Every week, I scan the news for must-know stories about the employee-centric, happier, distributed, and AI-driven future of work.
Welcome to Future Work. Every week, I scan the news for must-know stories about the employee-centric, happier, distributed, and AI-driven future of work. Below is this week’s edition. Not a member yet? Join over 8,000 people-centric managers and subscribe here.
In the future, will everyone be a creator?
And what does this mean for how we build and monetize our online personas?
That’s what we’ll dive into in this week’s Future Work (number 59!)
- The creator economy is coming from the hype cycle peak but still has significant growth. Goldman Sach research estimates that 50 million people now work as creators and pegs the industry at $250 billion today, growing to $480 by 2027.
- With the rise of gig work and side hustles, especially among Gen Z, of which 50% work a second job and 57% want to be an influencer, more people will become creators, creating a significant impact on the future of work.
- According to insiders, we’ll see a creator “middle class” alongside billionaire creators like Mr. Beast and Cody Ko in the next few years, driven by monetization strategies such as ads, brand deals, affiliate marketing, online courses, social commerce, products, and subscriptions.
- But even billions are nothing compared to the $1 trillion already circulating in the Chinese social commerce industry. Looking at this and other Asian markets, we see where the world could go: buying from friends and trusted experts rather than a store or brand.
- For knowledge workers and leaders, the potential application of creator principles in the B2B space, with the rise of B2B influencers, is most interesting. Ogilvy research shows that 75% of B2B businesses currently use influencer marketing, and of those, 93% plan to increase their use. (Yes, that could be you!)
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The Big Story: Who Wants A Slice Of The $480 Billion Creator Economy Pie?
Goldman Sachs research found that 50 million people now work as creators and that the industry will grow from $250 billion this year to $480 billion by 2027.
Samir Chaudry, half of Creator Economy Guru Duo Colin & Samir, predicts in a My First Million interview that we’ll see multiple billion-dollar creators, including Mr. Beast, Dude Perfect, and Cody Ko.
The creator economy is massive and will only continue to grow.
But it’s bigger than that, as Marta Biino, Creator Economy Reporter at Business Insider, shared for this newsletter:
“How do we define the creator economy? We can talk about people who make money with it, even pursuing it as their full-time job. But many more people aspire to be influencers. And even more are building their profile and reach on a platform like LinkedIn. In that definition, the creator economy is much larger than even the research studies show.” – Marta Biino, Creator Economy Reporter, Business Insider
Will we all be creators?
What will happen when work fractionalizes further and side hustles become more important than full-time roles?
When our listing on a talent marketplace like Fiverr or Upwork is a bigger income driver than a steady paycheck?
Given that Gen Z and Millennials are more stressed than ever about their finance, and taking up second jobs is more common than ever, a move towards more of us becoming creators seems nothing but logical.
We already see the gig economy growing rapidly, offering job opportunities, freelance work, and side gigs. Platforms like Uber, Fiverr, and Upwork give workers more control over their working hours.
An estimated 16% of Americans earn money through gig platforms, with some making hundreds of thousands of dollars annually.
In an interview with The Information, Li Jin from Atelier Investments said about a fuller transition to the creator economy that could be upon us:
“Everything will have a creator component to the job. Everyone will have to build influence online because we’re living more of our lives online … All of us will have to adopt some of the skill sets and behaviors of creators to be successful.” – Li Jin, founder of Atelier Investments
Hubspot research supports Li Jin’s thesis, as shared for this article by analyst Maxwell Iskiev:
“Already, 30% of 18-24-year-olds and 40% of 25-34-year-olds consider themselves content creators. These creators don't have massive audiences, most are regular people. When asked how many followers the content creators in our survey had, 84% reported less than 10,000, and 39% reported less than 1,000.” – Maxwell Iskiev, Senior Market Research Analyst, Hubspot
An article on the research quotes Li Jin alongside other creators and creator economy experts.
The consensus is that the term ‘creators” used to refer to those with significant followings or professional productions but now encompasses anyone who shares content on social media, regardless of follower count or production value. This significantly blurs the lines between professional and amateur creators.
And those who aren’t creators yet want to be: 57% of US Gen Zers want to be an influencer, along with 41% of adults from all age groups, according to Morning Consult data.
