Ever wonder how social media stars launched their empires? Below, we tapped a wide range of folks — from pop culture mavens to smartphone gurus — to find out what the daily grind of #influencing is really like.
A full-time YouTube creator, Shallon Lester, 34, recently relocated to Montana after a decade in New York City. The published author has over 500,000 followers and 70 million video views. A few years ago, after making a viral video series, she began to realize that this might be a lucrative career, but she wasn’t quite ready to quit her job as a magazine editor at “Star.”
“So I created my own channel focusing on dating advice videos for teen girls and uploaded maybe twice a month,” she said.
In 2019, she filmed a video titled “How To Spot A Liar” about Jordyn Woods, Khloé Kardashian and Tristan Thompson’s love triangle. “The video blew up, and I realized my niche was taking pop culture news — everyone’s guilty pleasure — and turning it into something from which we can learn,” she said. “While other gossip/reaction channels just rant about Kim and Kanye’s divorce, I give you advice you can use along with it, like how to know if you can fix a broken man, and signs you’re dating a narcissist.”Two months later, Lester became a full-time YouTuber and hasn’t looked back.
Money matters: “Everyone thinks the only thing that matters when you’re a YouTuber is a subscriber count, but it’s actually about watch time. The longer you can keep a viewer on the platform, the more ads that can be shown, the more money you will make, and the more YouTube will value you. The YouTube average is 3 and a half minutes — mine is 15,” she said. Now, she makes five times her editor’s salary on YouTube alone.
Within videos, you can also add sponsorships, promoting a product or service. “Ditto with Instagram. On average, you make 10 percent of your audience, 15 percent if you’re verified, which I am. So if you have 100k followers on a verified account, you can ask for $1,500 per promoted post.”Diversification is the name of the game, though.
“I have to make sure I have other products and platforms like TikTok, Flaze, Instagram, etc.,” she said. “I have what I call a ‘business octopus’ with ‘tentacles’ that include books, a podcast, consulting service, trips and retreats, a clothing line, jewelry collaborations, on and on.”
Lester cautions that social media in and of itself isn’t really monetizable. “They don’t run ads the way YouTube does. So unless you’re having a brand pay for you to promote a product, you could have 10 million followers on those platforms, and you’re not going to make a dime,” she said.
Secret sauce: Follow the authenticity, not the trend. “Trends change, but if you are really excited about the content that you make, and it’s authentic, the audience will find you. This is an extremely demanding career, consistency is key, and if you don’t really like what you’re uploading or the content you’re making, you’re going to fizzle out,” she said.
“This job is not for the faint of heart. People on the Internet feel entitled to comment on everything from your hair color to your weight to your dog’s collar. You have to have a code of ethics for how you’re going to deal with these people, and a very comprehensive self-care routine to insulate yourself from that kind of toxicity,” said Lester. “Haters and trolls are very real, and very hurtful. I have never worked harder in my life — but I’ve also never been happier!”
Hailing from Clifton Park, NY, David Payette, 36, is one-half of David & David from the Payette Forward YouTube channel, which has collected roughly 675,000 subscribers since launching in 2015. He described his journey from an Apple Store technician to a full-time YouTuber as “circuitous and challenging,” and notes that he couldn’t have done it without his YouTube co-host, David Lynch. Payette had been working at the Apple Store in Albany before he quit his job in 2013, with the intention of starting a local web design business. He wrote a blog post called “Why Does My iPhone Battery Die So Fast? Here’s The Fix!”
Within six months, 5 million people had read the post — the only one he had ever written. “Three months later, I was living on Maui and writing easy-to-read iPhone help articles full-time,” he said. “I started what grew into the largest iPhone help Facebook group later that year, and when I decided to make my first YouTube videos in 2015, I drew upon that audience to give my new channel a boost.”His a-ha moment? “I learned that the time I spent working at an Apple Store was tremendously valuable because it gave me insight into the questions people were asking on the ground floor,” he said.
In 2016, Payette moved back to New York and met David Lynch (not that one) now his YouTube co-host. “David had just graduated from college, had his own YouTube channel, and our interests aligned across the board. David became a full-time employee the next year,” he said of his 27-year-old partner in crime.
Money matters: “In 2019, we made the decision to focus on creating videos we thought might go viral. In August 2019 we struck gold when our video, ‘7 iPhone Settings You Need To Turn Off Now’ took off. That single video has been watched almost 15 million times and has generated over $100,000 in YouTube ad revenue for our business,” he said. “We earn a minimum of around $20,000 per month. This past January, another video went viral, and we earned almost $40,000.” Not bad compared to his $13.30 hourly wage at the Apple Store.
The duo also makes money through purchases from Amazon affiliate links for headphones that they review. Occasionally, they also do brand partnerships, but Payette says they reject 99 percent of the offers they receive to maintain their credibility.
Secret sauce: “We noticed that almost every iPhone tutorial on YouTube had poor audio, a shaky camera, and an incomplete list of steps,” he said. “We differentiated ourselves by focusing on higher production quality and in-depth content backed by real-world experience. This helped us build a strong base of about 50,000 subscribers by July 2019.”
