It’s easy to forget that some content creators are full-time, self-employed business owners. Whether creators are native to a certain social media platform, or they’ve spread themselves across all the major outlets, a creator’s income is still pretty unstable. We only tend to read about the successful ones, the top 1%. Platforms might change the way they pay out to their creators, or a brand might dictate the parameters and fees for a partnership. Either way, creators often end up at the whim of other businesses and their goals.
That’s why content creators are looking to mix things up and find new and more consistent sources of income that they have direct control over. These include developing online courses, managing tiered subscriptions, charging for content on a pay-per-view basis, and even starting their own brands. And the ecosystem that supports creators to do this is also on the up, with new platforms and tools launching regularly.
• Regina Eigbe is a professional dancer whose choreography to Drake’s ‘One Dance’ went viral this year. She has 675,000 TikTok followers, and #onedancechallenge has received more than 41 million views.
• HawkeZ is a marketing agency targeting Gen Z audiences. It was launched in June 2021 by Hawke Media founder Erik Huberman, and social media influencers Josh Richards and Griffin Johnson.
• Kaya Yurieff is a reporter on the creator economy at The Information, where she writes a Monday-to-Thursday newsletter. She covers startups and business in the space, as well as social media trends.
• Tejas Hullur is a TikTok creator with 435,000 followers, and consults with startups in the creator economy. He also has his own cryptocurrency token, which he uses to charge for his time on Discord.
• Hugo Amsellem is helping build a creator accelerator at Jellysmack, an agency helping creators monetize their content and reach. He writes about the creator economy at the Arm the Creators newsletter.
What are some of the most popular ways that creators are using to monetize their content? And on the flip side, what are some of the more niche methods of cashing in?
TH: ‘The number one thing is brand deals, but there are pros and cons to them. You can integrate them into your daily [work] flow pretty quickly, but the amount I make from them is inconsistent and volatile. So every creator is trying to find something a bit more stable – we’re normal businesses at the end of the day. Most people are monetizing their niches, whether that’s dentistry or ice cream. Creators are marketers first – we can build an organic market and an audience, and then lay a brand on top of it.’
HZ [Josh]: ‘Another populator monetization route that creators take is subscription-based. Platforms like Twitch, YouTube and Patreon allow fans to purchase access to exclusive, members-only content.’
KY: ‘Apart from YouTube, major social media platforms for years didn’t offer ways for creators to earn money directly. But that’s starting to change. Social media platforms have launched tipping, subscriptions and creator funds that pay people based on engagement but, so far, those features have provided mostly supplemental income. Other creators sell their own products, ranging from a T-shirt to an online course. Creators also earn money from sharing affiliate links, where they earn commissions when someone makes a purchase. Some host podcasts, while others rely heavily on monthly membership income from fans and platforms like Patreon.’
HA: ‘It’s like a funnel. At the attention layer, you’re monetizing ads and brand deals, which is still 80% of creators’ revenue today. Once creators are monetizing, they want to move to the trust layer, which takes the audience to a private community where they can communicate directly with the creator – you can monetize access to yourself. The third layer is commerce, and how easy it is for a creator to sell a product to their audience. They already have the information of who opens their emails and who is tipping them, which makes it super easy to start a commerce business.’
Which types of content are proving the most lucrative?
RE: ‘Anything that the audience feels like they can interact and engage with. Using trending music – what people are listening to off TikTok as well – does well.’
HZ [Josh]: ‘With platforms like TikTok, Triller and Instagram’s Reels feature, short-form video content is more popular and profitable than ever. Additionally, video podcasts have also proven to be very engaging.’
KY: ‘It depends on the creator. Some are finding big success through tipping and subscriptions on Twitch, by livestreaming themselves playing video games. While others have become overnight TikTok stars with short-form videos and sponsored content. The barrier to entry to make content is a lot lower now, but YouTube remains the most intensive platform because it’s long-form and requires a lot more equipment like cameras, editing skills and lighting.’
HA: ‘The central space where this is all heating up is the link-in-bio war. The border to your own space as a creator is your link in bio. What they’re probably going to build is a customer relationship management system where they can capture the transition from getting a user’s attention to gaining their trust.’
