As the economy grapples with a possible recession, everyone is seeking a way to protect themselves, including content creators. As a result, many are coming to the realization that relying solely on brand deals and sponsorships for revenue isn't sustainable.
Potential recession aside, brand deals and the like aren’t known for consistency—even for creators who have built large follower counts. Throw a recession into the mix, and brand deals could disappear altogether as an income option for many creators.
Solutions to this ongoing challenge have emerged, including social media creator funds, like TikTok’s. As great as these funds may appear, they have faced scrutiny for small payouts due to the large number of creators seeking a portion of the finite funds. In response, TikTok is actively testing a revamped creator fund that gives creators higher payouts, but only time will tell if this new version of the fund will achieve what its 2020 version could not.
To make social media monetization more troublesome for creators, algorithms are causing creators to lose out on audience engagement and content exposure; two factors directly tied to a creator’s ability to earn revenue on social platforms. In fact, we found that 77% of creators said algorithm changes had a moderate-to-significant impact on their audience engagement, and 25% of creators estimated they’ve lost $1,000-$9,999 in revenue due to algorithms, and a nearly equal amount of creators at 24% estimated $10,000-$49,999 in losses.
To get to the root of how creators can build sustainable businesses free of the limitations of social media, we set down with the queen of entrepreneurship herself—business mogul Cassey Ho AKA Blogilates.
Nearly 12 and a half years ago, a modest home pilates YouTube video led to Cassey’s rise in influencer status. She’s motivated over 14 million people through her viral videos which have been watched over two billion times.
As a result, Cassey was able to focus on her love for fashion. She now sports, not one, but two multi-million dollar portfolio brands, Blogilates and POPFLEX, as well as a partnership with 24 Hour Fitness, where her signature format POP Pilates is taught in gyms across the country. Included in the partnership is her signature POP Pilates online certification course, which Cassey hosts on Kajabi.
By leveraging her audience and adapting to their needs with multiple products, Cassey has built a business that has been trending for over a decade.
Dive into our Q&A with Cassey to go deeper into how she has diversified her income streams through digital products, physical merchandise, and more.
Note: Responses have been lightly edited for clarity.
What’s your elevator pitch?
You could say that I am a fashion and fitness entrepreneur. I started off in the YouTube world as a pilates instructor. Across all platforms, I have over 14 or 15 million followers, and two billion views, and essentially got my career started by offering free home workout videos to people but that really wasn't my goal. I always wanted to be in fashion. I started teaching workouts, built a community, and then because of it, I was able to get back to my original passion of doing fashion. My audience was asking for clothes and yoga mats, so I began to dress my audience. And it's just been such a beautiful journey how social media led me back to my original passion. My yoga mats can be found at Target under Blogilates, and POPFLEX is my clothing company.
Let’s dig in and understand some of your social media journey. What led you to ultimately start your YouTube channel?
I had a side job teaching pilates while in college, POP Pilates specifically, which is done to music, and at the time nobody was teaching that format. Pilates was done to no music or just classical music. So, I was teaching at 24 Hour Fitness, and I was graduating, and at the time, I got a job offer in Boston and I knew I had to move across the country and that no one was going to be teaching this form of pilates anymore. Because of this, I decided to record a ten-minute workout and then put it up on this YouTube website in 2009. It was only for 40 people at the gym, that's it, and then after I uploaded it, I never looked at it again until a few months later. There were thousands of views and hundreds of comments asking for more, and that’s what essentially started Blogilates!
How has the way you use social media changed for you since starting Blogilates in 2009?
In 2009, it was YouTube was the form of video, and Facebook was where you created a community. It was a nice place back then. Throughout the years, we’ve had all of these different social platforms come in, and honestly, it’s been absolutely tiring, but you have to be able to stay relevant by adapting to the new platforms. You have to figure out how to speak to your audience on each one, and how to create content on each one. You have to keep playing the game, but social media at the end of the day is a tool. So it really depends on who’s watching you on that tool, but for the most part, I think it’s a positive thing because it breaks down barriers and no one is gatekeeping you from your success. You can keep testing and testing until you find a type of content that works, and then you keep trying to do it and do it better every single time.
What has changed since you first launched back in 2009 in terms of being a creator on YouTube?
So much has changed! In 2009, being an influencer wasn't a thing; making money via brand deals wasn't a thing; AdSense wasn't even a thing back then. People put up videos on YouTube because they simply wanted to share their expertise, their funny moments, and their content. That was it. It wasn't about getting famous or becoming a YouTuber. Fast forward to now, 2023, the landscape is so different, and in many ways, I honestly think it’s a lot less genuine.