Already, 39% of creators work on their businesses full-time. In the past year alone, 15% of creators left ”traditional“ 9-to-5 roles to pursue their creator business professionally, according to 2023 ConvertKit research.
Creators Create a Better Future of Work
As I wrote in “Never Again Just One Job. The Rise Of Fractional Work, Gig Economy Jobs, And Talent Marketplaces,” people choosing side hustles, fractional work, gig work, and creator work instead of the traditional 9-to-5, could be a positive movement for several reasons if we want to build a happier future of work:
“Not having someone telling you what to do is a profoundly cherished desire for many, stemming from our deep-rooted need for agency and autonomy at work, having more control over our work and how we do it. Just like a CEO chooses what the company focuses on, which projects to take on, and what your workday looks like, so can people now tailor their workload toward their interests and be meaningfully productive.”
“All humans are unique. And all employees have specific skills and are not perfect substitutes for one another. A single human being today has more power to achieve whatever they want than ever before, which means whatever idea you have, you can now become as big as the corporations of 100 years ago.”
This is why, as Washington Post’s Drew Harwell and Taylor Lorenz write in “Millions work as content creators. In official records, they barely exist,” the creator economy is going mainstream:
“Millions have ditched traditional career paths to work as online creators and content-makers, using their computers and phones to amass followers and build businesses whose influence now rivals the biggest names in entertainment, news and politics. The creator economy, as it’s known, is now a global industry valued at $250 billion, with tens of millions of workers, hundreds of millions of customers and its own trade association and work-credentialing programs.”
(In case the terminology gets confusing: Accenture says influencers motivate followers to take action, while a creator produces original content to entertain, educate, and influence people. Often, a creator is, therefore, also an influencer.)
Creating Means Making Money
The $250 billion doesn’t come out of nowhere – creators are big business.
In 2023, monetization is the main priority for creators. (Even though one of the biggest TikTok stars is taking another route, wishing to marry rich.)
The good news is that 82% of brands have a dedicated budget for influencer marketing, according to research from IMH. This presents an incredible increase from the 37% who claimed they would dedicate a budget in their 2017 survey.
The budgets are driven, according to 2023 Hubspot research, by social media taking the lead for product discovery among Gen Z, Millennials, and Gen X, beating out internet searches. Social is also the channel consumers 18-54 prefer to discover new products on.
The survey shows that 31% of social media users prefer to discover new products on social media through an influencer they follow over any other social format or channel. This shoots up to 43% for Gen Z - making influencer marketing their preferred product discovery channel.
On top of that, 21% of social media users 18-54 have made a purchase based on an influencer’s recommendation in the past 3 months. This also rises to 32% among Gen Z.
According to the Morning Consult report, trust in social media influencers among Gen Zers and millennials rose from 51% in 2019 to 61% in 2023, helping people make such purchase decisions.
People trust people, and logically, the dollars flow accordingly.
And these brand dollars aren’t reserved for the Mr. Beasts of this world alone.
The YouTube partner program, the ‘gold standard’ of ways to make money from content, recently lowered its eligibility requirements. Anyone with 1,000 subscribers and 4,000 hours of content watched can now monetize their videos.
Even coveted brand deals are now reaching a bigger audience. Previously, the highly manual, relationship-based nature of negotiating brand deals meant only top creators could earn brand deal dollars.
It also meant that the market was ripe for a technology-driven breakthrough. Armed with MLMs, Agentio is now building a marketplace for brands to meet creators and vice versa, supporting a ‘middle class’ of creators they may not directly work with brands.
“Creators have highly engaged audiences. However, currently, brands work with creators on an on-off basis and often it takes days or weeks to get deals in place. We thought there needs to be an automated and scalable ad platform to bridge that gap,” Agentio founder Arthur Leopold.
In short, not only are more of us creators, making money with content is more democratized than ever.
Ways to Monetize Your Creations
So how do creators make money, and what does that tell us for a potential future of work where we all become creators?
According to the Goldman Sachs report, “Creators earn income primarily through direct branding deals to pitch products as an influencer; via a share of advertising revenues with the host platform; and through subscriptions, donations and other forms of direct payment from followers.”
