Many media businesses, both small and large, are struggling to make their way in the ‘new paradigm’ of media. We have seen many traditional media businesses diminished or disappear (‘disrupted’) as a result of this paradigm shift. Even ‘new media’ darling, Buzzfeed, recently underwent a painful round of layoffs, demonstrating the complexity and speed of change still occurring in the media landscape.
This article examines a ‘recent’ new paradigm success story in Critical Role (critrole.com), applying technology analyst, Ben Thompson’s ‘Aggregation Theory’ as a lens for discussion.
Who are Critical Role and why should we care?
Critical Role (hereafter CR) are achieving the rare feat of converting their online popularity into significant amounts of money. Recently, they closed a Kickstarter campaign to animate their first series as a television show, entitled ‘The Legend of Vox Machina’ . This Kickstarter campaign broke numerous records. At the time of writing, it had become the ‘Most Funded’ Film and Video Kickstarter campaign in history, surpassed AU$15 million in funds pledged, and is presently the 5th most funded Kickstarter campaign of all time.
What may seem most remarkable to people outside the Critical Role community (dubbed ‘Critters’ for short) is how a bunch of self-described ‘nerdy-ass voice actors’ came to this position: playing Dungeons & Dragons™, the iconic tabletop game, synonymous with nerds since its inception in the early 70’s. (For an interesting read on the inception of the game, I recommend David M. Ewalt’s Of Dice and Men: The Story of Dungeons & Dragons and The People Who Play It.)
Clearly, there are things that can be learned from Critical Role.
How they got here
A brief history of Critical Role may help inform our understanding of what makes them so special, and what, if anything, others might do to replicate their success.
Humble beginnings – Nerds of a Feather …
Critical Role started on the YouTube channel, ‘Geek & Sundry’ in June, 2015. Geek & Sundry (G&S) is itself a phenomenon we have studied, having been founded by YouTube content pioneer, Felicia Day. G&S was one of the online channels funded through the YouTube Original Channel Initiative.
Geek & Sundry already had a substantial presence with Critical Role’s target audience – geeks – having launched on April 2, 2012, over three years earlier. From these fertile grounds, Critical Role’s popularity quickly accelerated, with subscription numbers surpassing 5 figures in the first few episodes. Comparing the sets and props from their first episode to the final episode of their first ‘campaign’ (or series), one can also see their growth in sophistication, although, at heart, they remained a very simple, cheap format: Three locked off cameras, 7 or 8 ‘talent’ with minimal make-up and wardrobe, sitting behind tables, and later, the occasional camera adjustment for close-ups of figurines, maps and other props.
A Taste of Independence
Recently, Critical Role broke away from their original host YouTube channel, Geek & Sundry, (c. July 2018 dated 18/6/18 to announce the move) presumably to improve their creative control and help better monetise their work. This website has already examined some of their monetisation efforts prior to their leaving G&S, such as product placements, sponsorship and advertising.
In less than a year, their YouTube subscriber numbers have climbed from zero to 445,000 (at time of writing). These subscription numbers are still growing strongly, with their YouTube subscriber numbers at 372,000 only a month earlier. For those not familiar with YouTube statistics, this likely signifies a following in the millions - subscriber numbers underestimate fan numbers as many fans will not subscribe or engage via social media platforms in a phenomenon known as ‘lurking’, with a shallow ‘funnel’ conversion ratio from ‘views’ to ‘likes’ and ‘likes’ to ‘subscriber’. However, this is still a decline from Geek & Sundry’s subscription base which now stands at 2 million at the time of writing and was probably well over 1.5M at the time of Critical Role’s separation. Many Critters claimed that Critical Role was the ‘tail that wagged the dog’ in terms of audience on Geek & Sundry, and the coming two years will test that assumption to see if Critical Role approaches the subscriber base of Geek & Sundry.
In the time since they left Geek & Sundry, Critical Role have been involved in two Kickstarter campaigns. The animation Kickstarter campaign described above was actually their second foray, having earlier teamed up with miniature figurine makers Steamforged in 2018 to create figurines of CR’s on-screen alter-ego’s from their first series, Vox Machina. Foreshadowing the present campaign’s success, the figurine crowdfunding campaign was also well supported, raising over AU$1.66 million in 10 days.