Is it likely we’ll see a mass shift to the platforms that are releasing new monetization tools, like Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest?
HZ [Josh]: ‘Gen Z has a massive influence on TikTok and Instagram. I don’t think we’ll see a shift away from these platforms any time soon, but I like to keep an open mind. It’s also important to always be on the lookout for the next big thing. If you can be one of the first creators to take advantage of a new platform, you’re automatically setting yourself up for success.’
TH: ‘Every TikToker considers YouTube and blogging, but the biggest thing now is how much more of a time-sink these platforms are going to be. Making YouTube videos takes another 20 to 30 hours a week. If the object is to make the most money, then you have to consider what’s going to be sustainable for you. That said, when David Dobrik’s vlogs [were taken off YouTube and] uploaded to Facebook, they were getting millions of views in minutes. Lots of people think Facebook is just for moms, but it’s still one of the most lucrative platforms you can use.’
RE: ‘As dancers, we often rely on other people and artists to give us jobs. But as Covid taught us, we can’t just do that any more. I saw Instagram and TikTok as a way to create my own name and my own brand. But I’ll probably eventually shift away from Instagram and TikTok – they’re just tools to get our audiences, but we don’t get much data from them. Having my own website and hosting classes in person will mean that I’ll get to gather my own data and build trust in person.’
HA: ‘This is the next war in the attention economy. If you’re a creator, you’re born to a platform – so if you’re “born” on TikTok, you’re native to that world. TikTokers are thinking about learning a new language and building content on other platforms. And that’s basically what we do at Jellysmack. We take a creator that is native to one platform and build a translation capacity for them, to have leverage on different platforms. But if you have all of your monetization tools on one platform, you’re even less likely to move to another platform.’
Managing a business
What are some of the common traps that new content creators are falling into when it comes to monetizing their content?
TH: ‘People do things that they think are popular, but that they aren’t even passionate about. That leads to them getting drained and burnt out. Another trap is sticking to what went well and letting it go. Attention is all about capitalizing on the right trends. And not being consistent is the biggest trap.’
HA: ‘The sort of mindset that arose in the startup world – of scalability – is going to translate into the creator world. When you’re an individual that scales, the mistake you can make is not understanding what you’re building. You need an inherently rebellious approach to your endeavor.’
HZ [Josh]: ‘I think a lot of content creators tend to underestimate their worth. For example, they might accept partnership opportunities that aren’t mutually beneficial. Being a content creator is a full-time job that requires a lot of work behind the scenes. That work deserves credit. It is so important to understand your value as an influencer, regardless of whether you have 5,000 or 500,000 followers. That’s the thing about being a content creator: there is no handbook that tells you what you should or shouldn’t do. A lot of effort gets put into figuring out what works best for you.’
How are brands choosing which creators to work with?
RE: ‘TikTok has helped dancers so much. People are now starting to see dancers as influencers. At first, I had musicians and record labels wanting me to dance to their songs in exchange for payment, and more deals have been coming in slowly. But, as a black creator, I still think I’m only getting 50% of what somebody else would be getting.’
HZ [Erik]: ‘We have seen a lot of influencers come and go because of looks, quick trends and well-executed stunt ideas, but their substance doesn’t go beyond. The ones that seem to stay provide their audience value above and beyond a quick 15 minutes of fame, finding new and innovative ways to keep the conversation going.’
HA: ‘The relevancy of ads is starting to decline. Brands want attention, but the attention is being eaten up by creators. They’re eating up the recommendation power and they’re word of mouth, just at scale. Brands are looking to find a way to insert their message side by side with the creator, rather than on top of the creator. Bigger brands are taking on influencer relations or creator reach-out programs and strategies. Just like we have a performance marketing expert inside companies, we’ll have the creator relations role.’
Amid concerns about creator wellbeing and burnout, how can brands make sure they’re working with creators ethically and fairly?
KY: ‘Many influencers tell me they feel they can’t take time off. It’s like they’re on a never-ending hamster wheel. It’s not just balancing brand work with organic posts, it’s the way social media platforms reward people who post frequently.’
