When content pays: Content creators cash in on the digital age


Getting a full-fledged nine-to-five job to earn a steady income, too, is history.

By Reya Mehrotra

Gone are the days when you thought you would grow up to be a doctor, engineer or a civil servant. Getting a full-fledged nine-to-five job to earn a steady income, too, is history. Take 24-year-old Anshu Bisht, who plays games all day to earn enough to feed his family. His father, a bus conductor in a school, earned around Rs 5,000 per month. Today, Bisht has a subscriber count of more than 6.6 lakh on his YouTube channel that goes by his own name.

Like Anshu, digital content creators around the world are their own bosses, minus degrees from top universities or job skills. The only skill required is the knowledge of content that works. From earning in millions to giving creators celebrity status, the digital content creation industry is undergoing a boom that seems to only grow bigger. This is set to be aided by influencer marketing, brands leveraging their popularity to promote their image and products, audiences and social media users increasingly looking out for interesting content and social media giants adding more and more features and benefits to attract creators to their platforms.

Boom of content creation

Facebook, Instagram and YouTube are some of the biggest platforms facilitating digital content creation all around the world. In 2005, the world’s first YouTube video titled Me at the Zoo was uploaded by YouTube’s co-founder Jawed Karim and has around 171 million views. Nearly a decade later in 2014, India had about 16 YouTube channels that had crossed the million-subscriber threshold. Today, there are more than 2,500 YouTube channels with over one million subscribers.

India also leads the YouTube game globally with Indian music label and movie studio T-Series having 187 million subscribers, the world’s largest number of subscribers on YouTube, followed by PewDiePie (110 million subscribers). In fact, the top five of the top 20 YouTube channels around the world are Indian—SET India (108 million subscribers), Zee Music Company (74.7 million), Zee TV (58.2 million), Goldmines Telefilms (55.7 million), and Shemaroo Filmi Gaane (53.4 million). Arvind Arora, who owns the short videos channel A2 Motivation (8.72 million subscribers), is an individual YouTuber with more than four billion views, the highest in India.

A YouTube spokesperson shares that while comedy creators were the first to taste success in 2015, 2016 saw newer creators emerge across categories like music, technology, and food. But it was during the pandemic that content was consumed like never before. “YouTube became a sort of connective tissue that they turned to for tactical tips on cooking, physical and mental wellbeing and relaxation, all the way to learning new skills to help them tide over a changed work and job market,” shares the spokesperson.

According to YouTube, verticals like music, entertainment, food, beauty, comedy, lifestyle, and technology continue to gain momentum and creators like Bhuvan Bam, Prajakta Kohli, Ashish Chanchlani, Nisha Madhulika, Kabita’s Kitchen and Technical Guruji have shown immense growth in the last few years. Content around vocational skills like gardening and photography has also expanded with creators like Mad Gardener and Pixel Village gaining popularity. Gaming is yet another genre that has seen phenomenal growth in the last couple of years, with creators like Carry Minati, Dynamo Gaming and Mortal reaching millions of subscribers.

With studies shifting to the virtual mode, YouTube also became the largest supplementary learning destination on the web, shares the spokesperson. “Content creators like Don’t Memorise and Study IQ have been helping students with their daily popular and informative academic content,” the spokesperson adds.

Manish Chopra, director and head of partnerships, Facebook, India, agrees that the pandemic brought a fundamental change in digital consumption, be it for education, payments, business, or communication. “For creators, it has been a dynamic period. While many have had to struggle with the issues of being constrained to one physical space, others have used this as a period to experiment, explore varied interests and give back to their communities,” he shares.

The pandemic alone was responsible for content being mass produced and consumed by the audience as people stayed indoors. GLAAD, a US organisation tracking media representation for the LGBTQ+ community, shared that during the lockdown, queer youth turned to YouTube for education and support (as was reported in the April 2021 research ‘Social Media insights from Sexuality and Gender Diverse Young People during Covid-19’ by Young & Resilient Research Centre, New Zealand). Audiences also turned to social media and video sharing platforms for motivational content and news during the lockdowns. According to media and analytics company Comscore, YouTube watchtime in India in July 2020 was more than 45% higher than the same time last year.

