New and successful creators are emerging in India’s digital space amid the rise of new platforms, and DDB Mudra’s Preetham Venkky explains how they are becoming distribution channels themselves.

Working with creators

This article is part of a series of articles from the WARC Guide to working with creators.

Creators, KOLs, influencers – regardless of how you classify them, they are the new content force on digital. Since 2020, creators have been driving the modern internet and shaping and defining not just internet culture but mainstream culture. Brands and digital platforms have to channel their power in order to get both growth and distribution in the digital-first economy.

Defining a creator

A creator is unbounded by definition because what defines a creator is ever evolving in the context of cultural understanding. Simply put, anyone who creates and puts out her/his work to be accessible to more people can be defined as a creator. If you have ever published just one poem and put it up on a blog, then you are a creator. If you posted a tweet with your opinion or point of view, you also qualify as a creator.

For the purpose of this article though, it’s better to have a tighter definition. I propose we define creators as individuals who create consistently and benefit commercially from their creations of content, art and/or digital products, with the key word here being consistency.

Size of India’s creator economy

Leading creators tend to leverage more than one channel and have commercial endeavours beyond just share of advertising and brand sponsorships. They typically have multiple revenue streams. Trying to collate them all is an impractical task at the moment. Taking into consideration reports from YouTube and independent aggregators, one can peg the industry at anywhere between US$1.5bn and US$3.0bn.

Even conservatively, the economy seems to have supported at least one million creators with an economic value of minimum US$1.5bn. While not a small number, it is still less than India’s GDP per capita, given though that most creators are side hustlers – this is an additional income stream to them as opposed to being the primary source of revenue. The top 1% of creators like Ankur Warikoo clocked US$3m in revenue in FY2022 with over 40% coming from his online courses.

Where did the influencers go?

Imagine influencers on a spectrum, a spectrum that spans from users to entrepreneurs, with the stages starting from being users, creatives, KOLs, influencers, creators and finally to entrepreneurs. As your commercial benefit grows, so too your commitment to consistent creation and the size of your team. Take Physics Wallah (Alakh Pandey) for instance. Currently with 10 million YouTube subscribers, he went from being an influencer to entrepreneur, rivalling Byju’s and Unacademy in a span of just five years in both reach and profitability.

In short, leading influencers just evolved to become creators by launching their own digital products. They have leveraged the power of their distribution across multiple channels to add additional sources of income beyond brand engagement. Influencers, though, leverage trends and influence based on their status (found through other channels/mediums) and reach, and may need a focused creator approach to content and digital products. Actors, performers, musicians, choreographers, dancers and ‘life stylists’ tend to fall into this category. It is important to note here that many influencers have evolved to become creators, so the lines can be extremely blurry.

Creators though have focused on grabbing attention through value creation. They focus on niches that are less or insufficiently addressed. To use startup terminology, they make sure their content/creation finds product-market fit and experiment until they find fit and scale. Successful creators find more commercial traction early since they cater to unmet needs or whitespaces. It is important to note that the natural evolution of a creator is to be an entrepreneur. Most commercially successful creators are already solopreneurs.

Mastering the algorithm: Attention vs. search

In order to find niches, creators tend to use the algorithm of existing digital platforms (YT, IG, TW, Reels, Moj etc.) and utilise their distribution and reach to carve out their own. Imagine a river that keeps changing its path – creators have to go back and dig new streams out from the river (even as the paths change constantly). This constant experimentation with the algorithm of digital platforms is what allows them to stay ahead of the game and maintain their sub-distribution. Creators also tend to build distribution channels like email subscriptions, Telegram groups etc., that they can directly control.

India, in line with other markets, has four kinds of creators:

  • Educators
  • Entertainers
  • Informers
  • Inspirers

Compared to Western markets, India is seeing an explosion of educators and entertainers, and less so of informers and inspirers, although the last two categories are growing. Creators tend to educate or entertain (or both) as a response to the preference that the algorithm has for such content.

New platforms and new creators

The rise of new digital platforms creates fertile ground for the rise of new creators. Creators seldom dominate more than two platforms. Back during the blogging days, Amit Agarwal (labnol) created a niche for himself and grew on the back of distribution from organic search. He still clocks revenues of over eight crores or about US$1m each year but has never been able to dominate YouTube or Instagram.

We tend to see platforms as apps (YT, LI, IG, TW etc.), although apps within themselves are fragmenting and creating new channels. It’s important to note that new algorithms (even if within the same app) become new distribution channels and can hence be dubbed platforms. One has to see YouTube as a separate platform from YouTube shorts.

