Sarah Penna is cool. That’s one of the things I had to get used to while at YouTube — that most of the friends I made from within the creative community would be a lot cooler than me. Sarah is also sharp, thoughtful, a great entrepreneur and someone who keeps me thinking about the future of content. Sarah is known in LA and in the online video community, so I wanted my friends to get to know her as well.
Hunter Walk: Ok, first just an overview for folks less familiar with the video space. You founded BigFrame, which was a management company for online creators. What was the difference between BigFrame and what people call Multi-Channel Networks (such as AwesomenessTV – who acquired your company).
Sarah Penna: That’s a great question and one with a lot of nuances. So, technically we were an MCN, but that was more a function of the landscape when we started than a business model. MCNs work when they scale, and we never set out to sign thousands of channels. We were much more curated and signed people who we believed in holistically. After the acquisition, AwesomenessTV empowered us to go back to our core DNA of management and shed the MCN moniker. Even though I’m no longer with Big Frame, it’s been really powerful to watch it transform into the talent management company I had always dreamed of!
HW: Some folks were drawn to the YouTube community purely because of the chance to make some money but you were really part of it – understood user generated content from your time at CurrentTV, worked with some early YouTube creators and your husband is MysteryGuitarMan. Did the rush of opportunists bother you? Does “authenticity” matter?
SP: I certainly let it bother me in the beginning. It was kind of like, “Hey, I believed in these guys when you were laughing me out of your office and now you want in on the action?!” But I quickly realized that it was a great validation of the hunch I had years prior. That said, authenticity is huge in the YouTube community. If people come into the space thinking they can make a quick buck and get out, they are typically not welcomed. At its best, it’s almost a self-selecting community in that way and I love it for that.
HW: There are so many communities now for creators to build a following. Is YouTube still as important or do new kids on the block such as Instagram and Snapchat become the place to be?
SP: They all serve their own unique function and can’t be separated as one vs. the other. YouTube is still the only place where you can passively monetize your content. Everywhere else it takes a brand integration to make a living and therefore YouTube has remained on top for a lot of our creators. We do see platforms like Facebook Video and Snapchat rising rapidly, but it’s a different consumption behavior. Where on YouTube, people sit down to watch their favorite personalities and subscribe/like/comment and truly engage with the person, on Snapchat it is much more personal and obviously ephemeral while Instagram is about scrolling through beautiful photos. They all have their place, but YouTube still dominates when it comes to supporting creators.
HW: You have a new role heading up Awestruck, a new lifestyle division of AwesomenessTV dedicated to Millennial Moms. Do you think vertical content (Multi-Channel Networks) MCNs are the future?
SP: We actually refer to Awestruck as an “Entertainment Creator Network.” Because moms are so mobile and flock to places like Instagram and blogs, we are working with creators that aren’t just YouTube specific. So in the future, the term MCN may not be used as much. In terms of the vertical specific, that is the future. Gone are the days of massive scaled MCNs with no focus. We will begin to see virtual reality MCNs, automotive MCNs and everything in between. We saw an underserved audience in Millennial Moms and seized the opportunity.
HW: What’s the biggest misperception brands still have when engaging with online talent and what’s an example of a brand (or campaign) you think really ‘get it?’
SP: I love this question because it has been my career-long crusade to educate brands in how to work with talent. The biggest misperception is that because it’s online it’s cheap. While we are not doing Super-Bowl commercials (yet!), the value that an online influencer can bring to a brand who really “gets it” is immense. A great example is the relationship Audible.com has with many creators. They give them a lot of flexibility to create great content and also have a clear ask from the talent (drive sign ups). Those relationships, where both sides know exactly what is expected of them, yield the best results for everyone.