Influencers are everywhere. We follow them on social media platforms like Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube, envying their every move and update. We live vicariously through their perfectly plated brunches in exotic locations, lusciously lacquered nails, or buffed cars and bodies. Every day is a new opportunity to be endlessly captivated by their lives — or at least the curated, edited, and airbrushed versions.
From the outside, the life of an influencer seems like a daily whirlwind of lavish vacations, free swag, and all play and no work. With this perfect image projected all over social media, it’s no surprise that 29% of American children aspire to be a YouTuber when they grow up, according to a recent survey by Harris Poll and LEGO.
But for serious influencers — not your cousin’s cousin who got free sneakers that one time — there’s genuine business savvy and hard work behind the highly filtered Instagram photos, meticulously edited YouTube videos, and carefully crafted tweets.
If you dream of becoming an influencer, here’s the inside scoop on what it really involves.
What Is an Influencer?
Once upon a time, being an influencer meant possessing extraordinary style, shopping savvy, or entertaining expertise in a niche interest. Maybe your peers always copied your clothing, or your coworkers tried to emulate your communication style. Whatever you were doing, eating, or coveting, others took notice.
In modern Internet culture, being an influencer means that having the best highlights could net you a sponsorship with a hair color company. Planning on getting married or having a baby could inspire companies to throw wedding- and baby-related swag and impressive endorsements your way. Brands are eager to get their product in front of new audiences, and influencers offer instant access to a highly engaged audience in targeted demographics.
There are three basic categories of influencer.
Good things come in small packages, especially for people who have small followings with major spending power. While definitions vary, a micro-influencer tends to have 1,000 to 100,000 highly engaged followers.
One of the most desirable qualities of micro-influencers is their extremely loyal followings. Because their followers know them on a more personal level than macro- or celebrity influencers, they’re often more inclined to react to their calls to action. Also, micro-influencers are usually more accessible than macro- or celebrity influencers because they’re more likely to interact with their followers consistently.
Higher up the pecking order, the macro-influencer tends to have 100,000 to 1 million followers. Because these followers consist of more than just highly loyal fans, the macro-influencer also is more likely to have a varied audience.
Many influencers who fall into this category are considered “Insta-famous,” meaning their fame and popularity are a result of their presence on the Internet. While that’s a powerful concept for online brands, it doesn’t always translate into sales or loyalty offline. Brands want the opportunity to be seen by a large audience, but with larger followings, the demographic is often less targeted than with micro-influencers. Promoted products may be seen by all 1 million followers, but only a small percentage of those followers might be the right audience for sales.
Mega- (Celebrity) Influencer
A mega- or celebrity influencer tends to have 1 million or more followers. These stars straddle the online and offline worlds and manage to translate their popularity into lucrative side hustles as brand ambassadors and product sponsors.
While Instagram and Twitter discourage paying for followers, in online popularity (as in politics), many of the accounts following influencers are bots — fully or partially automated accounts. But savvy influencers know that whether they have 10,000 or 1 million followers, authenticity and connecting with their core fans is crucial. Only highly engaged followers have the loyalty brands are looking for when they market through influencers.
What It’s Really Like to Be an Influencer
To truly understand what goes into creating a successful influencer brand, we interviewed a group of influencers who shared how they got to where they are. We asked them some extremely personal questions about what they earn, how they became influencers, and whether it’s actually as fun and fabulous as it seems. Some of their answers were surprising.
The Costs of Becoming an Influencer
You might be thinking to yourself, “What do influencers like Chiara Ferragni and Chrissy Teigen have that I don’t?” (Aside from the lavish lifestyle, celebrity spouses, adorable babies, and designer endorsements, that is.)
Two of the biggest things are money and time.
The amount of money it takes to create something people feel is worth following varied widely among our interviewees. Depending on their niche, some were able to start with a simple camera, spending less than $500 to get started. Others reported paying upward of $20,000 on things like high-quality camera equipment, outsourced Web design, and smaller expenses like items to unbox and food tastings.
For our influencers whose main platform was YouTube, the startup costs were minimal. Two of the three reported starting their channels with just a low-cost camera, spending only a few hundred dollars to create their first few videos. Bloggers and Instagram influencers, on the other hand, had much higher startup costs — ranging from $5,000 to $20,000 spent on Web design, still photography equipment, and SEO training.
Even at the high end of expenditures, starting a self-owned business as an influencer can be much less expensive than the startup costs of a traditional business. That said, while almost anyone can afford to start the journey, very few people are likely to reach the level of popularity required to become a successful influencer.
Money isn’t the only thing you need to become an influencer. YouTubers John Hill and Dustin Luke both said their biggest investment in building substantial followings was time — and there never seems to be enough of it. However, the payoff from investing time and money into your personal brand can be substantial.
Traveling Like an Influencer
Pictures of glamorous resorts, “out of the airplane window” shots, and chic hotel rooms are standard Instagram fare for most influencers. But not everything you see is free.
