What is the future of the creator and influencer economies?
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Who knew something as simple as fresh dough could attract video views? It’s not a trick question. In applying surgical precision to its creator campaigns, KitchenAid nailed it.
KitchenAid had access to first-party data from Trusted Media Brands. Two-thirds of TMB’s reader panel, for example, owned stand mixers. TMB’s readers were four times more likely than average to categorize themselves as a “holiday enthusiast.” And 55% of a Taste of Home kitchen survey respondents were looking for helpful kitchen appliance content.
Enter the Mixing and Mingling holiday campaign, which combined all of this data with the power of the creator economy. Taste of Home’s influencers offered recipes and recorded video stories sharing their favorite KitchenAid stories. For Elena Besser, that was the pasta-maker extension, which she tied into a story of using food as her love language.
The campaign was so successful, video views exceeded KitchenAid’s goals by 124%.
Welcome to the future of the creator economy, where the high engagement of niche audiences and first-party data will meet the power of mass media distribution. In this new economy, companies like KitchenAid can access the Taste of Home audience with targeted ads.
And this targeting can blow away the throw-stuff-at-the-wall strategy of TV and radio ads.
Combining niche marketing insights with powerful creators has been a boon to marketers. That’s why the creator economy reached over $100 billion in the middle of 2022. And now, 75% of marketers use it to one degree or another.
But not everyone is threading the fettucini-sized needle like KitchenAid. To fully use the creator economy, it helps to know the opportunities and trends that will define it in 2023 and beyond:
TikTok is in danger of going away in the United States
Somewhere, directly above TikTok, there is a giant piano hanging by a thread.
The threat to TikTok’s existence in the U.S. is not because TikTok is planning on banning sponsored videos or creator marketing. This threat is coming from a place many creators might not expect: the U.S. federal government.
TikTok’s fate hangs on D.C., notes Axios, with TikTok “facing deepening doubts in Washington about its future.”
The problem? China-based ByteDance owns TikTok, which puts the social media giant in unique territory as creator platforms go.
“Only TikTok carries the albatross of foreign ownership at a moment when anti-China sentiment runs hot in D.C.,” writes Axios’ Ashley Gold.
TikTok is currently under the scrutiny of the CFIUS, the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States. At the time of this writing, TikTok’s representatives are trying to highlight the social media platform’s positive contributions while downplaying some of the potential risks.
There’s no telling where this might end up, but one sign recently emerged that it’s not going well. TikTok froze its hiring of consultants who might help reach a security agreement with the U.S. government.
That doesn’t mean Uncle Sam will certainly pull out the rug from under Charli D’Amelio and Khaby Lame any time soon. But anything that remotely looks like a ban on the app would change the entire creator economy overnight.
After all, there’s already a lot of money tied up in TikTok. And it doesn’t hurt that “Gen Z routinely cites TikTok as their favorite app,” according to Douglas Brundage, founder and CEO of Kingsland, a creative consultancy.
Brundage has a rosier picture of TikTok’s future. “Spending will continue to increase on TikTok because the product is incredible. It simply seems to work better every day at generating leads, increasing revenue, and building community for brands.”
If the piano doesn’t fall on top of TikTok, expect those trends to continue. But if TikTok does go, where will all that creator-driven business wind up?
It might be Instagram and Facebook, according to Grace Teng, Chief Media Officer at Scale by Zambezi. “With the looming recession, there will be more emphasis on tried and true like search, Instagram, and Facebook. Advertisers are asking to tie media to ROI so anything that can show movement towards results will be emphasized.”
Where are we heading? We can only watch and wait. Weighing security risks against these benefits is now in the hands of the U.S. government. Meanwhile, TikTok creators might do well to diversify their platforms and build audiences that don’t rely on one app, engaging though it may be.
AI will differentiate between skillful creators and people who can’t beat computers
Notice creative types running around with their hair on fire lately? You likely have ChatGPT to blame.
Short for Generative Pre-trained Transformer, this free app has been so effective at doing our homework for us that it crossed 1 million users almost immediately after its launch.
Contrary to popular belief, AI hasn’t come for all of the menial jobs first. It’s aimed directly at creative types—a group that includes creators and influencers.
ChatGPT can whip up cogent blog articles and create genuinely helpful Twitter threads. Work you might have once outsourced to a virtual assistant (research, summaries, suggestions) is now free.
And it’s not just ChatGPT. There’s also Dall-E image creation. Business owners no longer have to enlist the help of graphic designers for logo suggestions. They can outsource their prompts and revisions to a computer. And computers never roll their eyes back at them.
ChatGPT and AI haven’t replaced everyone just yet. But at the very least, writers, creators, and designers are going to have to compete with AI.
In fact, it’s leading to a new skill set for creators. If you’re good at managing these tools and creating effective prompts, you can now become a writer or a designer in a fraction of the time. That may lead to a new type of creator:
The Prompt Designer.
