Nearly a decade ago, the age of the influencer was unleashed when brands and marketers realized they could engage with content creators to share their messaging more authentically. This organic partnership marketplace, dominated by a handful of highly influential names with large audiences, became the new “Wild West” of marketing as brands sought out influencers for highly structured, short-term partnerships.

As creators became more powerful, they started to build brands of their own, expanding their monetization methods while simultaneously seeking new ways to build loyalty among their audiences. As they did so, their business model and goals evolved. As the influencer economy matured, the basic structure of the brand-influencer collaborations has shifted away from that structured, short-term model. The initial engagement cycle has found a way to repeat itself and still presents a wide range of collaborations and brand engagement opportunities, but instead of the brand marketer at the helm of the campaign, it’s the influencers themselves.

Today, the creator economy spans millions of writers, artists, and experts around the world with billions of fans eagerly tuning into feeds, live streams, and updates. And the events of the past year have only supercharged it: over a third (34 percent) of 18- to 34-year-olds say they’re watching more influencer content since last March. This presents a valuable growth opportunity for brand marketers to rethink how they approach influencer partnerships.

To maximize this opportunity, brand marketers need to understand how creators build and monetize their audiences throughout the creator lifecycle.

It all starts with attention

The first level is the most commonly associated with influencer marketing: the attention stage. At this point, a creator is focused on growing their audience as much as possible to maximize their most valuable asset: reach. Creators rely on free platforms like Instagram, TikTok, and Twitter to reach audiences. Their most valuable audiences are the people that like, share, and follow their content.

Since the audience-creator connection is fairly limited at this stage, the methods of monetization are simple: ads, sponsored content, and affiliate links. Though many creators started building revenue using this method, the reality is that the attention-stage audience demonstrates low loyalty, and, therefore, comes with a ceiling on their value to both influencers and brand marketers.

Developing trust

Read anything about Substack recently? It’s probably because they’re a name brand in the second stage of the creator lifecycle: trust. At this level, creators have a direct relationship with their audience, connecting with them via email, SMS, and/or subscriptions, in addition to social media platforms. They have moved away from focusing on scale, to prioritizing how they nurture an engaged audience that is willing to pay for memberships or subscriptions.

Influencers at the trust level not only have a more established connection to their subscribed audience but also have more first-party data. For brand marketers, this drastically increases the value of influencer marketing partnerships since creators have a better grasp on audience demographics and have A/B-tested content to understand what gets the most engagement and can adapt brand messaging to connect with their audience for stronger results.

Working with trust-stage influencers needs to be approached differently by brand marketers. The goals of an attention-level creator are defined by scale, with limited risk if they produce sponsored content that doesn’t align with their audience. As long as they can rebuild, there’s no long-term damage. But for trust-stage influencers, the goal is nurturing the connection between themselves and their most engaged followers. A successful brand partnership needs to be an equal collaboration between the brand marketer and the creator to ensure maximum ROI for both sides.

Venturing into e-commerce & investment

As creators build their most engaged audiences, they can begin acting as a full brand in the third stage: commerce. Rather than serving as a product aggregator, the creator becomes the product themselves through merchandising, events, and advanced content (like books and courses). They have a dedicated following that routinely makes purchasing decisions through their content, increasing the odds that a brand marketer will be able to benefit from a partnership.

Finally, there’s the investment stage. At this point, the most engaged, valuable audience members not only pay to access content, merch, and events, but they’re willing to invest in the value of the creator’s brand itself. Trends like non-fungible tokens (NFTs) have taken the internet by storm because people are willing to pay millions of dollars for an authentic piece of a particular brand. Whether it’s art, music, or even a Tweet, NFTs are the latest mechanism for individual creators to grow the value of their core audiences.

Music is leading the way

One of the most common examples of the creator lifecycle is in the music industry. At first, a band or artist simply needs as many people as possible to hear their music on the radio, YouTube, or other large platforms. Then, they need a group of those fans to pay for their music, of which a smaller, more dedicated collective will buy merch and concert tickets. Finally, their most ardent fan base will pay hundreds or even thousands of dollars for front row tickets, backstage passes, and yes, NFTs of songs.

By scaling aggressively at first, the band can then nurture a smaller group of high-value fans that love their music and can be monetized on multiple levels. They may continue producing music for a larger audience, but their tours and merch are geared toward their superfans.

So what does the creator lifecycle mean for brand marketers?

It means fundamentally rethinking the attention-stage playbook. As creators move through the trust, commerce, and investment stages of the lifecycle, they shift from selling access to that audience to selling the value of their influence to consumers. They work as creative directors, growth marketers, and content creators to do so, building an unprecedented level of insight into their audience as well a finely tuned set of creative skills.

Unlike the old model of simply sending influencers scripted messaging and pre-written content to post on behalf of a company, brand marketers should view influencer partnerships in the same vein as traditional agency relationships. Creators need to be leaders on campaigns to establish long-term value, maximize ROI, and convert new customers.

Brand marketers unable to adapt to this new reality will increasingly find themselves left out of the creator economy and the powerful influencers thriving within it.

Cover image source: Oladimeji Ajegbile