This was evident from the fact that data consumption during the lockdowns in India grew considerably in 2020 and continues to grow. In June this year, telecom regulator TRAI’s data showed that on an average, the new wired broadband connections grew 2% every month since July last year as compared to 0.5% before the pandemic. The growth rate this year in March was observed at 2.2%.

The market

As per estimates by research company Insider Intelligence (based on data by California-headquartered influencer marketing agency Mediakix), the influencer marketing industry will be worth $15 billion by 2022, up from $8 billion in 2019. In February this year, the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) issued draft rules for influencers on digital media to protect consumer interest.

The guidelines that came into effect on June 14 state that an influencer has to specify if their content is through a paid partnership, and this should be visible on all mediums prominently. In future, influencers may also get an ‘ASCI-approved’ tag. Since the digital content creation industry is aiding influencer marketing and India is at its forefront, the rules become an important turn.

Masoom Minawala, digital content creator, global influencer and entrepreneur, says the future has vast potential for content creators. “There is so much more to discover. Even if you think about it, content creation right now is only running across three to four platforms on a global scale, which is nothing.” She started her journey as a digital creator 10 years ago but was unsure of its prospects for the first two years.

“I was extremely ambitious, but I didn’t think blogging would be able to meet my money goals. For the first two years, brands didn’t want to pay; they only offered free products and services. So, I decided to use my audience and community to build a business. This profession and business celebrate uniqueness and individuality and the only way you can stand out is to simply be yourself,” she says.

The virtual makeover that the pandemic has given the world has led the digital push, believes Chopra of Facebook. He says a variety of Instagram surfaces like feed, stories, live, IGTV and reels are being used by people to start trends that are going mainstream, and they are becoming the creators who are pushing culture forward.

“As much as 70-80% of all data in India is on video. Given the predominant role of video in driving online consumption and social experiences in India, it is a huge priority for Facebook. Short form content, too, has been in huge demand. In 2020, we launched Reels in response to the need from our community to create and consume short-form content. India was among the first countries to test it globally,” adds Chopra.

He says virtual concerts, stereotype breaking creators and new lucrative features by social media platforms have been on the forefront of the content creation boom. Instagram recently launched Remix on Reels to allow people to mix in other people’s Reels into their original posts.

Revenue model

Nine-year-old Ryan Kaji, who has a YouTube channel called Ryan’s World (30 million subscribers), was listed as the highest paid YouTuber of 2020 with his estimated earnings between June 2019 and June 2020 being $29.5 million.

For creators, revenue sources come in the form of brand collaborations, paid partnerships and through the channels as well, as is the case with YouTube that pays creators after they qualify certain watch hours and subscriber counts.

When it comes to Instagram, creators currently make a living by leveraging Instagram for branded content opportunities. “We provide adequate tools for creators to provide branded content disclosures. For brands, we also have branded content ads, which provide advertisers the ability to promote creators’ organic branded content posts as feed and stories ads, thereby reaching new audiences and measuring impact,” shares Chopra of Facebook.

Minawala, for instance, seldom gets paid through social media platforms but earns mostly through brand collaborations in several sectors, including fashion, beauty, lifestyle and sundry, to create content around their products as well as creatively market it to her followers.

According to content creators and travel vloggers Abhiraj and Niyati, the five main sources of income for digital content creators are ad revenue, brand placements/ sponsorships, affiliate marketing, merchandise and crowdfunding like Patreon or channel memberships. “The payment from social media companies depends on the number of times ads are shown and on clicks. It doesn’t depend on followers. You need some followers to get monetised and that depends on each platform,” they share.

Once a part of the YouTube Partner Program, creators are eligible to earn through advertising revenue, channel memberships, merch shelf (sales of branded merchandise showcased on watch pages), YouTube premium revenue and super chat and super stickers (fans pay to get messages highlighted in chat streams).

