2023 Is the Year Marketers Will Understand, Measure and Buy Into the Creator Economy

Creators are making moves, and it's time the industry goes with them

Between the speedy rise of TikTok, the expansion of Instagram and the proliferation of rising social media platforms in the wake of Twitter’s continued chaos, it really has never been easier for brands to directly connect with consumers.

Creators are a massive reason why this kind of connection is even possible, leading brands directly to today’s most fervent group of shoppers while helping them maintain cultural relevancy. In return, many creators are hoping to drift away from the transactional, one-off paid projects in exchange for more collaborative, lasting partnerships that help them grow their own personal brands.

Enter the creator economy, the current era of media where individual creativity is not only a viable source of revenue but also an increasingly necessary bridge between brands and new audiences. As of 2022, upward of 50 million people contributed to the global creator economy, which is estimated to be worth $104 billion.

In addition to this media shift, advertising is also facing yet another moment of reevaluation as economic uncertainty throws the state of select aspects of creative production—like partnering with talent, for starters—into question.

“The power of creators right now is really about their connections with their communities,” said Jamie Gutfreund, CMO of creator commerce company Whalar. “And I think this is one of the big things for 2023 that brands are going to have to really understand.”

As creators engage more frequently with today’s advertising, marketers hoping to remain in step with modern-day consumer culture will have to understand how this new era of media works and develop actual strategies that sustain everyone. More importantly, they’ll have to treat these partnerships as the worthwhile investments they are instead of last-minute, cost-effective campaign add-ons.

Get to know it well

As the creator economy becomes a larger industry talking point, understanding what the concept isn’t will become just as important as understanding what it is.

“I think the marketing industry is still of the perception that creator economy and influencer marketing are the same thing,” said Travis Montaque, Group Black CEO and founder of creator network Crater. “Influencer marketing is one genre of creator marketing opportunities. Therefore, they should be really engaged in trying to understand the broader spectrum of marketing opportunities as it pertains to creators.”

Simply put, the creator economy is not interchangeable with influencer or affiliate marketing. Rather, it is an ecosystem that allows creators to make significant revenue through myriad tools and creative offerings, such as long-standing brand partnerships, sponsored content and tipping. Each piece of content or branded opportunity allows the creator to steadily cement their own personal brand or business, further establishing them as burgeoning entrepreneurs.

Brands have an opportunity to fully engage with (and inherently benefit from) the creator economy through thoughtful, diversified partnerships. But marketers can’t begin to do so if they limit their engagement to one-off, surface-level projects. Marketers must consider creators as collaborators from the earliest moments of development to the final piece of creative.

“People think of [creator marketing] as a performance media tool or a conversion tool,” Gutfreund said. “They completely think of it as lower funnel. It’s full funnel.”

Worth the spend

While influencers with large followings have long pulled the attention of brands seeking larger audiences, this new creator-led era of media really emphasizes the full arsenal of skills that highly visible creators possess, many of which translate into effective marketing and brand-building capabilities. Brands that only look to them for the occasional sponsored post are selling themselves short.

“Creators are the new startups, and their product suite is getting larger,” said Montaque, who pointed to branded content and commerce as areas where creators can have a major impact. “They can promote, co-brand and drop products with you.”

Mainstream brands like Logitech and McDonald’s have already demonstrated a proficiency in this approach through platforms like the tech brand’s Defy Logic work, which featured indie musicians-turned-stars Lil Nas X and Lizzo, and sweeping campaigns like McDonald’s sold-out Cactus Plant Flea Market meal, which boosted overall sales.

Both efforts put collaborating with creators directly at the core of their outreach strategies. In turn, the partnerships aligned each brand with some of the biggest drivers of modern-day pop culture.

But creators don’t have to become international superstars to be highly valuable to marketers. Gutfreund noted that even smaller scale creators can serve as gateways to “invisible communities,” or ostensibly niche audiences that aren’t immediately viewable to the everyday marketer.

Beauty and fashion, for instance, appeal to a large consumer base. But a smaller group of enthusiastic, less knowledgable users might connect with a very specific subset of popular creators dedicated to educating followers and introducing them to up-and-coming designers. Those creators can lead fashion marketers to new consumers even when the algorithm favors more well-known luxury brands and influencers.

“It’s almost like having an entire channel that you cannot access because it’s behind the velvet rope of marketing,” Gutfreund said. “And if you don’t work with creators, you’re fighting with one hand tied behind your back.”

Success by any measure

As the industry begins to grasp the creator economy as media evolves, what is the next priority for marketers?

According to Gutfreund, that’s measurement, which has been a long-standing pain point for marketers. “Really getting the marketing community to focus on creators as media. Measurement is critical,” she added.

While other forms of paid media can turn to an array of metrics to mark progress, the industry has mostly relied on earned media value as a tool to measure the effectiveness of creators, which only provides a limited evaluation of a creator’s content. Other forms of measurement, such as click attribution modeling, rarely credit the creator for any positive brand impact.

