Mention the creator economy and many will immediately think of China. The wave of new money in that market has given rise to aspirations for a more affluent lifestyle, spurring entrepreneurism and driving a boom in the creator economy market.
Unlike in the West, where the creator economy has only recently taken off, Chinese consumers were early adopters of social commerce, advancing alongside platforms like Tmall, WeChat, and Douyin. Commerce and social media came together to form a tightly knit ecosystem, with many users realising the opportunities in monetising their creative talents. Indeed, China now has the largest and most sophisticated creator economy in the world. According to the National Bureau of Statistics of China, the size of this market will reach US $1,035 billion by 2025.
What’s the driving force behind this phenomenon that will soon be worth more than US $1 trillion? Let’s start with what it means to be a creator. In this context, essentially anyone who uploads a piece of content can be a creator. According to Accenture, there are three types of players in the creator economy.
- Influencer: Someone who harnesses their status as an opinion leader to motivate their followers to take action, including making a purchase. Their power is in developing a network of followers and creating a personal brand that attracts and engages an audience.
- Creator: A person who produces content, such as how-to’s, sketches, songs, dance, and art, generating original ideas that entertain, influence, and educate. They are increasingly looking to monetise their talents, including selling products.
- Reseller: Individual entrepreneurs who curate goods and services to sell on their networks. They know what their followers like and use these insights to curate items accordingly or use their personal relationships to share listings and generate sales.
Li Jin, a thought-leader and investor in online creator communities, describes the evolution of the creator economy in a few distinct stages. The first was the rise of creators on the internet, which provided the canvas and freedom for anyone to become a creator. Next came the advertising and brand sponsorships, as creators built their influence in social media, while brands saw the commercial opportunity in leveraging them. Then creators became independent businesses, fashioning direct transactions with fans. This is the stage where China is at today, with creators becoming mainstream. Major platforms have been quick to create initiatives to groom and celebrate creators, sustaining the growth in the creator economy and keeping the creator-driven transactions within their ecosystem.
The well-established infrastructure and integrated nature of ecommerce and social media platforms has been fundamental in driving a fast adoption of livestreaming and shopper-tainment content in China. Chinese consumers love product pitches via livestreaming not only for the authenticity in the information they receive, but also the adrenaline rush from getting a good deal.
The influencers, or key opinion leaders (KOLs) in China operate on what is known as the multi channel network (MCN) system. According to estimates from consulting agency iMediaResearch, there were more than 30,000 MCN institutions in China in 2021. These MCNs manage the activities of the KOLs across a wide range of channels that include social media and ecommerce, and they are particularly good at navigating the constantly evolving features and algorithms of various online platforms. The number of KOLs has also grown through early recruitment, grooming, and quality control done by the MCNs. In short, with a high-quality base of creators and creations, not only are MCNs able to simplify a brand’s relation with the KOLs, they also positively impact the channel or platform’s performance.
The platforms have been incredibly agile in adapting to the changes in the market, evolving and transforming their product propositions to capitalize on new opportunities. For example, WeChat has launched Channels amid the rise of short video consumption. Little Red Book, one of the largest reviewbased platforms in China, now has its own content or merchandise products. For example, the company has created branded themes based on key festivals and lifestyle hashtags. It invites creators to co-create content under these themes, generating new opportunities for brands to collaborate with the platform.
Creators are constantly reinventing themselves, generating new ideas to capture consumer attention. One 29-year-old influencer, Liang Xiaoqing, gained attention by creating the persona of an A-Yi (elderly aunty), an idea that helped her tap into the silver economy, endorsing brands and products targeted to seniors.
With the continued shift in power to the people, the creator economy will evolve to become more about creators and their fans co-creating, sharing in the money-making opportunities. The future of this economy isn’t only reliant on fans; the expectation is there will be an emergence of other groups as well as new business models. It’s not only about the transactions that are being made today, but will also entail the speculative value of the creations. According to Li Jin, the future will be built around fans’ willingness to pay, including the cult fans who are willing to pay more, or in advance, for access, and the speculators who see the future value of these creations and use it as investment opportunities.
The creator economy in China is certainly an unstoppable force. Therefore, brands will need to have a clearly laid out roadmap. Beyond deciding which creators to partner with and what content to create, marketers also need to carefully consider which platforms to use, while ensuring their brands retain their authenticity and distinctiveness. Indeed, it is a symbiotic partnership between creator, platform, and brand, and the notion of co-creation and collaboration will be key to sustaining a thriving creator economy.
Jocelyn Tse is Chief Strategy Officer, UM China