Devon Rodriguez wasn’t unknown before he joined TikTok, not in the art world anyway. A high school prodigy whose realistic oil paintings of subway passengers caught the attention of sculptor John Ahearn, Rodriguez’s work has appeared in The New Yorker, ArtNet News and The New York Times. But it wasn’t until August 2020, when he started drawing people on the subway, filming their delighted reactions and posting their videos on TikTok, that he felt really famous.
“I’d get this reaction from people like, ‘wow, this is magic,’” Rodriguez says.
Two days after his first subway post, 400,000 people were following him on the platform, and 25 million people had seen his videos on TikTok. Then came his first sponsorship deal, where the Cheetos brand paid him $7,000 to draw their logo and share the video on TikTok. Rodriguez, who was living in his grandmother’s house in the South Bronx, saw the potential and started sharing his work on Instagram and YouTube as well.
Now, Rodriguez posts regularly not only on TikTok, where he’s the platform’s most-followed visual artist, but also on Instagram, YouTube and other platforms. He is on track to earn more than $1 million in revenue this year.
Rodriguez’s multi-platform formula is employed by most top-earning creators. Makeup tutors, livestream gamers, fitness models and subway artists all know that if they’re seen on more platforms, they attract more sponsors and views. This means big competition for Meta, Google, Snapchat, TikTok and others each vying for the biggest chunk of the creator economy, which is expected to bring in $100 billion this year. In their search for the fickle attention of short-form creators, platforms are creating bigger, more ambitious opportunities for creators to monetize their content.
Meta upped its ante this summer when CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced more ways for creators to earn money on Facebook and Instagram. The update includes expansions of the company’s Facebook Stars, an in-app currency much like TikTok coins that fans can purchase and gift to creators, and Reels Play Bonus program, which compensates creators for direct views on their Reels. The announcement is the latest step in the social media giant’s quest to recruit creators of short-form video content — often, those who focus their attention on TikTok.
In response, creators are seeing these new financial rewards not as incentives to migrate from one platform to another, but instead to join additional platforms like Meta’s Facebook and Instagram. Creators and social media managers tell Forbes that they are increasingly finding it essential to adapt and distribute their content on all platforms. Many, especially short-form creators, though, say that it’s not yet viable to make a living from in-app monetization alone — on any platform.
“During the pandemic, I kept hearing everyone say that TikTok is the way to go viral,” says Rodriguez, who now has 26.8 million followers on TikTok, 3.7 million followers on Instagram and 2.9 million subscribers on YouTube. “But now I post on all platforms to have a presence on all platforms, for sure.”
Meta’s monetization incentives directed at short-form content creators come alongside TikTok’s rapid growth relative to Meta’s platforms. Weekly use of TikTok among Gen Z youth surpassed that of Instagram last November, according to a Forrester analysis, and Facebook’s user growth rate is slowing as well. Meta and TikTok are far from the only social media giants rolling out these incentives: YouTube, Snapchat and Pinterest, for example, all have creator funds that focus on short-form video and provide view-based revenue for creators. These incentives, however small, are a factor in creators’ push to expand to more social media platforms because creators see them as a way to diversify their income streams.
Keith Dorsey, CEO of Young Guns Entertainment, a talent management agency focused on Black creators, says he puts a lot of energy into researching trends in the creator economy — and has subsequently spent time convincing creators to get on more platforms.
“You know a lot of the creators I work with … they get a little big-headed, like I’m already famous on this platform, why? Trust me,” Dorsey says.
Robert Dean III, who creates content as Robiiiworld, did just that. He’s a veteran of the content creation industry — he first went viral almost a decade ago with relationship-based comedic sketches on Vine, Twitter’s now-defunct video-sharing site, before building followings on several other platforms. Each day, he wakes up by 7 a.m., writes down all his content for the day, shoots videos throughout the day and edits at night. His content is similar in theme to his early days, but he plays around with form now, making longer videos sometimes and switching up editing styles at others, depending on what he sees as current trends.
“I mastered making content to adapt to all the platforms, so now, if I make a piece of content, it’s gotta fit TikTok, Instagram, YouTube and Facebook.”
And with creators beefing up their presence on multiple platforms, different platforms naturally fall into different roles for them.
