In the olden days of the Internet (think 2008), a successful blogger had one goal in mind: finding “real” success, off the web. A humorist telling jokes on Blogger just wanted a book deal with a major publisher. A photographer who posted his pictures on Tumblr was hoping to get the attention of an established gallerist.
But now, something important has changed: For a growing number of people, their activities online have become their real jobs. Achieving “influencer” status on Instagram or YouTube can help a onetime enthusiast who filmed videos from his childhood bedroom earn a legitimate six-figure salary. Today, social-media stardom is no longer a springboard to a mainstream career but a career in and of itself. For these tech-savvy self-promoters, there’s a lucrative world of freebies, sponsorships and other moneymaking opportunities at their fingertips.
Welcome to Economy 3.0, an ever-changing financial landscape fueled by our collective smartphone addiction. The real titans are celebrities like Kim Kardashian and Kylie Jenner, who reportedly get paid $400,000-$500,000 per post to promote products like vitamins, iPhone cases and even medications to their millions of fans. And while not everyone can be a full-fledged social-media mogul, a few levels down there are plenty of industrious influencers with anywhere from 20,000 to 750,000 followers, or subscribers, finding new and creative ways to make a living.
Still, that doesn’t mean it’s easy. From crafting engaging content to gaming those ever-changing social-media algorithms, the winners in this world have to fight to command and keep the attention of their fickle and increasingly distracted audiences.
And while the money is good, it’s not always consistent, so Internet stars have to figure out ways to turn easy, one-time fees — a sponsored post, for instance — into longstanding, more lucrative relationships with brands. Here’s how they hustle.
If you have a well-traveled website, it’s a forgone conclusion that eventually advertisers will come calling. When Danielle Miele, the Nashville-based jewelry influencer who blogs under the name Gem Gossip (and who now has 164,000 followers on Instagram, 24,300 followers on Twitter and 8,600 on Facebook) started her website back in 2008, she had no inkling it would eventually turn into a business. Then she was approached to run a sidebar banner ad on her site a year and a half later.
“It came out of left field, and I thought it was a scam at first,” she recalls. “I had no idea what to charge.” She asked around and eventually quoted a number that the advertiser accepted. It was her first deal — and just the faintest glimmer of what was to come.
Miele now easily pulls in six figures (she says the rule of thumb she’s heard is that each Instagram follower translates to $1 annually, so that 100,000 followers roughly amounts to a $100,000 income). However, she’s moved away from ad sales, as most of her money comes from sponsored posts and selling antique and one-of-a-kind jewels. But for some influencers, ads are more than a reliable source of revenue. For product reviewers, for instance, affiliate ads — ones with embedded referral codes that pay a small commission to the host if a click results in a sale — can be enormously lucrative.
Take mattress influencer — yes, that’s a thing — Derek Hales, who was recently featured in Fast Company as having made millions as the founder of Sleepopolis.com. Hales started blogging in 2014, when he and his new bride decided to upgrade their bed; it was also the dawn of the bed-in-a-box boom. For Hales, who was trained in SEO, the opportunity was obvious. The Arizonian started reviewing mattresses on his website and posting videos about them on YouTube. Affiliate ads were Hales’ bread and butter. He quit his day job in 2015 and by 2016 had made an estimated $2 million, according to the article.
Although Hales was far from a household name, he had also developed an unbelievable amount of influence within the mattress world. In fact, Casper found his negative review of their mattress so damaging to the brand that they sued him.
Friends with benefits
Before the relationship between Casper and Sleepopolis turned sour, it was mutually quite beneficial, with Casper and other mattress startups profiting from the traffic Hales brought them while he was making major bank from the comfort of his living room. (Hales has since sold his site, reportedly for between $3 million and $5 million.) Such is the symbiotic relationship between influencers and brands.
“These are new business models we haven’t seen before,” says Gad Allon, professor of operations, information and decisions at Wharton Business School. “The Internet allows people to identify a niche and reach a very specific audience.”
That’s exactly what 33-year-old New Yorker Sarah Billstein thought when she started her Instagram account Rosé Season in 2014. Now she has 29,200 followers and has been featured on ABC News, but she admits that at first her feed was meant to be satirical.
“It was a way to joke about something I thought was trendy,” she says of the account, which flaunts photos of cute dogs, lush sunsets and beach life, always with a glass or bottle of rosé nearby. But then she quickly recognized the potential to be unlocked within the world of social media.
“It’s a constant battle between left boob and right boob. Support ALL boobs for breast cancer awareness when you buy this shirt or anything on my site through October! Watch my story for a special coupon code at the end! #winewednesday #breastcancerawareness #roséseason”
She also was enjoying the perks. In 2015, Billstein was working full-time at the music app Shazam, but she had leveraged her Internet alter ego to fund some real-world travel: “That summer, I went to France with some girlfriends and reached out to wineries, clothing brands and hotels. I ended up getting $10,000 worth of free jewelry and clothes, and the only meal we paid for was at the McDonald’s in St. Tropez.”
