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Every day, we see traditional celebs (ahem, Will Smith, Chrissy Teigen, we mean you) trying to master the art of being a digital creator. Yes, that’s right, we said art. And fans of digital creators agree. In our recent study, Influence by the Numbers, we asked followers of social media influencers why they think digital creators are creating content. Fifty-one percent believe that digital creators are doing it for self-expression and creativity, compared to only 39% who felt the same for traditional celebrities.
We view digital creators as artists who use social platforms as their canvases. As in all types of art, there are specific stages on the road to mastery. However, digital creators are uniquely compelling because they are fan-made, not self-made. Creators are propelled from one phase of mastery to the next solely by their fans – and this electric fan power makes digital creators the most influential creative archetype out there.
To deeply understand the nuances of the different phases of creative (and creator) mastery, we took our three-part influence definition model — authenticity, trust, and unity — and juxtaposed it with Noel Burch’s “Four Steps of Mastery” model. In Burch’s framework, he outlines four phases through which an individual must progress in order to master any new skill: unconscious incompetence, conscious incompetence, conscious competence, and unconscious competence. The four stages span from below rudimentary competence to full-on mastery – where a talent can be exercised with such ease that it looks simple to an onlooker.
Here’s what we saw when we applied these two models together to map out the creator’s journey:
Phase 1: The Novice / Unconscious & Incompetent
The first phase of mastering anything is sub-zero – complete unawareness of latent talent. Burch refers to this as the “unconscious and incompetent” phase when there is a dormant potential that’s untapped within an individual. All of us who are not digital creators are in that phase right now. We are all novice creators, posting content on our social feeds for our friends and family as a way to express ourselves and share moments of our lives.
In our three-part influence definition model, the foundation of authenticity comes together in this phase. The most authentic creators are the ones that share personal stories with their audience as if they were sharing them with a close friend. This necessary realness is critical to progressing through all the subsequent phases of mastery.
Phase 2: The Emerging Voice / Conscious & Incompetent
While the novice is unconscious, the emerging voice is in the “conscious and incompetent” phase of mastery. These newbies to the social star scene are still trying to find their voice by experimenting with new formats and platforms. Due to their authenticity, their fan base is rapidly growing outside their “friends and family” circle. Since emerging voices are at the start of their career, they are hungry to work with brands — but they need the most help in shaping marketing campaigns that their audiences and brands will love.
During this phase of the journey, digital creators are building trust with their audiences: the second dimension of our three-part influence definition. They gain this trust by consistently programming to their fans and showing their commitment to their craft.
Phase 3: The Rising Star / Conscious & Competent
The rising star is still getting into the rhythm of being a digital creator. Rising stars are in the “conscious and competent” phase where they are aware of their talent and are good at it. Rising stars look to brands to co-create with them, and to help them accomplish something new and different that their fans will love.
When a creator advances from rising star to trailblazer, they are achieving and embracing the final dimension of our three-part influence definition model: unity. The more we identify and unite with one another, the more we are influenced by one another. At this phase, rising stars have proven their ability to build hyper-engaged communities around shared passion points, and are able to leverage that ability to achieve the next level of success — whatever that may mean for them, personally and professionally.
Phase 4: The Trailblazer: Unconscious & Competent
If the rising star is getting in their rhythm, the trailblazers are entirely in the flow – this is the “unconscious and competent” phase. The digital creators in this phase are the pioneers and innovators in social content; many of them are expanding into new territories outside of the social sphere and into traditional entertainment or other forms of creativity and entrepreneurism. For them, creating content for their fans is second nature. The trailblazers are the most likely to think like a marketer, and they are usually looking for long-term partnerships beyond a one-off video. They are very selective with the partners they work with because they can afford to say no.
So what is the sweet spot for engagement? We found that trailblazers, rising stars, and emerging voices have the highest engagement rates — in contrast with celebrities, novices and brands themselves. Also, trust in trailblazers is higher than trust in brands, with 41% of followers of trailblazers saying that they trust what digital creators says about a brand more than what a brand says about itself. That trust has a halo effect for brands who partner with creators: 45% of followers of trailblazers say that digital creators increase their trust for the brand.
But as with any artform, mastery is a moving target. As early adopters of technology and social platforms, digital creators will continue to push the boundaries of what it means to be a “master”. However, regardless of where they are in their journey, all digital creators are part of a growing movement to experiment, remix, and reinvent storytelling for the social era. And through thoughtful, trust-based partnerships with creators, brands can also embark on this journey with them. Brands can drive real impact with audiences by putting a creator’s real-time insider knowledge about his or her fans at the center of creative development. After all, at every phase of the journey, creators are working tirelessly to understand their audiences like a science.