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Matt Steffanina of DNCR Academy breaks down the importance of online community ahead of SXSW


Feb 28, 2023
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From your simple top eight on Myspace to private Facebook Groups, we’ve all been a part of a community on social media. Over the years, social media platforms have allowed creators to foster thriving communities both privately and in public comments.

However, with a growing laundry list of problems, social media is slacking as the community builder and manager it once was. As a result, creators and business owners everywhere are starting to notice its inefficiencies as such.

The Facebook outage of 2021 may be to blame for the initial shift in attitude. A short six-hour period when the platform was down led small businesses and creators alike to lose access to their audience and website traffic, causing widespread revenue loss. Some reported losses of up to $5,000 dollars.

But more recently, creators are contending with an arguably bigger problem—algorithms. Algorithms have been tied to both creators’ loss in audience engagement and revenue. In fact, we found 25% of creators estimated they’ve lost $1,000-$9,999 in revenue due to algorithms, and around 24% of creators estimated $10,000-$49,999 in losses.

These problems have creators turning elsewhere to build, host, and monetize their audience. For many, the solution is online communities.

To understand the importance of hosting a community off of social media, we sat down with the online community master himself—Matt Steffanina, world-renowned choreographer and owner and founder of DNCR Academy.

Since starting his YouTube channel in 2009, Matt has grown a modest following of over 30 million fans across all platforms. He’s known for dancing with artists such as Taylor Swift, Jason Derulo, and Meghan Trainer, not to mention his appearances on shows like So You Think You Can Dance

Through his YouTube dance tutorials and in-person classes, Matt formed a tight-knit community of passionate dancers, but when the pandemic struck and #IRL classes were halted, YouTube simply wasn’t cutting it as a way to connect with his audience or earn an income. That’s when he turned to online courses and an online community to make a lasting impact on his audience and create a sustainable business.

Dive into our Q&A with Matt to discover how he has grown a wildly successful business and online community—and why he believes it’s the key to creators owning their destiny.

Note: Responses have been lightly edited for clarity.

Give us a quick elevator pitch of who you are and what you do.

My name is Matt Steffanina, and I'm a choreographer and music producer in L.A. But the last twelve years of my life have been primarily dancing and choreography. I started in the industry working with artists, but all along the way, I was building my YouTube; posting videos of my life, classes, and my tours. Basically, following along, vlog style. One of the hard things about being a dancer, especially ten years ago, is that you were always relying on your agent and the artists to provide opportunities. There was no way to create opportunities for yourself as a dancer. So in my early years, I found myself waiting by the phone for a chance to audition. Initially, [YouTube] became a way for me to stay productive and keep working on my skills, and also to market myself as a dancer. I never imagined that it would do what it did. I had a year where I grew about a million subscribers, which at the time was a lot. From it, I ended up getting opportunities working with Ja’ Rule, Taylor Swift, and Meghan Trainer. 

But the other thing that I was really passionate about was teaching. Early on I started a second [YouTube] channel called Dance Tutorials Live, where people could learn how to dance, and I built a following of dancers all around the world. That actually became the most rewarding part of everything that I've done is hearing the stories of my students’ success. The stories are really crazy because, at the time, I was just filming tutorials in the local studio on my tripod. I had no idea that I would make any kind of impact, so it’s been a crazy journey, to say the least.

Did you foresee your YouTube channel turning into what it is? Did you plan to take it to where you are today?

No, there's no way anyone could have expected it to do what it did. When I posted my first video, it was in Virginia before I moved to L.A., and I was just looking for ways to get inspiration and connect with other dancers. At that time, 14 years ago, I was one of the first dancers on the platform. I never could have imagined what happened. Now the channel has like 13 million subscribers and three billion views. When my first video went viral, I remember people commenting from other countries, and the concept of someone watching from another country was unfathomable. I didn’t understand it, but here we are today, and I’m doing tours all over the world, thanks to social media and being able to get my dancing out there through the internet.

Take us on a little bit of a timeline journey. Tell us, what blew up first? Was it your YouTube channel? Was it your career?

