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The Creator Economy: Audience, Community, and Commerce

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But don’t kid yourself: while love and money are sexy words, “follow” is the linchpin. Give people valuable reasons to know, like, and trust you, over and over, and you’ll cultivate the ideal customer base. 

Then, monetize away by giving the people what they want. From authentic recommendations to online courses, virtual communities, and other digital products that solve their pain points and challenges, you’re in business. 

Now, how you run that business is up to you. If you follow Copyblogger founder Brian Clark’s lead, you know creating and preserving a direct connection with your audience is the ticket.

So, while third-party online marketing tools, including publishing platforms and social media, can be helpful, they’re just a means to an end.

The goal is to create a sustainable personal enterprise using media you own that thrives on an audience-first mentality. 

That said, it’s helpful to know how the $104(+) billion creator economy ticks. So, in this article, we’ll discuss the nuts and bolts of the influencer economy and creators’ market with an overview of the players, platforms, and possibilities.

Let’s dive in.

What is the creator economy?  

Simply put, the creator economy is comprised of people who attract an audience to build a business. Thanks to the rise of digital media and tools, such as creator coins, there are several ways to get this done.

Audience attraction 

Building a community of like-minded people by sharing highly relevant information is the primary path of the content entrepreneur.

What worked at the dawn of the Web 2.0 blogging revolution in the mid-2000s holds to this day: when you provide free, valuable content on a topic in which you have expertise and authority, and share it liberally to empower others, you’ll attract an engaged audience.

Over time, through affinity content, that audience will become your core community of not just fans but paying customers

However, there’s a caveat: you want to be sure people can find your fantastic content in the first place. So, in addition to making sure you’re following SEO best practices (which tends to be a long-ball strategy), you’ll also want to promote your content on search engines and social platforms organically and through paid advertising and promotion.

Also, it makes sense to build relationships with publishers in your niche by guest posting and otherwise helping them build their audiences (which you can then “borrow”).

Now, while creating fresh, unique work (i.e., articles, ebooks, music, art, etc.) is one way to provide value to your audience, hand-selecting content that will interest and engage them can be equally as effective. And it’s also an excellent way to create recurring revenue over time.

Examples of curation-driven newsletters and digital businesses are NextDraft (for news junkies), The Skimm (daily news nuggets marketed to young, urban women), The Hustle (“bold business and tech news”), and Further (“live your best life at midlife”).

Whether you create or curate content, audience attraction is the result of thoughtful effort, quality work, genuine concern for others, a strong desire to be of service, and plenty of G.A.S.

Audience monetization  

The Holy Grail for content entrepreneurs is audience monetization. Indeed, it’s why we’re talking about a creator economy — the financial opportunities for online business ideas are abundant.

Audience monetization happens after you’ve built a rapport with your followers and offer them enough value that they want to buy from you and/or support your creative endeavors.

Examples of ways you can monetize your audience include:

  • Creating and selling physical or digital products 
  • Productizing a service 
  • Offering memberships or subscriptions (i.e., Digital Copywriter)
  • Running native advertising on your site or newsletter
  • Becoming an affiliate
  • Hosting events (IRL or virtual)
  • Putting premium content behind a paywall
  • Providing consulting and/or speaking services
  • Giving your audience ways to tip or donate 

The most prominent media creators tend to employ several monetization strategies at once. But even one successful implementation can yield enough to make being a creator your day job.

Vertical platforms  

When it comes to the creator economy, there are riches in the niches. It’s no wonder, then, that an enormous amount of platforms have cropped up to help the creator class create content, cultivate community, and cash in on their audience. 

(Side note: The expression “[The thing you do] has never been easier” is the most overused expression online, thanks to the proliferation of platforms. Not only could these Silicon Valley-driven solutions use some copywriting help, but the thing they’re making easy is for them to line their pockets with the proceeds of your hard work. This is a friendly reminder that platforms need you more than you need them — what Brian said.)

Here are just a few examples of popular verticals and associated platforms:

Community management

Once you’ve built it and people have come, how do you keep them returning for more? Create a vibrant community, and you’ve got one of the more successful and sustainable business models in the creators’ market.

That means taking your social media show on the road over to media that you own.

So, while it’s fine to start out on community-oriented platforms like Instagram, TikTok, Twitter, Facebook, or Pinterest, savvy media creators use content marketing strategies to drive traffic to their own platforms. 

As with vertical platforms, there’s an abundance of digital solutions to help creators build, grow, and monetize their communities, including Circle and Discord (not just for gamers anymore!), among others. 

Creator tools

As you might imagine, building a viable digital business goes well beyond creating content and slapping it up online.

There are all sorts of participants in the creator economy that are there to help the creator class on their road to success, including:

As we’ve been discussing, the creator economy gets its juice from the personalities that attract and build audiences. This fuels a trend of creators wanting more ownership over their communities and, ultimately, their earnings.

So, for example, more and more influencers are creating their own ecosystems with personal websites, apps, and even currencies. In other words, successful creators aren’t just making content — they’re founders of their own personal brand. 

This dovetails into the concept that creators aren’t just people; they’re full-on small businesses. According to venture capital firm SignalFire, 50 million people consider themselves part of the creators’ market. That makes it one of the fastest-growing economic segments worldwide.

Now we see an overarching theme, which is the growing power of the creator in the world-media landscape. After all, a third of kids under 12 report wanting to be YouTubers or vloggers.

