The internet is noisy for new creators. It can be challenging to figure out what advice to take, what platforms to choose, and which opportunities truly align with your goals.
The most common problem new creators face are:
- How do I get people to notice what I'm creating?
- How do I get people to pay for those creations?
Whether you're a writer releasing a newsletter or a video creator starting a new YouTube channel, these questions fit within the topic of content strategy. Content strategy is a marketing term that means "the planning, development, and management of content." (Source)
Traditional businesses have been using this language for decades to describe how their content helps achieve their goals. The purpose of this article is to make the same strategy available to you: newsletter writers, bloggers, YouTubers, podcasters, and creators of all kinds.
Growth begins with a funnel
At the heart of every content strategy is a funnel — a model for how your ideal fans will discover your work, engage with what you've made, and ultimately support what you do.
This article takes a look at the content marketing funnel concept in three ways:
- Learn about the 4 stages of the creator funnel, how they work, and the strategies required to turn your obscurity into opportunity.
- Discover examples of how real people have used this exact framework to construct incredibly unique careers.
- Understand the big ideas driving the creator economy today so that you can ensure your strategy aligns with the trends already at play.
4 stages of the content marketing funnel for creators
Stage 1: Discovery
The first stage is all about getting people to know you exist. Ideally, the content you make during this phase will free and short.
In stage one, your focus should be on creating content where people already spend time.
This means creating samples of your work for the most appropriate social media channels (Instagram, TikTok, Twitter), online communities (IndieHackers, Reddit), as well as sharing them with people you already know (email, Facebook, in-person).
The content needs to be free because the goal is discoverability. When content is free it can spread quickly because there's no barrier other than the time it takes to consume. Hence the second point: your free content should also be short.
Short content is easily digestible and it forces you, the creator, to boil down what you make into its most essential parts. This format also encourages experimentation. It enables you to throw massive amounts of proverbial spaghetti against the wall so that you can see what sticks before going all-in on a type of content that people may not be interest in.
Short, free content is the reason networks like Vine and TikTok exploded in popularity. It's also why behemoths like YouTube and Instagram scurried to add similar experiences to their platforms (stories and shorts, respectively).
Regardless of what you make, creating a free and short version offers browsers a quick introduction to who you are, what you're about, and whether or not they want to know more.
Stage 2: Trust
Stage two is the core of creative output — whereas stage one was a bite-sized version of what you enjoy creating, stage two presents the entire meal.
This phase aims to build trust with your audience by inviting them to engage at a deeper level with your work.
If they discovered you through short videos, now you can show them a 10-minute vlog or a 30-minute documentary. If your short content was a tweet thread, the next step would be an entire article or ebook on the same topic.
This is your opportunity to build on what was working in short form, capitalize on your uniqueness, and make the type of content you want in front of an audience that cares.
Traditionally, the content at this level would be mostly free (although flexibility with this is ideal) and longer than what was produced for stage one. You'll see exactly how the trust phase can act as a pillar for your entire online business in the examples below.
Stage 3: Access
At this step, our framework diverges significantly from other content marketing funnel strategies. Most agree that once you've gained a sizable amount of trust with your audience, that's when you monetize through every means possible: merchandise, online products and courses, events, affiliate recommendations, etc.
Although none of these methods are necessarily wrong, the ideology that creators should monetize as much of their audience in as many ways as possible can be toxic. You don't have to search far for examples of creators whose audiences abandoned them shortly after a shady merchandising deal or product drop.
A better, more sustainable way to think about the next phase is through access.
This is your opportunity to deepen the relationship with your true fans, the segment of your audience most invested in your work. Access invites people to engage with either more of what you create or a different aspect of what you create.
Content that serves this stage is always protected, meaning this portion of your creative work will remain closed to the public except for those willing to enter an email address. Access can mean subscribing for a free members newsletter, community or getting access to content that requires an email.
Stage 4: Purchase
The final stage of the creator content marketing funnel is where the deepest levels of engagement and business opportunity occur. It's also where your content will transform into specific, actionable, and customizable use cases versus the broader strokes mentioned in previous steps.
The point of stage four is to provide your most invested audience members with something they can't find anywhere else. This is the point where you ask your most dedicated subscribers to support your work financially, in return for additional benefits.
The questions driving your creation for this phase are:
- What results can I help others achieve?
- What content can I provide that people can't find anywhere else?
- What would my most invested audience members pay for?
Because the nature of this content requires a more direct relationship with fewer people, the associated costs tend to be higher. In the examples below, you'll see how this step can be modeled according to whatever your grander creative and business goals may be.