People always think that success in the mainstream and Hollywood industry will lead to success online, but it actually converts less than you would think. I was doing the Tonight Show, So You Think You Can Dance, The Amazing Race, and more—I was getting a lot of traditional television opportunities, but that actually didn’t convert much for long-term success. They were short-term opportunities, amazing nonetheless. 

What really gave me the longevity in my career to still be doing this over a decade later is building a community. 

The community really came from my dance tutorials, which wasn’t intentional, but that ended up being the smartest thing I did; being a great teacher and great leader in the space and pushing a community forward is something that’s more difficult to do than being a good dancer. It was really my work with tutorials and teaching people online that led me to have such a strong community that’s still going strong to this day.

Can you take us on the journey of launching DNCR Academy? When did it turn into an actual business for you?

I launched DNCR Academy right at the beginning of the pandemic. It was something I wanted to do for a long time for a few reasons. It’s a subscription platform, where people can learn dance tutorials. It’s an elevated experience past my YouTube videos. On YouTube, I upload [content] a little inconsistently, and the quality is not necessarily the best. With it, we can’t bring in many guests or teachers. But a lot of dancers we’re loving the YouTube tutorials and wanted more training. So I created DNCR Academy for the people that are a little more serious. With it, I’m able to bring in great instructors like Bollywood, shuffling, and dance fitness teachers; styles that I wouldn’t necessarily do on my own YouTube channel. But on the [DNCR Academy] platform, it’s completely acceptable and amazing to be able to offer a ton of different styles to our students. At the beginning of COVID, I knew I couldn’t tour and I had the time to finally dedicate to this, so we took a couple of months and built out the platform on Kajabi. That was June 2020. Now it’s been three incredible years. I thought we had a strong community on YouTube, but this took the strongest of that strong community and put them in a bubble. We have everyone supporting each other. Not only do they have this support group that’s learning with each other all over the world, but they also have an emotional support system with friends that are pushing each other. It’s just become a really positive thing in my life, and I think for all the dancers in DNCR as well.

Can you tell us more about the community and the motivation for starting DNCR? Did the community exist prior to DNCR Academy, or did it come in conjunction with it? Did you foresee that being such a big element for the Academy’s success?

I really felt it over COVID. I think a lot of people did. It was difficult to get motivated. Difficult to get into a routine because you’re stuck in the house and you don’t have access to anything. Dance in particular is a community activity. People do dance on their own, but the thing that I love about dance is being in a studio with my friends and the energy that comes with that. When all that is taken away, it’s difficult to find motivation, even for myself as a choreographer. It was hard for me to find the motivation to keep going, so I thought that if I’m going through this, I’m sure another aspiring dancer is also struggling in the same way and could benefit from a tight-knit community. The community already existed in a sense because of the YouTube tutorials, but as I said, there wasn’t consistency, and to get great at anything, I believe the number one thing you need [in dance] is consistency in your training. The [community] allowed us to have monthly challenges, which I think is the best thing we did at DNCR. It’s not just uploading tutorials, but it’s a focus on one thing that we’re all going to work on together. We’re all working on this routine and will post our videos by a deadline. That’s where we found motivation; the excitement of seeing all of your friends posting their videos and the cool or even constructive feedback that came from that. It’s about being an active participant in the community and really helping each other grow, which I think was the part that was difficult to do just on YouTube, as it felt more like everyone was doing this [the tutorials] on their own. The community allowed us to all be in it together, which was a game changer, I think for myself as a choreographer and for the students being able to learn consistently.

Any customer stories from your community that stand out to you? What individual in the community has been memorable?

One of my favorite customers is a guy named Ray. He's from Washington D. C. He's a lawyer and he started dancing in his 40’s. He would come home every day from work with his lawyer suit on and move the kitchen table out of the way so that he could practice his hip-hop dance routines, and he ended up dancing with his kids. They made a ton of videos, especially over COVID, learning the routines together. He ended up going on a Disney Channel show and winning it. Here's this guy who at 40 years old had never taken a dance class in his life, found his passion in this community, and ended up being one of the biggest inspirations for our members. I think this type of success is really important to highlight because I also started from nothing. I didn’t start dancing until I was 18, but most people don’t see that; most people today see me on stage with celebrities and in music videos, so it’s more difficult to understand the struggles that I went through early on. Whereas, if you watch someone who's currently starting and going through it [the journey] with you and see them come out the other side and have this amazing journey— it's so powerful. And, it really inspired everyone in our community. There are countless stories like that, but Ray was a really special one.

