Sunday 14 Jul 2024
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This article first appeared in Digital Edge, The Edge Malaysia Weekly on May 8, 2023 - May 14, 2023

Beauty and fashion creator Ash Edward’s morning routine is not quite what one would expect it to be. Instead of starting with the eight-step beauty regiment to prep her skin for the day, the creator famously known as @ashyyedward on TikTok jots down every minute detail of the beauty tips she plans to share with her 385,400 followers and then spends a substantial amount of time shooting and editing videos.

Formerly a public relations and corporate communications executive, Ash never thought her love of make-up and sharing beauty tips on social media — which she started as a hobby in 2014 — could one day lay the foundation for a flourishing career as a content creator.

Ash is one of more than 120 million content creators who are part of a fledgling global ecosystem often dubbed the creator economy. According to a report in March by Citi GPS: Global Perspectives & Solutions by Citigroup, the ecosystem is expected to generate about US$60 billion (RM270 billion) in revenue, with 9% growth per year up to 2024, when it may approach US$75 billion in revenue.

The advent of the creator economy has been many years in making. Over two decades ago, Microsoft founder Bill Gates said content is king, and that it is the foundation of everything from algorithms to brands. It is where “the real money will be made on the internet, just as it was in broadcasting”.

In this business ecosystem, creators monetise their audiences through paid partnerships, ad revenues, sales and tipping points via live broadcasts. Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, TikTok, Twitter, LinkedIn, Substack and Patreon are the back bone of this new internet economy.

In its “The Creator Economy — Getting Creative and Growing” report published in March, Citi GPS says around half of the revenues stem from advertisement-based video platforms, like YouTube. The other half is spread across a wide array of industries: publishing, education and podcasting, among others.

Currently, Millennials — those born between 1981 and 1996 — account for a chunk of the creator demographic at 48%. This is changing, however, as the number of Gen Zs choosing to create rather than attend college is growing daily, according to the State of the Creator Economy 2022 report by creator marketing platform, ConvertKit. 

It found that 71% of creators are over the age of 30; 36% are 40 years old or older; 22% are between 26 and 39; 14% are 16 to 25 years old; and 6% are over the age of 60.

Using content creators as a marketing strategy helps brands provide valuable content that attracts and engages their target audience outside of traditional channels, which are more focused on broadcasting a message to as many people as possible.

Thanks to the upsurge of content consumption on the internet, Ash became a full-time content creator at the end of 2019 and has since signed brand deals and partnerships — cementing the fact that content creation is more than just a fad.

In the course of becoming a full-time content creator, Ash has spent almost RM50,000 on equipment and props. But she has also equally made returns from paid sponsorships and partnerships from her TikTok videos.

“Through certain brand deals, you can make very good money. Sometimes it can go up to six figures [depending on the campaign or brand]. But again the groundwork has to be done,” she says.

The technology supporting this economy sector ranges from content creation apps to e-commerce-enabled social media platforms and monetisation tools. Creators then leverage this technology to build personal brands, attract viewers and earn money, according to Shopify’s website. 

“For instance, TikTok creators [can] reach out to the mass public via their content [and] are given various opportunities to monetise via tools and features on the platform so they can maximise their opportunities, collaborate with brands, and receive gifts and tips from their community,” says Faiz Ramli, head of partnerships, government and large locals at TikTok Malaysia.

In the past, content creation was both curated and centralised but with the increasing dependency on the internet and smartphones, social media content creation is no longer centralised. As content is distributed, gatekeepers — like studio heads or masthead editors — are no longer required, states Citi GPS.

In the early days, social media platforms — such as Facebook (now known as Meta Platforms Inc) and TikTok — kick-started digital creators’ careers and did not share the revenue earned with content creators while publishers monopolised the creator-to-fan pipeline.

But this is beginning to change across industries — publishing, podcasting, e-sports and education — where content creators are finding ways to monetise their content directly with their fans using platforms such as TikTok, Twitch and Patreon, adds Citi GPS.

These platforms have democratised distribution and allowed creators to connect with their audiences directly, followed by monetisation, states an article on Shopify, an e-commerce marketplace that enables creators to develop, launch and scale their own brands on a communal platform.

“Two key developments have made the rise of the creator economy possible — the growth of social media and the democratisation of entrepreneurship,” says Bharati Balakrishnan, country head and director (India and Southeast Asia) at Shopify, in an email interview with Digital Edge.

“The steady growth of content-first platforms, like Instagram, YouTube, and now TikTok, have made it possible for creators to build communities around shared passions and identities.

“Meanwhile, the explosive growth of direct-to-consumer commerce has made owning a business the easiest it’s ever been,” says Bharati.

Wanting a piece of the burgeoning content creator industry, which is a subset of the digital economy, Malaysia Digital Economy Corporation (MDEC) has endorsed the launch of The Meta Creator Academy in Malaysia to provide free training and support for aspiring and emerging content creators.

