The creator economy has often been touted as the future of marketing & commerce. However, as hype and VC funding in the space declines, Akanksha Goel, Founder & CEO of Socialize, explores where it may go next, the technologies influencing the shift, and how brands can join in.
Back in 2011, when I had just launched Socialize and Instagram was the new platform on the block, Google’s Youtube Partner Program had already been helping video creators monetize their content for four years. In fact, one of our early briefs from a regional entertainment powerhouse asked, "How can we make more money off our Youtube channel?"
"Not easily," I responded.
Over a decade later, not much has changed. Content creators still struggle to meaningfully monetize their social presence. While the growth of social platforms has allowed them to gain large followings and build powerful personal brands, few have been able to convert that into successful businesses. The problem is, there just aren't that many 'Huda Beauties' out there.
So, given it has already existed for over a decade, the recent hype around the "Creator Economy" as the next big thing in marketing and commerce seems overblown. Most creators are still focused and reliant on the social platforms where they built their following/fame. If the UAE decided to ban a platform, as India has with TikTok, the creators would have to start from scratch. In addition to this, as platforms deploy API changes and the economic market conditions fluctuate, so does their income. Covid was a painful reminder of that.
These unpredictable conditions have given rise to an emerging breed of creators who, enabled by new platforms and technologies, are moving their audiences to less volatile spaces, spaces they own. For example, Substack is a popular subscription-based platform that allows creators to easily set up a pay-to-view, monthly subscription-based business and today rivals Bloomberg.com in monthly global traffic. Its popularity is in part driven by creators recognizing the incremental value of nurturing a niche, owned audience with recurring revenue potential, versus just relying on short-term/standalone brand partnerships. It's also due to its ease of use at a time when trust in institutions, from banks to mainstream media, has taken a hit and audiences are more willing to pay for content they trust, from individuals they connect with.
B2B brands, that have typically struggled with finding relevant creators on traditional social platforms, can participate in subscription-based communities like these, allowing them to connect with a highly targeted audience base with nominal investment. Substack’s native search features enable brands to filter/identify relevant communities and then join in the conversation by directly contacting the creator and adding value in various ways. The possibilities are endless: from newsletter sponsorships and exclusive content/discount vouchers to launching co-branded communities.
Web3 technologies like NFTs have also helped amplify the role of ownership and community for creators looking to build long-term alignment with their fans/followers. Regional creators like Mona Kattan are already investing in learning and building in the space. She recently launched her own cryptocurrency, MonaCoin. It allows her fans and followers to "buy into" her fame, get access to exclusive content and experiences, while at the same time profiting from the growth of the community and her brand.
Partnering with a creator-led tokenized community can be an impactful option for brands looking to reach and engage a crypto-aware and affluent audience. By getting to know the digital community and looking closely at its behaviors, preferences, and needs, brands have a “unique opportunity” to deliver tailored products, services, and content. For example, Ralph Lauren partnered with PoolSuite token holders of which I am one - on the launch of their Miami store. Members are passionate about building the future of Internet leisure, an ethos that aligned with Ralph Lauren and the resulting partnership allowed members like me to unlock exclusive access to a special in-store event in store.
As emerging ‘platform-less’ creators move away from rented land to ownership, the new community economy will require brands to reorient online marketing around content and experiences that power online collaborative spaces, which become the reason and means through which people connect. While this concept of community building is not new for brands, few are building open, co-owned, tokenized communities. Nike, my disruptor brand of choice, is one brand that is leading the way in graduating from community participation & partnership to community building. It recently launched Swoosh, a community where fans come together, design ‘virtual creations,’ and share in the rewards later.
At its core, community building is still about driving connection and belonging. But unlike social brand pages, these new blockchain-powered tokenized communities allow members to have ownership and share in the rewards with the brand/others in the community. This has profound implications for brands that have built their entire marketing strategies around the creator model, presenting both challenges and opportunities. On the one hand, engaging with communities requires a more nuanced and holistic approach than simply partnering with individual creators. On the other, focusing on building, partnering, or participating within niche communities can provide brands with a powerful way to build long-term trust, loyalty, and advocacy amongst highly engaged and dedicated audiences.