To change this, Whalar collaborated with third-party platforms Element Human, GWI, NetBase Quid, Nielsen, Tubular Labs and VidMob to develop full-funnel measurement solutions that allow marketers to more accurately assess and scale creator-led campaigns in ways that evaluate the actual content. The new suite of solutions repurposes existing tools to help advertisers identify the value of the creator-led work, brand equity, KPIs, sales volume and proper optimization in order to create more efficient media plans.

Gaz Alushi, Whalar’s president of measurement and analytics, emphasized that this system isn’t based on new math. In fact, it’s based on the ANA’s guidelines for evaluating awareness, consideration and conversion.

“It’s important for marketers to understand this is not necessarily a wildly new solution,” Alushi said. “This is meant to be multiple solutions combined so they can measure the creator economy the same way they’re measuring all of their other media activations.”

Accurate measurement also benefits the creator looking to gain quantifiable insights on what attracts and motivates their communities, which can allow for collaborating with marketers to develop a more informed content strategy.

Ultimately, measurement is a crucial component in helping still-skeptical marketers buy into the idea of the creator economy, especially during a time when the precarious economy has them proceeding with more caution than usual.

“If it’s not measurable in a tight economic climate, it’s not gonna happen,” Alushi said. “If you can’t go back as a brand manager or media planner and say, ‘This is what we got from doing this creator activation,’ it might as well not have happened.”

Q&A With Creator David Suh

Guided by a mission to encourage confidence and self-love through photography, creator and business owner David Suh has cultivated a digital community of more than 5 million followers on TikTok and Instagram. As he continues to simultaneously build his LA-based studio and his own personal brand, the photographer reflects on how brands can build sustainable relationships in the creator economy.

What is the biggest challenge when toggling between these two very different mindsets, CEO versus creator?

I had the opportunity to chat with [Jubilee Media CEO Jason Y. Lee] because I knew I needed more help within the business, internally. I was like, “Do I hire my first specialist? Do I hire my first strategist?” It’s just crazy to me that I have to think through those issues when it still seems like last month I was trying to keep myself afloat. I think a lot of owners go through this; they have a hard time letting go of certain things and delegating at first.

In terms of  partnerships, what is your core guiding principle when connecting with these brands?

When I started getting sponsors, I didn’t need to quickly jump onto any sponsorships because I had my [photography] business. I’ve learned to understand my value after having to price myself and communicate that value to my clients. Since then, it’s been about [whether they are] even willing to pay enough. As I’ve gotten bigger, [it has mattered] beyond just the pricing of things; it’s also about the brand fit. I try to stay away from anything that’s too wordy about the product.

What do creators need from brands in this current iteration of the creator economy?

That’s the beauty of the creator economy—how it’s evolving. A lot of creators are now treating their platforms like businesses. Can [brands] create a product that is meaningful to their audience? Can they foster a community that tells them what kind of products or services that they want? What I would like to see from brands is more willingness to work within the creativity of the content creator. That freedom to create is why we’ve [made it this far]. The one thing we’re really good at is being able to foster that community, and we know that audience. So, some more leeway to tie their product into our content would be great. I’m looking forward to more long-term ambassadorships. It’s not fair for me to say on a one-off contract, “Give me all the freedom,” right? They have their needs, but I feel like we can meet in the middle if [brands] give us time to really get to know the product, which also means we can create more genuine stuff.

Q&A With Creator David Suh

Guided by a mission to encourage confidence and self-love through photography, creator and business owner David Suh has cultivated a digital community of more than 5 million followers on TikTok and Instagram. As he continues to simultaneously build his LA-based studio and his own personal brand, the photographer reflects on how brands can build sustainable relationships in the creator economy.

What is the biggest challenge when toggling between these two very different mindsets, CEO versus creator?

I had the opportunity to chat with [Jubilee Media CEO Jason Y. Lee] because I knew I needed more help within the business, internally. I was like, “Do I hire my first specialist? Do I hire my first strategist?” It’s just crazy to me that I have to think through those issues when it still seems like last month I was trying to keep myself afloat. I think a lot of owners go through this; they have a hard time letting go of certain things and delegating at first.

In terms of  partnerships, what is your core guiding principle when connecting with these brands?

When I started getting sponsors, I didn’t need to quickly jump onto any sponsorships because I had my [photography] business. I’ve learned to understand my value after having to price myself and communicate that value to my clients. Since then, it’s been about [whether they are] even willing to pay enough. As I’ve gotten bigger, [it has mattered] beyond just the pricing of things; it’s also about the brand fit. I try to stay away from anything that’s too wordy about the product.

What do creators need from brands in this current iteration of the creator economy?

That’s the beauty of the creator economy—how it’s evolving. A lot of creators are now treating their platforms like businesses. Can [brands] create a product that is meaningful to their audience? Can they foster a community that tells them what kind of products or services that they want? What I would like to see from brands is more willingness to work within the creativity of the content creator. That freedom to create is why we’ve [made it this far]. The one thing we’re really good at is being able to foster that community, and we know that audience. So, some more leeway to tie their product into our content would be great. I’m looking forward to more long-term ambassadorships. It’s not fair for me to say on a one-off contract, “Give me all the freedom,” right? They have their needs, but I feel like we can meet in the middle if [brands] give us time to really get to know the product, which also means we can create more genuine stuff.