/ An inside look at the business of digital content
What publishers can learn from the creator economySeptember 29, 2022 | By Damian Radcliffe, Carolyn S. Chambers Professor in Journalism – University of Oregon @damianradcliffe
The creator economy is estimated to be a $104.2B market with “a substantial growth trajectory similar to the gig economy.” And, just as the gig economy has transformed the shape of work, the creator economy is impacting the media landscape.
Industry-watcher Simon Owens notes how bootstrapped content entrepreneurs are harnessing platforms like YouTube, Instagram, and Substack to engage new audiences, often through verticals overlooked by mainstream outlets. Some are also very successfully monetizing these efforts. Globally, more than two million creators have six-figure incomes, as they tap into opportunities for sponsorship, subscriptions, and other revenue.
Excitement about this potential has unlocked more than $800 million from venture capitalists in recent years. This is “sending strong signals confirming the creator economy is not only legit, but a force to be reckoned with,” Influencer Marketing Hub suggests.
“This is really a new form of work and a new form of entrepreneurship,” according to Kaya Yurieff, a former CNN journalist who covers the creator economy for The Information.
The rapid rise of this sector is evident in the flurry of deals, creative campaigns, and platform developments featured in a four-times-a-week newsletter Yurieff and her colleagues have produced since April 2021.
Five actionable lessons for publishers
Collectively, the size of this market, its characteristics, and projected growth makes this a sector that media companies should not just report on. They should be learning from it too.
Below are five ways that publishers can learn from the creator economy.
1. Harness the value of niche
“As solo operators, creators handle everything from content creation to marketing to monetization,” Owens explains. “This forces them to be incredibly innovative if they want to compete with much larger media organizations for subscription and advertising dollars,” he adds.
One of the ways that they have addressed this is through niche content verticals. Yurieff points to Substack newsletters focused on indigenous news as an example of one “area that traditional publishers historically haven’t dedicated a ton of resources to.”
“Creators have proved that there are audiences for maybe more varied topics than we’ve seen traditionally in the media,” she says.
For publishers, this demonstrates the potential to superserve smaller, targetted, audiences. It isn’t always about scale. Rather, the focus should be on tapping into passions and subjects that audiences will engage with – and potentially pay for.
2. Learn how creators are growing their businesses
Niche verticals don’t necessarily have to remain small. “The most successful of these solo operators eventually end up hiring staff and acting more like traditional media companies,” Owens points out.
He highlights how a former Cosmopolitan editor, Mia Freedman grew Mamamia from a one-person blog to Australia’s largest women-focused media company (with c.100 staff, 99% women). Owens also cites Adam White’s Front Office Sports, which began as a college project and now reaches over 20M people per month, as “examples of creators who leveraged their initial success to grow into more traditional media companies.”
The transferable lessons from these types of success stories are highly relevant to the digital strategies being developed and deployed by publishers. As such, they should be required reading in the C-Suite.
3. Understand it isn’t just about flashy new social networks
Many of the methods used by independent creators to share content and generate engagement – such as newsletters, podcasts, groups and messaging apps, paid memberships, subscriptions and other tactics – will be very familiar to traditional publishers.
That said, in doing this, they are more likely to use newer platforms like Patreon, Discord and Geneva, than traditional publishers. But in terms of their approach, it shows you don’t necessarily have to reinvent the wheel. However, you do need to offer something valuable and distinctive. Content is King. Yet, in many cases, community is nearly as powerful. Distinctiveness can arguably be rooted in content, tone of voice, distribution channels and/or a combination of all three.
The Mamamia podcast network features around 50 different shows and 90 female hosts. According to their website, “it’s the largest women’s podcast network in the world.” Their podcast journey will be of interest to traditional publishers with similar audio ambitions.
By the same token, alongside a daily newsletter and podcast, Front Office Sports has created a paid Pro product. This includes research reports, access to events and market data, as well interactive courses sponsored by the likes of Meta and Ticketmaster.