Thanks to digital tools, the act of forging personal connections with individuals is now scalable, making the nameless, faceless media entity increasingly a thing of the past. 

How big is the creator economy?  

The creator economy is vast, and its implications go well beyond its $104(+) billion size today. According to a recent report from Influencer Marketing Hub, the growth trajectory of the creator economy is similar to the gig economy (mostly on Upwork and Fiverr), which means a future valuation in the trillions of dollars.

This is good news for everyone in the space — not just brand-name influencers. 

The biggest creator economy companies and investors

Even though the creator economy has been around for the last couple of decades — since the dawn of Web 2.0 and the rise of user-generated content and social media — its economic impact has only become apparent in the last few years.

In 2021 alone, according to CBInsights, there’s been a record-setting $1.3 billion funding for creator economy startups. Some of the most prominent players, according to Vogue Business, include:

And let’s not forget about the top social platforms, many of which have established large creator funds and made significant investments in creator tools for monetization and shoppable features. Here’s an overview:

That’s just for starters: you may have read about how Substack is paying the big bucks to people with large fan bases to use theirs platform or how OnlyFans launched a fund for musicians. (No, that’s not a euphemism — OnlyFans really does support G/PG-rated creators, too, in making money by interacting with fans.) The point is big business goes to where the money is … and it’s clearly in the creator economy.

The creator middle class

The mammoth numbers used to quantify the creator economy are just part of the story. Only a few rarified name-brand influencers are at the top of the feeding chain. The rest makes up a vast middle of the creator class who work hard to even cover their costs. As The New Yorker pointed out, this can make creating digital content feel like “gig work.”

While that’s less glamorous than the perceived life of the megawatt influencer, that doesn’t mean you can’t make a decent living as a creator. Influencer Marketing Hub reported that nearly 50% of creators who have been building their audiences for four or more years earn more than $20k across all of their monetized channels.

This probably sounds like a solid side gig, and for most, it is. According to SignalFire, most content creators (around 47 out of 50 million creators) are amateurs who monetize content creation part-time. 

Ultimately if you’re a part of the creator middle class, you’ll need more than one revenue stream to survive. After all, people won’t come directly to you until you’ve built a sizable following — emerging from the middle to become (you guessed it) a full-fledged influencer and full-time content creator. 

Opportunities for the creator class

That said, there are numerous opportunities in the creator economy as long as you’re willing to work hard and diversify your revenue sources. 

Early on in the creator economy, ad revenue sharing was a primary way for creators to earn money. But then platforms like YouTube changed their policies and demonetized some ad-sharing opportunities for creators.

Today ad revenue is still a part of the mix — and a desirable one as it’s passive income — but savvy creators are careful not to rely on it alone. 

Sponsored content

Nowadays, sponsored content is one of the primary opportunities in the influencer economy. Don’t be afraid of that terminology — content creators with influence at all levels are being tapped for participation in everything from sponsored posts to product placement and shout-outs.

That’s because “nano” (i.e., less than 5k followers on Instagram) and “micro” content creators (i.e., 100k followers or less) provide higher levels of engagement and conversions than those at the mega-influencer level. Brands have caught on, and most content creators (around 70%) report that brand deals are the most significant source of revenue. 

Now, putting your destiny in the hands of a third party leaves you to the whims of those companies. That’s why the movement of the creator as a business is particularly appealing. And you don’t need a gigantic following to profit as a content creator.

Technologist Kevin Kelly’s iconic “1,000 true fans” article, written in 2008, is spot-on for today’s creator economy. (This holds up, too.) The idea is: all you need is 1,000 people who love what you do and will buy anything you make. 

All you need to do is create, cultivate, and nurture your direct connection to your fanbase. This is where selling things like merch, digital products, premium content, books/eBooks, fan engagement, coaching/consulting, and speaking services comes in.

The tools we’ve already discussed can help you grow your empire while you concentrate on creating content that inspires and delights your audience in new and unique ways. 

Is the creator economy broken?

If you’ve made it this far, you can tell that there are plenty of opportunities in the creator economy. But, that said, it’s easy to spot the disparities.

For example, Influencer Marketing Hub found there isn’t a definite correlation between follower count and income. In fact, the difference in the number of followers for influencers who earn between $50-100k and those who make $500k-1M is only around 1.8K people — despite an earnings difference of $500k(+).

That’s why resources like FYPM (f*** you pay me), which empowers influencers to compare fees, have cropped up.

And, actually, this is a great sign for the creators’ market overall. The more people learn to advocate for themselves — and decide to create and grow channels that foster a direct connection to their fans on media they own — the better.

The future of the creator economy

Where we’re going from here has only been accelerated in our post-pandemic world. People have more eagerly adapted to digital life, which, in turn, has given content creators a boost and the communities they serve more to enjoy. 

That’s why we’re starting to see an uptick in opportunities, which will only increase over time, including:

  • More options to diversify revenue streams
  • Increased channels for creators and fans to connect
  • Greater direct support from audience members
  • Less reliance on social media giants 
  • A more symbiotic relationship between creators and their audiences — with no intermediaries

Web 3.0 makes all of this possible — and it’s where things get really interesting. A decentralized digital world is where the power shifts to the creator and their communities.

Soon, we’ll see a creator economy that’s not one big blob but rather a collection of micro-economies fueled by cryptocurrency where all participants (creators, audience members) gain and retain ownership.

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