What I've learned from a year-long dive into the Creator EconomyAshley R. Cummings
Over the past year, I've read hundreds of articles about influencer marketing, social advertising, and the Creator Economy.
I've spent hours interviewing pros and new voices.
And, I've discussed Creator Economy trends and predictions actively in online communities.
Here are the most important things I’ve learned and some common themes running through conversations.
Creators' responses to the pandemic fueled the growth of the Creator Economy
We’re all sick of talking about the pandemic but stick with me. Why? Because this period represents a turning point in the Creator Economy.
There are a million articles about how the pandemic is responsible for the growth of the Creator Economy.
The data correlates with this claim.
Stripe found the number of creators was up 48% in 2021 compared with 2020.
Stripe also reports this number represents a tiny portion of the total ecosystem. Here’s a graph from Stripe to help you visually wrap your mind around the growth of the Creator Economy over the past few years.
In the past 2 to 3 years, there have been tell-tale signs the Creator Economy is the present and future of business.
- Robust Instagram and TikTok growth
- Venture capitalists investing heavily in single influencers and creator tools
- Social platforms restructuring to support creators
- Ecomm leaders like Amazon carving out space for curated collections
- Creator monetization tools like Buy Me A Coffee, Tips on Twitter, Creator Shops, etc.
- The rise of decentralized projects (e.g., DAOs, NFTs, cryptocurrencies, etc.)
- And more
We’ve also experienced an economic power dynamic shift away from big corporations running the show to individuals claiming more autonomy with The Great Resignation.
Hundreds of thousands of people quit traditional jobs in favor of becoming creators, starting their own companies, or moving to a more suitable job with better benefits (e.g., remote work, higher pay, etc.).
Yes, the world has changed dramatically during the pandemic, fueling a new age of creativity. But, here’s the distinction:
Covid can’t take the credit. Instead, it’s the human response to the pandemic that deserves the attention.
Creators have stepped up during and shown incredible resilience, innovation, and creativity over these past couple of years—and that’s what is fueling the rapid-fire growth of the Creator Economy.
Three lessons from my Creator Economy deep dive
1. Gen Z plays a critical role in the Creator Economy
There’s been more “how to market to Gen Z” articles this year than I can count. I’ve even written one focused on how brands can reach Gen Z with live events.
It makes sense why marketers are obsessed with figuring out Gen Z. Gen Z is the most recent generation to start earning—and spending—money.
Here’s the unique thing about Gen Z. They’re the first group of digital natives. They grew up with smartphones glued to their hands. And they spend a considerable portion of their time online.
- 74% of Gen Z spend their free time online
- Gen Z spends an average of 8+ hours online a day
- Gen Z consumers are 2x more likely to shop on mobile devices than Millennials
If you want to reach Gen Z, you have to be willing to step away from traditional digital marketing methods—methods that may work on older Millennials, Gen X, and Baby Boomers—and explore new territory.
In other words, you have to spend time where Gen Z-ers live (e.g., on creator platforms like TikTok, Roblox, Instagram, online communities, etc.). You have to market on these platforms in ways that resonate with Gen Z.
From what I’ve gathered from interviewing Gen Zers, this does not mean investing in things like polished video ads or heavily branded content.
It means putting your money behind creators.
Gen Z & Millennials report time and time again that they:
- Follow their favorite creators religiously on social media
- Make purchases based on creator recommendations
- Trust individuals over brands
- Trust micro-influencers over big celebrities
Matthew Pierce from Versus Systems put it like this in our interview:
“There’s a staggering difference between the fandoms on YouTube or Twitch creators than the fandoms of TV or movie celebrities. A whole generation of people has no idea who Angelina Jolie is but would walk through a wall to meet a YouTube creator. It's because they feel a connection to these creators.”
While investing in creator partnerships is the way to reach Gen Z, this younger generation isn’t the only audience actively participating in the Creator Economy. Not even close.
