So You Want to be an Influencer

Everyone wants a create content on TikTok account, generating millions of dollars, but reality is a harder truth.

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While scrolling through instructional videos on how to marinate eggs and properly fry Buffalo wings on TikTok’s Cooking with Lynja, you might have noticed a post where she praises Maxwell House’s new Instant Latte powder for its “coffeeshop quality in no time.” Congratulations, you’ve just been influenced. Well, at least that’s the goal.

Influencers are gamers, musicians, models, comedians, and fashionistas that all exist in the universe of content creators. They are internet personalities who have built up so much of an online audience that they have the ability to sway purchasing power and consumer habits.

While most won’t ever make enough money for it to be anything but a side hustle, some influencers have achieved massive success. Charli D’Amelio, Addison Rae, and Bretman Rock might be more familiar to readers of Teen Vogue than The Daily Upside, but they’re major players in a $21 billion industry that’s changing the marketing landscape.

Evolving Ads

Companies are done relying solely on traditional marketing avenues like billboards, commercials, and even digital advertising. As more of us congregate on social media, companies are going where the audience is and reaching out to influencers to promote their products on the biggest platforms.

In a 2022 study, the Harvard Business Review combed through thousands of promotional posts from influencers on the Chinese social media platform Weibo. Some posts cost companies $200 while others were worth $100,000, and HBR found that “on average, a 1% increase in influencer marketing spend led to an increase in engagement of 0.46%, suggesting that the strategy can in fact yield positive ROI.”

But not without risk:

  • An influencer might have a large following, but if they post too often, they can start to be annoying. But post too little and the influencer is perceived as lacking an authoritative voice for a product. It’s difficult for companies to find that Goldilocks whose posts are just right.
  • Also, too much rah-rah positivity in a promotional post can be seen as disingenuous. For example, Audi paid an influencer $4,000 to hype the automaker’s new QL2 model that “brings a brand new experience to young and free-spirited consumers.” It wasn’t reposted a single time, meaning the promotional message was viewed by a lot less people than Audi would’ve hoped.

Reality Bites

A career doing makeup tutorials on TikTok or live streaming video games on YouTube sounds like a sweet deal. The activities are often what many of us are already doing for free in our spare time, and there’s the added benefit of being your own boss — as long as you’re OK being beholden to major corporations like Meta, Google, and ByteDance.

Someone like Paige Spiranac — a former professional golfer-turned-model-turned-social-media-personality — reportedly receives $14,000 per Instagram post, outpacing both Tiger Woods and Rory Mcllroy.

But for the millions of other influencers in the world, that kind of success is far from common. Ryan Hilliard of HypeAuditor, an influencer analytics company, recently told NPR that someone would need to have 1 million followers on social media to make influencing a full-time career. He said “less than 1%” ever achieve that. “It’s just too hard. There’s too many other people doing similar stuff,” he added.

Chasing the Dream

Despite a crowded market and long odds for success, younger generations wish they could turn their hobbies into full-time work via social media:

  • Marketing software company Carro says 54% of millennials would quit their jobs if they had the chance to be influencers. Similarly, a Morning Consult survey found that 57% of Gen Zers would do the same; 30% said they would even pay to become an influencer. When asked why they want to be influencers, the top answers were “money, flexibility, and fun.”
  • Gen Z was the first generation where social media was a part of their everyday life. Many younger people view influencing and content creation as a typical career option. According to trendHERO, more than 64 million influencers exist on Instagram globally, and that’s just the one platform.

Many people in their 20’s and 30’s are out of school, in debt, living with their parents, and working at jobs they don’t like, so the influencer pursuit is a bit of a lottery ticket. They see it as a way out.

The reality is that influencing is still a job, and like most jobs, the majority of people start at the bottom.

Foot in the Door

Erica Becker is a 33-year-old actor, podcaster, event coordinator, and media consultant based in New York. She also has a burgeoning part-time career as an influencer, specifically in the fields of health, beauty and wellness.

“I’ve always just enjoyed posting stuff like ‘here’s a great recipe I made,’ or ‘I bought this thing, and I really like it,’” she told The Daily Upside. “But then one of my friends was telling me if I had an affiliate link to Amazon for that product, I could be making money from it.”

Right now, Becker is in the building phase, attracting an audience while developing a media kit, essentially a highlight reel of her best Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube content to show off to potential brands and sponsors.

She’s excited about influencing, but it can be taxing. “The other day, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., I was filming and editing content,” she said. “You’ve got to keep your energy up, which isn’t too much of a problem for me. But you also got to do your hair, do your makeup, change your clothes, so it doesn’t look like you filmed everything in the same day. And the editing can be tedious.”

Plus, since she’s just starting out, the riches haven’t exactly come through yet.

“For how much I’m putting in, I’m probably not getting the compensation for it, but you have to do that at the beginning,” she said. “No one’s going to pay you to make content for them if you don’t have content to show.”

So far, Becker has done a few one-off posts for detox vitamins and espresso-infused energy bars. She said deals like that tend to pay around $100 to $150. She’s working on securing a more long-term partnership with an arts shop on Etsy.

Becker said she’s confident she can make influencing a more steady and lucrative source of income in the near future. She also said the business model in general is gaining plenty of legitimacy.

“If you go to LinkedIn and search ‘content creator,’ there are so many jobs for it,” she said.

Making it Work

The influencer is the modern-day celebrity — the movie star, pop idol, or professional athlete of the digital age. And like all those careers, most people never get their big break. As long as influencing is approached with a degree of realism, it can be a fun hobby or distraction, and maybe provide occasional income akin to tending bar on the weekends, tutoring after school, or dog walking on days off. It doesn’t need to be your primary income, and the dreams are still free.