Building the robots of the future
“The age of prompt designers will rise like a rocket in 2023,” said Fergus Dyer-Smith, CEO & founder of Wooshii.com. “Their time, though, will be short-lived as AI models like chatGPT and Dall-E get way better at interpreting input.”
As the Commandant on the Simpsons once said:
“The wars of the future …will be done by small robots. And as you go forth today remember always your duty is clear: To build and maintain those robots.”
It essentially works the same way now. To keep up with these AI trends, creators have to be aware of these trends and develop a series of meta-skills that require human-machine interaction.
Scripts and prompts may be the creator products of the future, according to Peter Kim, Marketing Manager at hegen.
“In 2023, we’ll see people getting started on making their own music with AI, their own art, and their own video content with AI scripts. The problem is, these beginners will feel like they’re on the same level as the people who have put in years of work honing their craft. At the same time, creators who use AI to improve their existing content and workflows will see their success explode. AI will provide the biggest opportunity for them. It’ll be interesting to see how this turns out and which of these paths that creators will take.”
-Peter Kim, marketing manager, hegen
The good news: genuine connections still matter
According to creator Rob Lennon—who even sells an information product about how creators can capitalize on AI—there’s an upside to the “era of AI-everything.”
“In the next 30 minutes,” Lennon writes, “any of us could write thousands of usable words. Create hundreds of images. This extreme excess will make it harder to find the content that matters. What is truly special, important, beautiful, or game-changing?”
It isn’t content farming, or whipping up a quick 500 word listicle like everything else we’ve seen on the Internet. According to Lennon, the content creators who are going to succeed in the era of “AI-everything” are those who foster genuine connections.
“Make connections,” writes Lennon. “Think like a detective, and come up with uncommon ideas to break through a sea of sameness.”
After all, Lennon notes, photography didn’t die in the era of digital film. Yes, we can snap a thousand quick pics and keep them in our iPhones, only to ignore them for the rest of time.
But that doesn’t change the fact that a high-quality picture, taken by a human, is just as striking as ever. And photography as a skillset hasn’t disappeared. It still takes time, effort, and dedication to figure out how to compose everything just right.
My experiment with AI-generated content
One last point: maybe the AI-apocalypse isn’t upon us quite yet.
I did my own experiment with AI-generated content, using ChatGPT to repurpose an article into a Twitter thread.
Cute hook. Helpful content. Some genuine insight. But it’s also missing something: engagement, which was a tad low.
Even worse, others told me that it didn’t sound like my original voice. That’s kind of important, considering it’s the reason people follow me on Twitter. If that’s my experience, how much more will it matter for creators across the world?
AI will create some challenges. It’s going to clang the pots and pans in the kitchen, posting content until you can’t hear yourself tweet.
But that doesn’t mean creativity will matter any less.
Standing out may be harder in a world of AI-powered Twitter threads and Instagram copy. But since when is standing out not a challenge?
Owned media: a new way to play the creator game
The party isn’t over quite yet.
Google phasing out its third-party cookies to track consumer data has been coming down the pike for quite a while. But those of us who have been waiting with bated breath for the so-called “cooke-pocalypse” may have to wait until 2024.
Even with the delay, it’s still a little scary for anyone trying to reach an audience online. Entire businesses have been built on the reliability of Google’s demographic and searcher data. The precision of that data has helped make Alphabet one of the world’s largest companies.
“[The cookie-apocalypse] represents a significant change for the ad business,” wrote Vox, which also noted: “It doesn’t mean that Google will stop collecting your data and it doesn’t mean the company will stop using your data to target ads.”
Still, data collection will become a little less precise. The “cookie-apocalypse” will come when Google stops selling web ads it targets to individual users’ browsing habits. Any other data may still be fair game.
That limits third-party data, which puts a premium on any data you can get your hands on. For KitchenAid, that came from first-party data provided by Trusted Media Brands. But not everyone has the budget to buy high-quality, premium data.
Creators will have to start building it through a new strategy: owned media.
The curated approach to the creator economy
Let’s be honest: third-party-enabled data lets companies get sniper-accurate with their ad targeting. Companies could pop up overnight, rent out some ad space with Google, and trust the conversions and the sales would come rolling in.
But post-“apocalypse,” creators will likely discover that the best data comes from data they own. Owned media—newsletters, lead capture websites, SMS marketing lists—creates a tit-for-tat wherein your potential customers willingly sign over some of their data in exchange for what you offer.
By creating lists of engaged, potential customers—lists that they own—creators don’t have to rely on platforms like Google ads or even social media so much.
That’s especially true for newsletters, according to Harry Boxhall, an SEO consultant:
“What was once very common in the past but is seeing a significant resurgence for 2023 are newsletters. They are a great medium for creators to build a relationship with an audience and offer an opportunity to regularly monetize their list. However, the real advantage I think is that they themselves own their email list - so there's a lot less to worry about with their account compromised from a social platform they don't own.”
-Harry Boxhall, Boxhall Marketing Ltd
For KitchenAid, that meant “renting” some of the first-party data provided by Trusted Media Brands. But not everyone has that kind of access.