Successful examples of the creator content marketing funnel
Example #1: Josh Spector, newsletter writer
Josh is the author of the massively popular weekly newsletter For The Interested, a free curated list of ideas to help creators succeed with their work.
- Stage 1: Discovery — Frequent Twitter and Medium posts.
- Stage 2: Trust — Weekly curated list of creation-focused articles, all delivered for free.
- Stage 3: Access — This Is How I Do It weekly paid newsletter.
- Stage 4: Purchase — Newsletter Accelerator online course.
In order to draw people to a free newsletter, Josh began by publishing ideas where people were already reading content. Josh became a top writer on Medium while growing a Twitter following of over 13,000 (discovery).
Josh enticed a portion of this growing audience to move from "rented" platforms to an owned one by offering a free weekly newsletter (trust).
Then, to monetize this following, Josh offered a behind-the-scenes look at productivity practices with a paid newsletter (access), as well as an in-depth training course on replicating this success (purchase).
Example #2: Ali Abdaal, YouTuber
Ali is one of the most popular productivity YouTubers on the platform, and for good reason. Ali consistently publishes high-quality videos on the tactics used to succeed as both a creator and medical doctor.
- Stage 1: Discovery — 2-5 minute videos on the BMAT (BioMedical Admissions Test).
- Stage 2: Trust — 15-20 minutes videos on general productivity.
- Stage 3: Access — The Friendzone weekly email newsletter.
- Stage 4: Purchase — Library of premium courses on the subjects of medical school, growing a YouTube channel, editing videos and becoming more productive.
Ali initially gained traction on YouTube by serving a niche community: aspiring medical students in the UK. Short, practical videos documenting Ali's own journey offered viewers a unique experience of a fellow student achieving their shared objective (discovery).
As the audience grew, Ali adapted this content to answer more fundamental questions about productivity processes (trust). From there, fans were invited to join a newsletter full of tips not covered in previous videos (access). Finally, Ali leveraged this experience as both a successful doctor and creator into online courses to help those with similar ambitions (purchase).
Example #3: Me (David Ramos), writer
Before I had the privilege of writing for Ghost, I poured most of my energy into self-publishing books. Here's how I used the creator content marketing funnel to grow my first audience.
- Stage 1: Discovery — Free YouVersion writing posts.
- Stage 2: Trust — Self-published books on Amazon.
- Stage 3: Access — Private community for readers.
- Stage 4: Purchase — Online course on writing and publishing books.
My past writing was on the subject of spirituality. Because I was familiar with the niche, I knew the YouVersion app was a tool many of my ideal customers used. I reached out and was able to get a dozen book excerpts published on their platform as articles (discovery).
Those articles each ended with a link back to my website as well as to one of my self-published works on Amazon (trust). In the first few pages of every self-published book was a link where readers could join a private community of other people who enjoyed my writing and where I would occasionally host live video question and answer sessions (access).
Finally, a portion of that group wanted to learn how to write and publish books for themselves, which led me to build an online course (purchase).
4 takeaways to accelerate your strategy
The creator content marketing funnel is a strategy you can use to grow an audience from 0 followers and turn that audience into a sustainable business. Here are a few of the biggest ideas driving the creator funnel philosophy.
- Don't expect one type of content to accomplish different goals.
Some things you make will get attention. Others will make money. Rarely will one piece of content do both, so create accordingly.
- Use different platforms for different goals.
Instead of complaining that the organic reach on [insert new, exciting platform] has died, pivot to where the attention has gone. Also, you don't have to be everywhere because the goal is never to reach everyone. It's to reach your people with what you enjoy making. Figure out where they are and make for them.
- Always drive everything back to a platform you own.
The most successful creators funnel the attention they receive on social media and elsewhere back to a "home base" they control. That way, no matter how algorithms change, you'll always have direct access to your fans. It's also important to ensure you own your entire business, including customer emails and payments.
- Creator burnout is a symptom of poor strategy.
Pay attention to the most disciplined, consistent makers, and you'll find a pattern: they all "sell their byproducts". You don't have to create something new for every stage in the funnel. Ali shared productivity hacks to succeed as a student. Josh Spector writes a paid newsletter explaining how to put together a free one (e.g., a byproduct). I used excerpts from writing I had already completed to drive awareness towards that same writing.
The creator content marketing funnel will become more popular as the creator economy matures. Now is your chance to stay ahead of the curve. Create free content with purpose. Understand where paid content fits into your overall plan. And never stop experimenting.