If social media platforms want to survive, they must seriously invest in getting creators paid.
That’s according to Ricky Ray Butler, CEO of influencer marketing company BEN. Since 2007, BEN has used artificial intelligence networks to help creators monetize their presence on digital platforms by making sponsored content with the brands best suited to their content. The majority of BEN’s brand/creator partnerships produce what the agency calls “non-disruptive integrations,” where a brand’s products are included in the sort of videos or posts a creator already makes.
While BEN has been tapped into this sector of the creator economy for 14 years, digital platforms are just beginning to catch on. In mid-2020, shortform sensation TikTok launched a creator marketplace where brands can browse thousands of TikTok users vetted by the platform and select the ones they want to work with.
And, in the past month, two other major platforms have followed suit: Instagram and Snapchat are each launching their own marketplaces, both similarly aimed at matching creators with brands for potentially lucrative sponsorship deals (from which Instagram and Snapchat will presumably take a matcher’s fee).
The spate of marketplace launches are a sign that social media companies understand they must prioritize paying the creators who generate their content and pull users to their sites, Butler says. (It’s worth noting that all three platforms have also debuted multiple other creator monetization features in recent months, and TikTok and Snapchat are pouring millions into funds that pay top creators for their work.)
But though platforms appear to be establishing creator marketplaces as quickly as possibly, they’re playing catch-up to influencer marketing companies that have been doing this for years. BEN has a leg up thanks to its lengthy lead time in the industry and its data-crunching algorithms, it says.
We sat down with Butler to talk about how the digital ecosystem is shifting, why BEN is still in the lead, what else platforms need to do to support creators, and what two things he thinks are the future of the creator economy.
Tubefilter: You’ve been in this industry for a long time. What’s the biggest change the creator economy has undergone in the past couple of years?
Ricky Ray Butler: The trajectory of the creator economy has been remarkable. When social media platforms first emerged, creators were a small portion of the user base, and were regular people building followings from their passions for specific subjects and activities.
At the beginning of my career in influencer marketing, I only knew of a small handful of creators on YouTube with more than one million subscribers. Nowadays, I can’t even count how many have achieved that number.We then saw the rise of influencer marketing, which enabled creators to not only drive ad revenue for brands, but also power user acquisition for platforms.
In the past few years, we’ve seen that creators are actually what make social platforms successful, and companies like Instagram, TikTok, and Twitch have started to prioritize striking exclusivity deals with top creators to draw engagement. Other platforms, like Patreon and Ko-fi, are even giving fans a way to pay creators directly, incentivising more creators to join. With this, we are also seeing a growing number of platforms, with content continuing to decentralize into niche channels, and audiences following their favorite stars to new apps and websites. This decentralization is accelerating the growth of new platforms, creators, and content faster than any time in the last 15 years.
A BEN-facilitated collaboration between YouTube trick shot group Dude Perfect (56 million subscribers) and battle royale video game Apex Legends.
Tubefilter: One trend we’ve been tracking is the growing emphasis—both from platforms and creators—on monetization. In what ways are you seeing that shift, and why do you think it’s happening?
RRB: Creators aren’t just the foundation of social media—their participation is a requirement for platform success. For example, 82% of YouTube views are earned from videos published by creators, not brands or media companies. This demonstrates how critical it is for platforms to attract new creators and encourage the community to continue producing content. To make this relationship sustainable for these individuals, platforms must find ways to compensate creators for their hard work and the audiences that they draw to the platform.
For many creators today, content creation is a full-time job. The mutual benefits and needs of creators and platforms has led to an increase in innovative monetization methods. These strides in the industry have improved creators’ ability to dedicate their time and energy to content creation, generating higher-quality content and ultimately drawing more users to social platforms.
The speed at which creator monetization models have become standard is also a function of social media competition. A social media company cannot be successful without creators, the content they produce, and the audiences they attract. As a result, platforms have started improving their monetization models and promoted them as an incentive to draw in creators. Simply put, if one platform is making it simple and intuitive to monetize content, creators will gravitate towards using that platform. That, in turn, puts more pressure on other platforms to offer competitive features. It’s something we are seeing with Instagram, which has recently announced a slew of new tools to help creators monetize, including digital shops and a branded content marketplace. Snapchat also plans to launch its own creator marketplace, scheduled to debut in 2022.
Until now, many platforms have launched with a primary focus on driving their own growth. With creators rapidly gaining power in the social media space, and considering the loyalty they inspire in audiences, I think we’ll see a shift to platforms focusing on monetization, allowing them to better serve influencers and the creator economy.
Tubefilter: What’s your take on the platforms establishing their own Creator Marketplaces? TikTok has one and, as you mentioned, Instagram and Snapchat recently announced similar products. How does this affect the agency world?
RRB: The creator marketplaces these social media companies are launching are symbolic of their desire to start incentivizing creators to utilize their platforms more, especially as niche competitors rise. It’s important to note that few of these platforms are generating significant revenue from their sponsorship marketplaces. That’s because they haven’t correctly leveraged their data and technology to build a scalable platform for influencer marketing.
In order to get there, platforms will need to reprioritize how they build and adjust their algorithms. It’s a lot more nuanced than simply optimizing a single metric such as watch time—algorithms have to drive impact and value for both brands and creators, while capturing audience attention. We’ve spent over a decade perfecting the process of creating that kind of consensus at BEN, and it’s not easily replicated.