Instagram doesn’t pay creators directly, but revenue comes through brand endorsements and sponsored posts. Income on Facebook comes in a similar manner and, as for Tiktok, it pays creators with at least 100,000 followers some revenue per 1,000 views through Creator Fund.

South Indian YouTuber Madan Gowri, who makes explanatory videos on subjects like WhatsApp privacy rules, menstruation, homosexuality, coronavirus and so on in Tamil, has about 5.08 million subscribers. In July, he launched an ad-free news app called Kokru that summarises news in a line. The app received more than 2 lakh downloads in 48 hours. Like others, he, too, earns from YouTube and brand collaborations. He shares, “Brands pay well for a good online community with an engaging audience while YouTube monetisation depends on followers, watch time and so on.”

The downsides

Too much internet has its downsides too. For content creators, it is the pressure to deal with trolls, keeping up with the pace of creating new content, coming up with ideas and dealing with unplanned speed breakers like the lockdown and increased screen time. Not only this, instances of creating or indulging in obscenity for views and followers have been observed. Chennai vlogger Madan OP faced allegations of abuse of minors and use of obscene language on his channel where he streamed games and posted videos. His videos went for as long as 15 hours a day at times.

Another recent incident was observed in May this year when YouTuber Paras Singh was arrested by Arunachal Pradesh police for using racial slurs against Congress MLA and former Union minister Ninong Ering. He had commented on the latter’s appearance saying that he “did not look Indian”. Thus, the freedom to express anything with access to millions of viewers often becomes a problem.

Instances of gaming addiction too have been reported among youngsters who are either consuming content or making their own videos and monetising them. While the lockdown brought a spotlight on content creation, it also showed the ugly side of how it made youngsters addicts of gaming. In February, a 16-year-old boy died due to brain haemorrhage after playing an online game for several hours. This makes it important for the creator and the user to keep a tab on the time consumed online.

Sakshi Sindwani

‘My audience made me a body-positive advocate’

A ‘feel good-family page’ is how Sakshi Sindwani describes her instagram page ‘Style me Up With Sakshi’ as. The body positivity advocate is a digital content creator who has created content for both YouTube and Instagram. Since she loved the camera, she became a digital content creator but says her audience made her a body-positive advocate. “Viewers were inspired by what I represent. I want to create a massive change in industry about body positivity, inclusivity and ensure that it’s not just a trend that dies down. I want to talk about feminism, colourism, skin shaming, body shaming, bullying, challenge beauty norms and the ideal body type. At least the conversations around it have begun,” she adds.

She says people often mistake her as someone trying to promote obesity. However, she is instead trying to promote better health, self-care, self-love, fitness and acceptance of body types.

Dhruv Rathee

‘I simplify or break down issues or news for people to understand’

With 5.58 million subscribers on YouTube, Dhruv Rathee has earned a reputation as a creator talking about awareness, education and learning. In fact, UPSC aspirants often text him thanking him for his Mahabharat podcast that he created with Spotify. He has created explanatory videos on relevant subjects like ‘propaganda in school textbooks’, ‘what is communism’ and so on. He says he simplifies or breaks down issues or news for people to understand and gives his opinion on them. He tries to avoid making videos on news related to crimes and violence, except in cases like that of Hathras gangrape. He started in 2016 as he felt there was rarely a creator making videos for awareness.

Madan Gowri

‘Pandemic taught me I can create content with minimal resources’

South Indian YouTuber Madan Gowri started his channel almost five years ago as a hobby. As a child, he loved studying facts on the last page of textbooks, in encyclopaedias, and watched the Discovery Channel. He says that as a content creator, what he has learned from the pandemic is the fact that he can create content with minimal resources, even in his hometown Madurai.

“Earlier, I used to have the delusion that I need to be in Chennai for content creation and make relevant content regularly. That has always been my formula and I continue to do that but with minimal resources at times,” he says.

He shares that his explanatory and informative videos are highly subjective and reflect his personal viewpoints on events and topics beings discussed. “I inform my viewers that I am human and may make mistakes. So, the discussions around an issue are more casual,” he adds.

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