Do you use your community and social media audience to test out new ideas or new products that you have for your business?

One of the things that we’re constantly working on is how we help more people. How do we reach more people? The community of dancers that want to be great at the skill is pretty small, so we want to offer the type of training on the platform that can get someone to a professional level. But we also are focused on making it more and more accessible for the individual that just wants to learn a routine here and there, someone who wants to go to the club and feel confident. Plus, we’re doing a lot of stuff with dance fitness. I used to be a personal trainer and I really believe that dance is one of the best ways you can stay in shape physically and mentally. We’re even starting a wedding course because I get a lot of requests to choreograph weddings, but I, unfortunately, don’t have the time, so the course walks you through everything you need to know. We’re trying to open it up more to the requests that I’ve been getting over the years, where I’ve always said if I had time to do this, it would be amazing and help a lot of people. Now we’re trying to make time for those courses.

Can you give us a high-level walkthrough of what your social media strategy looks like today? How has it changed since you first started on YouTube?

It’s changed a lot over the past ten years, like multiple generations of YouTube and social media in general. Early on, there was no competition, so I was just uploading videos from my class. That was literally it. Then I started to see the revolution of vlogging and connection to creators, so I started vlogging behind-the-scenes content, and that was really successful between 2016 to 2019. Then, we started to implement more challenges like learning a routine in ten minutes. Those did really well. 

When COVID hit in 2020, we started to see success with TikTok and short-form content. Things changed a lot then. I would say that tons of the dance viewership moved to short form, TikTok in particular, because dancing was so popular there. I was still posting on YouTube, but a lot of my strategy focused more on short-form content like fifteen-second dances instead of forty-five-second to minute-long dances. 

The thing about social media that people don't understand unless you've been around for a few generations of it, is that there's never going to be an answer that just works forever—because no matter what field you're in, if you find something that works, eventually everyone else will copy it and that's what happened with dances. Dance class videos started exploding and it [social media] became saturated with dance teachers posting their classes. So, then I had to figure out what’s my next move, which also got copied. You’re always playing this game like in any other industry of having to reinvent and innovate and come up with creative ideas. And, the only way to find those ideas that work is to throw darts at a board. Most of them are going to fail, but that’s how you find the one idea that people really like. It’s hard to predict, so we really do take the approach of, if I have an idea, I just run with it. I say let’s do it, and if it fails then great. We’ll try something else. I think that’s the best advice I could give anybody that’s trying content creation. Be patient and don’t assume because something didn’t work the first time that it won’t work the second or third time. Sometimes you have to tweak an idea, mold it, and then all of a sudden it hits.

That segues well into one thing we didn’t cover, social media algorithms. How much have algorithms played into your strategy? Have they affected your ability to reach your audience?

Anyone that's been on Instagram, I think it's the most obvious there. I remember a time in 2019 where I could post a tour flyer that could get 100,000, 200,000 likes, and thousands of comments because it was being shown to my entire 3.9 million followers. But if I posted that flyer tomorrow, it would probably get 10% of that [engagement], because the algorithm has shifted. So you have to get creative. 

Instead of a flyer now, it's a dance video where the dance is happening, city names are popping up and people can go to the caption to learn more. You just have to find different ways to work within the algorithm, because, at the end of the day, you can't control it. So we watch a lot of things [metrics] on time retention. YouTube has shifted from being more of a search engine to more of a click-through rate-focused platform. Are your thumbnail and title strong enough to get people’s attention? You could put out the greatest video in the world, but if your thumbnail and title aren’t grabbing people, the video is going to flop. If people watch the first ten seconds of a video and then they click away from it, YouTube is going to say ‘Hey, everybody loves your thumbnail, but the video is not performing, so we’re not going to show it to your followers.’ And, that’s just the way the algorithms work today. With that said, strategy has become more about concepts. I feel pretty confident that we can make engaging content and great videos, but if the video is learning a routine quickly, there are a million different ways to package the thumbnail and title, plus the length of the video and the style of the video. All of this can affect content success. I was averaging 30 million views on a video for about two years, which is absurd. Unfortunately, for those of you that know about monetization because of copyright issues with music, I was not able to monetize most of those videos, but as far as growing my channel, it was insane. So things have definitely shifted from that time a bit, especially with TikTok and Instagram taking up so much of the market share.