Here’s how Kaleigh Moore puts it:
“There's an opportunity to reach various age demographics within the larger Creator Economy that is well beyond young consumers, especially Millennials and Gen Zers with money to spend.”
And here’s what Maria West adds:
“Millenials are highly invested in the Creator Economy. We’ve been in the ‘traditional’ economy for a hot minute, are burnt out from it, and looking for fresh ways to make money and express our skills/passions we’ve learned over the years.”
Yes, Gen Z plays an integral role in ushering the Creator Economy forward, but all generations benefit.
2. The Creator Economy has changed marketing forever
You’ve heard the Albert Einstein quote.
“You can’t use an old map to explore a new world.”
While Einstein probably didn’t intend this quote to mean anything in terms of modern-day marketing, it rings true in the context of today’s new economic landscape.
Over the past few years, we’ve seen dramatic shifts in technology and consumer trends and preferences.
Some of the changes include:
- Boosts in creator platform popularity and financial support
- The influx of new creators & influencers
- Rapid-fire growth of commerce and online spending
- Increases in the time and money we spend online
- Novel moves toward decentralization
Today’s consumers live in a new world (a highly digital world), and following an old marketing map doesn’t cut it.
As a result, what worked in marketing three years ago may not generate the same results now. Conversely, what might not have worked three years ago could go viral overnight.
Here are some concrete examples:
1/ Hello Fresh
You’ve seen the HelloFresh user-generated content (UGC) ads while watching Hulu. These creator ads are as wobbly, unpolished, and as raw as it gets.
It’s almost like your mom shot a home video of this cool new cooking service she’s into and sent it to your email. But instead, these ads appear to everyone on the most popular OTT streaming platforms.
Today’s consumers eat these kinds of ads for breakfast. Why? Because it’s kind of like your mom shot a home video of this cool new cooking service she’s into and sent it to your email. It’s real. It’s honest. It’s trustworthy.
And, trust is something we highly value since 2020—a year synonymous with the onset of the pandemic, divisive elections, and strange cultural events like virus and vaccine misinformation, new media ventures that propagate extremist ideas, and more.
The roots of mistrust run deep, so it’s understandable why consumers don’t take marketing messages at face value.
It makes sense why consumers trust content that is honest, familiar, and close to home.
This is the reason why we like:
- TikTok trends
- Low-production videos
- Diverse voices
- Fresh faces
It’s why we follow our favorite creators—creators that are so normal they feel like trusted friends, or a younger sibling, or the neighborhood’s favorite adorable granny.
Consumers may not trust politicians, big media, and mainstream brands, but—
We do *mostly* trust each other.
And, brands that get this are winning in today’s robust Creator Economy.
2/ Mint Mobile
Ryan Reynolds and the team at Maximum Effort understand what today’s modern audience wants to see in a campaign.
I like what Charlie Naus, the Gen-Z agency co-owner of Carson+Doyle, told me:
“Gen Z likes campaigns that are self-deprecating. I’m not a sociologist, so I can’t tell you why, but it’s an inherent thing that we all love. We love making fun of ourselves and each other in lighthearted ways. Success for anyone trying to reach Gen Z is rooted in authenticity, especially on the brand level. We all grew up in the age of Instagram and what has been the norm on Instagram for a long time. For example, we’ve seen a lot of filtered and touched-up imagery, and that has gotten old to us. We want to see real content from real people.”
It’s debatable whether Ryan Reynolds is a real person or a Greek god, but we’ll go with real for the sake of the argument.
Mint Mobile’s ads tap into exactly what Charlie is saying. Here’s an example of a particularly funny ad starring Ryan Reynolds, Mint Mobile, and—wait for it—PowerPoint.
I’d venture to say this ad would have worked before the rise of the Creator Economy because we love Ryan Reynolds. But, it also hits the nail on the head for what modern audiences crave in other ways. The ad is:
- Self-deprecating of one of our favorite celebrities & his movies
- Underproduced (listen to the sound—it even sounds like a PPT presentation)
- Short & sweet
If anything, it acts as a good model for brands that are stuck in old ways and want to try something new. Maybe a new creator-led campaign with some self-deprecating content.
