“I’m famous on the Internet. (Awkwardly long pause). No, not like that, my clothes stay on.”
This is me trying to explain what I do to an absolutely awful first date who can’t seem to comprehend any job beyond lawyer, doctor or any other stereotypically respectable career confined to an office or cubicle. He was looking at me like I was an alien.
I was giving him the same exasperated look back because I couldn’t fathom in this day and age anyone not knowing what an influencer is. Or does. Or why they exist, aside from my adorable mother who used to tell her friends, “I work for the Internet.”
As I needed to remind myself that night, not everyone’s life revolves around social media. This guy didn’t even have an Instagram account (clearly we were doomed from the start). That said, he did bring up some fairly valid questions. Here’s a bit of how that conversation went:
Why would you promote products on your personal profile?
Well, for one, I don’t view my Instagram as personal. It’s my business, it’s extremely lucrative and the companies I work with align with my personal brand. I like the outdoors and traveling so the fact that I get to get paid to share my passion is pretty cool. But believe me, I turn down way more offers than I accept. I’ve been asked to hock everything from organic tampons to edibles.
Why would you want to be a walking advertisement?
I don’t think I am. I just share my adventures and exploits weaving particular brands into an experience I would likely be having anyway.
You don’t get to pick where you go?
Not always, about half the time clients approach me to visit their destination. I prefer this as I get to uncover an interesting angle or story about somewhere I haven’t necessarily considered going. If there’s somewhere I really want to go I’ll pitch the tourism board there a proposal for a potential partnership.
You don’t have a set schedule, itinerary or plan?
Not usually. Some clients have specific attractions they want me to showcase, but others want to see what amazing spot I’ll stumble upon on my own. As someone who grew up with an insanely OCD Jewish mother who plans out every second of every day, learning to be spontaneous and go with the flow has been a big adjustment.
How do you get paid?
Brands and destinations pay me to include their products or services in my content, sometimes as a one-off post, but usually as an integrated campaign (stories, photos, blogs, videos, etc).
You make enough money to pay the bills?
I’m not living in a van down by the river just yet.
And you like this uncertainty?
You like routine?
This is really a job?
You bet it is.
That was six months ago when I had half the followers I do now. Today I think the term influencer is hella pretentious and I’ve learned to explain what I do much better. Instead of being just a writer or just a blogger, I am a digital storyteller with a built-in audience. I have automatic distribution channels for multimedia content I create and often collaborate with other influencers to create killer photos, articles, and videos that showcase a destination. While I am eternally grateful for all the doors social media has opened and all the people I’ve met because of a silly platform, I’ve made a few fatal flaws and picked up some tricks along the way.
The quest to make myself Insta-famous started as nothing more than an experiment. I wanted to see if anyone could make himself or herself an influencer. Clearly, the answer is yes, but that’s not to say it’s been smooth sailing the whole time. It’s been a rollercoaster ride, full of highs and lows and just now seems to be picking up speed based on the quantity and quality of offers I’ve received as of late. There are still a number of misconceptions about being an influencer I’d like to try to clear up.
Curious? Read on.
A Few Things to Understand About Being an Influencer:
-Unless you’re Kim Kardashian, followers do not come passively. I spend hours and hours everyday doing audience development, as do 90% of the other influencers I know. It takes a ton of work upfront (that’s unpaid and thankless) to grow and cultivate a fan base, which essentially means recruiting strangers to care about me and my world.
-Getting them to stick around is even harder. You have to constantly be one-upping yourself, which means going to even more epic locations and styling photos like you’re on a high fashion editorial shoot. I’ve become one of the people I made fun of hiking in dresses (or more accurately, carrying 1-2 outfit changes in my bag). It’s all about portraying an aspirational and often-unobtainable dream lifestyle.
-As a result, my feed is a carefully curated version of my life. An obsessive amount of time and planning goes into ordering and editing those tiny little boxes. Each one a highlight of a 2-3-week period where thousands of photos were taken to have maybe one or two make the cut. The person on my feed is a persona that’s quite frankly, is exhausting, time consuming and expensive (if you’re not getting freebies to promote) to keep up.
-It was a harsh reality to learn what types of photos perform best. Yes, pretty landscape do better than pictures of me. Yup, social media’s not actually all that social. You just have to shake it off and not take it personally if you’re truly using Instagram for business.
-My photos are almost never posted in real-time because I want my feed to look diverse. I can’t post too many nature photos in a row or I’ll look too adventure-y and extreme to potential city clients. Similarly, I can’t post too many city shots or I won’t be considered a viable partner for gear and outdoor brands. With influencers a dime a dozen, it’s a constant balancing act to make sure my feed is appealing to the types of partners I want to attract. That may mean saving a really great snap for 3-6 months and my family and friends having no idea what continent I’m currently on.