The most common and low-barrier-to-entry way to make money, especially on platforms like YouTube and Snapchat, is to enroll in partner programs that share revenue for ads played before, during, and after a creator’s content.
While platforms often take up to half the ad revenue, creators still highly favor these programs since they don’t have to set up their own ad sales team or handle any logistics for collecting revenue from advertisers.
Often, the more valuable the content niche, the higher the rewards. Content categories like finance, business, and technology drive the highest RPMs (revenue per thousand impressions.)
The easiest way to build or affirm brand image is by aligning with other credible brands, and that’s what influencers provide.
Brand deals come in many shapes and sizes, often including an affiliate component (go to XYZ and put in my coupon code for X% off.)
According to Hubspot, ‘Increasing Brand Awareness and Reaching New Audiences” is the primary reason brands work with influencers. And for creators, they are the largest source of income, according to Neoreach and IMH data compiled by Goldman Sachs:
Affiliate marketing lets creators earn a commission by sharing a unique referral link. When a purchase is made through the link, the creator gets a percentage of the revenue, which varies by product and program.
(I deploy some of those on this site. PS: please use Remote to support your remote employees, finally take that Coursera course on leadership, and set up that Notion you always dreamed about 😂)
Especially for content creators specializing in certain topics, selling online courses can be huge.
In an interview with Creator Economy gurus Colin and Samir, Ali Abdaal, a doctor-turned-creator boasting nearly 5 million subscribers, describes how courses are now his top revenue stream.
Ali’s business grew from $120,000 to over a million annually after launching courses. His newest course made him $70,000 in a day and almost half a million dollars overall.
Including parts of brand partnerships and affiliate marketing, social commerce creates the most immediate link between content and commerce.
“Social sellers” stand on a digital soapbox to directly or indirectly promote certain goods or services, taking fixed fees, commissions, or a mix between them as their take.
The success of the social commerce model started in China (more on this below) but is spreading globally, says the World Economic Forum, because “users across markets are simply spending more time with digital media platforms, especially during COVID-19 – when average time spent increased by 12% in the US and 10% in China.”
Direct selling is an age-old model, as people like to buy from others they trust, wrote Robert Cialdini in 1984’s "Influence, The Psychology of Persuasion.”
But instead of buying from the Avon lady, at a Tupperware party, or from home shopping networks such as QVC or HSN, social selling now happens online.
By doing so, creators cut out the middle man and can monetize by leveraging their credibility in a certain category and their direct relationship with their audiences.
Creators don’t just have to sell others’ products – they can sell their own, too. This often works especially well when the product closely aligns with the creator’s image or area of credibility.
Take Michelle Phan, who became the world’s first influencer when she started with beauty product reviews on YouTube in 2007. She later launched the beauty subscription box Ipsy and EM Cosmetics with L’Oreal, now her beauty brand, and is worth an estimated $50 million.
Big celebrities – who often partially built their profile online – have done the same. See, for example, two of the biggest ‘creator brands’: Kyle Jenner’s $1.2 billion dollar cosmetics brand and Kim Kardashian’s $4 billion SKIMS empire.
Modern creators like Mr. Beast (who started a chocolate brand available in every Walmart, 7-Eleven, Target, and Albertsons in the US) and Emma Chamberlain (who launched a direct-to-consumer coffee brand) are quickly following suit.'
But smaller creators also participate in the product bonanza.
Marta Biino’s great article lists examples like Aisha Beau Frisbey, a full-time lifestyle content creator with 36,000 Instagram followers who launched a deck of affirmation cards. Others work with platforms like Influenster, which sends products in exchange for reviews.
A roundup of ways to monetize creator audiences would only be complete by discussing subscriptions.
Platforms like Beehiiv and Substack have built large businesses around allowing casual creators to monetize their content.
And not even always for exclusive access – ’fans’ are often more than happy to contribute to their favorite creators continuing to make money, even without anything directly in return other than the ‘badge value’ of being a patron.
And it’s working out well, with enough fans paying $10 monthly to create a $100 million dollar empire.