Since leaving G&S, they have also set up their own website (www.critrole.com), studio, and online shop, upon which they sell merchandise and tickets to their live shows. In this studio, they shoot a number of recurring shows (thirteen at the time of writing) in addition to their main drawcard, the Critical Role D&D campaign, currently in its second ‘series’ or ‘campaign’ . At present, none of their new programs are (yet) as successful as their ongoing D&D campaign, with the main thrust of the content appearing to be ‘fan service’, for example, interviews with the CR cast and their friends and more in-depth analysis of the show.
Critical Question: How might Critical Role monetize their success?
With all the above achievements, one might be forgiven for thinking Critical Role’s financial security is assured. However, if there’s one lesson from Disruption Theory, it’s that ‘great’ businesses’ can fail. This, after all, is the sub-title of Clayton Christensen’s ground-breaking book that coined the modern usage of the term ‘disruption’. The full title to Christensen’s book is: ‘Disruption: When new technologies cause great firms to fail’.
We should also bear in mind the proceeds of the most recent crowd-funding campaign are going entirely to produce an expensive animated series and, as mentioned above, Critical Role have only relatively recently started their own YouTube channel. YouTube channels are notoriously difficult to monetise, and even assuming a generous monetisation ration of $10 to 1 subscriber (most channels appear to monetise at less than $1 to every 3 subscribers, but clearly Critical Role’s fan-base have proven merchandise-hungry (see their first Kickstarter campaign), their income is being split at least 8 ways (cast members and possibly Brian W. Foster, boyfriend of cast member Ashley Johnson, and the host of Talks Machina and the Between the Sheets interviewer).
In addition to working in a technology environment that is still very much in flux, CR are also in ‘show business’, which has spawned a celebrity gossip industry with billions in revenue watching celebrities personal lives implode. CR are likely already well aware that their popularity may take a sudden turn due to some unforeseen disaster. This was seen recently with the rapid fall from grace of nerd-entrepreneur colleague and guest on Critical Role, Chris Hardwick, following abuse allegations from his ex-girlfriend Chloe Dykstra. Within days, many videos with Chris Hardwick were stripped from the Internet, mostly notably the episodes containing Hardwick in the Matthew Mercer (Dungeon Master for Critical Role’s main campaigns) ‘dungeon mastered’ D&D series, Force Grey: Giant Hunters (See comments in this thread suggesting the reason these were removed were due to the scandal surrounding Hardwick.)
In fact, Critical Role appear to have already had one close call with former original cast member, Orion Acaba. Still a sensitive topic, the Critical Role Reddit page expressly forbids discussion of Acaba.
American technology commentator, Ben Thompson, of www.stratechery.com, has developed a theory that he suggests is descriptive and potentially predictive of many aspects of the fast-moving technology sector. Called ‘Aggregation Theory’, it describes the flywheel effect that has seen small companies, frequently founded in dorm rooms and garages by one or two nerds, rapidly grow into what are now the biggest companies in the World. Thompson feels the best examples of ‘Aggregators’ include Facebook, Google (and YouTube, its sister asset at Alphabet Inc.), through to Uber and AirBnB (although he does make note that the latter two involve physical assets and people, increasing the amount of ‘friction’ in the flywheel effect). A key takeaway from Aggregation Theory is that this flywheel effect leads to a ‘winner takes all’ (or almost all) dynamic. Take for example Google’s dominance in search in Western countries. Similarly, Facebook and WeChat each dominate their own geographical territories, with any rival social media organisations trivial in comparison to these two respective giants.
A corollary of this is that organisations in the middle tend to be hollowed out. In Australia, we have recently seen revenues rapidly decline in television broadcast corporation, Network Ten and the Fairfax non-subscription mastheads, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. Thompson suggests Buzzfeed’s recent layoffs are a result of being in this middle-ground: See his articles ‘The BuzzFeed Lesson’ and ‘BuzzFeed Followup, The Future is Niche, Atlassian and Bing’ (Member article: Tuesday, January 29, 2019).