When discussing their travel in 2019, the influencers we spoke with reported brand-sponsored trips to places like Japan, a NASCAR race in Florida, and Disneyland. However, many also said travel costs frequently came out of their own pockets.
In December 2019, Luke traveled from L.A. to Buenos Aires, then back to his home base in L.A. for a mere three days before jet-setting to Japan for a week. He estimates these trips cost approximately $9,000.
“This isn’t my consistent life right now, it’s what I’d like to do,” Luke said. He added that it’s “definitely a nice little snapshot of what I’d like to be doing, but I do not recommend someone doing that if they don’t have a following yet.”
YouTuber, skater, and creator Hill shared details of a month-long trip to California from his home base in Brooklyn that cost a whopping $10,000 out of pocket for air travel, rental accommodations, and daily expenses.
For influencers, travel is often an investment in their personal brands. That was the case with a conference trip to Austin, Texas for Arizona mommy blogger Bethanie Garcia. Her travel costs were minimal, with flights only costing around $400 from Arizona to Austin, plus an additional $500 fee to attend the conference. Garcia worked with a local proprietor to cover the cost of her stay, which could have been an additional $1,000 per night if she’d paid full price. Attending this conference will end up netting her 35 times her original investment due to an ongoing partnership agreement that began during her time in Austin.
But prospective influencers shouldn’t bank on this kind of success from their out-of-pocket costs. Since Jane Ko’s blog centers around the food scene in Austin, she reported little travel for 2019. However, she did make a trip to Nevada to visit Antelope Canyon and Monument Valley to create content for her followers. This trip cost her around $1,000, and she didn’t report any unique business opportunities that arose from the expense.
The Perks of Being an Influencer
Free products are one of the first things that come to mind when we think about the top perks of being an influencer. But the majority of influencers we spoke with said the number of packages they received became overwhelming. Hill, Ko, and Garcia all said that after their rise to popularity, they received up to 10 packages of free items each week. The appeal quickly dwindled, and they now decline the majority of freebies they’re offered.
Most of the perks our influencers cited go beyond the material to include feel-good benefits such as:
- Doing What They Love as a Full-Time Job. This is one of Hill’s top reasons for being an influencer.
- Helping and Inspiring People. Ko and Garcia both love that their lifestyle allows them to help others. Ko added that she enjoys inspiring people as well.
- Being Able to Enjoy the Moment Both Now and Later. Luke shares Hill’s enthusiasm about loving his career path, adding that it’s all documented for him to refer back to in the future.
The Downsides of Being an Influencer
The influencer lifestyle isn’t all great hair days and adoring followers. The emotional and personal difficulties that can arise from life as a semi-public figure include:
- Not Having Time for Other Things. When Garcia started her blog, she was a stay-at-home mom. As her influence grew, so did the demands on her attention and time. It became impossible for her to be both a full-time mom and a full-time influencer. “I was either slacking at housework and being a mom, or slacking on my work,” she said. Fortunately for her, her brand is now financially sustainable enough that her husband was able to retire from his career to manage their household. “I now support our family financially 100%, which is so humbling and exciting,” Garcia said.
- Not Being Available to Family and Friends. Along similar lines, Ko admits that having a busy schedule and working to build and maintain a consistent following means she’s not always available for the people she cares about most.
- Difficulty Building Authentic Relationships. “It’s difficult to build genuine relationships,” Ko said, “because people naturally show me their best side or want to be ‘friends’ so they can ask me to post about their business/service or feature their account to get followers.”
- Being Mocked. A Lot. “It sucks to be constantly ridiculed and bullied,” Garcia said, “but I know that’s just part of putting myself out there.” She wishes “there wasn’t so much judgment about what I do for a living, because I am so grateful that I get to stay home and be with my family all day while providing for them. It’s truly the biggest blessing. And I think anyone would jump at the opportunity to do that.”
- Realizing Fame Doesn’t Equal Fulfilment. “Money and fame don’t make you feel as powerful as you may think,” Hill said. “It’s easy to pretend to be confident for a short time after you hit record, but influencers feel all the anxiety and pain anyone else feels for the same silly reasons.” He adds, “The access to fulfillment and happiness, at least for me, comes from working toward a goal you believe will leave a positive impact, and anyone can do that, with or without followers.”
- Underestimating the Amount of Work Involved. Luke said one of the biggest challenges about the influencer life is that people don’t understand the amount of time and innovation required to create and maintain a following.
- Underestimating the Cost. Some niches are particularly expensive. Ko reported monthly expenses of $5,000 to $7,000. That includes her representation, contractors, beauty expenses, and restaurant meals.
Advice for Aspiring Influencers
To those of us on the outside, the influencer life seems effortless. But behind all the ups and downs of building a viable influencer brand, there’s a lot of hard work and passion — plus a little help from the experts.
Influencing Is a Full-Time Job (and Then Some)
All of the influencers we interviewed reported spending at least 40 hours per week working on their projects or their brand. Ko said she spends as many as 90 hours per week working.