A psychic tarot reader and TikTok influencer based in Corvallis, Ore., Stina Garbis, 46, amassed some 203,000 followers on the social media video platform since August 2020. She had been a professional psychic for several years, growing her business through avenues like advertising on Yelp, people finding her locally through Google or word of mouth.“It’d been a sleepy business for me,” she said.
That is, until, “I had a client tell me about TikTok last year and how she was seeing conflicting tarot readings on the app. Curious, I downloaded the app and was shocked to see how popular tarot is. I uploaded a simple video that took a couple of minutes to make, and I was shocked to instantly get 2,500 views. I was instantly addicted and had my first viral video in a month, and my client list began increasing dramatically.”
Money matters: Garbis has monetized TikTok primarily through getting new clients, adding that she’s constantly getting bonus money from collaborations and views. “I’ve generated an extra $50,000 from TikTok [so far],” she said.
Secret sauce: “Focus on giving useful service to your audience via your content instead of trying to sell them,” said Garbis. “If you offer entertainment that helps them somehow, then you will naturally attract business.” Garbis also stressed the importance of consistency, recommending posting daily, preferably a few times, and sharing on multiple platforms.
Actor, author and lifestyle content creator Samantina Zenon, 31, of Woodside, NY, has been at it on social media for the past five years, working with more than 500 international brands. She’s most active on Instagram, where she boasts around 33,000 followers.
“I originally started being a social media influencer as a way to build my brand,” she said. “Over the years it has opened doors to many opportunities for me such as getting invited to exclusive events and New York Fashion Week and collaborating with many luxurious brands such as Yves Saint Laurent, Givenchy, Muggler and many more,” Zenon said.
Money matters: Zenon currently works part-time as a social media influencer, generating $2,000 a month from a few brand collaborations. “Last summer, I partnered with Tiktok’s Edutok program to create educational content about acting and modeling,” she said.
Secret sauce: “Find a niche. Also, focus on branding and messaging. Presentation is everything. Creating content is time-consuming. There is a formula to being a content creator, and brands aren’t going to just pay you if they don’t see you are capable or take it seriously,” she said. “I first started by doing product reviews on an app called Influenster. Once I was able to show and create a media kit of all the content I created, I started reaching out to brands.” She also works with influencer marketing agencies to book gigs with brands. Meanwhile, her relationships with PR firms allow her to snag invites to New York Fashion Week among other exclusive happenings.
Known as the “mother of LinkedIn,” thanks to her sizeable following of working parents, Christine Michel Carter, 35 — a Baltimore parent of two — has 80,000 social media followers across platforms and still maintains her day job as a global consumer goods marketing strategist. Unlike many influencers, she says her secret to success is that she didn’t quit her full-time position.
“In fact, the unique reason why I have such a large following is that I’m an everyday mom just like my followers, working and juggling single parenthood at the same time,” she said. “I decided to start advocating for working moms after becoming one, and having to pump [breast milk] in a bathroom stall because my employer had no mother’s room,” she said. “I wanted to use social media platforms to share with women their rights as a working parent, and help them through articles, tools and resources to understand that they could remain — and thrive — in the workforce.”
Money matters: Carter has monetized her following by partnering with big brands for sponsored posts, and she’s released two books.
Secret sauce: “Be authentic to your voice, and share the honest experiences of your audience. Transparency is what’s separating the standout accounts from the manufactured ones,” she said. “Empathy is also critical, as people are looking for support during these tumultuous times.”
Rachel Deane Binder
A 47-year-old, Venice Beach, Calif.-based perfumer Rachel Deane Binder — the owner of Pomare’s Stolen Perfume and a single mom to a five-year-old — is proof you don’t have to amass a giant following for a lucrative side hustle. With some 8,300 Instagram followers, she’s found that they engage enough to support all of her distribution direct-to-consumer. “I sell out of everything that I make,” she said.
She combines a love of wine with her fragrance obsession to make dreamy scent scapes. “I extract fruit aromatics out of actual fruit without the use of isolates or synthetics,” she said, adding that she also makes a redwood perfume out of upcycled redwood. “It is considered an entire new way of making ‘living’ perfume.”
To date, she’s won several awards in the industry, including Sustainable Brand of the Year in 2021 from the International Perfume Foundation.
Money matters: “I was working in the wine world when the pandemic hit, and I was laid off. I had a perfume company ‘on the side,’ but had not yet been able to make it a day job,” she said. “Without a huge launch budget, I knew that I would have to rely on Instagram to educate and spread the word about this new way of looking at and making perfume. I started creating videos pairing ‘whole ingredient’ (truly natural) perfumes with wine and sharing some of my unique extracting processes and philosophies. This enabled me to educate people on what I do and engage the senses and imagination during lockdown.”
Secret sauce: “For people looking to be an ‘influencer,’ find your purpose first so that you may find your true voice. Those that have a great deal of engagement have a responsibility to elevate the overall conversation or bring joy to people,” she said. “I get the highest engagement on posts that are educational and not dumbed down in any way. Also, sharing with vulnerability and knowing that there is no real Insta-perfect life seems to strike a greater chord with people.”