With the creator economy booming and platforms like TikTok making social media stars overnight, it’s clear that anyone can be a creator. But the main issue impacting the space is how creators can build sustainable careers for themselves. Content creation, as a job, comes with its own issues, including struggling against algorithms, finding an engaged audience, getting paid fairly, fighting burnout, and maintaining healthy boundaries.
And in the three years since the last in-person VidCon, the creator space has changed substantially.
During the height of the coronavirus pandemic, the amount of talent exploded, with TikTok and Twitch producing countless new stars and trends. While each platform has its unique challenges, seasoned creators across the industry still have universal knowledge to impart on green influencers. This unique blend of perspectives gave compelling insights into what it’s like to operate in the creator economy this weekend in Anaheim, California.
At a panel discussing what new creators can learn from “internet OGs,” Matt Raub, vice president of unscripted at Smosh, said this is the first time in the history of the digital media industry that things are creator-first. With services like Patreon and creators launching their own companies, there is a focus is on how individual creators can build successful brands for themselves.
“For the longest time, I mean that’s how [Smosh] got our start, we were part of larger companies and bigger organizations that were just gobbling up these small things and trying to make them work the best they could,” Raub said at the panel. “It was executives or folks in ivory towers deciding what was or wasn’t good. Whereas creators, at the end of the day, were the ones that dictated what should have been going on the internet and they’re the reason why this industry is as big as it is [today].”
As creators start building things for themselves, it’s important to take a look at the lessons their forebears have learned about what it means to work and operate as a creator. Every journey is different—we, at Passionfruit, have witnessed the ways people have found success through our various interview series—but there are big-picture things to consider when preserving one’s sanity and wellbeing.
Burnout, of course, is the all-encompassing problem affecting creators. The constant pressure to produce original, compelling content can be especially stressful for creators. This is exacerbated by all-consuming work schedules, fickle platforms, harassment, and business demands. People have been talking about it for years, and there aren’t perfect solutions for addressing it.
In a VidCon presentation about work sustainability, Koji’s head of creators Paul Bakaus said 90% of creators experience burnout, citing a Vibely report. He also said that studies show creators have a shelf life of five years because they often feel like they have to work nonstop to satisfy the audience and the algorithm, leading to very little work-life balance. When he asked the audience—mostly creators—who had thought, “I don’t know how long I can do this,” nearly every person in the room raised their hands.
Bakaus and his fellow panelist, cosplayer Yaya Han, presented creators with the much-lauded 1,000 true fans theory, a popular strategy in the space that encourages people to find their most dedicated fans, those who would follow and pay for a creator’s content no matter what, within their larger audience. The idea being that these “true fans” would provide a sustainable income for creators.
Beyond this, in the “internet OGs” panel, speakers spoke about content strategies that creators can implement in order to work more efficiently and give themselves time off. Steve Zaragoza, formerly of the YouTube channel SourceFed, said that the industry has moved past the idea of, “If you stop you’re screwed.” People are granted more time to create quality work that they enjoy, and Raub also pointed out that audiences can tell if a creator dislikes the type of content they put out. Authenticity and a genuine enjoyment of the work are key to a creator’s success.
Raub said that for Smosh, creating a series of videos that could be filmed at once really helped ease the workflow. Similarly, he pointed to a content strategy from Mythical Entertainment (from YouTubers Rhett & Link), where the main team gets the summer off while a different team works on a different show during that time. These strategies all helped their companies create a more manageable schedule.
Nicole Iizuka of REACT Media (formerly Fine Bros. Entertainment) also emphasized the importance of programming strategy.
“As you’re building things, a lot of people get burnout because they’re just throwing everything at the wall at a constant rate, and just trying to see what’s happening,” she said in the panel. “If you take a step back, think strategically about how you’re going to do all of those things, I feel like that really helps. Knowing the power of building a marketing plan, or having a rollout strategy to what you’re doing, then you will get the views and you’ll feel more empowered to want to keep creating all these series.”
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Obviously, regular series are easier to accomplish with a big team, which these vets have access to. However, on a smaller scale, creators can figure out regular segments that they enjoy and have a bit of a formula to them, which could make their workflows more predictable or manageable. And being mindful of how to market a piece of content, whether that’s through the thumbnail or title or SEO, is always invaluable.
On the creative side, most speakers and featured creators said that it’s OK to take breaks. In fact, many had struggled with overworking for a long time, to the detriment of themselves and their work. It’s difficult to ignore dips in performance, but as Sarah Schauer said in an interview with Passionfruit, it’s important to get comfortable with lulls: “If you’re putting out consistently good content, people are gonna pick it back up.” The rest tends to fall into place.