During the launch ceremony in March, MDEC chief digital investment officer Raymond Siva said that the digital economy contributed 23.2% of the country’s gross domestic product in 2022 and was expected to contribute 25.5% of GDP by 2025 under the Malaysia Digital Economy Blueprint.

In 2021, the digital economy contributed RM2 billion to GDP, owing to rapid online content sharing and consumption at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic due to extended lockdowns and self-isolation, according to news reports.

Shopify’s Bharati says the platform generated more than US$444 billion in economic impact in 2021 and supported more than five million jobs.

Creator versus influencer

There is a fine line between a creator and an influencer. Often, the terms are used interchangeably given the many similarities, as both leverage digital content to engage and nurture online communities and are highly skilled in using social media platforms to reach out to audiences and produce authentic content to be successful.

But subtle and nuanced differences distinguish the two scopes of duty. Primarily, the key difference between the two is purpose, states all-in-one creator management platform, Grin Technologies Inc.

“Influencers are a type of creator, but not all creators are influencers. In addition to influencers, creators have many other subcategories, including celebrities, athletes, bloggers, podcasters, artists, photographers, publishers, journalists, customers, employees and more.

“The ultimate goal of creators is to connect and engage people with similar goals, values and lifestyles.

“While influencers do those things, they also prioritise their brand partnerships and leverage online communities to guide more informed buying decisions,” states Grin.

“On TikTok, creators are defined as active, authentic, complete, notable and secure accounts with a verified blue badge,” says TikTok’s Faiz.

However, not having the verified blue badge seal of authenticity does not mean that the many others creating content on TikTok are not creators. It simply confirms that the account belongs to the person or brand it represents and helps users make informed choices about the content they watch or accounts they follow.

“Verification is the core for users to know that the high-profile accounts they are following are exactly who they say they are,” says Faiz.

Reaping benefits

The growing importance of content creators is not lost on the platforms that benefit from their work. Citi GPS reports that YouTube paid out about US$16 billion to content creators from its YouTube Partner Program (YPP) since it started in 2007.

The platforms charge fees that can vary from less than 10% of the creator’s revenues (Patreon, Spotify and Unity) to as high as 85% (Roblox), finds Citi GPS.

Last year, content creators earned a baseline income of US$5.5 billion on the nine platforms, with YouTube taking the lead at US$4 billion, Etsy (US$1.46 billion) and Instagram (US$460 million), found online recruitment services company Zippia Inc.

The earnings disparity shows that the platforms with the greatest number of creators were not necessarily the same as the highest-earning platforms. YouTube and Etsy stand out for being disproportionately lucrative to their creators, adds Copenhagen-based media company Influencer Marketing Hub. 

The variance often depends on the value the platform provides across five functions: creation, hosting, distribution, promotion and monetisation. The more functions the platform performs, the higher the fees it adds.

“Today, the creator economy is diverse, vibrant and growing. However, across many of the creator economy platforms, a similar pattern emerges. The lion’s share of the revenue is captured by a very small portion of the content creators. Far more than 80% of the revenues are created by far fewer than 20% of the creators. In short, the Pareto principle, or 80/20 rule, does not apply. The creator economy is ‘winner takes most’,” states the report.

As creators do need help, more than a dozen platforms have set up content creator funds, mostly in 2021, in key sectors such as social media, podcasts, cryptocurrency and e-commerce. Creator funds and specific tools are curated for creators to upskill and monetise their work. These include the Meta Creator Academy, TikTok Creator Marketplace (TTCM) and Shopify’s Starter Plan.

“Through the Meta Creator Academy programme, we hope to support creators to gain access to best practices, expertise and resources, so that they can be at the forefront of tomorrow’s opportunities and innovation as a creator,” Philip Chua, director of Instagram Public Policy, Asia Pacific at Meta, tells Digital Edge.

In a report titled “The Rise of the Creator Economy” commissioned by Meta in 2022, the social media giant forecasts the creator economy to reach more than US$100 billion, with more than 300 million creators worldwide.

“To address this, we are offering a suite of monetisation offerings through fan support, ad revenues and partnerships with brands,” says Chua.

Social media titan TikTok, alternatively, came up with TikTok Creator Marketplace. It is a collaboration platform to connect brands and creators on the app. With this, creators can collaborate with brands on both paid and rewards-based campaigns.

TikTok Creator Marketplace streamlines the entire end-to-end campaign process in one platform, enabling brands to easily and quickly source the right creators, activate creators at scale, and measure and optimise campaign performance.

“Creators that often go on TikTok LIVE can receive support from their viewers in the form of LIVE gifts and video gifts. This allows creators to be more connected with their community and motivated to do more,” says Faiz.

While these tools are available to creators, not all are fully utilised. Most Malaysian creators do not rely on creator tools to be acknowledged by brands and partners; instead, they are approached based on the content they produce on these platforms.

“Currently, the brands reach out to me. They get to know me ultimately because of my videos. It all trickles down to one thing — passion. The more videos I do, the more engagement I get. When there is more engagement, people will often see your face on the For You Page [on TikTok]. This includes brands too,” says Ash.

