It’s late June in Southern California, and I find myself sitting in a brightly lit room at the Anaheim Convention Center waiting for Devin Graham—also known as devinsupertramp—to enter the room for one of his multiple sessions on the schedule. I am joined by tens of thousands of fans, creators and industry people from all over the world at a little event called VidCon.
This was my first year at VidCon, and some of the surreal staples that have made the conference famous are definitely still there—hundreds of screaming teens trying to take selfies with another teen you don’t recognize (but certainly is famous), brands trying their best to be engaging on the show floor, and new social platforms that promise to be the next big thing: check, check and check. Cynical observations aside, VidCon offers marketers and brands an incredibly valuable opportunity to get a snapshot of what is culturally relevant to their most sought-after audiences and the creators who delight them.
This brings us back to Devin, now a world-renowned extreme sport and stunt filmmaker with more than 4 million YouTube subscribers and 790 million views. Chances are that you have seen his videos at one point or another—the world’s largest rope swing, water hoverboards, and zipline BASE jumping from skyscrapers in Panama City. This Q&A session with Devin is, however, quite different and unexpected: it’s part of the one-year-old Creator Track.
This relatively new side of VidCon includes programming and community-building events designed to building connections and sharing knowledge and advice among like-minded creators. Front and center of most of these sessions are top personalities like Devin—all sharing experiences, best practices, technology tips, predictions on upcoming platform changes, and even revenue strategies. In 2016, being a successful creator not only means having a career, but it also means having a brand—and running an enterprise.
Creators are now Creators™
Listening to Devin Graham speak about his work without the context of where he comes from, would make any marketer safely assume that he is talking about a brand. He doesn’t talk about his work as “content” or a “channel,” but instead he explains how most of his time (and his team’s) is centered around telling stories that connect with his audience and build community. He goes on to share his thoughts on how driving tech innovation and pushing the limits of what has been done are simply new ways to tell those stories. This is exactly the way brands see themselves, and clearly Devin and other creators like him have transcended the “YouTube star” label and belong more to the pages of Adweek.
As marketers, we need to start seeing what we traditionally called influencer relations more and more like brand partnerships. Instead of asking “how can my product integrate with this creator in an authentic way?” we must ask “how is my brand aligned with this creator’s brand?” This shift in expectations certainly elevates the partnership and it is the type of relationship that creators like Devin and others are looking for.
Competition in this space is fierce, and top creator brands like Devin’s are looking for partners that can help them continue innovating and delighting their audiences. However, this shift also represents a renewed emphasis on understanding and advocating for their communities, which means that choosing the right partnerships is as important as it’s ever been.
Creators are now Creators Inc.
Some of these creators have not only developed into their own brands, but have gone as far as developing their own content networks (see Michelle Phan, recently highlighted in Ogilvy’s Red Papers), building their own product lines (see Olga Kay’s Mooshwalks), and developing their own mainstream projects (see Miranda Sings’ Haters Back Off on Netflix). More and more creators suddenly have found themselves running legitimate, high-performing businesses with teams of people supporting them. In other words, we are increasingly living in a world where brands may need top creators more than creators need them. Of course, the number of personalities that have been able to build up such projects and enterprises is still relatively low—but that entrepreneurial mindset resonates with every aspiring and emerging creator out there.
For brands, this means our approach and understanding of the incentives that drive creators needs to mature from a business perspective, just like they did. Marketers should think about ways in which brands can bring something truly valuable to the creator negotiating table. Perhaps there are opportunities to become behind-the-scenes partners with creators, which could mean less exposure but result in longer-term relationships. We must ask ourselves: what are our brand’s core competencies that can help a creator achieve something he or she has been working towards for a long time? How can we act as the accelerator to a sought-after initiative or effort that has been previously unfeasible before?
Creators also have begun to evolve into tech and media companies that innovate, and find innovative ways to make money. Devin Graham is always pushing for shooting videos in the latest, highest-resolution equipment available—not because it’s cool, but because it is a sound investment. His production company produces ultra-high-resolution footage and sells the rights to other companies for TV commercials, 4K TV demos and more.
The highly competitive landscape and declining trend in video monetization in certain platforms has pushed creators to become analytics and platform experts. Some creators have dedicated staff monitoring content performance, engagement and audience reach in order to optimize their channels. These teams in some ways operate as media start-ups and understand the importance of pushing for fresh, innovative ways to connect with their audiences or risk losing views and engagement to the universe of content out there.
This trend has also made creators diversify and customize content across more platforms than ever before. Top creators are beginning to take a programmatic strategy to content, exploring new and old platforms. For example, Snapchat celebrity Shonduras began focusing on his YouTube and Facebook channels recently, producing more consistent long-form pieces to complement his signature content (the opposite of what most creators do). Others like Hailey Knox are focused on live streaming networks like YouNow in an effort to jump in early and build their communities there. Devin Graham also has begun to program episodic and behind the scenes content published across Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat in addition to YouTube, each platform with different objectives and engagement targets.
The biggest takeaway is that this space is a fluid, dynamic environment and as marketers, we must establish sustainable organizational models that are agile enough not only to keep up but to help shape and direct the next best thing. We must embrace the fact that these creators are becoming far more business and brand savvy than ever before, and need to be ready to match that.