Since you bring up monetization, did that at all impact your desire to launch DNCR Academy, or was it just strictly to move offline online?

The thing is, whenever attention shifted from YouTube to split between TikTok and also Instagram, numbers across the board on YouTube dropped, and so the main way that I was funding the tutorials, and all of that was through monetization...

During COVID, people wanted more and more [content], but there wasn’t as much monetization happening on the channel—it just wasn’t really possible to scale, and so that was one of the things that was amazing about DNCR. Now, we have members who are paying a monthly membership fee so we can take these funds and reinvest them back into production and new courses. Basically, into all of the things that I wanted to do that YouTube monetization wasn’t providing enough of a stream of income to be able to do. So it was a powerful way financially to be able to grow the tutorials and the platform and to give students what they were asking for.

How do you deal with burnout associated with all of the social media content production?

I don’t feel like I’m that old, but on social media, I’ve been around since the stone age. It's pretty crazy how many generations have come and gone, and the reason I think people get burned out is due to a few things. I think they set their expectations and schedule a little too high and heavy in the beginning. For instance, I remember a time around 2016 to 2017 when all of my friends decided to do daily vlogs. And for anyone who has tried daily vlogging, it’s torture. The workload to keep up with editing, filming, and concepting daily is almost impossible. I’ve always kept my channel at one or two uploads a week. Something that I could actually maintain. I made sure that I traveled. I made sure that I took time off. If there wasn’t a great song out one week or I wasn’t feeling inspired to choreograph, I canceled my class. I made sure that it [content creation] was something I could do consistently, and that’s allowed me to maintain longevity.

One of the things I’ve done to avoid burnout is to set realistic expectations for myself. I think that at the beginning when you’re just starting out, it’s best to focus on one or two platforms. Keep it simple. With YouTube, upload twice a week, and then take that content and edit it down to short form to put on Instagram and TikTok. Keep it manageable. It’s much better to build a little bit slower, but still have that spark of energy and the desire to keep creating content five to 10 years down the road, then go really hard for one year, burn yourself out, and then fall off. It’s about consistency. This is a long-term game, even though it feels like things are happening so fast.

Do you have any other tips for creators who are trying to use social media to drive traffic to their website or products, or maybe even starting their own community?

The biggest thing is figuring out if you were in your viewers, or your customer’s shoes, what would inspire you to leave a platform and join a subscription model or a course. I think a lot of times we feel like ‘I'll just do this and that’ and we’re thinking of it from our perspective. So I do a lot of surveys—I ask my followers very often what course do you want to see next or what would you be the most excited about. Sometimes I'm thinking they want this amazing choreography that's super difficult and intricate, and they're like ‘Look, bro, I just want a couple of moves I can bust out at a party.’ And I'm like ‘Okay, cool this week we're going to learn moves you can bust out at a party.’ It's great to just get in their shoes. 

The other thing too is providing value. I think that if you can provide value first without expecting anything in return, without asking for anything in return, and build that trust, rapport, and community, then when you do offer something that’s a paid offer or a course, there's already that trust. You've already offered value, and you’ve already made their life so much better by what you've provided that they're more than happy to jump in and be a part of it. I think sometimes we make the mistake of trying to get the sale too early without building the customer relationship. And that's one of the great things about social media, you have the opportunity to be present with your followers every day, whether it's dance tutorials or vlogging your life with them, and through it building rapport, building community, and then being like ‘Oh, by the way, if you’ve loved everything you’ve been doing, here’s this thing where we go a step further.’ That’s a really easy transition for people to make instead of meeting you out of the gate and trying to throw them into a group right away.

A lot of creators in the space think that really the only way to make money is through brand and affiliate-style deals on social media, which you’ve obviously proven wrong. What would you tell new creators in terms of diversifying their income?