3/ Abercrombie & Fitch
It’s also critical to point out the dynamic marketing power shift we’ve seen birthed from the Creator Economy. In other words, we’ve moved from big brand voices calling the marketing shots to creator voices informing marketing messages.
As creators get more global facetime and attention from consumers, overall marketing messages change.
Stats show 61% of consumers trust creators' recommendations over the 38% of consumers who trust branded social media content.
Creators are rising in popularity and influence because we identify with their voices. We share their values. We like what they are saying. Ultimately, we would rather pay attention to what our favorite creators are saying than what brands are selling.
- We like Mr. Beast because he cares about the ocean.
- We follow Patrick Starr because Patrick permits us to be exactly who we are.
- We adore Rihanna because she’s a crusader for inclusivity.
These are the people we want to hear from. These are whose voices and recommendations we trust.
Smart brands don’t keep calling the shots or running outdated campaigns. Instead, they partner with creators who are in touch with their loyal fans.
Take Abercrombie & Fitch, for example.
Remember in the 90s when you’d walk past Abercrombie & Fitch, and your mom would make you cover your eyes because all their ads were pics of naked, super-fit models?
And, remember how when you finally escaped your mom and snuck into the store, you couldn’t avert your eyes from the models find women’s clothing over a size 10?
That’s because Mike Jeffries was running the show, and he was a nightmare.
Jeffries’ philosophy on sizing and marketing? His words:
“We hire good-looking people in our stores. Because good-looking people attract other good-looking people, and we want to market to cool, good-looking people—we don’t market to anyone other than that.”
Needless to say, Abercrombie ousted Jeffries in 2014. Buh-bye, Mike.
In 2017, Abercrombie hired Fran Horowitz, who did severe brand rehab. Horowitz overhauled the brand to focus on inclusivity. And, she started promoting fundamental social causes like LBGT activism, anti-bullying, and giving to those in need.
Fast Forward to 2020, where Abercrombie caught on that people care way more about creator voices than anything else.
During the pandemic, Abercrombie partnered with our favorite soccer star, Megan Rapinoe, to promote an interview series on wellness. It was a hit!
Abercrombie has tapped even more into the Creator Economy.
Abercrombie currently uses diverse and loveable TikTok creators to promote their brand. Here’s an example from @trendycurvy showing off her sizzling-hot Abercrombie look.
Good work, Abercrombie. You’ve come a long way. Added bonus: my mom will now let me buy your clothes.
3. Yes, the Creator Economy is booming—but it’s volatile
Creators are precious to society and brands. Creators are artists with strong voices promoting diversity, inclusivity, kindness, and social change.
Many creators play a more trivial yet still essential role.
Creators are often an easy go-to to help consumers with decision fatigue. For example, I don’t want to spend 800 years researching new fashion trends. I’d rather pop on over to TikTok, see what my fav fashion-fluencers are wearing, and make a purchase. That’s helpful to me. As a consumer who hates shopping, I love this.
Whether the result is influencing the masses to do some good in the world or to help us make menial purchasing decisions—creators are valuable. We need them.
While the Creator Economy has doubled since 2019, stats show 90% of creators are burning out.
Vibely published a report with shocking stats showing creator burnout is the new normal. The report says creators are burning out due to:
- Frequent algorithm changes (65%)
- Difficulty making a living (59%)
- The Hamster Wheel Effect of content creation (51%)
- Follower count anxiety (51%)
- Hate and online bullying (42%)
- Imposter syndrome (29%)
- Backlash (19%)
Here are some things I’ve learned through my research about managing creator burnout.
1/ Side-step the dreaded algorithm changes
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard creators complain of frequent social platform algorithm changes (especially on Instagram). Creators rely on impressions to capture new followers and to secure brand partnerships.