Nonetheless, American creators were able to maximise the use of the Instagram Creator Marketplace in 2022. Despite the low uptake and slow start in the early days when it was introduced last July, it took a relatively shorter time to warm up to the tool as Instagram onboarded more brands and rolled out new features, such as an Instagram-native media kit tool. As at November last year, the feature was showing creators exciting deals, according to a news report by global news publication, Insider.

Passion underscores authentic engagement

A popular stereotype is that content creation is not a “real job”, as creators are regarded as individuals who just spend a lot of time on social media, become overnight sensations and strike it rich, thanks to a combination of influence and luck.

This assumption is a result of the carefree and glamorous lifestyles many creators advertise on social media, but the reality is that it takes a lot of work to produce engaging and meaningful content daily, says Ash.

Being a content creator is more than simply filming and uploading on social media, she stresses.

Ash explains that with the overwhelming amount of content on the internet, creating engaging material; having a good grasp of search engine optimisation (SEO); producing informative, attention-grabbing writing; proofreading and editing; and having to maintain equanimity in the face of online shaming and bullying can get mentally exhausting.

Despite the difficulties and occasional moments of despair, Ash says she finds joy when her content reaches and benefits her audience. Each like and positive comment on her posts motivates her to do more.

The engagement that she has cultivated with her followers and the positive trajectory of the industry give her the assurance that her life as a content creator will not abruptly end someday.

“Passion is what keeps me going. The job [as a content creator] is hard. Of course, it pales in comparison to much more difficult jobs like doctors or lawyers [which takes years of learning and practice]. But [content creation] definitely comes with its own set of challenges,” says Ash.

Daniel Mok, a Malaysian webcomic artist and creator, fondly known as Mokumentary under his Instagram handle @themokumentary, concurs.

Mok says his ability to make jokes and puns of the mundane and concepts many may deem depressing motivated him to continue sharing his art with the world.

“In 2019, I received an iPad from a friend and downloaded some drawing software. I tried [drawing] for fun and it was mainly comics with little jokes.

“This really took off during the lockdown and Movement Control Order (MCO), when everyone was stuck at home, depressed and frustrated. The government was going through a lot of problems and changes as well. I took that as a point of creativity and drew a series of comics,” he says.

As Mok is a full-time copywriter at an advertising firm, he never planned to monetise his work as a content creator. He only accepted art commissions from sponsors or partnerships when the other parties insisted on it.

Content creation has surpassed geographical boundaries, says Mok, who sees it as a means to reach out to a wider set of audiences.

“In today’s world, people are hungry for content and the beauty of the internet is, any form of content is not just tied locally. Your content can potentially reach the whole world. We might think, ‘I’m Malaysian and my audience are only Malaysians’ but [with the right strategy] you’ll be surprised how far your content can reach.”

Despite having countless opportunities to create content full time, Mok wants to keep his art separate from the daily grind as a means of escape from reality.

“Creating webcomics is kind of my hobby; I don’t want to look at it as work. I’ve tried turning it into work before and it took my freedom away. So, I prefer to keep it [separate from work].”

Most people overlook the expensive and hard work behind creative processes, given the transient nature of social media. It takes courage and grit to face a camera and show one’s vulnerabilities to the world, say creators.

Corporate lawyer turned full-time lifestyle content creator on Instagram, Dina Sallehudin — who goes by @dinashuz on Instagram — says content creation is just like any other job. It takes time, money and a whole lot of energy.

“It’s not as easy as it looks, especially if you don’t have a production team that works for you. I have had sleepless nights catching up with deadlines, going back and forth on drafts and meetings with clients. Sometimes, we have to travel to places too. It’s not just ‘posting stuff’, at least not for me. It goes beyond that,” she shares.

Moreover, beneath the glossy exterior lies the dark side of the job — income disparity, inequality and mental health issues.

According to a survey by Awin and ShareASale, an affiliate marketing platform in the US, almost 80% of creators suffer from burnout, with 66% saying it impacts their mental health, driving just under half (49%) to rely on alternative income streams to alleviate the stress and anxiety.

“Burnout is very real among content creators because when you create content for [your followers] and you’re really passionate about it, it becomes a full-time job,” says Ash.

“It gets extremely tiring and I do get moments at least once a month when I suddenly run out of ideas, and trends change every day. So, I close my eyes, take a deep breath and collect my thoughts before coming up with something. I usually have weekly dates with my other creator friends and we work together — that helps me so much with the anxiety. And, I know I’m not alone.”

Dina too feels the constant pressure of having to post daily, but she finds that to be an exciting part of being a content creator.

“Sometimes, I try to do something outside of my comfort zone but at the end of the day, viewers love the authenticity and originality because they follow you for who you are, the reality of things and how they can immediately relate to [it] because it is something they go through every day as well. So, I try to keep my content as ‘me’ as possible,” she explains.

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