People want to become creators or influences because they're chasing fame and attention. They're letting their self-worth be driven by the metrics, and it makes me sad to think about that because a lot of the original creators who started in 2009 were there to connect. That's why I was there. I wanted to teach POP Pilates. And, I believe that is why Blogilates has been around for fourteen years now. It didn’t fizzle out, and you see that happening a lot with young creators. I think the landscape is different and a lot more competitive, but it's also fantastic for entrepreneurs because you don't have to rely on traditional media and advertising to get your brand out there; you can start connecting with people just by turning on your phone and making a TikTok, YouTube Short or Instagram Reel.
What was your experience like when you started earning income on YouTube? Did you have a plan in place to make sustainable income? If so, can you tell us about that plan?
Honestly, I don’t know if it was a true plan. I always had a job on the side. It was never to go full in on YouTube; I always had something going on in the background whether it was selling stuff or my first and last corporate job. So no, I didn’t have a true plan. But in the beginning, I was beginning to notice bloggers and YouTubers were getting brand deals, and I didn’t even know that, or having an agent or a manager, was possible. I remember one of my blogger friends said ‘Don’t worry about it, you don’t need to reach out, just keep building your audience and they will come.’ So that’s exactly what happened. I don’t know if I would call that a strategy, but I really focused on my audience and served them by putting out great content that I felt passionate about and then everything came from that. AdSense, brand deals, and everything are a part of my revenue stream, but these days it makes up less than one percent of my entire revenue because the product is the main thing.
Was that always the case for you, or did it start out primarily on social?
It started out probably more split because I was always designing yoga bags or mats, and brand deals were there and they would increase, but as they increased, I also became more unhappy. I didn’t enjoy them [brand deals] because oftentimes with brand deals you're paired up with a company that just doesn't really understand or trust your direction; you follow the bullet points in the brief but then you turn in the content, which knocks off every single bullet point, and then they want to make a change because they don't like it. It constantly felt like people telling me what I can or cannot do with my own content and audience. I became so unhappy doing brand deals, so it has been my goal over the past couple of years to fizzle out of brand deals and focus on talking about my own brand.
Now, let’s talk about the algorithms. Have algorithms affected your potential to earn income over social platforms?
When I started making design videos a year and a half ago, the way the TikTok algorithm or YouTube algorithm worked, maybe not so much the Instagram algorithm, could truly determine the destiny of a product and how fast it’s going to sell out. For example, we had a legging video skyrocket and gain 25 million or more views, and it literally sold out the product in a couple of hours. But sometimes something will go viral on one platform and won’t on another, and it’s the same video. It’s interesting to see how it performs, and I don’t think it’s because my audience is different on each platform, but I think it’s because, for example, TikTok has this high chance of virality because they are able to serve it to a look-alike audience, but whatever it is, it’s interesting. The algorithm plays a big role in how the videos do, and therefore, plays a big role in sales. However, if you continue to focus on a great product, which I and my team does every single day, you don’t need the viral videos. They’re nice, but my business doesn’t depend on going viral, it depends on a quality product.
We’re predicting that going forward, creators will realize they need to use social media more as an audience builder and traffic source and less of a direct monetization tool - similar to what you’ve been able to do. What’s your opinion on this trend?
You want to be able to give something to your audience. You have to create value whether that is in education or entertainment. You're not going to grow an audience if you're just going to try to extract money from them. So whatever it is for those of you listening here today: What is that thing that you share with people that they're going to take home and remember you for? Just keep trying to help your audience, and then when you are ready to launch that product they're going to remember those times that you help them. They're going to want to become part of your journey as you launch that product. For me, even though this wasn't my strategy, that's actually what ended up happening.
Free YouTube videos over a course of a decade, and meanwhile designing products, and fans seeing the journey of the product and wanting to become a part of it. Then, by including them in the design process, I’ve made this thing I’m doing a true community.
A lot of creators out there think that the only way to make money is through brand and affiliate deals on social media. Where would you suggest that creators diversify their online income streams?
Let’s list out all of the ways creators can diversify their income streams. Of course, you have brand deals, but you also have AdSense on YouTube, and TikTok’s creator fund. Creators can also branch into creating merchandise and products, as well as digital products like a service or an online course on Kajabi. At the end of the day, you have to ask yourself what value are you providing. What are people willing to pay for? You need to ask yourself this question because yes, you can make free content, but you can’t give away everything for free. Otherwise, you’ll become extremely burned out. Plus, consumer behavior has proven that when somebody buys something they’re more likely to follow through with the action than if it is offered for free.
I think it's important to identify what your value is and then package it up into something whether that's a service, a product, or even a piece of content.
How have you leveraged your social media audience for POPFLEX and your Blogilates product line at Target? Or, how have you funneled traffic from social media to your website?