Another notable example is Nebula, which can be described as a “Netflix for nerds.” (Yes, I’m a subscriber.) The streaming service offers first-look, ad-free content from popular YouTube creators in categories like science, geography, urban planning (the amazing Not Just Bikes), and history.
As one of its founders reported, Nebula is now a 150-million-dollar platform and company. What’s most impressive is that they did this without VC money and purely by tapping into their existing skills and audiences.
The emerging “Creator Middle Class”
With so many ways to monetize, will we all get stinking rich by simply toggling the ‘paid mode’ on our newsletters?
Not so fast.
Goldman Sachs Research predicts that “only about 4% of global creators are deemed professionals, meaning they pull in more than $100,000 a year, and expects their share of the creator universe to stay steady even as the overall ecosystem expands.”
Still, a ‘creator middle class’ will emerge, says Simon Owens, author of the Simon Owens Media Newsletter:
“There are tens of thousands of creators who have built sustainable businesses, it's just that the exact size of the industry is hard to measure. You'll often see stats like "only 2% of creators generate a livable wage," but that's not a meaningful metric when it takes zero effort to launch a YouTube channel, podcast, or newsletter.” Simon Owens, Media Commentator
Small can even be a good thing:
Companies often prefer micro-influencers with less than 100,000 followers because they appear more authentic, have more engaged audiences, and charge less for partnerships.
They also are easier to work with and give brands a bigger shot at a long-term relationship, according to Hubspot data. As a result, in 2023, 80% of influencer marketers work with smaller creators/influencers with under 100K followers.
Balancing Creative and Commerce
Monetizing can be a tricky subject.
During a FastCompany roundtable, Ahmed Al Nasheet, a Bahraini content creator with 1.2 million TikTok followers, pointed out a common pitfall among creators.
“Most creators make content solely to monetize, which, in my opinion, will be detrimental to them. When the money stops, so does their content, growth, and ability to build a genuine connection with their audience. Content should be created for creativity, and monetization should come later.”
Michelle Phan herself stopped advertising for others’ products on her channel when her business took off. As she told Forbes, she "quickly learned that it wouldn't be sustainable for long since viewers prefer authenticity over ads."
Colin and Samir, initially covering the creator economy and now being famous creators themselves, agree that it’s difficult to balance art and commerce.
Like when Andy Warhol blurred the lines between art and commercialism with his iconic Campbell's Soup Cans and Coca-Cola artworks, creators must find ways to do what they love and make money.
Sometimes, a hybrid solution is fitting:
In a modern-day version of the ‘book advance,’ Substack pays some writers upfront fees to cover their first year in exchange for a higher portion of the subscription revenue.
Doing so allows aspiring creators to start monetizing their content without outside advertisers or having to drum up an audience on a new platform.
Platforms or Products: Who Will Win in Social Commerce?
While creators typically post their content on social platforms like Instagram, where brands spend most of their influencer budgets, new competitors are emerging.
Amazon is making a big push to attract creators and influencers to its platform, centered around the powerful integration of content and commerce.
Combining this with its other initiatives, such as Amazon Affiliates and Amazon Live, the e-commerce giant has become a noteworthy player in the creator economy. Additionally, Amazon is now competing with major social networks for talent.
Fortune reports about Brooke JuLyn, who made a career shift from being a stay-at-home mom to becoming a full-time influencer. Unlike most influencers who use social media platforms like YouTube, TikTok, or Instagram, JuLyn has chosen a different path.
She is creating her online presence as a celebrity on Amazon, a site more commonly known for shopping than likes. JuLyn says her monthly earnings from Amazon commissions, creator tools, and brand deals can range between $5,000 to as much as $50,000.
“Amazon is just so much easier to shop than platforms like Pinterest and Instagram. With [Amazon Inspire], everything is rolled into one where you can just shop right from it,” JuLyn tells Fortune.
Because creators often can credibly speak about products to buy, top influencers bring in over $1 million per year from Amazon commissions.
Other social media networks have recognized the importance of shopping. Recently, YouTube introduced a shopping affiliate program featuring 50 brands, such as Nordstrom and Sephora.
TikTok Shop offers creators ways to make money, including In-Feed Video and LIVE Shopping, a dedicated shop tab on profiles, and even fulfillment services.
