The Battle for the Casual Creator
There is only one metric that really matters for a UGC platform: the growth of its casual creator base.
YouTube, Instagram and others have been proudly leveraging their home-grown top creators in their marketing efforts, but there is really only one metric that matters for the health and sustainability of a scalable user generated content (UGC) platform. And it is not the number of top creators they have.
It is the growth of their casual user base.
A Spot of History
YouTube invented the now-established creator ecosystem for video, and a short look at its competition over the years reveals how the market valued the different levels of its creator funnel.
The first direct competition came in 2015 from Vessel, a startup by former Hulu executive Jason Kilar and backed by Bezos Expeditions, which manages Jeff Bezos’ personal venture capital investments. Vessel’s strategy centred around luring YouTube’s top creators to their pay wall with six-figure deals in the hopes that their fans would be willing to pay for exclusive access to their latest videos prior to them being available to all on YouTube.
Vessel did not work and ended up being acquired by Verizon and shut down in 2016.
The same strategy was tried by IGTV and Facebook Watch to varying degrees of success, but neither has been the phenomenon that Snapchat was or that TikTok is today.
This failed strategy revealed that while top creators prove the maturity of their original platform and provide a beacon for smaller creators to look up and aspire to, the effect does not carry across platforms, especially when these top creators start becoming prevalent on all platforms with a remarkably similar audience size.
With this learning at hand, there is now a clear shift of competitive focus from trying to build a new platform based on the top creators of your competitors to building the best platform with the easiest and most fun content creation tools possible to attract casual users.
There are two concepts that support this theory: the creator funnel and the creator lifecycle.
The Creator Funnel
All platforms use the funnel mechanism to segment their users across a defined growth metric and to understand their movement from one segment to another as they continue their journey on the platform.
For instance, Airbnb likely segments its users from those who browse for properties to those who make wish lists to those who book stays and so forth, where the browser is the base of the pyramid. The more browsers Airbnb can attract to its service, the more chances it has of a booking.
The funnel pyramid for UGC platforms starts with the viewer as the base. The goal is to convert as many viewers as possible to casual uploaders, and those uploaders to aspiring creators, all the way to a top creator who produces content on the platform as a profession. Depending on the platform, there may be more strata in the funnel as defined by their chosen growth metric.
In such a funnel, any movement from one level to another is incredibly critical and becomes the main target of all optimisations. For instance, depending on the maturity of its creator ecosystem, the platform can decide to target an increase in its conversion rate from uploader to aspiring creator. Having top creators on a platform is a significant start that boosts conversions at this level because top creators showcase to everyone that being a star on the platform is possible. Other changes can be how discoverable such creators are on the platform in general, diverting precious viewership to such creators instead of others, to motivate them to continue. It could also be how generally well monetised these creators can be to provide a monetary incentive.
But you can also have users drop from one level to a lower one — otherwise known as the churn rate. Lots of casual uploaders will gear up their production becoming an aspiring creator for a while, but if they don’t get the discoverability and success they were expecting, they will stop uploading as regularly, regressing back to casual uploader level. But this churn can happen at every level.
Optimising both the conversion and churn rates is the main lever that platforms have over their ecosystems. But you might ask why any platform that has matured to establish unique top creators would continue to care about metrics for the levels below.
It’s because every creator has a lifecycle.
The Creator Lifecycle
Like with all other talent-based industries, creators surround themselves with agents, creative collaborators and advisors. This is to ensure that their creativity and relevance can be maintained for as long as possible, because it is incredibly hard to keep at the top of your game amidst changing cultural trends and tastes.
Just look at examples from traditional stardom. Usually, talent peaks at a certain timeframe and then society moves onto someone else. There is a reason there is only one Beyonce and one Cate Blanchett for countless other singers and actresses that have competed with them in the past decade or more. These women have managed to surround themselves with the right teams and focus on the right projects to continue to keep their crowns.
Certain creators, like Joe Sugg, are on a similar path as these two legends to remain at the top of the zeitgeist, restarting their lifecycle numerous times, but regardless of their success, a UGC platform needs scale. Given the average trend of a creator’s lifecycle, despite the few that buck the trend, the platform cannot rest easy once it has generated its own top creators. It needs to continue to be relevant for the casual user and make it really easy for them to convert to uploaders.
At the end of the day, these casual creators represent the base of the creator funnel, feeding it at scale and allowing the conversion optimisations to continuously create new opportunities for new stars to emerge at the top. The moment you stop appealing to casual creators is the moment your funnel starts to shrink, which directly calls to question the financial viability of the platform.
Because of these two concepts, the ongoing focus of any new or established UGC platform should be on how consistently they can grow their casual creator segment. It should command the most resources and focus by engineering, product and marketing teams.
At the end of the day, a UGC platform is shaped by its creators, and the future health of such platforms will be determined by the casual creators they can attract on a continuing basis.
This is why I believe mobile creation focused platforms have an edge today as they make it so easy to create, but there will be other creation and distribution methods in the coming decade. Platforms that continue to lead the way and meet the casual creator on whatever form factor they are on will have long lasting success.
If you’d like to read more about how YouTube, TikTok and others fare in this regard, please head on over to my previous post.