Beyond the technical details, the biggest hurdle that platforms will face is being able to effectively keep up with the ever-changing nature of influencer content and audience preferences. Major platforms have fallen into the trap of reacting to industry trends late, and in that time, agencies like BEN are building AI and ML systems that scale and learn at lightspeed. By the time the social media companies catch up, the product that they’ve built is behind the curve, as evidenced by the hundreds of now-defunct platforms that have come and gone over the years. These new marketplaces are important validation for the influencer marketing industry at large, but they aren’t a threat to the agency world—especially considering platform-specific marketplaces will not offer the level of cross-channel reach that brands are looking for and that only agencies can offer.
Tubefilter: What does the increase in opportunities for creator monetization say about the role of the influencers in our society?
RRB: I think it speaks to the growing impact that creators have on our preferences, behaviors, and actions. We have entered the golden age of creators—not only do we have countless influencers already developing popular, impressive content, but the number of creators continues to increase every day.
We are also finding that creator loyalty is continuing to grow. While we at BEN Group have always recognized the influence and impact of creators and worked hard to support their careers, we think that broadly, more people are beginning to realize the value that creators bring to society. For instance, they’re having a major impact on charities. One creator can raise hundreds of thousands of dollars or more for a cause of their choice through a single live stream or call to action across their channels. This has pushed other creators and brands alike to focus on raising money for good causes through social media, innovating new ways to drive attention to charities and opening doors for more audiences to make donations.
Whether creators are entertaining, educating, or fundraising, there’s no denying that they are both incredibly influential and important to the people they reach each day. As a result, more people are starting to get involved with the business of influencing. Whether that’s quitting your job to create content for TikTok full-time or running a viral food-focused Instagram account, more people are treating content creation as a serious, legitimate enterprise.
One day, we’ll arrive at a juncture where everyone will be a content creator in their own right, and each person will need to be data-driven when running their channels. This creator-centric way of communicating and building audiences is not a fad—it’s the future.
Tubefilter: You’re the CEO of one of the largest influencer marketing agencies—how has your company changed over the past year and what are the biggest growth opportunities for 2021?
RRB: The influencer marketing landscape is increasingly data- and technology-driven, and that’s something we anticipated at BEN Group from the start. We incorporated AI tools into our business early on because we knew that would be the best way to understand the ever-growing sea of content and provide winning strategies for influencer marketing.
Our expert team stays on top of the latest trends across social media, as well as the wide variety of content options available to both brands and creators. With the insights our team brings to the table, we’re able to develop new AI tools and algorithms to meet the current landscape and deliver impactful results to our clients.
In such a tumultuous year for entertainment, our technology and expertise has been invaluable. We’ve seen an explosion in clients wanting to execute influencer marketing campaigns, resulting in rapid growth for our company. In Q1 of this year, we drove a 213% YoY increase in new client bookings, as well as a 59% YoY increase in revenue.
We’re dedicated to further developing our AI to help our clients make the best decisions for the right platforms to get involved with, the optimum features of those platforms to target, and the best creators across those platforms to partner with. In the near term, we see this as a moment to expand our capabilities and gear up for supporting decentralized platforms and content, new in-app monetization options, and an expanded set of brands looking to get involved in influencer marketing.
Tubefilter: Creators are increasingly figuring out different ways to monetize their influence directly with their fans (through subscriptions, their own merch, etcetera). Is this affecting the influencer advertising industry? How?
RRB: The rise of more direct monetization channels within the creator economy is a good thing for our industry. We’re at the dawn of a new era of influencer marketing, and while change can be intimidating, it also presents ripe new opportunities for brand partnerships, sponsorships, and even new methods of integration that we haven’t even considered in the past.
In short, new monetization tactics are additive to the traditional brand sponsorship model—not disruptive.
Creators are becoming their own media empires. Leveraging their status as household names, they’re launching their own platforms, selling merch, and building businesses off of their sphere of influence. Look at stars like Jeffree Star, MrBeast, and Emma Chamberlain, who have become incredibly successful conglomerates in their own rights. All of them have used their star power to build multiple offshoot businesses, and I anticipate this will become more of a norm.
All of this is not to say that platform and ad revenue won’t be an important part of the creator monetization mix moving forward. It simply means that creators are finding new ways to monetize their content portfolios, which in turn creates even more avenues for influencer marketing. These new monetization methods allow creators to forge direct connections with audiences, giving brands an outlet to reach those viewers in even more deep, meaningful ways through influencer partnerships.
BEN arranged this collaboration between YouTubers The Bramfam (2.68 million subscribers) and exercise equipment brand NordicTrack.
Tubefilter: What are the trends that you think will be driving the creator economy this year?
RRB: I think there are two major trends to keep an eye on: livestreaming and blockchain.
First, livestreaming has already started to gain popularity in Western social media, but it hasn’t achieved nearly the levels it has in Eastern countries yet. Eastern livestreaming is massively popular, and it’s the center of ecommerce and influencer interactions. China alone has a $350B livestreaming market.
With this form of social media becoming more mainstream here in the West, I think we’ll see a similar trend toward creators driving their own sales of products—whether they’re brand partnerships or the creator’s own products—through their livestreaming channels soon. With the United States’ potential market size of $11B for 2021, livestreaming ecommerce is sure to have a huge impact on the way creators and brands execute ecommerce and ultimately redefine how audiences shop and make purchases.
This is also something I’ve said for a few years, but I’m definitely watching blockchain. I think NFTs have a lot of potential—the ability for a creator to monetize their creations when their item is sold is revolutionary. I think this also points to a larger trend of fractioning high-value items. Did you know that there are apps today that allow you to own a share in a rare item like a Picasso painting the same way you’d own a share in a stock?
I think that type of crowdfunded asset is going to become more ubiquitous over the next few years. I don’t think it’s far-fetched to say that Christopher Nolan could fund his next film solely through audience contributions or blockchain, completely bypassing a studio. We’ve seen the early signs of that with platforms like Kickstarter, but I think it will only continue to grow.
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