Areas such as events, courses and research are among the tactics a number of publishers are also exploring as part of their efforts to diversify their revenues. The lessons Front Office Sports learned from these efforts is therefore relevant beyond the creator economy.
4. Reach new audiences where they are
Publishers are increasingly moving into spaces like TikTok and Twitch in an effort to engage new (often younger) audiences. To make these efforts more successful, it can pay to hire staffers conversant with the style and tone of the creator economy.
NPR’s Planet Money might seem like a venerable show, but its TikTok account counters that perception. Run by 25-year-old Jack Corbett, it has nearly 750,000 followers. Teen Vogue describes Corbett as “a wacky-professor figure, a talented TikTok comedian, and most importantly, a guide through the largely inaccessible world of economics.”
For NPR, Corbett’s skills potentially brings audiences to Planet Money’s content who would otherwise find it inaccessible, or assume it wasn’t for them. It’s a tactic others should study, if not try to duplicate.
5. Unlock the potential for partnerships
Publishers might, rightly, see the creator economy as a source for talent. But, those hires don’t necessarily need to be full time. Partnerships offer another approach that can potentially work for both parties.
Launched last month, as part of a suite of new advice columns, The Washington Post added TikTok content creator Jules Terpak to its cadre. The weekly column, Ask Jules, explores how technology intersects with digital culture and the lives of her readers.
Moves such as this enable publishers to benefit from a creator’s established audience and recognized expertise. (And in turn, creators may also benefit from an association with, and the resources of, a trusted mainstream media brand.)
Creators have a built-in following and have demonstrated that audiences value their voice and viewpoint. Partnering with them can help publishers diversify their own voice and content offering. This provides a gateway to new audiences for other content and products.
What’s next? Two trends to follow.
The creator economy is home to valuable case studies, talent and skills that the wider media industry can benefit from.
This may become especially acute given the latest set of changes to Facebook’s mobile product. The move is part of what New York Magazine’s John Herrman refers to as social media’s “race to see who can copy TikTok the fastest and with the least dignity.” As a result, It may put a premium on the style and types of content that are the bread and butter of what many top creators produce.
“The algorithm changes will probably push publishers to create more short-form video content,” predicts Owens. “I wouldn’t be surprised if publishers start looking more and more for prior TikTok/Instagram Reels experience when hiring out their social media teams.”
For Yurieff, one potential trend to note is the migration of online conversations into “more private spaces… I think that’s something really to watch,” she says.
She cites Discord as an example of a platform which now has “lots of different niches and groups and audiences using it.” It’s part of a wider move among online users to connect in smaller groups, communicating privately and potentially going deeper on certain topics, Yurieff says. These are principles more publishers might want to get on board with.
In that vein, The Information’s move to create opportunities for its subscribers to network directly with each other demonstrates how some of the community principles evident in the creator economy can be applied by media outlets.
“These new features are meant to add more value to the news site’s subscriber base, as opposed to driving meaningful revenue themselves,” Axios reports. Nevertheless, in the future, The Information may look to monetize them.
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The growth of the industry, and the success of some of its proponents, means that if the creator economy is not on your radar yet, then it should be.
For publishers, the maturing of the creator economy, and the growing numbers engaged in (and with) it, present a number of learning opportunities. We need to be looking at the creator economy, as well as the more traditional media industry, for case studies, talent and insights into how to respond to the next wave of digital disruption.
Yet, despite its growth, “this new breed of creators may be looked upon as charlatans and opportunists by some purists in traditional publishing,” suggests Josep Nolla, VP, Business Development & Partnerships at the e-commerce provider Bolt. “But the reality is there are more similarities than differences between this exciting new economy and traditional publishing,” Nolla advises.
Creators, like traditional publishers, are looking to drive subscriptions, diversify their revenues, and generate engagement and loyalty. They may use different platforms, content styles, or verticals to do this. But arguably, a lot of their core business goals are the same. And there’s a lot to be learned in these similarities – and maybe even more from the differences.
Care to disagree? Then let’s debate it on Discord!