Disciple was founded on the idea that bands and artists should have a direct relationship with their most ardent supporters; their super fans if you will. Central to this mission is the notion that quality of audience is more important than quantity. Reach is a mirage whose only beneficiary is ‘big social’, whereas building a deeply engaged community that is passionate about your brand, content and values – and who connect with you through your own platform – is a highly valuable asset.
When we launched our first app for a death metal band called Suicide Silence back in early 2015, we thought our product was designed solely for bands who wanted to give their superfans deeper access to their lives and music. Most bands we tried to persuade to adopt our product responded with something like ‘No thanks, Facebook is awesome. We’ve got like 100 billion likes on there’. The market was not with us.
The social sea change is coming
Today, as 2018 gathers momentum, it is clear things have changed – the world’s honeymoon with big social is over. The outcries that Facebook and YouTube are a threat to society, democracy and our mental wellbeing grow louder by the day. And these outcries are not just coming from governments, content businesses, the advertising sector and silicon valley tech companies, but from former Facebook executives themselves.
Facebook’s proclaimed mission: ‘to give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together’ sounds hollow. Facebook is a $550B dollar business whose mission is to control our attention – whether that be by connecting us with friends, feeding us piano-playing cat videos or leaving us in an echo chamber of fake news. Facebook is not about creating community but selling the world’s attention to the highest bidder.
For content publishers, be that a rock band, news organisation or fitness gurus, a reliance on big social to distribute content to supporters hasn’t led to the nirvana of huge reach, deep relationships with supporters or lucrative new streams of revenue. Big social gave them huge reach but no meaningful audience data, deeply disappointing revenues and ultimately turned them into content serfs to Facebook and Alphabet.
These companies serve one type of user and one type only – marketeers. If you want to get a message to a slither of Facebook’s 2.07 billion consumers then its vast web of data – designed to help you reach just the right consumer – is irresistible. By 2020 Facebook and Google will account for 80% of global digital marketing spend.
The rise of community building
The rising skepticism towards social media is creating a new category of tech company, all of whom are seeing an opportunity to create a new way for Communities to assemble and interact. Disciple, alongside companies such as Mighty Networks are taking the knowledge gleaned from over 15 years of social media use in society and turning the model on its head. This third space (not static web, not social) creates the tools that allow communities to build their own platforms on their own terms. In this new category the community is the customer, not the product. The community host pays for a service and in return owns all the attributes of their community: the data, the revenue, the commercial model, the relationships with the members…..everything. This could be a community based around a shared interest like where they live or a community a media company is building in order to create new revenue streams.
In the past couple of years a growing number of media businesses have adopted the small is beautiful, community-focused mantra and created highly profitable businesses. The Information, created by Jessica Lessin in San Francisco, is a great example. The Information provides news on the global tech scene and a place for people interested in the sector to convene, debate and network. It is very much a community-first, for profit, organization. Users pay a high fee for membership and, in return, Jessica Lessin commits to serve their interest, and their interest alone. She has no investors or advertisers to placate and her business is highly profitable.
This fierce independence is an inspiration to everyone at Disciple. Jessica’s business succeeds on its own merits and is not at the mercy of the algorithms of Facebook. The community she has built is her asset and is not threatened by the whims of the social media platforms or the changing trends in advertising. Our ambition at Disciple is to provide the tools to allow anyone to follow her lead. To democratise the tools for building, sustaining and realising the value from shared interest communities.
New year, new Disciple
In Q1 2018 we will be launching an upgrade to Disciple that changes every aspect of how we run our business and the ambitions we set for ourselves. We call this Disciple v2.0. We are evolving from an artisan app company that has created communities for bands like the Rolling Stones, health and wellness gurus like Madeleine Shaw and public servants like MPs, to a SaaS (software as a service) business. Our v2.0 platform allows anyone to build a fully native app (iOS/Android and soon web) in minutes with features ranging from live streaming to instant messaging. We provide the tools to help our customers engage their communities across platforms, understand them through data and monetise the community through in-app purchases, e-commerce and subscriptions.
This hugely exciting change for us comes after 3 years of learning from the amazing partners we’ve been so privileged to work with in our v1.0 iteration. We learnt that communities focused around a shared special interest thrive and create huge value. We learnt that the figureheads or hosts as we call them are the honey pot that draws the community together, but that member-to-member interactions are what sustain the community.
On every community we’ve built, be it the Rolling Stones, Bollywood star Sonam Kapoor, Country Music superstar Luke Bryan or celebrity chef Hari Ghotra, 90% of all interactions are member-to-member and 10% are member-to-host.
We also learnt that v1.0 was fundamentally flawed in terms of business model. We were choosing the partners we wanted to work with, building them an app from scratch, marketing their community, maintaining a flow of content and figuring out ways to generate revenues from the community which we took a share from as our sole source of revenue. In effect we were an agency in business partnerships with our hosts, but taking all the risk and with a team of 20 trying to carry out a sprawling list of services to an increasingly scattered type of host (i.e. not a company with the laser focus needed to move the dial).
With the launch of our SaaS product we have one simple focus – create the very best product to allow our hosts to build thriving, valuable communities. Our ambition is that, one day, tens of thousands of communities around the world will be thriving on our platform and that via machine learning they will all able to learn the tips and tricks to creating a lasting, meaningful and valuable community from each other. A network built for its customers.
2018 is about showing there is an alternative to the current big social status quo and that independent communities can thrive on their own terms and create real value for their hosts. We hope that by 2019 this third space, one that’s more engaging and connecting than a website and more intimate and controlled than social media will have begun to reshape the tech landscape.
I want to thank all of the people that have helped us get to where we are today. Our investors, our partners, former team members, current team members, our current and former board members. We couldn’t have got to now without your support, guidance, energy and trust. Here’s to the next chapter.