access to the fabled prime real estate that is people’s email inbox, they have to build interest, drive the sale, then create new emails and content worth sending to this retargeted audience through email.

Substack approaches the equation from the other side. Substack’s newsletter focus allows a much lower barrier to sharing your email address with a content creator. No purchase required — it doesn’t even require a paid subscription.

This massively reduces friction to gain access to the email inbox, and allows creators a much more direct approach to sell their digital creations. Before even asking for the sale, though, it allows them to test the waters, gauge interest over time, storytell and build interest for the eventual sale. Substack is perfectly positioned to build out a digital goods integration for individual newsletters.

This goes far beyond newsletter-branded merch, though. Plenty of creators on the platform, and similar platforms, use their email list to drive purchases to online courses, ebooks, slide decks and more. Currently, though, all these sales are handled outside of the Substack ecosystem, linking to Gumroad, Teachable, Shopify stores, etc.

Imagine buying the new online course from your favourite Substack newsletter, all without having to leave the Substack platform. If you’re already a paying subscriber of the newsletter, maybe you get discounts on the product, all directly built into the transaction flow based on your subscription plan.

Substack is positioned perfectly to bring these transactions on-site, with zero marginal cost per new creator, all while taking their 10% off each transaction.

In this view, the crossroads decision quickly becomes clearer. Either try to build on the mistakes of the past, and risk losing their strongest weapon, or arm the rebels and together clear the path for the new age of independent creators.

The revolution, it seems, will not be televised.

It will be written.

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Can Shopify’s New Strategy Dethrone the eCommerce Marketplace Kings?

There’s a common saying in Silicon Valley: “All tech companies eventually become finance companies”. Recently though, the adage has shifted. Beyond aspirations of becoming a banking service, many tech companies dream of eventually becoming a marketplace.

Source: MarketPlacePulse

The dream makes sense. Create a platform in which your role is simplified into becoming the meeting point between buyers and sellers. All money flows through you. You take your cut, and let your core competence become your ability to drive traffic to both sides of the transaction.

As such, this core competence is the reason many companies slowly but surely drive their business towards this model. Once you already have traffic, you’ve done most of the heavy lifting.

Enter Shop, the new consumer shopping app launched by Shopify this past Tuesday. The app sells itself as a central hub to follow and shop from ‘your favourite brands’. On launching, the company has looked to push a ‘support local business’ message, with Shop serving as a portal to do exactly that.

As of right now, Shop is built off a hybrid marketplace model somewhere between Google Shopping and Amazon, with a sprinkling of Instagram Shopping. Google Shopping aggregates third party ecommerce merchants, whose stores don’t technically make use of Google to sell, but can be advertised through Google Shopping and shopping ads. Ultimately, at the point of sale, the transaction happens on the merchant website — not through Google.

On the other side is Amazon. Inversely, Amazon hosts the merchants on their platform natively, and the entire buyer journey happens on Amazon. Merchants are welcome to host their own stores, but if you sell through Amazon, you’re trading a portion of revenue for the immense platform power of the Amazon marketplace.

Shop, finally, is somewhere in the middle. It aggregates merchants with online stores, similar to Google Shopping, but these stores are built on the Shopify platform. Furthermore, these stores are pushed to use Shop Pay, an integrated payment platform (previously known as Shopify Pay). In this way, Shopify takes one of its strongest attributes from Google Shopping: its store aggregation, and another from Amazon: its payment processing.

There is something it takes from neither though. Something that gives both Google Shopping and Amazon their powerful marketplace power. Discoverability.

What makes a marketplace powerful, what makes it useful and successful is ultimately not the brands it’s home to. It’s not solely its ability to bring both buyers and sellers to its platform. It’s its ability to bring these buyers and sellers not just to its platform, but to each other.

This is the basis for my doubts around Shopify’s first attempt at building out a marketplace. As it stands, product and brand discovery on Shop is weak, if not non-existent.

There is no functionality to perform even the most basic product search. Looking to buy a pair of shoes? It wouldn’t seem ridiculous to suggest that the obvious thing to do would be to search for some variation of “shoes” in the search bar of the app. Doing this, though, would not offer a large range of shoes as you might expect. Instead, it offers a list of brands with the word “shoes” in their name.

 In fact, it doesn’t even suggest a top shoe brand on Shopify, only brands with the exact search string in their name.

On Shop, you’re pushed to search and follow specific brands. In this, I’d argue it’s more comparable to Instagram Shopping. You follow specific brands, and run through their visual catalog, you’re exposed to updates of theirs, new products, announcements and more. But Instagram Shopping, at least, follows the Amazon model of being home to the entire purchase journey.

