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Social media mavens wield 'influence,' and rake in big dollars

  • For social media accounts with wide followings, there's big money to be made in being an influencer, a noncelebrity who promotes brands and products.
  • The market is worth $1 billion and growing, according to one estimate.
  • Still, all influencers are not created equal, as most must have at least 100,000 followers to get a look from brands.
Amanda Oleander
Source: Amanda Oleander
Amanda Oleander

The internet has given birth to a plethora of online sensations — from the Turkish chef who became a sensation as 'Salt Bae' just by seasoning meat — to Jeremy Meeks, the felon whose viral mugshot catapulted him into a modeling career.

For many, social media can be a cruel and harsh place. Yet others, like noncelebrity "influencers" able to ride the wave of viral content to high follower counts and visibility, can easily make big money creating their own brand and promoting others.

According to Influencer marketing agency Mediakix, Instagram's influencer market is worth $1 billion, and shows no signs of slowing down. The firm predicted recently that by 2019, that figure would double.

"The fastest growing influencer marketing platforms are Instagram, Instagram Stories, Facebook, and YouTube," Jeremy Shih, head of marketing at Mediakix, told CNBC recently. For now, there's no comparable market for Twitter and the live video application Periscope.

Yet Periscope was a saving grace for Amanda Oleander, an artist based in California. In 2015, Oleander shot to fame on the platform by live streaming herself — eventually parlaying that into a six-figure income.

"At age 25, I [wanted] to be my own boss," Oleander told CNBC in a recent interview. When she first signed up for Periscope, she had recently been laid off and never considered being an internet entrepreneur.

After one week of being on Periscope, she became the most followed woman on the entire app.
"It kind of happened overnight," she said.

Live streaming herself painting exposed Oleander to a new class of clientele, with many viewers purchasing the illustrator's work, which costs an average of $5,000. Some of her clients include T-Mobile CEO John Legere, who owns two of her paintings — both of which he bought while tuned into one of Oleander's live painting sessions.

The artist told CNBC that her audience feels connected to the pieces she creates live, which encourages them to purchase the art. For example, Legere waited two years for Oleander to complete a $20,000 painting.

"I think people are attracted to that [rawness]," Oleander told CNBC. "A lot of the people who buy my pieces, they see the process," she said.

How to elevate your influencer game

Anna Rosenblatt, vice president of cultural strategy at advertising agency sparks & honey, recently told CNBC that to build a following, "live streaming works especially well for activities such as painting, gaming, and things people want to feel like they're there with you."

Otherwise, "Instagram is a top platform for micro-influencers, people who may not have millions of followers, but tens of thousands," Rosenblatt said.

As a result, micro-influencers are flourishing as brands increasingly unplug from people with far larger social media followings.

In recent years, some influencers have been able to purchase followers, enhancing the appeal of accounts with smaller followings but more targeted (and real) audiences. Rosenblatt explained that not only do micro-influencers tend to have a greater engagement with their niche, but are a cheaper deal: On average, most charge less than $500 per post.

Still, experts said the most successful micro-influencers are those who specialize in a small niche — such as art — versus a larger market like fashion. To encourage engagement with her fans, Oleander has meetups, giveaways, creates affordable prints for her viewers and even has a curated "peri-fam birthdays" list on her website.

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"If you are an individual and you want to get an influencer deal, you have to build an engaged and large following in a specific topic," said Matt Britton, CEO of Crowdtap, a marketing tech platform that aligns influencers and brands.

Britton told CNBC that the key between being an influencer and actually profiting from the industry is signing on to an influencer network, since "brands are not going to work with individuals directly," he said.

There's a definite hierarchy, Shih at Mediakix explained, as large influencers — defined as accounts with more than 100,000 Instagram followers and/or at least 300,000 subscribers on YouTube — usually get explicit overtures from brands. "Influencer marketing companies and agencies, as well as networks, also work closely with brands to identify the right influencers for a given initiative/campaign," he said.

Meanwhile, smaller fish in the social media pool can use marketing platforms, which allow influencers to apply for specific campaigns, to get their own deals.

More importantly, once influencers get a deal, according to Rosenblatt, it's imperative that the brand deals align with their values, and that taste arbiters continue to stay true to themselves and exercise transparency. That way, the audience does not feel like the influencer sold out.

"Credibility is key," Rosenblatt said. "We live in an era of trust over truth."