There is a positive flipside to Aggregation: The creation of niches which may not have existed under the ‘old paradigm’. Thompson’s own analogy is the rainforest: In the rainforest, which do you choose to be? An enormous tree, or a highly specific, niche organism?
Interestingly, Thompson’s own business – a subscription email service run from his Stratechery website – is a demonstrably successful example of a niche strategy. He is essentially a media content creator, who covers a niche topic, ‘bleeding edge’ discussion on technology and business. By his own admission, he is unlikely to succeed in a business model that skims small amounts of money (or uses an advertising revenue model) from millions of viewers. Instead he chooses to earn US$100 annual subscription fees from readers who place a high value upon his content i.e. a niche audience. Due to the power of the Internet, the small percentage of the population likely to pay for his content are scaled internationally to anywhere with access to the Internet.
So what should Critical Role do?
Clearly, Critical Role falls into the category of a niche content creator. Here’s a test: Prior to their record-breaking Kickstarter campaign (which was written up in mainstream publications like Variety (admittedly a niche showbusiness publication, but one that addresses mainstream showbusiness), Forbes and Fortune (again both niche business publications but ones that address mainstream businesses) , who outside of Nerdom has heard of Critical Role?
Ben Thompson’s own advice is to look to what he himself has done.
“What is clear, though, is that the only way to build a thriving business in a space dominated by an Aggregator is to go around them, not to work with them. In the case of publishers, that means subscriptions, or finding ways to monetize, like the Ringer, beyond text.
For web properties it means building destination sites that are not completely reliant on Google. For manufacturers it means building relationships with retailers other than Amazon and building brands that compel customers to go elsewhere. And for digital content providers…well, this is why I view Apple’s policies as the most egregious of all.” Ben Thompson, The BuzzFeed Lesson, Stratechery.com Monday, January 28, 2019, accessed 11/4/19 at 4:50pm
Note too what the unspoken contract for a subscription model is, according to Thompson:
“It is very important to clearly define what a subscriptions (sic) means. First, it’s not a donation: it is asking a customer to pay money for a product. What, then, is the product? It is not, in fact, any one article (a point that is missed by the misguided focus on micro-transactions). Rather, a subscriber is paying for the regular delivery of well-defined value.”
“For suppliers, the antidote for Aggregation is to go direct to consumers; the key is to embrace the same forces that drive Aggregation. First, the addressable market should be the entire world, not just a limited geographic area. Second, the same sort of automated payment tools available to advertisers on Aggregators can be leveraged for consumers; indeed, the tools for consumers, particularly given the lower dollar amounts and decreased need for paperwork, can be as simple as Apple Pay, and they can scale indefinitely. Third, a freemium approach to content means that social networks can be used for user-generated marketing.” Ben Thompson, The Cost of Apple News, Stratechery.com, February 13, 2019, accessed 11/4/19, 4:57pm.
Applying Thompson’s advice to Critical Role suggests to me the following:
The end goal is to have subscribers pay Critical Role to continue to deliver content that the subscriber wants into the future (as long as the subscription lasts). This payment is ideally done through an asset that Critical Role controls i.e. not on an Aggregator site such as YouTube or Twitch, but through their own critrole.com website.
The type of content should be … more of the same. In this case, fans would most want another Matt Mercer ‘dungeon mastered’ campaign, with all the Critical Role team. Clearly, the team now have incredibly busy schedules, so they may find means of introducing new characters and actors.
But what about the steps in-between?
The above points to the ‘end goal’ of any monetisation activity for a niche content provider such as Critical Role. However, as in many scenarios regarding technology, what is more difficult to navigate are the steps in between where we are now and that end destination. Autonomous vehicles are a good example of this. Most experts agree we’ll eventually all be riding around in self-driving cars, provided via ‘transport-as-a-service’ (TaaS), rather than owning our own vehicles, since drivers are the most costly part of a TaaS transport service, having a means to remove them means hiring transport will be much more cost-effective than buying a large vehicle that is almost always carrying far under its optimal capacity and is not used, on average, for 96% of the day. But what happens in between now and that end state of driverless nirvana is far more difficult to see.
In the next article, we explore options for the steps in between.