Since then, Billstein has focused on turning Rosé Season into a lifestyle brand — designing and selling apparel, accessories and home goods. She also works with “brands and companies that appeal to a rosé wine drinker, such as fashion, beauty, health and wellness, travel, hospitality, experiences, media and publishing,” on events and marketing, according to her website, roseallday.com.
Billstein quit her job this year, after the demands of her account began to affect her performance at work, and she was able to more or less match her six-figure finance-industry salary anyway.
Thanks to our sponsors
For many social-media influencers, the majority of their money comes from sponsored posts: those photos, or videos, that function as ads for their partnering brands. David Patterson is an Atlanta-based, 27-year- old car vlogger who posts three videos a week on YouTube under the name That Dude In Blue (he has 764,000 subscribers to his channel, as well as 212,000 followers on Instagram and 32,600 on Twitter). He says that while many YouTubers make their money from Google AdSense — the program that allows content producers to run commercials on their videos — he prefers nailing down sponsorships because he can negotiate his rate, instead of leaving it up to chance.
Beyond just the obvious car-related companies, he’s worked with recognizable brands like Dollar Shave Club, Suave, Squarespace and Ancestry.com. His value, Patterson says, is in the specificity of his audience, which is considerable and also 98 percent male: “It makes advertising on TV look silly, because with me, you literally know exactly who you’re showing your ads to.”
This, according to digital-marketing consultant Shane Barker, is exactly why brands are willing to pay so much to get the right influencer in their corner.
Barker first started working with influencers back in 2012, when a fitness blogger contacted him to help her grow her reach and, of course, make more money. It was his eureka moment. She had already made $500,000 selling copies of her e-books, and her only overhead was her gym membership. Barker realized there was a new economy developing within the ranks of social media, and he wanted to be a part of it.
Five years later, he believes this economy is still nascent. There’s still no universal pricing structure for sponsored posts — the price is whatever a brand is willing to pay. But Barker prefers to set his clients up in more stable relationships — “$800 for a picture is awesome, but that’s not constant, so you’re always hustling for your next dollar. So the idea is, you develop those relationships. You go to the brands and you agree to do long-term projects, 15-20 posts in a year. That’s how you get that long-term money.”
Like many entrepreneurs will advise, you also get that long-term money by diversifying your revenue stream. Kate Siegel was out at a bachelorette party receiving her usual onslaught of over-the-top texts from her mother when her amused friends started encouraging her to post them on the web. She opened the Instagram account Crazy Jewish Mom soon after that. That was in 2014, and now Crazy Jewish Mom has 797,000 followers on Instagram, 53,708 likes on Facebook and 16,500 followers on Twitter.
The account really blew up in January 2015, after Brooklyn-based Siegel was featured in an article on BuzzFeed Parents. However, she quit her Condé Nast job well before Crazy Jewish Mom was economically viable because she was writing a book proposal and wanted to be able to give it her full attention. “I had a few opportunities and a month’s rent saved,” she remembers.
Siegel’s “Mother, Can You Not?” became a New York Times bestseller, and since then she’s been looking for ways to expand the brand. Although she does sponsored posts, she says, “We have to be very careful about the partnerships we take on. It’s a brand, but it’s also extremely personal and our community is very closely following our lives.” To that end, Siegel and her mother, Laura Siegelbaum, have started a podcast and been approached by advertisers to collaborate.
For influencers, securing income beyond sponsorships can provide another layer of security, in a profession that’s far from stable. Miele of Gem Gossip sources and sells jewelry; Rosé Season’s Billstein sells wine-themed merch. She also does paid appearances, as does Patterson. The goal, for each one of them, is to create an enduring career path that’s bolstered by — but not overly dependent on — the ever-shifting social-media algorithms.
Speaking of: Likes, follows and subscribers are great, but they’re not the same thing as engagement. It’s the latter that companies value and also — not coincidentally — the hardest to maintain. If the quality of an influencer’s content diminishes, or their updates start falling flat, the level of activity on their posts (comments, views, likes, shares) will drop. If that happens, the algorithms behind all of the major social-media sites are designed to take notice and will start burying new posts.
This is the death knell of influence. The only way to beat the algorithm is to create better content. Barker advises anyone who wants to pursue a career as a social-media influencer to think long and hard about it.
“The thing is, you have to figure out what you love to do. You have to enjoy it, you have to be passionate about it, because in the beginning you’re not going to make a lot of money doing it,” he said. “And then once you’ve successfully built your audience, it’s still all about the content. You have to keep feeding the people. You have to keep dancing.”
Source: New York Post
Featured Image: Getty Images
Inset Image: New York Post