Tina Meeks first started posting about motherhood on Instagram because she felt lonely as a relatively new mom.
It was 2015, and Meeks and her husband James, an entrepreneur in the tech space, had just moved to Dallas from Phoenix. At 27, and with no one to commiserate with about the trials of parenting a five-year-old and a newborn, Meeks felt like a fish out of water in her new community.
"Nobody seemed to understand, not even my husband," she tells CNBC Make It. "So I turned to the internet to connect, just have somebody tell me that I wasn't over here in my head going crazy. I began sharing the ups and the downs of balancing motherhood and my work life."
Meeks, who is now 34, called her Instagram "Her Life Sparkles," based off of her childhood nickname, Sparkle. She gave recommendations on clothes, family, relationships, hair care and parenting. She posted pictures of food and her kids in Halloween costumes.
That first year, Meeks made about $1,000 collaborating with brands. To Meeks, it was just a side hustle to go with her full-time job as an insurance adjuster, where she was earning a $55,000 salary.
But in 2018, Meeks got pregnant with a third child. While the pregnancy was unplanned, it actually ended up being very good for her brand. Her Instagram following quickly jumped from 2,000 to 10,000.
A few months later, she recalls, "the floodgates opened, and brands — diapers, clothing, soap — started reaching out wanting partner with me." Meeks had created a very shoppable life on social media, with thousands of moms eagerly waiting for her next product recommendation or photo offering a glimpse into mommy life.
In the influencer hierarchy, based on interviews with several mom influencers on my "Under the Influence" podcast, a micro-influencer might have anywhere between 10,000 and 50,000 followers.
That may be smaller than some of the top-tier influencers (500,000 to 1 million followers), but micro-influencers often have very intimate relationship with brands and high engagement from followers. This can make their brand very lucrative, as it did for Meeks, who currently has an Instagram following of 57,000.
When Meeks realized the potential growth of her business, she decided to take things more seriously. She studied photography and purchased a professional camera.
That paid off hugely. When the pandemic struck, Meeks found a way to use her new digital skills. The companies she worked with, including Children's Place and Fab Kids, could no longer shoot their own ads because of quarantine restrictions. So she offered all her services, becoming a one-woman digital marketing studio.
Meeks' kids became little models. She had a child in every age bracket — an infant, a toddler and a school-aged child — and could shoot all kinds of content for brands right in her house.
In 2020 alone, Meeks made more than $300,000 from working with brands and consulting aspiring mom influencers on how to grow their business. She was able to quit her job and turn her side hustle into a full-time business.
The influencer industry is set to grow to approximately $13.8 billion this year, according to a 2021 report from Influencer Marketing Hub — and experts don't see the growth slowing down anytime soon.
Based on my interviews with influencers and digital marketing experts, the starting point for how much an influencer gets paid for a single post is about $100 per 10,000 followers.
That means macro-influencers with about 500,000 followers can make up to $5,000 for a single Instagram post. The recommended sweet spot is to post at a rate of once a day. So even if only half of the posts are sponsored, an influencer can bring in about $910,000 per year.
Meeks' following is growing exponentially, but she says she doesn't believe in the standard metrics. She sets her own rates, and when a brand comes to her with what they want to pay, she always negotiates because she knows that her audience engagement is high and that she has a lot of trust with the Black moms who follow her.
"It's on a campaign-to-campaign basis. I go by the calculation of 4% to 6% of your following size as your baseline rate," Meeks says.
"Nine times out of 10 in brand board rooms and marketing rooms, there isn't someone who knows how to speak to Black women in a way that's going to connect," she explains. "So not only are you hiring me to create quality content, you're also hiring me to speak to my audience about your product in a manner that is relatable and valuable to their life. That connection point alone is priceless."
Meeks' story is just one example that proves how powerful mom influencers are in the social media marketing industry — one that is often ignored, perhaps because it's dominated by women and made for women.
"Moms are a much more lucrative category than millennials," Joe Gagliese, co-founder and CEO of the influencer marketing agency Viral Nation, tells CNBC Make It. "They have a lot of more buying power, and are usually very PG-rated in their content. They're very brandable."
Meek agrees, adding that "people are obsessed. Now, with more people at home during the pandemic, they are just so wrapped up in our family and our story and what we're doing and what the kids are doing."
Meeks is more vocal about her influencer journey now, "because I believe that I can help other women do this." (About 15% of her income comes from coaching other influencers — through through online classes and e-books — on how to make money.)
Here's her best advice:
1. Remain true to who you are and allow yourself to be a beginner.
"No one starts at the top tier of their work field," Meeks says. "You have to try, fail, and try some more to get there. There are thousands of moms, wives, makeup artists and stylists telling their stories, but none of them are you. Being you is what will set you apart from the pack."
2. Be willing to put in serious effort.
"Yes, I get paid to spend time with my family and do everyday things like hang out in a rental home for the weekend or have an Easter egg hunt in coordinated outfits," Meeks admits.
But she also works harder now than she ever did in her 9-to-5 job.
In addition to being a wife and mom of three, she says, "I'm a photographer, copywriter, editor, image consultant, hair and wardrobe stylist, secretary, research and development analyst, tech support, accounts payable and so many other titles."
3. Be prepared to have your personal life show up in your work.
Meeks loves her job and having the ability to support her family in ways she never could have imagined.
But the downside, according to Meeks, is that "balance can be lost if I'm not careful." She now understands that she has to create clear boundaries to try and keep her professional life and her personal life separate.
"I can't always be on and available to my online community," she says. "Sometimes I just have to be my kids' mom and my husband's wife."
Jo Piazza is a podcast creator and host of the critically acclaimed series "Under the Influence" and "Committed." She is also the bestselling author of nine books that have been translated into more than 10 languages. Her latest novel, "Charlotte Walsh Likes to Win," was recently released in paperback. She is also the author of the upcoming book "We Are Not Like Them." Follow her on Twitter @JoPiazza.
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