Yeah, brands and affiliate marketing are one piece of the puzzle. Monetization is another piece of the puzzle. But ideally, you want to have an element off of social platforms that are also providing an income, because, at the end of the day, you never know when the algorithm or the rules are going to change. And that's something that I've learned over the years, as there were times when I was making most of my income from YouTube, when I was making most of my income from live events and touring, and times when I was making most of my income from TikTok and Instagram, and now, it’s Kajabi. At different stages in my career, that thing has switched so many times, and if I had all of my eggs in one basket, and I was just waiting for brand deals or YouTube to change their algorithm so I could monetize more heavily, I would have been in a position where I was stuck. 

Build a community and start to move your fans off social platforms to a subscription service, like Kajabi, where you control the content and community. Now, you don't have to rely on an algorithm to serve your community your content. It’s just, boom, in DNCR and they can access it at any time they want. It gives the power back to the creators—things are changing fast and it's harder than ever to rely on brand deals and monetization when you don't know where the social media platforms are going next.

Can you tell us the role Kajabi has played in allowing you to take control and ownership of your destiny as a creator?

It [Kajabi] allowed us a place to put content where the rules will never change. I think that's the biggest thing. Like I was saying earlier, there was a time when I was getting 30 million views a video on YouTube. And now, other than maybe MrBeast and a couple of other exceptions, that's almost impossible—even with a channel of 13 million subscribers. Only a small percentage of those subscribers are served my content.  It is really important to, as you're building a community, move them to somewhere you can access them and they can access you consistently. On a basic level, things like an email list and a text list are great, but really having them within a community off of social media platforms is the most powerful way to stay in touch, and also build passive income as a creator, especially if you're doing something like a subscription. It's a great way to not only know that you have your people in one place where you can speak to them, and they can reach you, but also for the consistent income stream.

What’s one piece of advice you would give to an entrepreneur who is just starting out in the space?

I would say to heavily research your field. Before you ever post a piece of content on TikTok, go and watch a month's worth of content on Tiktok. You can tread your wheels and start making stuff, but I see a lot of time wasted because people aren't doing the research first. You love fitness and want to start an online fitness business, go find the top ten people in the industry on social media, watch ten hours of their content, and get an understanding of why it works and develop your content strategy from there. 

The thing is right now you have access to more information than you've ever had, especially through YouTube and TikTok, so the answers are right there. You don't necessarily have to completely re-invent the wheel from scratch and do a fitness workout nobody's ever seen before, right? But, you have to find a way to do it that's unique, in your own style, and your own voice. And, you can do that by researching people you love, taking the best things of theirs, adding in some of your own stuff, and developing a content strategy around that. But I think understanding that you have to humble yourself to know that you don't know. That's what I'm doing right now. At least once a year, I take a few weeks where I pretend like I don't know anything, and I watch. What are the kids on TikTok that are fourteen and blowing up doing differently that we OGs in the industry aren't understanding? I can think that some dance is silly or whatever, but there's a reason why people are identifying with it, and I need to understand why that is so that I can continue to evolve myself, not only creatively, but also for my business. Putting a lot of time into the research is important when you're developing your content strategy, and then once you have that strategy, you just have to go hard.

Own your destiny with digital products

With benefits like the ability to create multiple income streams and own and manage an audience, online communities are destined to help creators build sustainable businesses.

The creator economy is poised to see an explosion in online communities in 2023. Social platforms know this too—and are responding by creating their own community features.

But as Matt pointed out, for creators to reach their audience in a powerful way and build passive income, they need to move their audience off of social media.

“Brands and affiliate marketing are one piece of the puzzle. Monetization is another piece. But ideally, you want to have an element off of social platforms that are also providing an income, because, at the end of the day, you never know when algorithms or rules are going to change. And that's something that I've learned over the years, as there were times when I was making most of my income from YouTube or TikTok, and now, it’s Kajabi.”

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 Matt, along with Cassey Ho, Kajabi’s President/CPO Sean Kim, and Jim Louderback, on the Kajabi-sponsored stage at SXSW this March. 

If you’re ready to start diversifying your income with digital products, test out Kajabi with a free 14-day trial.

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Matt Steffanina of DNCR Academy breaks down the importance of online community ahead of SXSW
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