The Rochester area is in the midst of a creative revolution. The problem that remains is how to monetize that revolution.
People who create original and passionate content, including writers, painters, directors, and photographers, are often referred to as “creatives” for short. And the Rochester area has no shortage of them.
Often, though, they are forced to become creative in the next step of the process beyond crafting a work: how they make money from their creations.
“It’s not often in Rochester that you are going to walk into a room with a bunch of millionaires trying to throw you money,” said Leah Stacy, assistant professor in professional practice in English and communications at Nazareth College and publisher of multiple blogs. Without such support, creatives must find unique ways to spread their content and monetize it.
Dr. Ronen Shay, visiting assistant professor of media and communication at St. John Fisher College, has taught classes in media entrepreneurship and is a media researcher who specializes in media management and economics. Shay believes the first step for any creative is finding a critical mass for attention to the content, whatever it may be. That is ultimately what creatives can sell themselves on.
“Until you have an audience that is loyal and will continue to consume content that you produce there is not much dollar value to the creative process,” Shay said.
The road to a critical mass is a thin tightrope to walk. Creatives must stay true to the integrity of their artistic process, while still keeping in mind the looming reaction of the public. There is a dichotomy between a unique, original, individualistic product and the yearning for that product to be enjoyed by many.
“You don’t want to change what your vision is based on whether other people are interested or not,” Shay said. “But the truth is, with creative works and as an artist, you want to get a reaction from people.”
Linh Phillips, founder of Sir Rocha Says, a local food and drink blog, believes that the thought of monetizing should be held until later in the process. Her blog started as a passion project, combining her love for people, food and her local Rochester area.
“I wanted to build content that was going to be meaningful,” Phillips said. “Something I would be proud of as an extension of myself.” It wasn’t until later, once a critical mass was built, that Phillips started thinking about monetizing. She believes this delay helps to preserve the core of the product, before money could influence her decisions.
To stay credible, and keep her site aesthetically appealing, Phillips stays away from advertising such as banner ads. “People are pretty observant and can see right through it,” Phillips said. “I didn’t want that to be skewed if people thought I was being bought out.”
Instead, Phillips monetizes by selling merchandise and looking for regional partnerships. Eventually she hopes to publish and sell a food guide with the help of local contributors or sponsors. Many of her current partnerships come through being featured in local publications. However, she picks her ties carefully. “I really want to make sure the people I partner with tie back into the core mission,” Phillips said.
Partnerships are a huge part of monetizing creative content in a smaller metropolitan area like Rochester.
“Using the barter system is key,” Stacy said. She coordinated and ran a conference called Upstate Social this year, mainly using relationships she has built to find panelists to talk about their trade, social media. The panelists got more publicity and an audience to talk to, and Stacy got speakers’ spots filled for her event. The charge at the door and advertising revenue was boosted because of the names attached to the event, built through relationships. “It’s about finding a mutual benefit,” Stacy said. She stresses not burning bridges for this reason exactly.
Stacy is a sort of serial entrepreneur. Following graduate school, she worked on The Bly Project, a travel and entrepreneurial blog in which she and two others traveled the country asking questions about the American dream. To fund the project Stacy and her partners used Kickstarter, a site where people contribute money to projects based on given description pages. The site raised nearly $4,000 from 92 backers.
Another way to find a mutual benefit between creatives is co-branding. For blogs, that mainly means being featured on sites other than your own to spread your name into a new critical mass of people. Doing interviews for other outlets or joining podcast discussions also are ways to spread understanding about a brand.
“The vibe here in Rochester is a uniting power under one front,” said Phillips, who consistently uses regional partners.
A creative can parlay this inclusion into a larger critical mass and eventually earn money through advertising or other non-traditional outlets. Sponsored posts are one way to monetize on the web without directly employing traditional banner ads.
“[Co-branding] is a very successful strategy and it’s something that is certainly recommended,” Shay said. “It gives you a certain amount of credibility among creatives throughout your geographic region.”
In the same vein, many creatives chose to monetize through freelancing. Though not the same as co-branding, freelancing offers the same boost in credibility by attaching a personal brand to another outlet and displaying the content to a different audience.
“It is interesting and enjoyable to have a lot of control over what projects you’re involving yourself in,” Shay said on freelancing. “It helps you maintain control over the direction of your career.”
Freelancing also offers an opportunity to grow a portfolio somewhat quickly. For some, freelancing becomes a popular outlet early in their career. “Freelancing dictates the topic but gives me the autonomy to pick places to associate with,” said Phillips, who has freelanced for multiple magazines.
The control that freelancing gives is a big draw for creatives. Control is normally a big draw for creatives, but can be a road block on the way to monetization.
“If you’re the type of person that wants to maintain a high level of creative control then you have to get your audience, or critical mass to a much higher number before you approach larger distribution channels,” Shay said. “You have to decide for yourself as a creative how much control is important to you.”
The biggest disadvantage for creatives trying to monetize is the dense competition. “You couldn’t possibly consume everything on these platforms if you wanted to,” Shay said.
However, Phillips believes that the intimacy of Rochester can be advantageous to a creative. “You’re tapping a much more niche audience,” Phillips said. “Once you become an expert in that niche you can build up your credibility.”
Ultimately, matching creative content with the tastes of the masses is the way to money. A harmony between creator and audience is the golden goose that escapes many creatives on the path to monetizing their skill.
“I think that creatives in general have to be flexible with their ideas and respond to what is going on culturally in society,” Shay said.
This story by Greg Pokriki is part of a journalism collaboration between WXXI and St. John Fisher College, giving aspiring student journalists the opportunity to report on and create stories for WXXI listeners, viewers, readers.