December 6, 2021

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Social media is all-in on the content creator economy. What does that mean for brands?

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It feels like everyone is all in on the creator economy. Venture capital firms are backing creator startups. Platforms like YouTube, TikTok and Snapchat have all announced their own versions of creator funds designed to attract the internet’s most creative talent. Instagram went so far as to host a first of its kind “Creator Week” and even BuzzFeed is hoping to capture a slice of the creator economy. And in the first half of 2021 alone, the creator economy recorded a booming $1.3 billion in funding.

In short: creators are hot—and it’s no surprise brands want in.

If brands are serious about working with content creators, they need to first understand how the creator economy operates. In this article, we’ll dive into everything brands need to know about content creators including how to find the right collaborators and which social platforms are investing in creators.

Who are content creators?

In the simplest of terms, “creator” applies to anyone who builds, produces or creates a good, service or content. Content creators produce everything from long- and short-form videos to newsletters, viral dance moves and sponsored posts on Instagram. These are some of the most popular people on the internet; they’re not only plugged into social trends, they’re setting the social trends.

Creators are also known for facilitating important discussions on social. “Creators drive so much conversation on Twitter and we’re seeing an evolution in how conversations are happening,” says Kerrie Smith, a content strategist for Twitter ArtHouse. “Creators are well positioned to lend a human voice, personality, perspective and expertise to a brand. They can facilitate conversations that otherwise would not have happened.”

Some of the most influential creators are likely people you’ve already seen on social media. Charli D’Amelio is perhaps TikTok’s biggest star with nearly 80 million followers and deals with brands like Hulu, Dunkin’ Donuts and Morphe. Huda Kattan has built a makeup empire thanks to her Instagram following of nearly 50 million while Dude Perfect churns out sports and comedy videos for their 56 million subscribers on YouTube.

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Writers and former journalists are jumping into the creator economy, too. For some, the decision to move to a Substack or Patreon-type platform comes with an increase in autonomy over their work and the chance to write about what interests them most. Craig Calcaterra, a former attorney turned baseball writer, left the traditional newsroom to launch his own baseball, news and culture newsletter on Substack.

Of course, we can’t talk about the creator economy without touching on the racial disparities that come with it. One of D’Amelio’s most viewed TikToks, for example, is actually a dance created by Black choreographer Jalaiah Harmon, who was never properly credited for her work. Another popular TikTok star, Addison Rae, was also accused of capitalizing on the work of Black creators when she went on Jimmy Fallon to teach the host eight of TikTok’s most viral dances. While Fallon did end up inviting the original choreographers to perform on his show, Black creators continue to struggle to receive the recognition they deserve for their work.

The role social platforms play in the creator economy

Creators and social media platforms haven’t always had a symbiotic relationship. On the one hand, social media gave creators an opportunity to grow their following and more widely distribute their work. On the other, creators have long argued they weren’t receiving their fair share of the profits they brought in on those platforms.

The emergence of creator-friendly platforms like Patreon, Twitch and Substack further highlighted the historical lack of consistent creator compensation. On Substack, for example, creators can pocket over 80% of their earnings. But on TikTok, creators voiced their frustrations about having to supplement their content by crowdfunding from their followers.

To level the playing field between platforms and encourage creators to continue producing content, social platforms have since established funds to pay the best of the best. Pinterest established a $500,000 creator fund; YouTube set aside $100 million to pay its top Shorts creators; and since November 2020, Snapchat has paid out $1 million every day to its top creators.

In addition to paying creators their worth, social platforms are also looking into connecting creators directly to brands for future collaborations through programs and initiatives like:

  • Facebook’s Brand Collabs Manager, which makes it easy for brands to discover and partner with top creators across Facebook and Instagram.
  • YouTube BrandConnect matches creators with brands, while providing brands with the tools and insights they need to measure the impact of their collaborations.
  • Twitter ArtHouse helps brands collaborate with creators to develop and produce Twitter content that engages a brand’s target audience. Twitter ArtHouse “also coaches brands on best practices including experimenting with interactive Tweet formats such as Threads and Q&As, punchy Tweet copy and mastering artful branding,” says Smith.

