Building a Platform and Surviving This New Free-conomy

Last week I went to a photographer’s conference at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas where some of the top talent in the industry spoke. Inspirational key notes and seminars were given on everything including sales and marketing, branding, workflow, networking and even “fusion.” The “conference” also included an inspirational event where about 15 speakers each got up and had exactly 5 minutes to give an inspirational presentation. There was networking, camaraderie, meeting up with old friends and bonding with new ones. Perhaps the best part of this whole event was that it was 100% FREE. No, I’m not talking about WPPI. I’m talking about Showit United. (I actually attended both conferences since they were in the same hotel during the same week.)

Showit United was a 3-day event hosted by ShowIt Fast, the company founded by ex-wedding photographer David Jay. David can be as charming as he is often provocative. Regardless of what you think about him and the growing legion of fans for his website and workflow services, there’s no denying the power and influence he’s created producing educational and inspirational content that is free. (By the way, all the Showit United keynotes are posted online… for free.)

While at the other Vegas photography conference (the one with 16,000+ photographers hosted by WPPI), I had an opportunity to spend some quality time and get to know Kenna and Craig. They run and organize another free event for photographers and filmmakers that has a worldwide audience of tens of thousands. It’s called CreativeLive, and about twice a month they host 3-day online seminars that are free if you watch them live. Co-founded by world-renowned commercial photographer and director Chase Jarvis, CreativeLive has practically redefined online digital education.

The New Free-conomy

Everywhere you look, more and more content is being given up for FREE. Education has been perhaps the area where this movement has proliferated the most. Whether it’s free conferences, free online workshops, the thousands (if not millions) of how-to videos on YouTube, to blogs like the one you’re reading now, you pretty much never have to pay for education ever again if you didn’t want to. Every topic under the sun is somewhere out on the internet available for free. I call it the new “free-conomy.”

And it’s not just education that is affected. A growing amount of products and services are also free. Google docs, Gmail, Evernote, YouSendIt, Dropbox, Mailchimp, and many others all have free services that are quite thorough. You may have even begin to feel the pinch of the free-conomy as competitors in the industry start offering “free” photo sessions and “free” digital prints.

So how in the world can an entrepreneur make an honest living in this free-conomy? By building a platform.

Building a Platform

Leadership speaker and blogger Michael Hyatt has a great definition for “platform” – it’s the means by which you connect with your existing and potential fans. Your platform is composed largely of your internet presence: blogs, Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, podcasts, Vimeo, YouTube channel, etc. David Jay and Chase Jarvis have grown ginormous platforms from which they have launched successful businesses. Growing a platform is the strategy the aforementioned free services also utilize.

Once you have a significantly large platform (primarily grown by offering valuable content for free), you can monetize it in various ways:

  • Advertising
  • Premium content
  • Subsequent sales of previously free services
  • Coaching and consultation
  • Other products or services people are willing to buy (DVDs, hands-on workshops, t-shirts, etc.)

A large platform has other fringe benefits that are valuable but not necessarily financial (i.e. invitations to industry events; credibility as an expert; exclusive access to new products; brand awareness; search engine optimization; etc.)

As the free-conomy grows, platform-building will be a growing and significant strategy to stay alive. So, here are my six tips for building a platform:

  • Define your audience. You have to know who your platform will be geared towards. Mine is primarily professional filmmakers and photographers, but it is largely becoming professional creatives in general. Knowing your audience will help you do the next tip.
  • Provide relevant and valuable content. Knowing your core audience and what they want and need will define the kind of content you provide via your platform. 99% of everything I blog, tweet, Tumble, Like, or Google+ about will be related to the art and business of being a professional creative. This includes other people’s tweets I retweet or blog posts I share.
  • Build a brand. Don’t just throw up a bunch of social media sites without giving thought to how they will all connect and provide a cohesive experience for your audience; an experience that will build your brand as a content provider.
  • Be consistent. You have to be consistent when providing valuable content. You don’t have to blog every weekday like I do, but if a blog is a key part of your platform, you should do it at least three times a week to really get traction. You can read my tips on using Twitter effectively for more info on being consistent and relevant.
  • Engage your audience. Don’t just be a 1-way road of information, yelling from the mountaintop without listening. Reply to people who comment on your blog. If you guest blog for another blogger, be sure to reply to comments on your guest blog post. As much as possible, reply to people who tweet you. (Depending on how large your following is, it may not be realistic to reply to everyone). To the extent possible, reply to emails. As your audience grows, you may need to enlist help from someone like a virtual assistant, community managers.
  • Share the love. Lastly, share links to and content from other people’s platforms. I make a living as a professional filmmaker, yet every week I interview on my podcast other professional filmmakers, people who technically could be considered competitors. I’ll retweet other people tweets about workshops. I’ll share blog posts from colleagues in the industry, or invite them to write guest blog posts. If you give, it will come back to you in spades.

Tomorrow I’ll discuss who should consider building a platform and how it can benefit you, even if you don’t have Chase Jarvis or David Jay sized numbers.

4 thoughts on “Building a Platform and Surviving This New Free-conomy

  1. Ron, it’s funny you mention “free” and David Jay. Every time I’ve heard that guy talk, he’s ALWAYS trying to sell you one of his services directly or indirectly. In reading this post, I agree w/ some of what you’re saying. But an old saying comes to mind “there’s NO such thing as a free lunch”. With the tragic comedy that our industry is becoming, it reminds me of the gold rush. You can make an easier living selling the goods to the miners then actually mining for gold.
    With a lot of this “free” education and $60 tour bus seminars going around, it’s giving people with a dream a little bit of knowledge but they think they are getting a quality education. And a little bit of knowledge, is dangerous thing.

    1. I can understand you looking at it that way Alexis, but selling other “stuff” is part of what building a platform is all about. One of the ways I mention in my blog post specifically on how to monetize a platform is just that, selling other products and services. People have to make a living. Chase Jarvis and CreativeLive is no different. You can watch the classes free only when it’s live, but after that you have to pay for them. The fact that DJ uses these “free” platforms to sell products and services is no different than what any of the companies I mention are doing. What you have to decide is if the content they’re providing for free is worth it to you.

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