From Attention to Passion. A Look Back at 2020.

January 14, 2021 by  Andrew Cohen

2020 Was Many Things to Many People. But for Our Team at RockWater, It Was Best Characterized by Two Words: Acceleration + Passion

In 2020 the evolution from the “attention economy” accelerated into the “passion economy”.

Traditional media models that exemplify the “attention economy” seek to aggregate the broadest possible audience and monetize it by selling their attention to advertisers. However, as new technologies and platforms continue to proliferate the consumer ecosystem, the collective user attention fragments, diminishing the potential for audience scale that the “attention economy” was built on (or at least redistributing that audience into the hands of a few increasingly powerful tech companies).

But disruption is a double-edged sword.

These same technologies and platforms that are making it more challenging than ever for brands and creators to succeed through traditional models, are also empowering them to succeed through a whole new paradigm, which we call “the passion economy”. It’s nearly impossible for most brands, creators, or platforms to reach audiences as widely as they used to, but they can now go deeper with their fans than ever before.

For the brands, creators, and platforms that “own their audience”, the sky’s the limit in today’s “passion economy”.

With direct-to-consumer products, services, experiences, subscriptions, content, and so much more, as well as other derivative revenues such as brand and content licensing, syndication, and even advertising, the creators and platforms that have a deep enough connection with their fans to influence their behavior are becoming more valuable by the day. While those that merely “reach” their audience lose value as consumers find alternative digital destinations to immerse themselves in.

This year’s stay-at-home orders forced the mass abandonment of many traditional consumer habits and the mass adoption of emergent digital experiences. As a result, the legacy operators that were already facing headwinds had their blindspots further exposed, accelerating their decline as users fled for more delightful experiences. And the companies that were building towards a fan-first digital future grew their user bases significantly as new audiences began to build habits with them.

Virtual this.

At-home that.

Institutions that once felt so commonplace (gyms, movie theaters, concerts) now feel retro, and concepts that once felt so futuristic (e-learning, virtual fitness and performances) now feel commonplace.

Over the last 10 months, we’ve seen the levels of user adoption and habit formation on transformative digital platforms that we were expecting to see over the next several years. 

  • 73% of consumers are now streaming more OTT video content than they were before the pandemic. 
  • 59% are spending more time on online gaming platforms. 
  • 52% are listening to more podcasts. 
  • Weekly active consumption of streaming fitness content has increased by 77%. 
  • E-commerce sales grew by 32%. 
  • Online food deliveries grew by over 100% ($5.5 billion spent across the 4 top food delivery platforms since April). 
  • Creator-driven “micro DTC” marketplaces entered the mainstream: Cameo grew its bookings by 350% and its GMV by 4.5X, while Only Fans grew its user base by 75% month-over-month during COVID. 

And through all this change and extreme hardship, is a great opportunity. In 2020, we’re grateful to have worked with clients and industry peers who worked hard to build in this unique moment, with the goal of establishing better experiences for consumers, and a more resilient economy.

But before we look to what’s ahead (we’ll publish our 2021 predictions soon), let’s reflect upon a year of growth and transformation across our core focus areas.

To that end, we’ve rounded up highlights from our client advisory work, Through Line newsletter, and launch of our new podcast, The Come Up. Collectively, they reflect a year in which unprecedented challenges bred unprecedented opportunities for leaders and operators that are future-focused and fan-first.

Of course, we’d be remiss to celebrate the gains of 2020 without reflecting on the losses.

We’re grateful to have grown revenue and team in 2020, while many experienced unimaginable setbacks. We’ve therefore donated thousands of dollars to over 25 charities to support the businesses most affected, as well as to those that align with RockWater’s core values, and we encourage our community to do the same. These include World Central Kitchen, Feeding America, Love For The Elderly, Americans For The Arts, The Trevor Project, Arbor Day Foundation, Surfrider Foundation, Operation Surf, Met Council, and more.