Finally, social platforms are continually developing new tools and features to better support creators outside of monetization and brand partnerships. Features like Twitter’s Super Follow or LinkedIn’s Creator mode, while still in the works, are just some examples creators can expect to see as more social platforms invest in the future of the creator economy.

How brands can collaborate with content creators

There are several opportunities for brands to partner with creators to drive their business goals forward. For example: based on the Sprout Social Index™, 58% of marketers say their primary goal is increasing brand awareness while 41% say community engagement is their priority. One way brands can achieve those goals is by working directly with creators who know what’s trending online and whose fanbases are known for their intense loyalty.

Creators can also help brands gain a leg up in the social commerce space by helping brands leverage social channels to get consumers to commit to a purchase. Fifty-three percent of Millennials say they’ll buy from brands that create culturally relevant social content over competitors. Partnering with content creators ensures that brands can tap into the trends their audience cares about without making it feel forced or out of place. Additionally, creators have years of experience under their belt when it comes to selling on social and can help brands strengthen (or even kickstart) their social commerce strategies.

But like any good partnership, the key to success starts with brands knowing who to work with and which social platforms to use. As brands prepare to embrace the creator economy, consider the following to develop a powerful, lasting relationship with creators:

  • Look for the right fit, not the flashiest. If there’s one certainty in social media, it’s that people can sniff out a fake partnership a mile away. To avoid coming off as disingenuous, Smith emphasizes the importance of authenticity when partnering with creators:

    “Authenticity is everything. Consumers are on the lookout for partnerships that feel forced and many creators now have the luxury of turning down brand opportunities that don’t feel like the right fit for their business goals. People are no longer averse to #ad, but they will reject inauthentic advertising. Invest in tools to help you listen to your community on Twitter and uncover the creators that are talking about your brand already. Leverage insights to align with creators that are driving the trending moments that your brand can participate in.”

  • Prioritize diversity and inclusion. It’s no secret brands have struggled to diversify the talent they work with. Not only is it bad PR, it’s also bad business sense. BIPOC creators bring unique perspectives to their work that can reach a broad group of consumers, not just a white one. When Häagen-Dazs wanted to increase its brand awareness among non-white consumers, they partnered with award-winning actor Lena Waithe and marginalized creators to develop branded content. Representation matters in marketing. When brands fail to account for the diversity of their target audience, don’t be surprised to see members of marginalized communities take their business elsewhere.
  • Go beyond a one-time partnership. While influencers and creators are often thought of interchangeably, the reality is the two are different and should be treated as such. Influencers are seen as using their platform to grow and make money off of their following; in recent years, the term has come with some negative connotations. Creators are viewed as using their unique skill sets to build, produce and create content. Says Smith: “Influencer marketing is often thought of as a transactional, one-off #ad. Brands are looking at ways to hire creators beyond a single Tweet. Whether it’s consulting on a campaign’s tone, hiring talent for internal workshops or embedding creator talent into campaigns, long-term creator partnerships create more trust and authenticity with the talent and their audiences.”
  • Trust the creators. Above all, brands need to trust that creators know what they’re doing and leave the content development to them. According to Smith: “The biggest challenge for brands is to let creators ‘do their thing.’ As a brand, you have marketing messages you’re driving and it can be a challenge to share creative control. Start by remembering the reason you’re hiring a creator in the first place: their unique voice and creative expression.” There’s a reason why creators have the followings they’ve amassed—they know what their audience wants and how to create content that resonates. “Take, for example, this Tweet from Converse and creator Anthony Potero, which went viral on Twitter,” says Smith. “In the ad, Anthony posts a DM conversation from Converse asking about the creative direction for his post, and [the Tweet] organically garnered almost 200,000 Likes.”

With the creator economy showing no signs of slowing down, marketers would be wise to start thinking of the ways they can collaborate with creators on their next campaign. From producing engaging content to building deeper relationships with consumers, creators can give brands the spark they need to elevate their social strategies.

Finding the right creator to work with starts with knowing what your customers really want from your brand. To better understand your customers and to identify culturally relevant initiatives your audience craves, download this guide to start leveraging the voice of your customer today.

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