🤳 Shira Lazar: Creator-driven media brand pioneer

Advice from navigating 12+ years of change in the creator economy

One question I never stop thinking about: what is a “creator?” YouTube normalized the term a decade ago, and now seemingly every social media platform has a “creator program;” exact definitions vary by platform.

This newsletter’s editorial mission is to illustrate the range of answers to that slipper question. There are as many answers as there are people creating content online.

I’d love to know: what defines a “creator” to you? Is it different from our current definition? Do you consider yourself a creator? Let me know!

— Francis Zierer, Editor

Do you consider yourself a "creator?"

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P.S. We are once again experimenting with an extended interview portion in this week’s issue. As always, if the interview feels like too much information, we’ve extracted the best bits for you in the “Zoom Out” and “Steal This Tactic” sections.

Please do share your feedback by completing the poll at the bottom of the page. I read every single response.

In December 2011, Forbes published this article: 'Some Women Wait Years to Lead a Major Media Brand, Shira Lazar Just Created Her Own' — "Not only is Shira a powerhouse in her own right, but she is also a pioneer in the field. Many have dabbled in vlogging, but few have stuck it out and brought immense value along the way. When I think of the modern correspondent, I think of Shira."

Just six months previously, Shira and her team had launched What's Trending, a live show streaming on YouTube and CBSNews.com. Shira was both host and founder of the brand, a true pioneer of the creator-as-media-brand model.

As a New York Times writer put it the week What's Trending launched, "the fact that it's a live, scheduled half-hour Web show being done on the site of a major broadcast television network (and with a major corporate sponsor, AT&T). That's revolutionary, whether the subject is social networking or retirement planning."

Shira and What's Trending were nominated at the Emmys in 2012; the following year, they received four awards at the Webby Awards; the next year, they won the Streamy Award for Best Live Series.

Cut to 2024 — the revolutionary live web show format Shira helped pioneer has become normal. Millions of people go live on YouTube, Twitch, TikTok, Instagram, and several other platforms every single day. What’s Trending currently boasts over 4.8 million followers across all socials, but there’s more competition than ever.

It's been a tough time for the media industry for years now, with a new brand shuttering or being sold for parts every week — 'Vice.com shutters and BuzzFeed sells Complex — what explains the death of millennial media?" asks reporter Kendra Barrett in an article published earlier this week. She identifies a few possible explanations:

  • It's ironically risky to build a brand on niche interests.

  • Ad dollars migrated to social platforms.

  • There are more ad networks than ever.

  • The media ecosystem is more fragmented than ever.

There’s more to the story than just these few points; that’s just one angle. When we spoke with Shira, she spoke in favor of building a brand on niche interests (we agree) and offered a few more explanations:

  • Many new media brands relied on VC investment rather than revenue; VC funding isn’t flowing as freely as it did just a couple of years ago.

  • Media revenue models alone rarely lend themselves to accelerated growth models.

  • The Facebook-driven “pivot to video” had a brutal whiplash effect on publishers.

What's Trending has not been immune to these ills; the platforms it’s built on have been in a constant state of change over the last 12 years. Best practices on any web platform rarely have a lifespan that can be measured in years.

Across all socials, What’s Trending boasts some 4.8 million followers, while Shira’s personal-brand profiles total around 1.28 million. Her TikTok sees the best followers-to-engagement ratio across both social portfolios. It’s a testament to the appeal of personal-brand-driven content; social media audiences are drawn to original, authentic voices.

Following counts recorded February 29, 2024.

Newsletters — email lists, specifically — offer some reprieve from platform whiplash. What’s Trending maintains a weekly newsletter through beehiiv. Shira also maintains a weekly newsletter called #TheAlpha, which covers web3 and AI, fitting topics for someone who told Creator Spotlight that she is "a broadcaster and a creator, but also a creative entrepreneur, which means I look at new ways of telling stories using disruptive tech."

This approach has defined Shira's career since the early days of What's Trending. At the center of it all, though, is Shira; her charismatic on-camera talent is what defined her company's early successes, and it remains core to her successful ventures today.

In 2011, it was groundbreaking to build a creator-driven media brand. Now, it's a strategy in every creator’s playbook, but it's not necessarily any easier to parlay personality-driven content success into a sustainable media brand — we'll have to wait and see how today's creator media operators navigate the inevitable platform and advertising tumult of the 2020s.

We recently spent an afternoon with Shira discussing:

  • ♻️ Navigating the constant change inherent to the creator economy

  • 🤳 Key advice for creators building today

  • 🤝 The risks of building a business reliant on brand deals

  • 📲 How to choose which platforms to focus your efforts on

Read our interview below.

No time to read the rest? Before you go, here are a few quick lessons from Shira’s 12+ years in the creator economy, applicable across niches and platforms.