2020 Client Advisory Highlights

  • Diligencing a 9-figure cross-border investment for a minority stake in one of America’s top digital food media brands, with the objective of evaluating the target company’s likelihood of DTC commerce success.
  • Developing the 2020 growth strategy for a major podcast network, including evaluating the acquisition of a peer podcast network and ad tech platform, comparing that use of funds to an internal build strategy, and creating a board presentation that laid out our recommendations, in order to secure the necessary growth budget for 2020.
  • Incubating a new livestream shopping product on behalf of a publicly-traded technology company. We’re leading the development of product and business strategy for a 2021 beta launch.
  • Partnering with Mattson, a top Food & Beverage innovator, to create a new service line for brands and creators with loyal fanbases: developing fully owned and operated F&B products, which builds off the success that we’ve seen in creator-led food commerce by offering IP-owners full ownership of the upside of these product lines, rather than the small percentage points most receive via traditional licensing deals.  
  • Devising and implementing a “social selling” model on behalf of one of TV’s most recognizable celebrities. Despite the massive reach of his cable show, and the $1 billion+ in top-line revenue that his commerce brands generate via traditional retail channels, he was missing out on the margins and customer proximity that a modern DTC approach to content and commerce enables. We’re advising his team on everything from content strategy, product strategy, and go-to-market planning, to helping them stand up shopping portals on Shopify, Facebook, Instagram, and more. 
  • Advising on the growth strategy and investor collateral, and placing a key C-suite executive, for a stealth-mode consumer startup focused on creator-led commerce, founded by a team with a previous $1 billion exit. This included refining the company’s value proposition, revenue strategy, and go-to-market plan.   
  • Growing our equity investment portfolio to 5 companies spanning podcasting, OTT, and content-led commerce platforms. 


2020 Publishing Highlights

Last year’s transformative market activity inspired over 30 pieces of original content from the RockWater team. Some of these articles led directly to client projects outlined above. Some of the client projects outlined above led directly to our articles. 

For this, we’re grateful for our readers. 

Thank you for forwarding our articles to friends and colleagues, for reaching out to exchange perspectives on a certain topic, and for putting up with our occasional longwindedness. We know some of you personally, but we’d love to get to know more of you, so please never hesitate to reach out directly. We write to think and we think to build — all of which have always been strengthened by community interaction and engagement. 

Below are our favorite articles of 2020, spanning our key focus areas. Excited to continue writing, thinking, and building alongside our inspiring community in 2021! (hopefully from closer than 6 feet apart)



Live media is defined by 4 pillars, all of which evoke a deeper level of audience connection: 

  1. Moment-Driven (Tune in)
  2. The Fomo Factor (Lean In)
  3. Authenticity (Connect)
  4. Social (Share)

As a result, live media deepens audience engagement and provides the foundation for sustainable and diversified revenue growth. And over the past 18 months, more than $9 billion of capital flowed into companies built on the power of live. 



Audio represents the next frontier of storytelling and audience engagement. Although billions of dollars in investment capital flowed into the audio space in 2020, we still believe this is a nascent industry in its early innings of growth.  



The “attention economy” is giving way to the “passion economy”. 



In a consumer landscape that values live engagement, passionate fandom, engaging personalities, and diversified revenues, sports media properties are well-positioned to win in 2021 and beyond. However, many of the most valuable sports brands are built on legacy models. As consumption trends continue to shift, sports leagues and broadcasters will need to reimagine their media strategies in order to stay relevant with the next generations of fans.     



6 million people cut the cord in 2020, an 8% decline in pay-TV subscriptions. Both numbers shattered previous records. It’s clear that we’re moving towards a post-cable world. What’s unclear is exactly what our streaming future will look like. 



As the ad market grows more volatile, content creators must diversify revenue through DTC commerce, and F&B commerce initiatives have proven to drive a disproportionate volume of DTC commerce revenue relative to other popular categories.



As we strive to build a better future for media / tech / commerce, it all comes down to the people. We explore the leadership principles and tactics employed by the executives that inspire us the most.  



This year we launched our own podcast called The Come Up, which features interviews with entrepreneurs and leaders who are shaking things up and building exciting new companies in industries like new Hollywood, podcasting, e-commerce, and the metaverse. 

We’re excited to build on this accelerated momentum in 2021. Keep your eyes peeled for our upcoming 2021 Predictions, where we’ll project how the trends highlighted above will evolve in the year ahead. 

Ping us here at anytime. We love to hear from our readers.

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