The same applies to IG Feed versus Reels. A good example is the rise of finance with Sharan on YouTube. As a finance creator, Sharan Hegde has created a niche for himself only within the YouTube Shorts platform with practically no presence on long-form YouTube video content, which creator Rachana Phadke leverages.

Creator brands: Brands by creators

India is currently seeing the rise of brands by influencers. HRX, owned by actor Hrithik Roshan, is a classic example of an influencer leveraging his influence to launch a new brand. We regularly see other actors and sports stars do the same in the last seven years. Creators though haven’t evolved to create their own brands that go beyond their category. India has yet to see a MrBeast equivalent who has used the power of his distribution as a creator to launch and scale MrBeast Burger to becoming a US$100m company. The gap is of scale and evolution. I am confident that in the next three years we’ll have a creator with the ability to launch cross-category brands utilising the power of their distribution.

Creators vs. broadcasters

Large creators are larger than most broadcasters in India. You can see this in the entertainment and information genres.

Creator Tanmay Bhat across all his reach channels would easily fit into the Top 25 GEC TV shows in the country (when measured by viewership and time spent). Unlike TV and broadcasting, most new digital ‘broadcast’ channels have zero cost of entry for creators, allowing more creators to experiment and grow. With more time spent on mobile devices than on TV screens, leading creators have more viewership minutes than most broadcasters.

Another example is Dhruv Rathee, a political analyst. Dhruv’s monthly video viewership would far exceed that of many broadcast TV channels.

Unique to India

When creators first started, they borrowed from the Western/American playbook. In recent years though, the creator economy in India is creating a niche unique to itself.

India is comprised of 28 states, each having its own unique language and culture. Leading content creators in India use English only as their second language and primarily communicate in local languages like Hindi, Tamil etc. This allowed creators to access previously untapped audiences, while generating and keeping connections with their audience.

A few years back, Ankur Warikoo created content predominantly in English. As he progressed in his journey as a creator, he moved to create content in Hindi, which in effect expanded his audience and reach.

During the pandemic and with the Indian government’s push for an Atmanirbhar Bharat or self-sufficient India, we’ve seen rapid growth in local social networks like Sharechat. These local platforms have a growing base of creators actively pursued and promoted by the social network. Sharechat and Moj reportedly have a reach of 400 million monthly active users, predominantly from Tier 2 and Tier 3 markets in India.

Creators are the new digital distributors

Creators have worked platform algorithms to create their own distribution channels through email lists, communities, followership and subscribership. They’ve focused not just on creating content but also on developing and strengthening their channels of distribution. Most brands haven’t succeeded in creating their own distribution channels on digital.

In order to participate in this new world where creator-first content is what people usually consume, brands will increasingly see the need to partner with creators to get ‘organic’ reach and engagement. Brands spend anywhere from as little as Rs 1,000 (for micro-influencers) to a few crores while partnering with creators. There are four important aspects brands need to consider while partnering with a creator:

  • Creator’s target audience: Is the brand looking just for reach numbers or going deeper to do a true match between the brands’ TA and the creators?
  • Brand creator fit: Does the creator embody the values of the brand? Do the tone and voice match those of the creator and the brand?
  • Authenticity: Does the creator use the brand? Would the creator be a natural proponent of the brand?
  • Collaborations: Brands should go beyond sponsorships and shouldn’t limit the engagement to just brand and product feature shoutouts. Think creatively about deeper integrations. For instance, if a creator listens to a music platform, has the platform created a playlist of the creator's most listened-to music?

Hightail is getting shorter

Like other internet businesses, the creator economy followed a long tail (1% owning 90% of the market). The rule seems to be changing slightly, with more and more creators grabbing more value from the long tail. This has ensured the shrinking of the hightail.

As creators carve out niches, they tend to grow and lead communities around the niche. This gives them the ability to extract value from their reach. Even a small moms community of 10,000 can clock revenues of over a crore annually in some niches. The hightail is slowly shrinking and the long tail is getting fatter.

With over 700 million high-speed mobile internet users in India and a population which is predominantly younger than 30, we are witnessing a tipping point for the creator economy. Creators are becoming more than just content creators – they are becoming distribution channels in their own right. By carving out niches and mastering the algorithm, creators now have the power to influence communities and culture.

By doing so, they also have the ability to unlock commercial value beyond just advertising and brand endorsements. With the gig economy becoming a mainstay with Gen Z, India will continue to witness new creators and the rapid growth of existing ones. There is no glass ceiling in sight.

Read more articles from the WARC Guide to working with creators.

How digital commerce adoption influences the way brands partner with creators in Asia
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In the battle for attention, content is everything
Jeremy Hollow
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