#4 - How does the Creator Economy work? (Part II: Fans)

How well do you understand fandom? Secrets of fans👇

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Hello readers! This is the second of a 3-part series about how the creator economy works. The goal is to help you succeed as a creator, fan, brand or platform operator by understanding the ecosystem. Here are Part I: Creators and Part III: Platforms.

In today’s edition, you’ll learn how fans find and consume content, why they become and stay fans, and the value of Super Fans.

If you take nothing else away, remember these principles.

Principle #1: Fans seek to maximize entertainment & information within spending limits.

Principle #2: Engaged fans are motivated by status (special badges, shoutouts), extrinsic rewards (access, perks), intrinsic rewards (contribution, learning), and belonging.

Consumer choice is infinite, and growing

Over the past century, creation and distribution technologies improved by many orders of magnitude. With these improvements, the effort to produce content decreased significantly.

This means people who were previously encumbered by the difficulty of content creation can now create with relative ease. As a result, the volume of content increased dramatically. Meanwhile, people’s attention remained mostly constant.

Today, more content is created than can ever be consumed — 500 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute.🤯

Practically, the overabundance of content means 1) most content never gets seen, and 2) consumers have to be extremely picky, spending their time on only the best content to reach their desired goal (principle #1). If a few swipes and clicks yield nothing that captures their attention, it’s onto the next app. So it’s no surprise that content networks spend hundreds of millions of dollars each year refining their discovery mechanisms (the algorithm!) to connect consumers with the content most likely to be interesting and relevant to them.

To understand how fans allocate limited time for content, it’s useful to breakdown the different ways people interact with content (note: omitting analysis of devices).

How fans find and consume content

Browse vs. Search discovery

In early Web 2.0, content discovery paths largely centered around “search” behaviors (see: Google, Yahoo!). While search will always remain a part of high intent user journeys, the tools people use in the future are up for debate. For many of us, Google is synonymous with search, but in developing countries such as India, which leap frogged into the mobile / video era, YouTube is shaping up as the default search engine. Similarly, when consumer are focused on a specific need such as ecommerce, 54% now beginning their search journey directly on Amazon.

Over the past 15 years, sites such as Instagram, YouTube, and Facebook have become the go-to entertainment destination for billions of people worldwide, and these sites alone account for more than 3 hours of users’ lives each day.

On these content aggregators, while users can search for people, places, and things, search is not the primary use case. Today, over 70% of YouTube’s watch time is driven by recommendations — videos that are surfaced to you without you seeking them out. On content networks, people’s primary content discovery path is increasingly through recommendation systems in a “browse” context.

Planned vs. Downtime consumption

To understand how to get consumer attention, it’s helpful to know how content fits into people’s lives. One approach is to look at the modes for consumption:

  • Downtime Consumption: Small blocks of time between focus activities (waiting in line, commuting on a Lyft/Uber, minutes before a meeting).

  • Planned Consumption: Large blocks of time intentionally dedicated to content (movie night, attending a concert, binging the new season on Netflix).

Different formats fit better into the respective consumption modes. This guides the strategy for how creators and platforms think about the competitive ecosystem to reach potential consumers. For example: IG may want more downtime consumption, so daily sessions per user serves as a proxy. Netflix may want more planned consumption, so people’s average session length serves as a proxy.

This is not to say that one is better than the other, they’re simply different. A two hour show can grip you in a deeply emotional way, and make you feel connected to the plot and characters. A 15 second Tik Tok video can make you squirt milk out of your nose.

Active vs. Passive consumption

Content can be participatory or a one-way broadcast. Depending on context, people may want to veg out to re-runs of The Office or Friends, or be a part of the action.

There’s a certain magic when your input can change the content itself. The earliest incarnations of interactive content were video games and Choose Your Own Adventure books. This magic is alive and well with digital content, and Netflix’s Bandersnatch exemplifies a modern reboot of this concept, where a video-on-demand touts replaybility by allowing viewer decisions to change the story outcome.

Technology improvements have also made it possible to interact with Live content so that by participating, you can:

  1. Influence content direction in real-time

  2. Have a stake in an uncertain outcome of an event

  3. Elicit a reaction from the creator and the community

Twitch took polls a step further with Predictions, letting creator set up guessing games where viewers can bet on outcomes with their “Channel Points”.

Live, interactive content is at the forefront of active consumption. Whether you’re watching a live stream on YouTube / Twitch, or listening to a live talk on Clubhouse / Twitter Spaces, the opportunity to participate is half the fun.