You could argue, maybe, that this functionality is less important for Shop itself, because the transaction at the eventual point of sale will still be powered by Shopify, but the context-switch is, at very least, jarring to the customer.

In its current form, Shop’s model doesn’t contest Google Shopping and Amazon directly, though. One of the most powerful features inherent to Amazon, from the huge scale of its catalog, is the feeling of never accidentally missing a great deal, or a similar but better product.

This is one of the leading challenges to Google Shopping, as I see it today. Its reason to be is to serve as a good way of comparing products, comparing prices. But as of right now, I struggle to feel the same sense of certainty of getting the best possible deal for the best possible product on Google Shopping — usually ending my buying journey on Amazon, regardless of the beginning of the search. It serves as a brilliant tool for discovery, but falls short on the purchasing process relative to Amazon.

On the other hand, Amazon is typically a weaker tool for discovery, often not offering the best results for detailed search queries which are better suited for a Google search. Compensating, though, is its strong goodwill with regards to consumer trust of getting the best price.

Shop doesn’t offer any pretence of finding the best price for your purchase. It doesn’t try to. Its curent value proposition is not one of being an Amazon killer anytime soon, but a centralised home to follow your favourite brands and their product lines. Admittedly, as I haven’t mentioned it yet, it does offer a detailed package tracking service, allowing you to follow your order from execution to delivery at your door, but this seems an initial weak foundation on which to build a marketplace.

So, Shop is your home for easy access to your favourite brands.

Okay, what else?

Currently, as I see it, there is very little extra value being offered in opening Shop to find a product from your favourite brands, rather than heading directly to their website, or running a Google search for what you’re looking for — the most common journey. One of the features Shop advertises is the new single cart functionality, allowing you to have a central checkout experience, with various products from various brands, previously unavailable across different merchant sites.

Still, I question the usefulness of this functionality for the large majority of Shopify purchases. For a shopping experience focused on brand over price savings, I struggle to imagine a scenario in which many customers complete their transaction with products from various merchants.

This is down to the high average price for just a single product of the brands advertised. With the majority of their promotion of the application being centred around clothing, high-end consumer goods brands, etc., I can’t imagine many buyer journeys that make a purchase through Shop from, say, Allbirds, that also includes a purchase from Kith, Anti Social Social Club, or many of the other brands included in their initial marketing materials, or promoted in-app.

In an interview with TechCrunch, Carl Rivera, the general manager for Shop shared this:

“the app is a response to a broader shift — not just from desktop to mobile commerce, but also from mobile web to native mobile apps. The challenge […] is that most of us only download and shop from a handful of native apps, so it can be hard for an independent brand to launch an app of their own.”

The theory makes sense of course, and he’s absolutely right, but that leads me to wonder: how many independent brands even want to launch an app of their own? And what role does Shop play in helping them replace this independent app?

The entire added value of a branded app is to control the buyer journey from start to finish. The ability to follow the navigation of a user through the entire application is a powerful asset to merchants. It lets a store see which products attract more viewers, which ones convert best, etc. So what role does Shop play as a middleman marketplace for brands if it doesn’t provide that?

The obvious role would be discovery, the ability to bring new viewers to your product catalog thanks to the vast network of shoppers on Shopify’s platform. But, as we saw, it doesn’t offer that either.

The entire premise of Shopify being able to make use of a wide buyer network is questionable too. Buyers don’t buy because of Shopify, they buy because of the brand, because of the product.

Shopify powers an immense number of buyer purchases, but it doesn’t have strong access to these buyers in the form of brand. Shopify is still a B2B company, it may have ambitions of reaching the final consumer market, but their strong brand equity is still confined to the business space.

“Merchants are not a point of leverage for Shopify to build a consumer brand; they are Shopify’s reason to exist, and no growth hack is going to change that” 

Ben Thompson – Stratechery

This is what gives such strength to the similar approach of Instagram Shopping. While the platform plays a similar role in brand-focused discovery, the huge traffic across Shopify stores is segmented across its 1,000,000+ businesses.

Instagram, on the other hand, has centralised traffic already in-app. This allows huge control over the type of brands customers are exposed to, and greater insights on a user-per-user basis for the types of brands and products most likely to convert. So, in the case of Shop, what value add is offered instead?

What are Shop’s next steps?

Right now, Shop is little more than a glorified package tracking application. This sounds like harsh criticism, but it isn’t meant to be. There is a lot of potential for Shop going forward, but there’s some nuance.