TH: ‘I often feel guilty if I skip a day. I am constantly thinking about recording and I’m always on. If I’m with my friends, I’ll think about pulling my camera out because I know it will get views. The hate comments are going to get to you. What are the solutions to that?’
RE: ‘At the end of last year, I was feeling massively burnt out. I didn’t know what I needed to do to get people to see me. Brands have only got your profile to judge you by, and if you only produce trending content, brands will ask you to replicate that. I needed to understand that the trends come in phases. If there is a trend that feeds into my brand, I’ll jump onto it. Otherwise, I’ll stay away. If you try to always be on trend, you’ll just forget what you’re doing.’
HA: ‘I don’t think it’s down to the brands. The first people who need to help to resolve creator burnout are the platforms, but they’ll never do it. They can do some virtue signalling, but they just aren’t incentivized. Brands can talk about creator burnout, but they have short-term interests. More importantly, it’s the managers, the support networks or the potential co-founders of the creator teams.’
HZ [Erik]: ‘I think that burnout needs to be a full-industry effort – it shouldn’t fall solely on the brands. It’s up to the management and publicity teams to encourage their creators to be transparent and open about [mental health]. We often see big brands taking advantage of creators that may not have business knowledge or proper teams in place to help them navigate.’
Over the next few years, where do you think the creator economy is going to go? Where are the pockets of opportunity?
KY: ‘Many creators want to have more ownership and control over their audience. That’s why we’re seeing newsletter publishers, including Substack and Twitter’s Revue, allowing writers to keep their subscriber list, even if they depart the platform. Influencers are also looking for more stable and recurring revenue sources. While partnerships are lucrative, they can be inconsistent; I think we’ll see a shift to social platforms trying to provide more stable revenue sources. It’s no longer enough to just provide a place to build an audience.’
HZ [Erik]: ‘It has really democratized distribution, which we’re seeing in most industries. As it matures, it will be more predictable and widely understood, attracting more brands to scale, which will put more money into this ecosystem.’
RE: ‘I think it’s going to get even more saturated, but hopefully brands will be more likely to go for [content creators that have] skill rather than popularity. Influencing will become a whole new job role. You hear the term “micro influencer” more frequently now, and I think there will be thousands of them.’
HA: ‘Creators are so inherently scalable that they can look like a small business one day and, six months later, they look like an enterprise. Their needs will be so different. We’re starting to see companies take successful creators and make them big when they deserve, and then find ways to serve those big creators through a tech-enabled approach. That’s where you see these as-a-service companies and services to help creators scale. They become an extension of the creator’s team.’
TH: ‘Eventually, everyone is going to be in the creator economy. Anything routine will be taken over by technology, but being in the creator economy is the most human job you can have. I don’t think any niche is oversaturated – I know new fitness influencers coming about every day. People are interested in stories and that will be the biggest skill in the next 10 years.’
Focusing on the right data
Being a successful content creator isn’t just about amassing huge numbers of followers. It’s also about paying attention to a number of other metrics, says Mary Keane-Dawson, the group CEO of London-based influencer marketing agency TAKUMI.
‘A lot of brands are still frightened of working with influencers,’ she says. ‘They’re used to working with advertising agencies, and now suddenly they’re dealing with a mini, scaled-down version of agencies.’
Focusing on the right metrics can help creators build a business that serves their audiences better, as well as understanding how to build a wider business model beyond content. These are the metrics she suggests paying close attention to if a creator wants to successfully monetize their reach.
• ‘Traditional media is still about [first] impressions. Now you need to have a much more sophisticated understanding of your audience and how much they’re engaging with your content.’
• ‘Clients will often monitor share of voice and audit campaigns,’ Mary adds. Share of voice measures how much your brand is being spoken about in comparison to competitors’ brands.
• ‘Collaborations with other influencers are a really useful way to grow your audience organically,’ says Mary.
• ‘As an influencer, you could be working across paid, owned and earned media.’ The first is just what a creator has been paid to post, while owned media refers to their own platforms; earned media comes through word of mouth and organically spreading messages through communities.