The roar of the crowd is core to the experience of attending a concert or sports game. Likewise, communal participation is core to the experience of consuming live content.

Foreground vs. Ambient consumption

Some content requires people to pay full attention to get its value (DIY instructions), other content delivers the desired outcome by simply being in the background (low-fi).

Lean-forward consumption commands more of person’s full attention in a given moment. Not only is this important to creators and platforms, but it is also valuable for advertisers and brands.

Content that works better as background consumption garners less than full attention, but is valuable in the flexible, ever present way that it fits into people’s lives. Take music as an example:

  • Music accompanies us as we get ready in the morning, on our commute, while we work, during a workout, and when we get home. It can literally be around us all day, in most contexts where our primary focus is on some other activity.

  • Music can be played on speakers, phones, cars, laptops, wearables, TVs, consoles, and home assistants. What other content can fit into more devices that we use?

As you can tell, the modalities of discovery and consumption vary greatly, and how content is valued ultimately depends on the consumer and the context. Among context dimensions, the reason why people are consuming content is often key.

Why people seek out content and creators

Sometimes, finding entertainment through content is the end goal. In other cases, the content serves as a passage to another target. And no, not Netflix and Chill.😏

As an example, a consumer shopping for object X consumes content to gather info, explore options, and look around the corner by checking product reviews from those who already bought and used X. In this scenario, content is a mere aid in building confidence, expanding / reducing optionality of products, and making the decision to complete the purchase.

Another growing trend is how consumers use content to learn complicated subjects (physics) or simple tasks (fixing drywall). People increasingly turn from textbooks to content creators, whom they trust. A lot. 40% of millennials in one study believed YouTubers understand them better than family and friends, so it’s no surprise that people turn to creators for wisdom, and as trustworthy recommenders for food, products, and even other creators.

People’s faith in creators is demonstrative of where how trust is changing in the world. No longer do consumers default to big brands with big marketing budgets. Instead, their faith lies with creators, whom they form bonds with through content and community. In response, brands are relying more on creators as a medium of building brand awareness, consideration, and favorability with consumers.

Additionally, smart and agile platforms adapted their focus toward the needs of creators. In the education vertical, Teachable and LearnWorlds flipped the script on the traditional MOOCs model that monetized from universities, and instead aligned their business strategy to optimize for course-creator success.

Similar changes are taking place in numerous content verticals, and this is undeniably a driving force accelerating the shift from the solely ad-based Attention Economy to the more individual-empowering Creator Economy.

This has major implications for the way creators build their business, which now centers less on making content for a platform, and more on building a relationship with customers. This is crucial because people don’t become fans of content, people become fans of people. But why do they?

Why people become fans of creators

Admiration

As consumers, we become attracted to creators because creators represent characteristics that we aspire to. Creators exemplify the creative, smart, and funny person we want be. Above all that, the best creators are authentic and relatable, making us feel like we know them and vice versa.

Connection

Since the beginning of fandom in the 1800s with the first creators (writers, composers, and actors), people who were interested in the creators behind the content wanted a deeper, more personal connection to the people on stage.

Although content has shifted to be more digital, the desire for personal connection remains. Para-social relationships between creators and consumers are definitively one sided, but creators have the ability to shower engaged consumers with attention through interaction at scale.

Their time is perceived as scarce, so even light weight interactions — a like, a “thanks” — make us feel connected and giddy with excitement.

Creators and publishers are aware of this super power — A Google search for “why you should reply to every comment” yields 458 million results.

However, these light touch points often aren’t enough for fans who crave more visibility into creators’ lives, off-stage / behind the scenes, through direct interaction.

Community

A group of that shares the same adoration of a creator is the final puzzle piece that converts consumers into fans. When people congregate habitually, and stoke fandom in each other, that is the beginning of a community.

Communities need a home, a consistent hangout spot that members can count on to mingle with their own. Discord is a popular choice for this, see the reasons here. Once a home is built and connections are formed through shared experiences, content, and engagement, creators have more opportunities to deepen relationships, deliver status / recognition to fans, and create an environment where people feel they belong.

As principle #2 states, engaged fans seek belonging. This is a fundamental human need, and matters in the digital world as much as in the physical world. But how do you build cultures and environments that elicit the feeling of belonging?

How to create belonging

Names have power

When a live gaming creator nonchalantly says “Chat, what do you think?”, messages instantly flood in. Being referred to as a recognizable collective signals that you are part of a broader community, which brings a strong sense of belonging.