  1. Be careful if your monetization strategy is mainly reliant on brand deals. Closing a great brand deal once doesn't mean you'll close a deal with that brand twice; their strategy might change, or your point of contact might leave the company. Reliable, recurring revenue is critical to growing your revenue as a creator — subscription models are more sustainable than brand deals for many creators.

  2. You don't have to grow at hyper-speed to be successful. If that's how you've set up your strategy, great. But hyper-growth isn't everything; it can take years to become an "overnight" success. Figure out the why behind what you're doing and focus on incremental growth towards long-term milestones. Patience is key.

  3. Following best practices is helpful, but identifying your own is game-changing. Today's best practices aren't necessarily tomorrow's; not all tactics are evergreen. What works for one creator won't necessarily work for you. Focus on your strengths and how you can apply them to your niche. Experiment and be methodical. Take creative risks!

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You started out in broadcasting and built a new media brand livestreaming on YouTube over a decade ago. Now your best-engaged content is on TikTok. How have you handled transitions between platforms throughout your career?

I’m not gonna say it’s easy. You have to accept that you won’t always have people flocking to your work. If you don’t, it becomes frustrating as a creator; you’re sitting around saying, “Why not me? Why is this not working for me?” It can become a downward spiral of self-pity.

Depending on what you’re doing, it takes different amounts of time to build up something that does work; you need to be okay and patient with that.

Shira in the What’s Trending studio three weeks before the show launched 12 years ago.

You need to understand your why and your purpose. Maybe long-term, you want to build up a community, own an email list, and have a direct connection with a smaller, more valuable audience. If you can make that decision, you might be more willing to put in the extra effort around each step to build to that rather than chasing hyper-growth on a social network.

You have to approach each platform differently and set different expectations. You shouldn’t compare yourself too much with other creators, either; what worked for them may not work for you.

How should you set expectations for yourself as a creator, if not through comparison against other creators?

This is where your own instinct as a creative comes in. You could try all the best practices, and you may see bits of success here and there by doing so, but you need to go back to what feels right for you. That’s the art and craft of being a creator.

Shira’s unfiltered takes on what’s trending at the intersection of emerging tech, pop culture, and storytelling are still what resonate most with her audience.

You need to sit down and brainstorm and create space to experiment. “Best practices” are what they are because someone sat down, experimented, and established whatever it is as a “best practice.” You need to be open to sitting down on your own and coming up with new ideas.

Ask yourself: is there a loophole? A door you’re not seeing? The answers to these questions come from giving yourself time to be creative, from getting in touch with yourself — from listening to your higher self and trusting your instincts. It takes time to get past your biases and blind spots, and that’s where solutions often lay: in your blind spots.

What’s the best way to get past your biases and blind spots?

Brainstorms and other people. You don’t need a huge team; you can have just one confidant. But you don’t want to talk to too many people at once because you get too many conflicting voices.

Talk to a select group of people you really trust for guidance. Lay it out: This is what I’m trying to do, and these are the best practices; now, let’s put those practices aside. What are some crazy, outside-the-box things I could try here?

Decide when you’re going to try these ideas. Figure out how you’ll do it. Determine a point in time beyond that to look back at the data — what worked, what didn’t?

Everyone wants hyper-growth, but you know what? It’s about giving the best that you can at that moment, at every stage. Incremental growth is huge. Measure success in the long run, not by what you achieved in one day.

Could you share three pieces of advice for someone starting out as a creator today, in 2024?

  1. It’s always about niche. This is something I struggle with; I’m a bit of a generalist. We’re all interested in so many things, but you want to hunker down on one niche. Once you build a loyal audience in a niche, they’ll respect you enough to listen to what you want to say about other things because you’ve built that trust.

  2. For your own sanity, create a production schedule. Set time aside for production and set deadlines for uploading. Schedule publishing in advance. Figure out what works for you, how to build a schedule into your lifestyle, and connect it to what the platforms need.

    It all depends on what kind of content you’re making for what platforms. If your work is more news-based, your scheduling needs will be different than if you shoot more evergreen content. Experiment to figure out what works.

  3. Third, it's about consistency. You need to have a strong enough mindset to push through, even when you're uninspired. That's also where scheduling comes in again; you should be able to predict when you're not inspired and designate those times for work that doesn't require inspiration.

    That said, remember to take time off, or you'll get burnt out.

You've been making a living in the creator economy for over 12 years. How have your income streams changed over that time?

Part of the strategy behind building my personal brand was because, at many points, I wasn’t paying myself a salary from my company, What’s Trending. But I still had bills to pay. I realized that my own brand was underutilized and I could make more money there.

I personally have made money from brand deals, consulting, and advising. There are big chunks of money creators and creatives can make using their expertise to help others. Consulting, advising, speaking — these things have a fee attached.

Services listed on Shira’s website.

You want to understand who you are as a creator and come up with a menu of things you can attach fees to. You might be doing things you aren't getting paid for but should be — diversifying revenue streams is critical to scaling your revenue as a creator.