Both sides have their advantages.
TikTok and YouTube are among the top traffic platforms that can bring an audience to online and offline products and services that generate income.
Amazon, on the other hand, has a significant advantage in its vast catalog of retail products, covering virtually every category. This could make it difficult for other social media companies to keep up.
Direct Relationships that Beat AI
With AI improving in its ability to deliver high-quality content, how will creators compete?
The answer lies in the direct relationship they have with their audience, one of the hallmarks of successful creators is the
The way Sidemen built up Side+ as not just content but access to the creators is a great example.
Many other creators have thriving Discord servers where their communities interact – often not even with the creators themselves but with each other, like fandoms.
These relationships become critical in the age of AI. After a failed experiment at CNET, AI-generated content continues.
Like in Reviewed, the USA Today site for product reviews, reporters suddenly saw articles they hadn’t seen from authors they didn’t know.
Even traditional media are waking up to this.
The New York Times now encourages its journalists to create "enhanced" biographies for their author pages to build a stronger connection and trust with readers. As more news outlets turn to generative AI for content, the Times aims to highlight the value of human-led reporting.
“In the past, The New York Times has been uncomfortable with its reporters growing their own personal brands — that’s why it banned them from launching personal newsletters without written permission — but now it's recognizing that a personal brand is a form of currency in a world of AI-generated content slop.” – Simon Owens, Media Commentator
A content machine
Perhaps ironically, creators often employ or manage significant amounts of people to produce their content.
The Washington Post article shares about tech reviewer Marques Brownlee, better known as MKBHD. This 29-year-old has almost 4 billion views on YouTube. He runs a professional content production studio with “producers, video editors, a researcher, a creative director, and a cinematographer out of an office in New Jersey.”
Professional content creators now hire teams of specialists to produce and publish content and manage appearances and revenue. Industry-specific jobs like YouTube channel managers and thumbnail artists are now the norm, alongside more roles common in any organization, like legal advisers, trainers, and therapists to manage stress.
YouTube estimated that roughly 390,000 full-time jobs last year were supported by its creators’ work — four times the number of people employed by General Motors, America’s biggest automaker.
This can be seen on talent marketplaces like Upwork, where some of the most in-demand gigs are for creator services: almost 3,000 people are ready to create thumbnails for creators, and 155,422 editing jobs have been posted.
Dr. Kelly Monahan of the Upwork Research Institute shared for this newsletter why freelancers will make it in the future:
“The creator economy favors freelancers. Creators require variety and fresh content. As a freelancer, you can have a one-to-many relationship with brands rather than limit oneself to one entity.” – Kelly Monahan, Managing Director, Research Institute
Indeed, these services perfectly bridge gig work and the creator economy.
In the words of Emmett Shear, the co-founder and former CEO of leading streaming platform Twitch:
“Being a creator is a career path independent of anyone. The gig economy is commodified labor, working for the API. Your job is to follow the computer dispatch. Creators are uncommodified labor – people care which creator they subscribe to. You can’t substitute one creator for another, while you don’t care who delivers you the food or ride.” – former Twitch CEO Emmett Shear
Connecting Content and Commerce: Looking at Asia
The creator, freelance, and gig economies are a global phenomenon, with markets like Brazil, Pakistan, and Ukraine amongst the largest in the world.
But nowhere is the connection between content and commerce stronger than in Asia.
Here, social selling has been mainstream for years, with more than half of Gen Z already having an online side hustle.
In China, more than a quarter of physical goods retail sales were sold online, far above the global average of 18.8 percent.
According to eMarketer, the percentage of online goods sold through social channels will be almost 15% in 2023, almost triple that of the USA, as consumers adopt social commerce on platforms like Tmall, WeChat, and Douyin.
UM China CSO Jocelyn Tse reports in Campaign Asia that China has the largest and most sophisticated creator economy in the world, with an expected market size of $1 trillion by 2025. Livestreaming is popular among Chinese consumers for authentic information and the thrill of getting a good deal.
To grab consumers' attention, creators are always coming up with new ideas and reinventing themselves.
Liang Xiaoqing, a 29-year-old influencer, achieved fame by portraying the character of an A-Yi (elderly aunt), a concept that allowed her to tap into the senior market.