I show my audience exactly how I came up with something. If I am showing off a cool sweater, I’m not just going to say ‘Oh, here’s a cool sweater. Go buy it.’ Again, we aren’t selling to the audience. We are educating them. I design to solve problems. I include them in the design journey, which helps to involve them in the process and engage them in the outcome. Their design requests go to product development, and we make the thing happen, and through that, we build trust with my audience. We’re not just treating them like customers; we’re treating them like co-designers. I think this makes the journey fun for everybody.
When it comes to moving my audience from social media to my website, I focus on the obvious like including a link on my Instagram. For example, tagging your products. I use links to move my audience from social apps to my website. I also utilize other content creators to show off my products, as well as represent how the clothing will fit women of all different shapes and sizes. Yeah, our content is what funnels my audience toward the website. I also utilize a newsletter to drive tons of sales.
How did you ultimately start on Kajabi? What led you to create your Pop Pilates courses on Kajabi?
I was so desperately looking for a website that could host my instructor certification program so at the top of this podcast I talked about teaching POP Pilates at 24 Hour Fitness. Fast forward several years, POP Pilates becomes the official pilates of all 24 Hour Fitnesses in the US. So I was looking for an online software or portal to house all of the instructors and to share the choreography, and I couldn't find anything. I happened to be listening to Chalene Johnson's podcast; she was just casually talking about something and she mentioned Kajabi. And that’s how I found out about Kajabi! It really was the only platform that would allow me to do what I needed to do on the scale that I needed to do it so always so thankful for that.
Looking at the creator landscape as a whole. What are some of the biggest mistakes you see creators make in the current environment today?
I see creators making a lot of mistakes today, but the main one I see is sometimes creators gain a lot of traction and a large audience. Then all of a sudden they get brand deals and their content starts to feel very forced. Of course, they need a paycheck, and they need to pay bills, but at the same time, they’re ruining trust [with their audience]. I’ve seen it [this style of content] degrade creators’ brands. Additionally, I’m curious to see how building a creator career based on another career plays out. For example, a teacher becomes an influencer. Their entire rise to fame is based on being a teacher, but what happens when they quit teaching because they’ve become so successful [as a creator]?
Our answer? Start a course on Kajabi.
What’s one thing that you don’t see creators doing enough of?
Everybody tells me all the time ‘Everyone wants what you have. They want to be able to have a product line so that they don’t have to be talking about other brands all of the time.’ Here’s the thing, I think you have to want that, you have to want to run a product business. I think every creator who’s built an audience should have some type of product or service. I think it’s definitely where people [creators] should go, but you need to believe and live your product, because if you don’t, it’s going to be really hard to sell.
What’s a piece of advice you have for someone new on this journey who wants to get started with their digital products?
I think it goes back to what I said earlier about figuring out what the value is you provide to your audience, and then figuring out a way to package it up so that people can purchase it. You have to be strong in what that is. And, if you’re not sure, that is fine. You can test out what that thing is through free content. It’s about feeling out your audience. I do want to say, you have to be very careful about not letting your audience guide you in a direction that you don’t feel comfortable going in. If you follow the numbers too much and the comments too much, you end up losing yourself. You can lose your purpose, and you don’t know what you stand for anymore, and this is one reason creators get burned out. Creators who do this become unhappy because they no longer live for themselves. They’re living and creating for somebody else. So pay attention to all the signals, including your heart. In the end, you have to be creating content that makes you happy or else this is not going to last.
Own your destiny with digital products
It’s clear—the future of creator success relies on diversifying income streams to build sustainable businesses, just like Cassey has done.
With digital products, like online courses, along with physical merchandise and brand deals, Cassey has been able to scale her impact on the world, and ultimately, own her destiny.
As creators start to follow suit, the way they use social media will begin to evolve. They will use it less as a tool for monetization and more as a traffic source to funnel their audience to other, reliable sources of revenue like digital products.
“The biggest role Kajabi has played is in helping me foster a vibrant community of instructors for Pop Pilates.” - Cassey Ho
Kajabi has already supported over 60,000 creative entrepreneurs to earn a collective $5 billion dollars. And, that number grows with every passing minute.
We’ve achieved this by enabling the direct-to-creator economy. By providing multiple paths for creators to earn direct income, we help creators build sustainable businesses immune to the limitations of social media and dependence on brand sponsorships.
We’re ditching the middleman so you can keep all of your profits, as well as own your audience, business model, and brand.
For more on how to own your destiny and succeed as a creator and entrepreneur, catch Cassey, along with Matt Steffanina, Kajabi’s President/CPO Sean Kim, and Jim Louderback, on the Kajabi-sponsored stage at SXSW next month.
If you’re ready to start diversifying your income with digital products, test out Kajabi with a free 14-day trial.