Find out what it takes —and what you can make— as a social media influencer. Yes, if you have thousands of followers —especially Instagram followers— companies will pay you to reach that audience and advertise their brands. Alicia Chew, a style and food influencer who runs the lifestyle blog Alicia Tenise and has 15,000 followers on Instagram and is giving us her success story.
Alicia, this is an accidental career for you, right? How did you get started?
I randomly started a blog in my dorm room. I had interned in NY at Michael Kors the previous summer. I transferred to Virginia Commonwealth University and started a fashion blog to keep connected to the fashion industry. I just started for fun. I never realized I could make money doing it or that I could make it my career. But now I am celebrating my 6th anniversary of blogging.
In fact, when you graduated, you took a full-time job in marketing, but kept blogging on the side, right?
Yes, I was still blogging and working a full time job for a few years before it was too time consuming to do both. Over time I invested in good photography, telling a story and connecting to the audience. Brands started approaching me and it blew up. I got laid off from my full time job in December 2016. I looked at my finances and realized I was making more off of the blog than the full time job! So I decided to make it a full time job.
What did your friends and family think of this leap of faith you were making?
I talked to all of my family and friends and especially my mom. I told my mom if I didn’t make it in 3 months I would get a full time job. My mom totally supported me. She knew I had a talent and passion for it. She did ask me legitimate business questions. Are you going to make this an LLC? And what will you do for taxes and insurance? She asked me grown-up adult questions and helped me through those things and all of the accounting and business aspects.
Was there a tense time when you wondered if it was going to work, or did it click right away?
It worked! Since I was able to start doing this full time, I tripled my income in the first 3 months because I was able to really focus on it without the distraction of a 40 hour work week elsewhere. I really ramped up what I was making and I don’t have plans to go back to a conventional job.
It is working as a full time job. Since I was able to start doing this full time I tripled my income in the first 3 months because I was able to really focus on it without the distraction of a 40 hour work. I really ramped up what I was making.
You’re 27-years-old and you work for yourself. Will you ever go back to a regular job?
I don’t have plans to go back to a conventional job. I never would have thought at my age that I would be my own boss and create my own schedule and dictate my day and decide what clients I want to take on or not. It’s the best job I could have ever asked for and it’s the dream job I never knew I could have.
So let’s get specific about what you do as a social media influencer. First, what are your venues where you reach out to people?
I consider myself a content creator. I am doing whatever I need to do to create content on a multitude of channels. My blog. Social media is a big part of that. I’m creating content and solutions for brands. My blog and Instagram are more curated as a first impression.
I also use Instagram Stories and Snapchat. That is how I show them that I am a real person. I chat with no makeup on and in yoga pants. I want to show that I don’t always have perfect hair and a perfect outfit and perfect makeup. I can be more candid. I have marble contact paper instead of actual marble. I show people that and they think it is so funny. People get a kick out of the behind the scenes stuff.
So those are your social media “properties.” Now, describe the 4 ways you make a living through them.
- Companies pay a flat fee for a sponsored blog post or Instagram post. I create visuals and concepts to advertise their product. That brings in the most money.
- Affiliate networks. If you see something I wear, I have affiliate links to it and if people click through my post and purchase it, then I get a commission.
- More occasionally I host events – every 2 months or so. I will host and promote an event like a boutique trunk show.
- And finally, companies gift me products, which is another form of value. Although now I only accept gifts if there is no pressure to post anything because that can be a difficult situation.
Give us some examples of companies that have hired you to do sponsored posts and WHAT you did for them.
Banana Republic, Rent the Runway, Pepsi, Brita and Enterprise CarShare, The Ritz Carlton and Visit New Orleans for a sponsored trip to New Orleans. What I do is curate a photo shoot around the product and show how I incorporate the product in my real life. I partner with a photographer and do the shoot and that usually inspires the text I write.
Do you try to keep a balance of your own personal posts and the sponsored posts so that your followers don’t get worn out?