Shop’s launch and apparent current strategy is built upon the single player marketplace model. By this model, they’ve already aggregated supply, in the form of their merchant network, leaving only demand to be grown — or here, centralised. The demand already exists, but the success of Shop depends on their ability to concentrate it in a singular app experience.

It’s important to recognise that the Tuesday launch was its first unveiling to the world. Satish Kanwar, VP of Product at Shopify expressed this quite succinctly on Twitter, faced with some widespread critique of the launch.

There’s no denying that Shop could prove to be a powerful asset for Shopify going forwards. I have to recognise that. Nonetheless, it’s not clear, as of right now, the direction Shopify are likely to take the application, given the issues laid out above.

The launch in a less than perfect state, one could argue, was a necessary first step for the product, given the COVID-era, in the company’s push to support local business. On the other hand, without a strong discovery framework, or even an average one, for that matter, the product arguably falls short of even a good initial MVP before moving deeper into the marketplace domain.

In a discussion with Web Smith, Tobi Lütke, CEO of Shopify reportedly suggested that the objectives for Shop were threefold:

  • Increase post-purchase loyalty
  • Increase customer lifetime value
  • Enable local ecommerce

These objectives are clear and, admittedly, do make sense with the little of the app that we’ve seen so far. Post purchase loyalty takes the form of following the brand on this centralised platform, being updated of new product lines, deals, exclusive discounts, etc. The improved tracking experience also contributes to this factor, solidifying brand trust, as well as trust for the platform, by offering full transparency in the purchase and shipping process. In these aspects, Shop does outperform Instagram Shopping or a brand’s online store.

But digging deeper into the two last points, some questions arise.

Shop’s objective is to increase customer LTV, which prompts the question of: whose? The brand’s? Or Shopify’s? In an ideal world, one would argue both. If Shop is able to become the central brand hub for customers, the go-to for your ecommerce needs, then it would make sense that both parties win in the end. A rising tide floats all boats. But to reach this status of go-to app for your branded product purchases, I don’t think it’s hard to argue that a very strong discovery network is needed. This ties into the following objective: enabling local ecommerce.

There are two key ways Shopify could seek to enable local ecommerce:

  • a) Help users discover products they wouldn’t have considered otherwise, emphasising local sources 
  • or b) incentivise purchases from local brands, rather than Amazon or Google Shopping, on products they already wanted to buy.

In Shop’s current form, though, it ticks neither of these two options.

Discoverability, as we saw previously, is next to non-existent. To support local business through Shop, a customer has to make a specific effort to seek out and order from local businesses by name. It serves local ecommerce if a user already knows exactly which business they want to support, but does very little beyond that.

So that brings us to this question: what should Shopify do to make Shop a powerful marketplace?

Unsurprisingly, the leading answer brings back the same answer as to each question before: discoverability. Unless a customer can open the app and be whisked down a rabbit hole of products perfectly tailored to them, ‘likely buys’ based on prior purchases or trending products, then there’s little reason for a customer to use Shop over any other app — namely Amazon.

Beyond first-stage discovery, homepage suggestions, etc., there’s a powerful tool for Shop to make use of, given their centralisation of brand offerings: cross-selling.

If driving local ecommerce business, increasing LTV or post-purchase loyalty are the three core objectives for the application, increased discoverability and cross-sales between product lines are a key solution to all three. Amazon, of course, has this perfected to a science with their “Customers who viewed this item also viewed…” section. It drives organic traffic deeper through the application, increases brand and product discovery, and services all three of the core objectives laid out by Lütke above.

As of right now, it services none.

Going forward, I’m excited to follow the evolution of Shop. Nonetheless, there’s still the ongoing question of whether this is a wise ambition for Shopify to chase. Attracting the other side of the marketplace equation is no easy task — especially in the face of Google Shopping’s increasing usage and Amazon’s market dominance. But they do have some tailwinds in their favour.

Shopify, since the beginning of the shelter-in-place orders around a large part of the world, has grown to handling Black Friday level traffic on a daily basis in a very short time period, on its way to doubling entirely. So one could argue that there’s no better time to put a new product in the market, and capitalise on the huge organic traffic they’re receiving.

But traffic isn’t revenue. In this period, people are flush with time and strapped for cash — a formula for growing a user base, but not necessarily one for growing sales. Their upcoming earnings report will be one to follow closely.

That said, it does reflect a growth of independent merchants shifting their business to Shopify ecommerce, which will be a strong factor in retaining this traffic, and building Shop into Shopify’s marketplace for the future.

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