Garcia lightened her workflow by signing with an influencer management company. The bulk of her administrative tasks — including negotiating with sponsors, drawing up contracts, and emails — are now handled by the agency. Her representation earns 15% of her monthly income, but she says they’re “the most essential part of [her] business.”
Craig Thompson, a gaming vlogger and comedian, said he spends every waking minute working, which includes meetings, video recordings, and keeping up with social media. For many of us with traditional jobs, social media is an escape that helps us decompress from a tough day at work. But for those whose work revolves around social media, keeping up with it is a responsibility that never stops. Add in different time zones, and some influencers might be connecting with fans from around the world around the clock. They also have to squeeze in time to create social media posts, respond to followers, write blog content, shoot videos, edit videos and photos, and promote the brands they partner with.
It Takes a Lot of Passion
While the influencers we interviewed come from a variety of backgrounds — including marketing, parenting, and video games — they share a single marketable quality: passion. They all said that being passionate about their topic and audience was the key to being successful as an influencer.
It Takes Time to Build Your Audience
Most of the influencers we interviewed described a long process from being a random content creator to someone considered an influencer. Interestingly enough, the more niche their topic, the easier it seemed to be for our influencers to find their footing. Influencers in flooded niches like parenting and extreme sports had to work longer and harder to find a marketable voice and loyal followers. They averaged four to six years spent on blogs and YouTube channels before finally breaking through.
For example, Ko’s blog started out as a general food blog where she used her educational background in nutrition to write about healthy food options. When she honed her focus on reviewing the local food scene in Austin, her readership exploded.
The exception to the years-long process is Luke, who rose to fame almost overnight in Argentina after uploading a video that was viewed by hundreds of thousands of people in the span of a few hours. For most influencers, however, success isn’t so instantaneous.
Representation Makes a Big Difference
While the influencers we spoke with were down-to-earth and friendly, we connected with most of them through publicists or agencies. And sadly, micro-influencers don’t have as much sway when it comes to finding a prominent agency for representation. Based on our research, we found that the number of followers required for getting reputable representation varied widely from 30,000 to 400,000. There is no magic number, but other factors include specific niche, popularity level, and which topics are trendy.
While many people still reach out to the influencers individually, most deals and negotiations are handled through their representation. We had mixed results when asking whether sponsorship inquiries were made inbound via brands or outbound via the influencers’ representation. But more often than not, it seems, sponsored post requests are inbound, rather than a result of the influencers seeking out brands they’re interested in.
Luke explained some of the different packages involved when a brand chooses to invest in a social media buyout: “Brands can go as little as posting a story to Instagram and tagging the brand to posting several stories, an Instagram photo, a video after the campaign, a full-length video to Instagram, [and] a full-length video to YouTube [and] Facebook.”
He wouldn’t share a set price range, saying every campaign was different. But he did say he’s “done campaigns that have ranged as little as a couple thousand dollars to $50,000.” And these campaigns were nuanced negotiations that took into account what Luke described as “the full package” of “how many full-length videos posted to YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, how many Facebook posts, Instagram posts, how many stories.”
Without the benefit of representation to handle these difficult and time-consuming negotiations, influencers can easily spend too much effort on administration and not enough time creating content that engages their followers.
If They Had to Do It All Over…
Most of the people we interviewed expressed no regrets about their journeys to becoming an influencer. They were somewhat philosophical about the process and admitted they saw mistakes they made in the past as lessons they had to learn.
Ko said she wished she’d done some interning or shadowing with someone in a similar position so she could have learned more about the business side of being an influencer. She felt that project management experience or an understanding of how to grow a team might have benefited her in the long run.
For Thompson, his issue was a lack of time management skills. He felt that early in his career, procrastination was his norm, which led to personal stress. He’s become better at planning and scheduling, which helps with his overall ability to work more effectively.
Pursuing influence as a career path isn’t a decision to make lightly. Becoming an influencer requires the financial stability to sustain startup investments and ongoing costs as your following grows. For every influencer success story, countless aspiring influencers never find their following.
And money isn’t the only expense that comes with a life in the limelight. A critical part of finding success as an influencer is letting your audience into your life. Although most influencers primarily show the fabulous parts of their lives, there’s always someone out there ready with a nasty comment or snarky remark. As your exposure increases, so does the potential for ridicule and disdain from complete strangers.
On the other hand, the influencer life presents unique possibilities. Successful influencers visit exotic locations, try out new and interesting products, get to inspire or help their audience and communities, and get paid for it. Influencers may be known for recommending products and services that work with their brand, but they can also create awareness of societal issues and nonprofit causes that are important to them. The possibilities to do good are endless. And you have the chance to make a living doing something you love.
From the outside looking in, influencers’ lives seem effortless and carefree. But it takes a lot of time, dedication, and effort to create the perfect Instagram shot or hilarious YouTube video. If you dream of living the influencer lifestyle, take a hard look at the drawbacks as well as the benefits. The financial payoff can be significant for those who “make it,” but the more you know going into this career path, the more likely you are to succeed.