Cover From left: Jin Lim (JinnyBoy), Jenn Chia, Alvin Chong and Sean Lee

Four of social media’s influentials shed light on being content creators in a business dictated by numbers

Chances are, you're reading this on your device because it either pops up on your social media feed or you've stumbled upon it scrolling the internet for something to entertain or inform you. Since the way we consume media has irrevocably transformed, so has the way we produce content.

As digital marketing takes precedence after being compounded by the surge in 2020, a group of multi-hyphenates emerge. Labelled under umbrella terms of ‘influencers’ and ‘key opinion leaders’, these are the internet’s affluent. Content creators whose livelihoods depend on being on top of the ever-evolving digital food chain.

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What is a digital content creator?

If a brand understands who their target audience is and know the niches they need to target, they’d get what we call ‘effective views', and what that means is that as much as the numbers matter, it’s the right numbers that matter to your brand
Jin Lim

“It may sound surprising to some, but it's still a fairly new industry,” says Jin Lim, who launched his own YouTube channel JinnyBoyTV a decade ago and co-founded Aspect Ratio Studios alongside his wife, Michelle Ng, a creative production company-cum-social media agency. Observing a recent uptick in social media marketing when brands were unable to produce their own content under the lockdown, he notes that it's led them to turn to content creators instead for their all-rounded potential.

“Brands are realising that by having talents with significant reach create content that suit their identity, it will not only enable them to tap into their following but also garner greater engagement just by repurposing said content.”

Regardless of the industry’s growth, however, Lim notes that it's not "as simple as posting an image, tagging the relevant affiliations and calling it a day."

"Nobody knew it took me seven years to get my first 100k views. And when I hit my seventh year, it was like hitting a wall. I didn’t know what to do with it, because for me, it was pretty tough to constantly churn out ideas. The creative business doesn't wait for anyone, which is why you even see some content creators releasing stuff a few times a day.”

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Jenn Chia, or SolmJenn, one of Malaysia’s pioneering female YouTubers, offers differing perspective: "People have gotten a lot more sophisticated. They know when you’re doing an ad and call you out on your bullsh*t; they can even ‘cancel’ you nowadays. So for us creators—and brands—I think we’re starting to become more aware that authenticity is what audiences are looking for.

“Now that people can see what goes on behind-the-scenes, they are more aware that it’s a demanding profession. Most think that I’m just the ‘face’ of SoImJenn and that I only come up with ideas, when in fact I have my fingers in every pie, from conceptualisation to post-production.”

The creative director has also had her fair share of gruelling on-set experiences. "I remember blacking out while filming the music video for Where's My Hero," Chia says. "It was a stop-motion video where Jon (Liddell, her partner) and I had to lie on the floor for nearly the entire 34 hours we needed to film it, with my head propped up most of the time!"

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Is it financially sustainable to do just one thing?

2020 was like a huge wake-up call. If you weren’t innovative or creative enough, and if you couldn’t create content yourself, you’d be replaced by someone more desperate than you
Alvin Chong

Being in a creative industry so intrinsically tied to social media means that it isn't sufficient—nor was it ever, according to the four—for both established and budding content creators to survive with doing just one thing.

“Maybe if you’re in another country like Thailand or Vietnam, but not if you’re in Malaysia,” muses Alvin Chong, who first came into the limelight after joining the 2009 Astro Star Quest competition. Since then, he's amde his rounds in the local entertainment scene as a recording artiste who not only participated in the 2019 Asia Song Festival, but has also starred in award-winning dramas such as Suri Hati Mr Pilot and Mak Cun. However, he finds that in order for local talents to remain relevant and stay on top of their game in a market that has an audience as diverse as Malaysia's, one needed to be able to multitask or be multi-talented—hence his massive social media presence, where both his TikTok as well as his Instagram have gathered a following of over a million.

"2020 was a huge wake-up call," he continues. “If you weren’t innovative or creative enough, and if you couldn’t create content for yourself, you’d be replaced by someone more desperate than you. The biggest challenge is how to stay relevant. I try to do live-streams because it’s the only way for me to connect to my fans, but after a whole day of shoots from, I'd be lying if I said I don't feel burnt out."

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For content creator-turned-actor Sean Lee, whose YouTube channel landed him his first roles in popular local dramas like My Coffee Prince and Sweet Dreams, shares similar sentiments to Chong when it came to balancing personal interests as well as his professional career. "The thing is, artists branching out to different avenues isn't something new," he says.

Lee, who directed and acted in his own short film, 261 Sundays, last year, is wistful when he recalls the experience: “I’m fortunate to have the opportunities I have now, but I want to go back to just creating content but I don’t have the time anymore. Being a content creator is a full-time job, and in its own way, it’s a variant of filmmaking that feels like a race sometimes. It’s a struggle because we have to keep up with the trends. Even I can barely keep up with it—it’s all about instant gratification nowadays, all about the ‘right here, right now'."

Chia adds: “Fame is as permanent as one’s looks, and it’s why influencers are no longer just influencers. Content creators are in this constant state of adaptation—we either have a plan for the next five to 10 years or utilise fame as a marketing tool. Take Jane Chuck and her brand ‘Motherchuckers’ for example, or even Maggy Wang, who was a radio host but is now an influencer, YouTuber, podcast host and a certified trainer who’s working with adidas.”

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Do numbers matter?

I think budding creators have to remember that if you really love what you do, the numbers shouldn’t be what’s motivating you. It’s the quality of your content and the people who are engaged with your content.
Jenn Chia

While the number of followers may be slowly losing their impact as brands increasingly realise the value of quality content and active engagement, Chia concedes that on first impressions, the numbers still matter.

“Getting someone with a massive following does not guarantee you an equal amount of active engagement,” she explains. “And though I’m in a position  where I’m able to collaborate with brands that share my ethos, I think budding creators have to remember that if you really love what you do, the numbers shouldn’t be what’s motivating you. It’s the quality of your content and the people who are engaged with your content.”

Lim agrees. “Higher numbers don't equate an effective marketing strategy. Think about it, even if you have someone with eight million followers, does that mean the reach is also eight million? Of course not. If a brand understands who their target audience is and know the niches they need to target, they’d get what we call ‘effective views’. What that means is that as much as the numbers matter, it’s the right numbers that matter more.”

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What does it really mean to be a content creator? Do I chase trends and get the views? Or do I create what I want, and hope that people see the sincerity in what I do?
Sean Lee

But the danger with playing the number game is getting consumed by it.

“I’ve known a few creators who had a good momentum and had gathered a pretty decent following that suddenly dropped off the map," Lee reveals. "When I asked them about it, they just said that the content they produced just wasn’t ‘them’. That even when they'd gotten what many consider on the surface as successful, they weren’t happy. And that got me to reflect. I mean, what does it really mean to be a content creator? Do I chase trends and get the views? Or do I create what I want, and hope that people see the sincerity in what I do?”

When asked about the journey it takes to become an influencer, Chong wonders if one can even qualify it as a ‘journey’ to begin with as for some influencers, it was easy to earn “a million followers overnight".

“Getting the numbers is the easiest part,” he says. “But to actually be an influential person and have those numbers to mean something? That’s a whole other story.”

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