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Deep Support

The Ad-Free Tim Ferriss Experiment.

I threw a quick link into the Tuesday newsletter to flag this, but I think it’s worth some talking through. In a blog post published earlier this week, Tim Ferriss, the lifehack guru who has a really popular eponymous podcast, announced that he’s kicking off a six month test period around the business model that powers his show — namely, that he’s briefly eschewing the advertising model in favor of optional direct support. (Again, for six months. If things don’t pan out the way he hopes, the show will switch back to ads at the end of the run.)

Ferriss lays out his rationale in the post, but to briefly sum it, the underlying reason is one that’s fairly #onbrand for the guy: the advertising model takes a lot of time and energy that could be spent back on the actual work, and so the business model swap-out is, in many ways, a move towards greater efficiency. The podcast will remain free, and for all intents and purposes, the experience should remain the same other than the absence of the host-read spots. That absence could be meaningful to some listeners, of course, because advertising itself is a discovery service in theory that’s unfortunately often executed as a tax on the consumer in practice. In any case, Ferriss notes that the product discovery aspect of his work will continue in his weekly newsletter, called Five-Bullet Friday.

Okay, so, here’s what I really want to talk about: the direct support levels. A quick scan of the page reveals six tiers, with the minimum priced at $9.95 a month and the maximum priced at a whopping $1000 a month. Which sounds, you know, somewhat crazy, particularly when paired with the fact that there aren’t differentiated rewards between tiers… or any rewards, really. (A brass tacks detail: it appears he’s using ChargeBee as the direct support management platform.)

But I dunno, it strikes me as consistent with the kinds of people who are really into Ferriss’ work, which has to do with self-improvement and lifehacks and productivity, and which tends to draw a spread of people who really value that type of stuff. And I’m willing to bet that that spread of people tends to be, more often than not, clustered in an income class for whom $9.95 a month is no big deal. (Meanwhile, the $1000 a month tier feels like a “why not?” option, because in the off-chance that there are three or four rich guys are cash-fluid enough to hit it, why leave $3000 to $4000 on the table?)

Again, the monetization system is optional, not a subscription, which means the arrangement that’s being established here likely translate to one where those who can and want to support are subsidizing the work for those who aren’t able to do so. All of which is to say, I like this move quite a bit for this specific production.

But this specific execution of the direct support model is not super replicable, of course, for a number of factors: Ferriss already has a broad reach and following, his broader business model as a media operation is spread out across several platforms (including books and whatnot), the material he works with is a particularly sticky media genre, and the publishing cadence is one where supporters would generally feel like they’re consistently seeing their money put to work.

The big idea holds, though, which is this: it’s the appropriate pairing of business model and audience. It’s probably not going to work as well with shows that draw in different kinds of audiences (with different kinds of relationships to their incomes), or shows that are structured differently with different publishing cadences (bi-weekly shows, I imagine, have a real tough time), or even shows that come from, like, a bigger organization (it’s one thing to feel compelled to support an individual, it’s another emotional dynamic altogether when it comes to supporting official-seeming groups).

Point being: business models need to fit the audience, or at least land in a place where there is a theory or a philosophy around what the audience should be, and how the different components of which should be made to relate to each other. This, I think, should raise some questions around the way various tools are built to solve monetization problems for podcasters and media creators more broadly.