The Beatles were early pioneers of this, labeling fans Beatlemaniacs. Today, the tradition lives on in many tribes from large artists (Lady Gaga’s Little Monsters, BTS A.R.M.Y.), to content creators, to fandoms across many interest topics.

Having a name helps people identify as part of a group, and being addressed by that name motivates people to participate.

Shared lexicon

A common language indicates that people are part of the same group. This is as true for spoken tongue as it is for writing, slang, and even emojis. Communities create their own set of symbols that hold unique meaning, and using this set of symbols invokes bonds between members by reinforcing the fact that they share beliefs, experiences, and cultural customs.

This is the reason custom emojis are such a simple but effective agent for establishing community in group spaces across Slack, Twitch, and Discord.

Rituals

Meaningful, repeated activities that feel like “play” to the group are part of the core engagement loop for any long lasting community. Not all activities are winners, but what’s important is doing various things together, and paying attention to ones people really enjoy. As pointed out in Get Together:

“Get people together for shared activity. Make it purposeful and participatory. If people are hungry for more, repeat! If not, go back to the drawing board.”

Implicit context

Have you ever played Taboo with best friends who seem telepathically connected? Or seen a group burst into laughter at a phrase that holds zero humor to anyone else? Like strong friendships, strong community manifests through implicit context. Implicit context is built up through spending lots of time together living shared experiences. There is no shortcut here.

Through shared history, inside jokes and community memes emerge from implicit references to specific moments. The mental connection between implicit context and the punchline amplifies the entertainment value of inside jokes.

The “set up” on an inside joke is never spelled out, because it’s buried inside the vault of shared experiences within a community. You either get it or you don’t. And if you don’t, you weren’t meant to.

What makes a Super Fan?

Along their journeys, creators may find themselves cultivating devoted Super Fans (If you want to know how, make sure to subscribe for a future edition on this topic). After chatting with many creators about their experience with Super Fans, I’ve categorized three general types of Super Fans.

Chatters. Chatters consistently engage in conversation with creators every chance they get. They like every post. They comment on every video. They reply to every tweet. They show up to every meet up. They tune-in to every live stream. They know your top 3 most viewed Clips, because they were the ones who clipped it.

Workers. Workers contribute through organizing, moderating, and evangelizing. They do fan labor out of love: Fan art, song covers, grassroots events, fan fictions, cosplays. Workers do a ton of heavy lifting as a creator’s following grows, and their contribution results in a vibrant environment where other community members can thrive.

Backers. Backers show support with cold hard cash. You might assume this means Backers have much more disposable income than Chatters, but in many cases you’d be wrong. Some Backers just derive more value from recognition and feelings of contribution… at times to a fault:

“One [viewer] estimates she’ll spend around $800 dollars buying [virtual goods for the creator], $200 more than her monthly income.” - People’s Republic of Desire

Backers make it possible for creators to monetize their attention even at small scale, because their demand for the creator’s attention and content is price inelastic. This means when creators charge more for their content and time, Backers’ propensity to purchase stays nearly the same. This is the reason why 1,000 true fans, or even 100, can support a creator’s lifestyle.

Setting aside unhealthy spending and unrealistic para-social expectations, Super Fans are the lifeblood of creator communities. They kickstart conversations, do work (sharing content, inviting people, moderating), and pay the bills. Creators can go full-time and disintermediate themselves because Super Fans exist.

Bringing it together

As the creator economy flourishes, more content will be published than ever before. To get their desired outcomes with limited time, consumers will continue to direct attention to content that’s relevant for them across various contexts.

The different modalities of discovery (search vs. browse) and consumption (planned vs. downtime, active vs. passive, foreground vs. ambient) determine how consumers will engage with content. Why people seek content also plays an important role in each instance of content consumption.

People no longer only look to creators for entertainment, but also as trusted advisors for shopping decisions, mastering skills, and even forming habits. This is changing the power dynamic with brands / platforms in favor of creators.

Through admiration, connection, and community, consumers turn into fans. Savvy creators deepen fan relationships by establishing a community home, where they can sow the seeds of “belonging”. Creators create belonging by tapping into tools such as names, shared lexicon, rituals, and implicit context.

Super Fans will stand out as pillars of support for many creators. Chatters, Workers, and Backers contribute to creator success in crucial ways. Creators must identify and nurture Super Fandom to take their business to the next level.

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