I try not to have a overwhelming amount of sponsored content. My goal is to have about 25% sponsored content.
Do you go after brands you like? Or do they always approach you?
In the beginning I got my work through media groups. You enter a bio and social media channels and they match you up with brands that are doing collaborations. Some other media networks have projects already ready to apply to and you have to make a pitch. I had to pitch a lot at first, but that has evolved. If I have a dream brand I will send a thoughtful, curated pitch to them. But lately I haven’t had as much time to pitch. I’ve gotten contacted by a lot of different companies.
What happens when it’s not a good fit? Awkward!
I have had some interesting requests and if I can’t think of an authentic post to go with it, I have to decline it. I have had some weird requests from agriculture departments and oil companies. Why would I talk about that when I do fashion, food and travel? My readers are female between 25 and 34. They don’t care about agriculture or oil, so I have to stay focused on what my reader wants to read.
Authenticity is crucial, right?
You have to be very careful about sponsored campaigns. Your audience might not respond. You cant appear like you are money hungry. I have to make sure whoever I partner with is true to my brand and won’t throw my readers off.
What is the most fun part of your job?
There’s a lot of travel I have been exposed to because of this career path. I do some travel blogging. I work with tourism boards and have been able to do domestic travel. I just went to Phoenix, New Orleans and Memphis and NC. I’m excited to explore these places in America. I am an only child. My mom is a single parent. There was only so much we could do when I was a kid.
What is the hardest part of the job?
Most of my day isn’t glamorous. I have to look at brands, communicate professionally, convince brands they should pay me, read contracts. When people look at what I do it all looks glamorous but I do my own accounting and book keeping a lot of business stuff. I am self employed and pay taxes on everything I earn so I have to keep track of my expenses and income. You have to be able to do that too.
How do you decide how much to charge?
I have a figure in my head I want to make a month. I can’t lowball myself and I have to go for the highest payment that I possible can. Some companies will say no, but some will say yes. With what I do it’s better to take less sponsors at a higher rate than taking lots at lower rates and creating all that work for myself without as much money. I can negotiate a lot better deals.
I know you don’t like to say how much you make —because you’re classy that way —but tell us, in general, how much successful social media influencers can make.
There are influencers who make six and seven figures a year. I make significantly more than I did in my job in marketing. What I do makes me pretty comfortable. But I get paid on a project by project basis. Sometimes five times a week or every two weeks.
People listening are going to be intrigued, so I want to share some of your best advice for being a successful social media influencer. First, you say figure out what makes you different. Explain.
When I show my personality I knew that was what differentiated me. People see me as a person rather than someone always in perfect clothes. I am personable. My readers will email and feel they can talk with me. It’s like I’m their friend. They feel they can shoot me an email or message. Making yourself seem like a person and not a persona takes your brand to the next level.
Second, you say, you need to be a good written and visual communicator.
I am a writer and went to school for communication. Need strong writing skills and to tell a story. I am also a photographer and use a professional grade camera. If it is a shot of me I hire a photographer but I take other pictures myself.
Third: know how to read contracts.
You have to know how to read contracts. Brands will try to slip things in, so you have to really understand what you are agreeing to. A lawyer helped me write a contract that works for me and she helped me know what to look out for in a blog contract to see if something is there that wouldn’t be in my favor.
Fourth tip: learn to save money.
Have to learn to save because it’s an inconsistent pay schedule. There are times when I can splurge and other times when I have to budget because it’s an inconsistent pay schedule. Not having a paycheck every 2 weeks has made me way more savvy financially than in the past.
And finally, you say, do it for love not money.
My biggest piece of advice is do if because you love it. Don’t do it thinking you will make a lot of money overnight. I didn’t make a dime the first year and a half I blogged but I loved what I did and loved working on my craft.
Alicia Tenise Chew, thank you so much for the great content. And, lucky us, Alicia has written a guest blog post with advice for you on how to turn your social media brand into a full time job.