You built What's Trending as a company in tandem with your personal brand before separating the two somewhat. How lucrative has the company been for you over the years?

What’s Trending has brought in seven figures some years and basically zero other years.

We've done some brand deals that were $700,000 one year, but does that brand do the same deal the next year? Maybe not, and you have to rebuild. That's been my life for over a decade with What's Trending. It's been a lesson in constantly pivoting.

The What’s Trending homepage on February 29, 2024. Ad revenue remains a reliable revenue source for the brand.

The thing about brand deals is you might do a fantastic job and achieve everything they wanted, but you have no control over whether or not they're going to do another deal with you. It's so out of your control — maybe they hire a new CMO or change their marketing strategy. You have to base your day-to-day budget on your minimum revenue, whether that big deal comes again or not.

That's why recurring revenue is so important; it's more predictable. How can you build subscriptions into your business model? That's a more sustainable platform for a business than a few brand deals.

Is there such a thing as a “middle class” in the creator economy?

Yes, there's a sweet spot. When you're smaller, you have less upkeep. You can get great margins when you're in the middle, but the bigger your operation gets, the more you have to maintain, and the margins are often lower.

What's Trending has consistently fallen apart when our cash burn becomes higher. And the minute one platform changes its rules, algorithm, or what-have-you, we're screwed. It's happened so many times.

I feel like a cat with nine lives. Like, at one point, What's Trending was making $30k per month on Facebook alone — then, one month, the check was only $1,000. How are you supposed to maintain a business and build models based on these platforms when they're changing the rules every year, even every quarter?

What’s Trending, like so many once-mighty Facebook pages, still has a huge follower count but no longer sees any significant engagement on its posts.

You have to stay nimble. We've made bets that such-and-such brand was going to come back and give us another deal; we didn't want to fire people. These issues get more challenging as you try to scale.

As a creator and media business operator, how do you choose which platforms to focus on? 

In the end, to build a sustainable business, you'll have bills to pay.

You need to figure out where advertisers are spending money or which platforms are giving money to creators. That's going to influence where you're investing your time and energy.

The reason you see people on TikTok and Instagram isn't necessarily because those platforms are paying out so much money but because that's where the brand deals are. You don't see the brand deals or platform payouts with X or Twitter, but it's still a great place to build community, depending on your niche.

Shira recently worked on an ad for Hyundai on her TikTok account.

As a creator, you don't need just another place to publish content that doesn't offer you either a great community-building opportunity or a path to making money.

One actionable takeaway — it’s worked for Shira; you can apply it in your work today.

If you’re not somehow including interviews in your content strategy, it’s time to try.

Shira has interviewed everyone from Mark Cuban to Snoop Dogg — particularly in the early days of What's Trending when it was primarily a YouTube show, interviews were her bread and butter.

TikTok street interviews, podcasts, and newsletters like Creator Spotlight — a content strategy built around interviews gives you both an endless well of ideas and exposure to new audiences interested in the people you're interviewing.

So we asked Shira how to run a great interview:

“The two most important things are being curious and being a good listener. It's tough to be a good listener during an interview; you're always thinking about the next thing you want to ask.

Don't be so prepared that you're not present. If you're just focused on asking your next question, you'll miss out on so many gems and conversational threads you could've pulled on.

People feed off your energy — you need to set the tone and trust yourself. Again, it comes back to being present. And maybe the person you're interviewing is in a weird mood, but if you set the right tone and maintain it, you can draw them in.

It's a dance. You might ask a question and the person goes on a 30-minute tangent; don't be afraid to interject and direct the conversation.

It's also a muscle — if you don't do it often, you'll get nervous, and it'll be much harder. It's something you can practice.”

Shira Lazar

Content we've been thinking about while working on this issue.

  • MrBeast is, of course, an incredible example of creator-as-media-company; there’s no separation between his company and his personal brand. This video tour of the MrBeast content studio, allegedly worth over $14 million, is a fascinating look behind the scenes.

  • We’re currently working on Creator Spotlight video content. We found this Twitter thread about how to optimize a desktop video setup very helpful (shout out to Kevin Shen).

  • This article from the Harvard Business Review lays out an excellent seven-step process for defining your personal brand. This is great advice for anyone, whether you’re building a personality-driven creator brand or just trying to stand out at work.

Thank you for reading! The Venn diagram between “creator” and “media company” seems poised only to overlap more over the next decade, especially as traditional media companies continue to shutter. Deuxmoi, who we wrote about a few weeks ago, is another great example of this.

Let us know if there are any creator-driven media companies you’d like to see covered in this newsletter!

On to next week’s issue, featuring a creator who set out two years ago to campaign for pay transparency through TikTok street interviews and has since gained over 2 million followers and at least $1.5 million in revenue — and even influenced legislation at the national level.

Francis Zierer, Editor

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