“The most important things for creators are distribution and money,” says Lauren Schnipper, VP of corporate development at Jellysmack, a company built on the premise of helping creators diversify what social media platforms they use. Jellysmack, which has a partnership with Meta, signed 30 TikTok creators last month and plans to repurpose their content for Facebook and Instagram Reels and YouTube Shorts. The company is an alum of the Forbes’ America’s Best Startup Employers list and received series C funding from SoftBank last year.
“So what’s great about TikTok? Amazing distribution, some brand deals, but they’re not really monetizing that much,” Schnipper says. “If you’re providing both monetization and distribution to help grow your audiences, creators will come.”
Dean agrees: “I look at TikTok as keeping you relevant, and I look at Instagram as keeping you paid.”
He tells Forbes he usually earns around $1,000 a month on Facebook and a similar amount on Instagram. On TikTok, where he gets more views than on both Meta platforms, he gets around $200 per month.
But of the four creators who spoke to Forbes for this article, Dean is the exception in that approximately half of his income comes directly from views on his short-form videos: creator funds, Reels bonuses, YouTube views and the like. The other half comes from brand partnerships, where brands pay creators to make content that promotes their products in some way.
Other creators of short-form content say that in-app monetization from creator funds, Reels Bonuses, Stars, Coins and the like are still far from a viable source of income compared to external income streams. Most short-form creators rely on brand partnerships for the bulk of their income.
Rodriguez, who works with talent agency UTA, says he earned $500,000 through brand deals in 2021, compared to $33,500 from the TikTok creator fund, which rewards creators based on video views. He does not currently earn money from Meta’s counterpart for Instagram and Facebook Reels, the Reels Play Bonus program.
Brooklyn-based food blogger Justine Doiron, who too started on TikTok and has since grown her other accounts, especially her Instagram, also gets a majority of her income from brand deals. Her revenue is split 70-30 between her brand partnerships and monetized blog, she says.
“I don’t think [the TikTok creator fund] is a creator-centered system,” Doiron says. “It is a very easy compensation system for them to integrate, so I don’t fault them, and I think it’s a good thing for creators overall, so we can put out really valuable content but not necessarily have to tie a partnership to it. I’m interested to see where Meta goes with this.”
Doiron is currently only part of the Pinterest creator fund but said she would consider joining both TikTok and Meta creator funds if the platforms figured out how to pay creators more in a way that doesn’t require them to be “constant content treadmills.” Doiron is currently recipe testing, filming and editing for 5-6 TikToks and 2-3 Instagram Reels per week, with work days that often extend later into the evening than in her previous job in public relations. She referenced a Hank Green video that criticizes TikTok for underpaying creators. TikTok did not respond to a request for comment.
The looming economic downturn might affect where creators direct their time and energy as well. Brand deals, advertising revenue and funding for creator economy startups are slowing, according to The Information. Last month, Business Insider reported that Jellysmack laid off 8% of its workforce, citing an anticipated decrease in advertising revenue.
This has implications for less of a reliance on ads and brand deals and, according to YouTuber Charlotte Dobre, potentially, relying more directly on views.
Dobre works with Jellysmack and has more than a million followers on her YouTube account, where she creates comedic content meant to “brighten someone’s spirits.” She says she earns almost all her revenue from in-stream ads, half from YouTube and the other half from Facebook.
While it’s exciting that Meta is adding more opportunities for creators to monetize without ads, she says, those avenues aren’t currently a large part of her business. She plans to devote more resources to short-form content as those opportunities grow.
Creator funds and bonuses are a positive but temporary solution, Schnipper says, adding that as social media companies search for ways to figure out “something more sustainable” for creators, there’s definitely still an advantage of being on as many platforms as possible no matter what happens.
“I’m very proud of the fact that I have highly diversified social media accounts, so if TikTok goes away, I’m not on the streets, and vice versa for everything else,” Doiron says.
While Meta is facing a drop in earnings in an era of new data privacy features introduced by Apple, TikTok is facing criticism — and a possible FTC investigation — for misrepresenting what it does with user data.
“You never know how long it’s going to last,” Dobre says. “The crappy thing about this business is that you have to strike when the iron is hot.”