When social platforms switch up their algorithms, it’s a headache for creators to find ways to “beat the algorithm” and get their content viewed.
Thankfully, the growth of the Creator Economy is making it possible to side-step algorithm-dependence altogether.
One way this is manifesting is via the help of venture capitalists.
Last year, VCs poured $1.3 billion into the Creator Economy.
Some VCs are investing directly in influencers like Mr. Beast and Marina Mogilko. Others invest in platforms that make it easier for creators to break free from the main social networks and build and monetize elsewhere.
VCs and start-up entrepreneurs recognize that “beating the algorithm” isn’t a sustainable business model and will lead to quick burnout.
The money invested in creator tools and efforts to monetize the individual make it possible for creators to focus on content rather than getting enough Instagram impressions to sustain their personal brand.
VC investing in the Creator Economy is still young, and it will be interesting to see what the future holds.
2/ Making a living with meaningful brand partnerships
Creators at the top like Eleonora Pons, Charli, D’Amelio, Addison Rae, and Zach King have reached celebrity status.
These influencers’ fandoms aren’t going anywhere, and they can charge upwards of $100K/post.
But, smaller creators don’t have the same luxury as these mega-starts. As a result, it’s challenging for the “creator middle class” to sustain an income on their influence alone.
But, here’s the thing.
While micro-influencers don’t have the same reach as these mega-influencers, they are still highly valuable to brands.
Micro-influencers create stellar content and have loyal and highly interactive followers.
A Forbes article from Kelly Ehlers reports that micro-influencers have stronger relationships and trust with their followers, which serves more niche audiences. This can be more beneficial to a brand because it gives access to a highly targeted demographic.
Buffer supports this claim. Buffer reports that recent data shows micro-influencers get the best results for brands, including more clicks and engagement with a lower ROI.
So, how can brands support creators and generate impressive results? Partner with micro-influencers.
It’s a win-win. Micro-influencers get paid and have an opportunity to grow more organically, and brands get meaningful niche exposure to their target audience.
3/ Follower count anxiety + online bullying + imposter syndrome
There are several ways to protect and support creators, such as investing in individual creators, growing start-ups that reward creators, entering into lucrative brand partnerships, etc.
But, creators must also protect themselves to avoid burnout.
Various creators told me how they set boundaries to protect their mental health.
Here’s what creators said to do to avoid burnout:
- Keep a schedule - Set a schedule for creating content and resting. Taking time off may mean a few hours a day without social media. It could also mean a complete social media detox.
- Set boundaries and schedule breaks - It’s impossible to answer every comment, text, and email immediately. Set specific times when you do and don’t reply to messages. Also, set your working hours and breaks and stick to them.
- Stay true to yourself - Create that only you can make and produce content that brings you joy. Additionally, consider engaging in activities outside of social media that ground you.
- Find support circles - It’s not up to you to emotionally support everyone else. Find safe spaces with friends, family, and other creators.
- Find sustainable ways to scale and monetize - Consider outsourcing tasks that take a lot of time but don’t bring joy (e.g., editing, production, ideation, etc.) and find new ways to monetize content (e.g., community membership, brand partnerships, etc.)
It’s also worth noting the role we play as consumers of content. Celebrities, creators, influencers are all real people putting their creative energy out there for all of us to enjoy. Don’t be rude.
Where’s the Creator Economy headed?
What’s particularly interesting is that the Creator Economy is still a baby. Yet, we’ve seen enough innovation that it’s projected to grow to over $105 billion in 2022.
The growth of the Creator Economy is exciting, to say the least.
It has opened the doors for people to leave stifling jobs, add their unique voice to meaningful conversations, promote their art, and gain financial independence.
It’s also been life-changing for marketers and brands as there are now diverse ways to reach new audiences and boost sales (hello, TikTok).
While it’s projected that the Creator Economy will only grow from here, it’s also critical to remember that it is volatile and that creators are overworked. We must take care of the people that are making it happen.