-Choosing what not to post is even harder and often involves “killing your babies.” It usually means cutting out anything too personal or too edgy that might offend a potential sponsor. My captions have gone from dry and sarcastic to aspirational quotes, thoughts, and lyrics. The snark has been turned way down. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s also not necessarily me. It’s just my Internet persona. I joke Instagram has given me dissociative personality disorder. I have the Internet version of my life (which even I get FOMO of sometimes) and reality. But that’s all it is: a carefully and thoughtfully curated persona.
-While my captions have gotten more vanilla, my photos have gotten more editorial. I have to be both the photographer and the model (neither of which comes super naturally). Not only do I need to consider lighting and backdrops, but poses that look unposed (follow me to, wistfully gazing off into the distance and stumbling around like I’m drunk), attire, accessories (umbrellas and hats are Instagram gold), and other tchotchkes (round towels, pool floaties, etc.). It’s an endless battle to keep up with what’s current yet attempt to diversify yourself within the confines of what’s popular.
-Instagram updates their algorithm like most people change clothes, but two things never change: quality and consistently. At the end of the day, you’re playing on their playground and at the mercy of their rules. I read a really great article equating it to farming on borrowed land – if they raise the rent, you could be out of business tomorrow. It’s a constant reminder to not put all your eggs in one basket.
If you’re looking to be Insta-famous, here are a few things to consider:
-Just like anything else, the more time you put into it, the more you’ll get out. I’ve been very disciplined in dedicating an hour when I wake up and an hour before bed to grow my Instagram account.
-An artist is only as good as his tools. While quality content is key, I don’t even have a real camera. Most of my photos are just me messing around on an iPhone or finding people more talented than myself to take photos of me. As I grow, I feel more pressure to invest in GoPros. DLSRs, and drones, but you have to consider the cost investment and realistically determine if you’re committed to lugging all that equipment around the world.
-Make sure your branding is memorable. My biggest fail was not picking a good handle from the beginning. Big travel influencers like @anna.everywhere, @tourdelust and @theboldbrunette have become catchy, household names. My blog handle was already taken so instead of using a version of it with commas or dashes, I stuck to using my real last name, which is hard to remember and tricky to spell. Eventually I will rebrand but if you can develop that really strong identifiable persona from the get go and secure your handle on every channel; you’ll be much better off.
-Getting free stuff for blogging and Instagram is super exciting at the beginning, but exposure doesn’t pay the bills (and you’ll likely have to pay taxes on those freebies). In the early days, gear, clothes and trips were enough to make me want to work with someone. A year later, I have so much stuff I’m basically a hoarder with a really sick gear closet. Now, I’m much more discriminating about what brands I’ll partner with (if they align with my personal ethos) and knowing my value. Determining the value of my time has been critical to knowing what offers to accept and how to negotiate contracts. You have to evaluate if the work expectation justifies the exchange. I used to jump on every opportunity because I didn’t know when the next one would come. I’ve learned to trust that there will be always more opportunities, but that comes with time and experience. One major perk is that I can get almost anything I want for free as long as I’m willing to post about it. From lift tickets to hotels, I simply email the PR department for a trade.
-While most brands know the value of working with influencers, there is still very little in terms of industry standards. Someone with 100k followers could charge 1k a post, while someone else may do the same exact project for a free trip. Someone with 10k followers may get 3k likes per photo and actually be more valuable than an influencer with 100k followers and 500 likes per photo. It can feel like the Wild West, but sites like socialbluebook.com help to estimate your value. It also helps to develop a community of other likeminded influencers to support each other and share intel.
-If you want to freelance full-time, you simply have to diversify your income streams. Being an influencer is not the only way I pay the bills. I also make money from social media consulting and freelance writing.
-Understand that being an influencer is not a 24/7 vacation. It’s always about the next photo or story angle. The satisfaction of posting an incredible pic and watching the social proof roll in is there, but it’s fleeting. It’s hard to truly relax and enjoy a place when there’s constantly a mile long to-do list nagging in your mind. If you’re not in this world, the lifestyle is hard to understand, which is why other influencers tend to gravitate toward each other – we crave community. It’s surprisingly less competitive and more of a mutual respect for others that get it and have been able to make this world work for them.
What’s Next For Me?
Finding some balance. This lifestyle comes with a slew of sacrifices and the constant travel is exhausting. Being your own boss is pretty dang rewarding so I’m going to ride this train until it’s no longer working for me, but I’m also working to transition more to a consulting role in the influencer industry. I like helping brands navigate the minefields of working with social media personalities and connecting influencers to brands that match their target markets.
And until someone recognizes me on the street, I’m not letting it go to my head. My friends love embarrassing me, heckling waitresses and stewardesses, “Don’t you know who she is?” I think I’m really just starting to hit my stride. Is this the top of my game? Who knows.
At the end of the day, I am a connector, and I like meeting people, both on the Internet and IRL. I also know that Instagram’s not going to be around forever. In 2018, I’ll be refocusing a lot of my attention on growing my blog and my email list, which are the channels that I control. And in case you haven’t noticed, I like playing by my own rules.
Thoughts? Questions? Leave ’em below.
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