Why Influencers and Creators Might Save Media (By Destroying It First)
By all accounts, 2019 was the breakout year for influencers and creators. It became clearer than ever that social platforms were leaning in to influencers and creators as core, if not critical, to their businesses. Instagram renamed their user accounts with three options—personal, business and creator—and TikTok birthed a whole new generation of influencers and creators by rewriting the rules of the algorithm game, winning it 1B downloads in the process.
At the same time that platforms were leaning in heavily to creators, the growing options for influencers and creators to monetize their efforts bloomed like a thousand flowers. Not only did influencer marketing, a core driver in the monetization side of the house, surge to new heights, all sorts of new direct to consumer monetization platforms burst onto the scene or finally reached critical mass. Upstart providers like Cameo showed us how to monetize access, subscription platforms like Patreon and Substack seemed to all surge at the same time, and knowledge monetization platforms like Teachable doubled their total historical growth in one year. For once, influencers and creators could break out of the shackles of plummeting CPM rates for new mechanisms to turn their passions into sustainable careers.
More than ever it’s becoming clear that influencers and creators are the media companies of the future, and not the old content-plus-ads media companies that continue to struggle. Content-plus-ads has never quite achieved what was hoped outside of print. These new media companies live on social platforms they don’t own, understand mobile, and have diverse revenue streams so they are not beholden to any specific one. To be fair, BuzzFeed-era media companies saw that writing on the wall, but simply haven't been able to turn their juggernauts fast enough to become their best 2020 selves.
When any new vertical of companies emerges, you see a host of purpose-built tools emerge as well. Media companies have CMSes, affiliate revenue managers, traffic recirculation tools, and even their own acquisition engines with ad networks like Taboola. In 2019, we saw the first sparks to the influencer and creator economy appear. Companies like Moe Assist are starting to address the fact that influencers require all the same admin of being a small business. Linktree, which might seem simplistic at first glance, was custom-built for a whole multi-hyphenate generation that lives on other people’s platforms (you down with OPP?). They are quickly becoming an ephemeral equivalent of an O&O media website. Linktree could well become the Gen Z equivalent of the dot com.
All of this hypergrowth is not possible without some good old venture capital. For the most part, traditional venture capital companies have been sitting on the sidelines of the influencer and creator economy. It’s not hard to blame them, given some of the confusing signals the industry provided in 2018. Instagram designated “influencer networks” persona non grata users of their API; Snap redesigned their whole app to lump influencers and creators in with media companies like Discovery Channel, instead of with your friends (a highly tone def understanding of how Gen Z views influencers and creators but an oddly prescient understanding of the true nature of what a creator is); and YouTube cut out most member subscription products. There is almost no investment in influencer marketing platforms from Sand Hill-level Silicon Valley VCs. A few crumbs had fallen to Patreon and some other breakouts, but by Valley standards it was still a rounding error.
This seemed to change overnight at the end of 2019. Led by a few Twitter-savvy venture personalities like Brianna Kimmel from Worklife and Li Jin and Connie Chan from a16z (and of course, the a16z halo with them), a whole new discussion has emerged. Li Jin’s now seminal essay on the Passion Economy has dragged a new generation of VCs into the conversation, and that has only been further fueled by the bear-hug embrace of influencers and creators from every major platform company in the world. Now it seems like the industry has shone a spotlight on the illusive TAM no VC could get their heads wrapped around. Looking back, it’s no surprise that a16z birthed the most serious Valley VC look at the creator economy—they understand media and the next generation of media arguably better than any other VCs. Listen to the a16z podcasts (case in point) and you’ll hear them move seamlessly from discussions of media to influencers to games to sports and back. It’s a foreshadowing of our emerging thesis that the future of media is personality-driven. The 2020 CreatorScape demonstrates the state of the industry nicely, with over 200 companies dedicated to—and reliant on—influencers and creators.
What the creator economy needs now is a slew of name-brand VCs to put their money into the ecosystem. Once the dollars start flowing to companies in this space, the surface area of potential exits will grow, and the flywheel will start spinning. It’s a tried and true cycle for any emergent industry and we’re right on the cusp of it. The big dollars likely won’t truly be unlocked until Creator economy companies start getting bought. VC money is really a two stage rocket—once they have their head wrapped around TAM, they then hit the liquidity question: Who buys this?
Nothing could be more valuable than a Patreon or Substack exit right now. But the lingering question is a fair one: Who are the buyers? Let’s not forget that every major tech company is in the influencer and creator game in a big way now. Twitch is owned by Amazon and Apple is still the biggest podcasting platform and music royalty distributor in the world. But are these the buyers? It’s not clear.
The more likely candidates are the media conglomerates. For two decades their hard built newspaper, cable, and primetime TV audiences were their crown jewels. But those audience’s viewing hours are shifting to influencers and creators. Pay TV is being decimated during the pandemic and it’s to be seen if Verizon, AT&T, Viacom, or NBCUniversal can launch new products or adjust to changing consumer demands on their own. Everyone is waiting with bated breath for Peacock to launch, but it’s likely media companies are at the evolutionary cycle where they have to go buy proven things now, not launch their own. By now it’s not a matter of if they will need to find new audiences to own, it’s a matter of when. The New York Times (of all companies) bought an influencer agency first (HelloSociety) and then Viacom dipped its toe in the water when they bought WhoSay (influencer marketing agency) and more importantly VidCon. NBCUniversal bought Craftsy, which was much overlooked and arguably the biggest early win in the creator economy, at a $230M sale. That’s a start, but the industry needs both top-of-the-funnel VC money as well as bottom-of-the-funnel acquisitions to speed up the cycle. While it would be fantastic for Patreon to go public and prove a creator company could stand on its own legs for an exit, that’s likely not happening any time soon. With luck, 2020 will be the year that everyone recognizes the top of the funnel has emerged so we can start to spend our time on the bottom.
It’s notable that 2020 has already gotten off to a darkly surprising start. The global pandemic drove the world into their homes, onto their phones and in many instances into the arms of influencers and creators. Across the board consumption was up dramatically and with it came monetization. What’s fascinating is how nimbly influencers and creators have reacted. Millions of miniature media companies turned on a dime and became part of the conversation and support system for the world. Whether it was promoting accurate news, going live in record numbers to create connection and replacing IRL space like gyms and classrooms or simply sharing good news and levity—the global pandemic brought the influencer and creator culture into focus in a way that no other event could have done in such an immediate time frame.
In a bit of serendipitous timing, the pandemic also witnessed the launch of Quibi. Quibi quickly gained staunch supporters and detractors, but more than anything has provided us with a useful traditional media cum control group to see how much influencers and creators battle against a tsunami of highly produced, distraction-tuned, celebrity- (not influencer-) driven content. Already, only one month into their journey, Quibi has had to turn to creator-haven YouTube to try and attract eyeballs. That doesn’t bode well for how this plays out for traditional media companies or new ones that still think like them.
The future of creators as media companies brings with it a host of welcome changes: Content is crafted and delivered on OPP; the consumer can choose one or all mechanisms of monetization that match the value they place on the content and creator; and its inherent structure allows it to react with incredible alacrity to the world around it. This is potentially a deadly cocktail of forces to bring disruption to a nearly centuries old model.