As a result, she was able to endorse products and brands that are specifically designed for the elderly. Ironically, it landed her a spot as an Alexander Wang influencer early last year.
Beyond China, other innovations take place in the region as well.
In an interview with Vertex, one of their investors, TipTip CMO Paulina Purnomowati, said about the connection between content and commerce:
“It’s just our culture; we’re very social, we’d like to meet each other, and we love to eat together. We feel like you cannot just monetize for creators if you don’t engage. We decided to add more and more engagement features, as followers told us, ‘oh, actually, we also want to talk with creators.’”
Back to Business
Most readers will not drop their 9-to-5 to start selling make-up on Instagram or TikTok.
What all this is getting at is that the principles of the creator economy will apply to savvy leaders who want to get the most out of their experience and expertise, whether that’s inside their own company or outside of it.
Cue the “B2B Influencer.” Marta Biino writes in Business Insider: “B2B influencers like CEOs and doctors are seeing a surge in demand from brands for marketing campaigns.”
Speaking on the topic with me for this newsletter, Marta shared:
“LinkedIn has emerged as a growing platform for creators and influencers. But the vast majority on LinkedIn is not an influencer for a living, these people are in a business, using it to share their expertise and build more awareness around their personal brand.” Marta Biino, Creator Economy Reporter, Business Insider
Marta quotes a study from my previous employer, Ogilvy, which found that B2B influencers have become all the rage in influencer marketing, with 75% of B2B businesses already using them in their campaigns and 93% of CMOs planning to increase their usage of B2B influencers.
In their study, Ogilvy describes B2B influencers as those with "credible expertise rooted in proven experience that contributes to professional opinion." They are company founders, C-suite employees at brands, researchers, doctors, and academics. B2C creators, instead, are more trendsetters and tastemakers.
Benefits of using B2B influencers, according to the Ogilvy research, includes increased awareness of brands, increased sales or ROI, new leads of higher quality, higher engagement, and even improved product.
One B2B creator I’ve featured before is Dave Cairns, one of our 55 Future of Work Influencers.
A real estate expert for CBRE, his influence isn’t restricted to his company and clients. Nor is it limited by geography or even the topic of real estate, as he’s led discussions on anything from parenting to the metaverse.
And it seems to be working out well for him: a deeply engaged audience of peers, connections that would have been impossible without the reach of a global social network, and new opportunities – business and otherwise.
Dave shared with me that this puts everything into question – but that having a voice is paramount:
“As creators, our voice is like time; it’s always in motion. But the companies we work for often move at a different “clock speed.” Does this mean we shouldn’t work there anymore? Possibly. But it’s complicated. To create is to have a brand, and to have a brand is to dictate the future of one’s career. And in a noisy world of work, employees can’t afford not to have one. Employers can win if they realize the opportunities are greater than the risks.” – Dave Cairns
We’re at a perfect time to consider leveling up your creator game.
The past years have seen a huge surge and then a maturing of the creator industry.
As Marta Biino shared with me, we're past the hype cycle of when TikTok was booming during the pandemic, creating a huge influx of people that build a business on social media and quit their jobs:
“We’re at an inflection point where creators need to be dedicated and intentional. Especially if you want to do it full-time, you must approach it as a business and a job, whether entertainment or education. More people are approaching it as a side hustle, a way to express themselves or to promote their business, and that is where the creator middle class is really interesting.” – Marta Biino, Creator Economy Reporter, Business Insider
In that context, I want to revisit Li Jin’s quote:
“Everything will have a creator component to the job. Everyone will have to build influence online because we’re living more of our lives online.”
With the traditional 9-to-5 on its last legs, expanding potential side hustles you already have and taking on more content creator qualities makes sense.
How you profile yourself online matters – whether on LinkedIn or talent marketplaces like Upwork and Fiverr.
Monetize your unique expertise and experience, network, and influence – whether it’s to internal stakeholders or new online audiences.
Embrace your creativity. Leverage it. No longer confined to a cubicle, you can explore, innovate, and create.
Remember, followers don't write the future. The creators do.
So, what will you create today?
See you next week,