The Rise of “Identity Platforms” in Media

The case for “identity-content environments” and funding them

Image courtesy of NewHeightsBoise.com

The Unintentional Speaker

Recently, I watched TechCrunch’s September Disrupt convention in San Francisco. Each Disrupt is always different, and I quite like how the guests are rotated out to continue to give people a chance to discover new rising talent and minds. And that was the experience I had on the first day — Monday, September 12th — as I got ready to tune in to hear Jeff Lawson speak about Twilio.

What happened was more a happy accident than anything else. I got the stream going early, and unintentionally caught about 2/3 of the previous speaker, Morgan DeBaun, CEO of Blavity. This was arguably the best thing that happened to me on Monday (sorry Jeff, I still love Twilio).

“Content for Black Millennials”

Previously, I hadn’t heard of DeBaun or Blavity, but within 2 minutes I was hooked. Not just on what she was saying, but the way in which she was saying it. I soon had to stop listening to the stream in the background while I read other articles and had to focus all of my attention on it, because what DeBaun was articulating was brilliant.

The site showcases a host of great pieces (both written and video), from discussions on black culture to longer essays on pressing issues within the black community. The pieces I read were so intriguing, in fact, that I certainly didn’t have to be a black millennial myself to appreciate them.

And then the true brilliance of DeBaun’s company hit me. It wasn’t the easy BuzzFeed analogy that was important (or should be important to investors and/or users); it was the recognition and cultivation of a unique identity. A deep drive towards a platform identity.

What Is “Identity?”

In tech, as well as business in general, the concept of branding is discussed passionately and often. It’s something that investors and founders take very seriously, as well they should. It’s what sets our companies apart from one another. But we shouldn’t confuse “branding” with “identity” — and sometimes we do.

While a lot of companies are brilliant at branding, they haven’t yet cracked how to turn that branding power into a true identity. In this case, identity is more than knowing a company’s pitch or mission statement. Branding is what I buy into or publicize; identity is what I am.

Arguably, this is something which tech companies could learn a lot about from studying music and music communities. In music, identity goes far beyond slapping a logo on a shirt and getting 1,000 people to buy it. It’s about attaching a visceral emotion to that identity — something that is so ingrained that nothing will change it.

The Metallic Shirt Example

When I wear a Metallica shirt, I’m advertising to people that I’m a Metallica fan. That’s what non-fans see.

But that is not what other Metallica fans see. They see me as an extension of themselves, a comrade in a crowd of non-comrades. We share that emotional connection and identity, and thus we are on the same wavelength. We understand the dress as being separate from glam or nu metal — there are no studded leather pants here. We are intimately familiar with the identity of thrash metal as something unique from all other branches of rock. It’s this deep understanding which forms a sort of unspoken bond between music fans. It’s us against the world (at least, all the non-Metallica fans).

The shirt is a mere metaphor for the extension of oneself, beyond branding, marketing, or sales numbers. That is its power. It’s immune to trends and naysayers, and binds people who have nothing else in common. But they have that shirt, that love, in common. Thousands of people get Metallica tattoos; no one gets a Microsoft tattoo.

That’s the brilliance of Blavity’s proposition. It’s not merely about creating a brand, it’s about creating an identity. Blavity may be for black millennials now, but my gut tells me that there will begin to be a lot of discussions that take place there which address other cultural things as well.

In particular, DeBaun described how receiving emails from non-black consumers — who may have a black child or teacher — encourage her to think about black culture as being accessible, and open to anyone to interact with and learn from.

It’s the Content, Dummy

Here’s why this matters: Blavity set out to create an identity platform for black millennials not by being an aggregate directory of other forums, but by being an original content company. They have installed their own pipeline of material for their consumers, and can continue to mold the platform’s identity as it evolves. Distribution-only companies cannot do this, and that’s why content is king.

DeBaun put it succinctly during her talk:

“Media [companies are] hot, and also not hot, at the same time.”

In many ways, this is so ironically true: a lot of people discuss how “un-fundable” and “un-scalable” content companies are, but for all those statements, I’m seeing a lot of them gaining funding and traction. It might be that consistently creating high-level content is difficult, but some people just find a way to do it well. There’s really no way to hack together an MVP of a great article — it’s either a solid piece, or it’s not.

From Andreessen Horowitz’s funding of BuzzFeed, to Homebrew’s funding of theSkimm, and the great traction of Vox and The Information, media companies are creating huge amounts of valuable content — and being recognized. Even jason Calacanis just relaunched a new Inside venture aimed at tackling newsletters and email engagement.

Content is a tough avenue, yes, because one needs to keep producing relevant and high-level content in order to satisfy one’s consumers. But frankly, with the ease of content production and distribution now, this is easier than it’s ever been.

Where Content and Community Collide

But content creation is only one step forward. To create the identity, you need to cultivate the community. That’s what identity platforms will do.

Identity creation is a hard, messy process, which requires constant adjustment and innovation — challenges to previously-held beliefs presented in a high-level manner. That’s why a lot of sites fail at community cultivation: they can’t generate the right kind of discussion.

Identity discussion should be high-brow, respectful but not overly polite, and never, never fake. The discussion needs to transcend the statement of “what we like.” It needs to be “who we are.”

The identity platform will take the place of the 17th and 18th-century French salon, becoming the place where identities are debated and forged. Content has the opportunity to be key in this gestation, hence its growing — if not understated — power.

The Long-Term Vision for Identity

Moving forward, this dynamic will open up new opportunities in music, film, art, and journalism/writing. There is no shortage of thinkers thinking deep thoughts on these things. The power comes in uniting these people — most likely from different backgrounds — in one place where they can use their own unique ideas to craft a greater communal identity.

This is in no way a short-term play. It’s a long haul — bare minimum 5 years. Identity comes from a variety of moving parts — content, community, adjustment, mission, vision — each of which can take its own block of time to pin down. But that’s what gives an identity staying power.

In college, I wrote a final semester paper called “Leather and Studs: A History of Fashion in Heavy Metal” in which I examined the rise of leather and stud fashion first in hard-rock, then early metal, then New Wave of British Heavy Metal, and then again in Glam and Groove metal. What I discovered is that the fashion statement we so readily identify with metal bands like Judas Priest and KISS took decades to cultivate and mature. Now it is as much a part of the identity as the music is.

But it’s key to remember that identity and vision burn slowly, and forcing them to meet some arbitrary deadline can have dire consequences.

Marc Andreessen articulated it brilliantly:

“‘Fail fast’ is catastrophic when it’s applied to visions and long-term goals.”

And therein lies what I perceive as the brilliance in a site like Blavity. DeBaun and other leaders like her have begun to really zero in on the notion that the content can be a means by which new identities are formed and expanded. Blavity has begun to construct a brand around its service and product, not unlike other companies. But unlike other companies, its brand has the potential to turn into an identity, and thus is steadfast long-term while retaining flexibility short-term.

Perhaps we won’t see this transformation for a few years, but I’d bet on seeing it at some point. And if I was creating a media or content company, it’s exactly the path I would follow.


Find me on Twitter @adammarx13 and let’s talk music, tech, and business!
Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated Adam Marx’s story.