For smaller businesses, it may take some time to build an enthusiastic audience who surrenders their first-party data.
Take Tone It Up. They sell protein supplements and foam rollers, a market where no one would blame them for building a newsletter exclusively for selling products.
But their newsletter isn’t all ads and product discounts. It’s almost like its own digital magazine—a separate entity complete with recipes, daily workouts, and motivational messages.
Owned media is still transactional. You still need customers to want to sign up and hand over some of their first-party data, like telephone numbers and email addresses. But if you give them enough value in exchange—going beyond discounts and exclusive offers and creating a newsletter they’re happy to see arrive in the inbox—you’ll have your own engaged list.
That list gives you additional data sets to draw from. You can watch analytics on your newsletter dashboard or send out surveys via SMS. Eventually, you may have the kinds of insights that KitchenAid was working with.
Micro-influencers may be going macro
Throwing a word like “micro” in front of “influencers” might feel somewhat limiting. But marketers now want to work with micro-influencers above any other type—at a rate of 77%.
That beats out macro-influencers (64%) by a fair margin, and even embarrasses celebrity influencers (22%). Being a TV star may not be what it used to be.
Why? Micro-influencers are just as easy to engage. In fact, there’s less competition for a micro-influencer’s attention. Yet these smaller, more niche audiences can be just as engaged by a micro-influencer’s input as a celebrity’s.
According to Anton Konopliov, founder of Redline Digital, engagement will matter more in 2023 than brand awareness.
“What will affect the creator economy in 2023 is micro-influencers. When choosing influencers and creators to collaborate with, follower count used to be the main consideration. However, it became increasingly clear that engagement matters more than follower count as the creator community got more ingrained in marketing strategies. The number of followers frequently misrepresents engagement. Brand awareness is pointless if consumers do not respond to your calls to action owing to working with macro-influencers with low engagement rates. As a result, anticipate increasing usage of micro-influencers and makers in specialized niches or subcultures in 2023.”
-Anton Konopliov, founder of Redline Digital
From an old-media perspective, it might be hard to see how someone with a limited following can drive engagement.
The answer is two-fold. For starters, micro-influencers have fewer fans, allowing them to forge more authentic connections with the audience they do have. And micro-influencers don’t have to focus on mass appeal. If they’re focused solely on making cold-process hand soaps, then cold-process hand soaps it is. There’s less pandering to a broader audience necessary.
But don’t lump every micro-influencer into micro-niches. Take m3gan_andtheboys, who talks about big-time ideas like fashion and family.
Megan’s “micro” angle, however, is that she invites people into her home, including posts with her two kids, Oscar and Calvin. “Micro-influencer” works because Megan’s niche is essentially a niche of one family. If you want to hear about Oscar, Megan, and Calvin, there’s only one place to go.
Micro-influencer campaigns aren’t difficult to scale, either. It simply means using multiple influencers rather than one core mega-influencer at the heart of the campaign. The result is more engagement without sacrificing niche appeal.
Creator marketing is only growing
Despite the uncertainty with TikTok and the spookiness with AI, creator marketing isn’t going anywhere.
Digital media have removed the barriers to entry into mass distribution. Once upon a time, writers might have to wait until a publisher or magazine picked them up to earn a reputation. Video producers would have had to make copies of tapes and send them out to anyone who could play them.
But now there’s no need for any of that centralization. That may be why there are now 50 million content creators out there. For arbitrary reference, there are only about 120 thousand plumbing businesses in the U.S. in 2022.
And the trend is only pointing upward. Among 18-24 year olds, 30% identify as content creators, with 40% saying the same at 25-35.
Most importantly, money is still moving into creators. Two-thirds of marketers spent more on creator marketing over the period of the past twelve months.
“Exciting things are waiting for us,” said Becca Klein, a creator coach. “As traditional marketing methods become less effective and more saturated, creators are emerging as key drivers of digital content across all platforms. This shift creates the potential for creators to form meaningful relationships with their audiences.”
Challenges and opportunities to watch in 2023
The trends that define 2023 also pop out of the challenges that drove 2022. Google’s third-party data shutdown, for example, seemed like it had the chance to bring the Internet to a screeching halt.
But people and businesses adapt. And in those adaptations, we can spot trends—trends like owned media—that keep the creator economy booming.
AI is another potential disruption that could affect how creators build their platforms. How serious is it? Tools like Synthesia let you upload a picture, type in some text, and create a video as though you presented a live video talk.
Effective creators will realize that the ever-changing list of tools at their disposal doesn’t have to fundamentally shift their appeal. If it took you a long time to stand out before AI, it will still take you a long time to stand out after AI. It’s just going to take some adjustment.
These trends figure to play a key role in the future of the creator economy. It’s never going to run out of challenges. But digital media is more adaptable than mass media, which means the “creator” approach to insights and entertainment may just be getting started.
As long as there are creators and an audience who wants to see their content, the trend is always going to point up.