The growing allure of the creator economy

Digital platforms are giving rise to a new creator class, but what makes content creation so appealing?

Illustration courtesy of iStock

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In February 2021, I made good on an ambitious New Year’s resolution and started my YouTube channel. I took a passion for history and nautical transportation and combined it with my video production skills to create a series of short documentaries on the history of ocean liners. The channel soon gained traction, and by April of that year, I was accepted into the YouTube Partner Program, making my channel eligible to earn revenue. Branded sponsorships, generous tips, and a merchandise line soon followed. A little over a year later, the channel has 25,000 subscribers and 2.5 million lifetime channel views, and generates meaningful revenue.

Interest in content creation has skyrocketed during the COVID-19 pandemic. Platforms like YouTube, TikTok, Patreon, Twitch, Substack, Medium, and many others have made it possible for creatives to utilize their creativity and entrepreneurial instincts in a way to build an audience and potentially make money. It may not be the get-rich-quick scheme that some imagine, but content creation is a potentially viable way for people to turn a passion into a business. Younger people are taking notice as they search for emotionally and financially fulfilling careers.

What is a content creator?

A content creator is someone who makes entertaining or educational video, audio, or written content on a digital channel. Once their audience reaches a certain size, creators generally can begin earning revenue through ads, sponsorships, affiliate marketing programs, subscriptions, tips, and/or merchandise. People have been making money from writing and publishing blogs online since at least the early 2000s, but this trend of digital content creation really took off in the past few years with the proliferation of digital platforms. 

Content creators aren’t that different from influencers. An influencer is someone who is able to use social media to sway their audience to embrace new trends and lifestyles and to make purchases. The term “influencer” just refers to the impact of their work, while “content creator” refers to the work that it takes to drive that influence: content creation.

A majority of Gen Z and Millennials are interested in joining the creator economy
want to be influencers
would post sponsored content

A survey of 13,000 creators across 113 countries released by Patreon in May 2022 gives insights into the creator class. Nearly 4 out of 10—38 percent—of those surveyed primarily create video, 17 percent write, 14 percent produce audio, 11 percent create visual art, and about 20 percent create some other format. More than half—56 percent—identified as “seasoned professionals,” and 44 percent said they were just starting out. The vast majority—80 percent—said they work alone, but interestingly podcasters, 39 percent, were most likely to report working with a team. 

With so many content creators working alone, WeWork All Access and WeWork On Demand might be a great way to break out of the work-from-home rut. Plus, beautifully designed spaces and the podcast rooms available at some locations could be a great resource for creators. 

For those who do manage to build an audience and transform their content into a business, the returns can be fruitful. Companies in the US increased their spending on influencer marketing by 33 percent to $3.69 billion in 2021, according to Insider Intelligence. This is expected to reach $4.14 billion in 2022, and could reach $5 billion in 2023. But branded sponsorships are just one of the many ways creators earn income. The platforms that they post to will often pay creators directly.

From cat videos to YouTube millionaires

YouTube is usually the platform that first comes to mind when you think of content creators. The video-streaming platform earned this reputation because of its pioneering, lucrative, and wildly successful revenue-sharing model for the content that its users generate.

In the platform’s infancy, videos on the site were generally low-quality videos of cats and people falling down. But YouTube soon took notice of a small but growing group of people on the platform who generated a following by routinely uploading higher-quality comedic skits, stories, and how-to videos. Recognizing an opportunity, YouTube launched its Partner Program in 2007, which shares advertising revenue with these creators in an effort to incentivize them to continue creating videos.

While fraught at times, the relationship YouTube has with its creators has served both parties well. YouTube is the second most-trafficked website in the world, with 33.8 billion visits in May 2022 alone. As of August 2021, there were over 2 million YouTube Partners. And more than half of the 2 million people who create content full-time primarily create through YouTube. 

Other platforms have taken note and have tried to mimic YouTube’s success. Platforms like Twitch, Substack, Medium, TikTok, Instagram, and others have all created revenue-sharing programs with varying degrees of success. 

Why does everyone want to be a content creator?

Creators like MrBeast, Markiplier, and Rhett and Link each made over $30 million in 2021 alone through their comedy, gaming, and commentary YouTube channels. A tiny handful of creators bring in millions every year, but for the average creator, earning a stable and reliable income remains the greatest challenge, if they manage to generate revenue at all. 

But the struggle to earn revenue hasn’t decreased interest in joining the creator economy, especially among younger generations. According to a 2020 survey by Morning Consult of 2,000 13- to 38-year-olds, 54 percent of respondents said they want to be an influencer, and 86 percent said they would be willing to post sponsored content for money. The search term “how to become a content creator” shows a similarly meteoric rise in interest in the topic, especially in the past year. 

You might think that people just look at the wealth generated by top creators and seek to replicate that success. But Morning Consult found that money ranked fifth for Gen Z and second for millennials among the reasons they wanted to become content creators. The opportunity to make a difference in the world was a top motivator, cited by 58 percent of Gen Z and 48 percent of millennial respondents; 55 percent of Gen Z and 60 percent of millennials said they were attracted to flexible hours; 53 percent of Gen Z and 44 percent of millennials said they liked the ability to share their ideas with an audience; and 51 percent of Gen Z and 48 percent of millennials said because it’s fun work.

I studied film and television production at New York University, and the consensus among most film majors was that our job prospects after graduation were bleak. Creative jobs in the entertainment industry are some of the most competitive and unattainable jobs in the market. It doesn’t matter if you go to a top-tier film school—you’re unlikely to make a living through your art. 

But platforms like YouTube offer a glimmer of hope. It’s easier to create and upload videos in your spare time than it is to find a nine-to-five job that will pay you biweekly to create videos. These platforms remove the gatekeepers. The only thing keeping you from building a following is your creativity, the work you’re willing to put in, and your understanding of the algorithms that determine success. That doesn’t mean it’s easy—you just don’t need permission to start. 

If you’re a creative person, finding an audience for your art is an incredible gift. I’m blown away every time I log in to YouTube to see how many people are watching my videos—and the revenue those views generate. It’s an incredibly rewarding feeling, and it’s easy to understand why so many young people want that experience. The allure of turning a passion into a career is a powerful motivator. 

What challenges do content creators face?

Success on these platforms isn’t easy, and building an audience is only half the battle. Turning that following into a business, especially one capable of sustaining you full-time is incredibly challenging and, unfortunately, most creators won’t come anywhere close. 

Being a content creator is more like being a small business owner than a performer. There’s a complex business component that can be a full-time job in itself. Managing taxes, sponsorship negotiations, contracts, and everything else involved with running a small business can at times feel overwhelming. That’s in addition to the constant pressure to create, engage your audience, and maintain relevance in a constantly changing social media landscape. 

An enormous amount of work is required to earn a decent income, and many creators work for years before seeing a single cent. Full-time creators typically rely on a mix of income streams to support themselves, including affiliate marketing, merchandise, memberships, consulting work, and freelancing. The vast majority (myself included) have another job that helps support them.

At the same time, generating income from creating content is an incredible gift that many of us wouldn’t trade for anything. One in three kids ages 8 to 12 want to be a YouTuber, according to a survey by the Harris Poll. Despite its challenges, content creation can be a lucrative and emotionally rewarding career path, and that path is becoming more viable every day. 

Bradley Little is a writer and content creator based in New York City.

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