From “microinfluencers” with a few thousand followers to megastars like Huda Kattan, social media is home to untold numbers of people who want to make a name for themselves – and there’s money to be made out of it, too...

Sometimes it happens by accident: an interesting person with an eye-catching skill or hobby and a good eye for a photo builds a following on social media that suddenly shoots from 100 to 1,000 and beyond. Just as often these days, however, people are pursuing a large number of followers because of the leverage it can give them in all walks of life.

A strong social media pull can mean invitations to key industry events. It can result in freebies and all manner of perks. And for an ever-growing number of people, it can be a significant source of income. This isn’t small change we’re talking about – Kim Kardashian apparently can command a fee of up to USD $500,000 for a promoted post on Instagram.

As social media popularity is steadily monetized, governments of the world are starting to take action and regulate (and tax) proceedings – a necessary move given how many influencers/social media celebrities are no longer operating from their bedroom but from professional studios and surrounded by their very own production teams. One of the boldest steps was taken right here in the UAE, where the National Media Council recently announced that anyone making money while promoting brands and businesses via social media now needs to get a licence to do so – or they will face a fine of Dh5,000.

The typical fee that the world’s social media stars/influencers are paid for a promoted post largely depends on their number of followers – although brands are becoming increasingly stringent about checking that followers are real, and that “engagement” with this audience is authentic. According to a recent article in UK newspaper The Independent, social media darlings with around 10,000 followers can expect to receive around USD $150 per promoted post. Hit 100,000, and this can rise to as much as $1,000, especially if the post is an image on Instagram.

Some of the biggest money is to be found on YouTube, where the top 10 highest earners each rake in more than $10m per year, thanks both to promoted videos and an agreement in which stars of the internet channel are paid out according to their popularity. British YouTube gaming sensation DanTDM is reported to have made $16.5m last year.

There are now hundreds of thousands if not millions of would-be social-media personalities, but it’s never too late to join them. And the money really is there – because brands like to promote their products using real people with a real following. Jane Couchman, co-founder of UK public relations and marketing agency Scarlett PR, explains why: “There 
has been a fundamental change in how people search and make purchasing decisions,” she says. “They now look towards and trust social media networks for reviews, advice and tips – and this in turn has driven brands to use social media influencers to help raise brand awareness and ultimately drive potential sales.”

Couchman adds that trusted influencers and microinfluencers (those with just a few thousand followers) are offering brands the chance to reach a particular niche market through their followers, and make a real impact on their followers’ opinions of a brand.

It really isn’t entirely a numbers game, she says – at least not any more. “Companies are often looking beyond the number of followers that a certain influencer has; they are looking for people already talking about the company and conversations around their industry,” she says. “A great influencer is passionate about a brand or subject matter and has high engagement levels with their audience.”

The very best influencers, she says, think like a news publisher – which means they are consistent with their postings. “They really understand their audience by offering authentic, relevant content such as video, images, podcasts and blog posts across all social media platforms,” she says.

“The microinfluencer ‘role’ is an interesting one, as it’s a term that’s as broad as it is wide,” adds Jason Rawles, an adventurer/explorer who has 8,000 Twitter followers. “I’ve been approached by loads of brands to create content as an influencer, but I have to balance being able to earn a wage with my desire to inspire. Some brands just don’t fit with my values, but some align perfectly.”

Microinfluencers are now commonly sought out by brands because they offer access to niche audiences – a recent article in Forbes said that microinfluencers will increasingly be in demand in the coming few years – and Rawles agrees there is money to be made. “There are certainly people earning an okay wage from being an influencer and then turning that into bigger opportunities like speaking engagements and TV work,” he says.

Travel blogger and photographer Dan Clarke, who runs a popular website named Dan Flying Solo, says he is seeing a growing number of companies approaching him to ask if he will promote their destination or resort. “Offers regularly come through, but only a small number are a match for my brand, and it’s important to stick to that,” he asserts.

Clarke admits that he will happily take money for a sponsored engagment – “As a general rule I charge for any work I do; being a freelancer it’s important to have a steady income,” he says – although he is flexible, depending on the client and what they are offering. While Instagram is the social media “biggie” at the moment, Clarke argues that would-be influencers would do well to have a channel of their own, too. “Something that isn’t reliant on algorithm changes,” he says. “Having a newsletter database and website is really important, especially in the travel sector.”

Like most business-minded people with a strong social media presence (he has almost 18,000 followers on Instagram and 14,500 on Twitter), Clarke is a strong believer in building an audience organically. He advises against questionable tactics such as buying followers. “It’s a constant battle that most people face – comparing themselves to others with higher numbers and wondering about new ways to hit those figures,” he says. “There are plenty of ‘blackhat’ (back door) ways to do this quickly, but I’ve always been a believer in steady organic growth as this keeps your engagement rates higher.”

One thing that is often overlooked is that completing a paid assignment is often more work than it looks. For celebrities to earn big bucks on Instagram, it’s unlikely that they’ll simply be holding a product and posing for a quick snap – as with any advertising campaign, there will be contracts to sign, commitments to be made and often time put aside for a dedicated photo shoot. Even at Clarke’s level, he can see that the money being offered is greatly dependent on the amount of work involved. “It basically depends on the campaign and how much time it will take,” he says.

Ultimately, says Clarke, anyone hoping to “crack” social media should approach it with the same serious and professional mindset that they would bring to launching a business. “You need a really hard-working attitude,” he says. “Having an authentic brand, and one people can relate to, is really important – and building that community by replying to comments and messages establishes yourself as not only a good person, but a reliable source of information.”

Importantly, he adds, you really need to know why people follow you and build that community before you even think about paid work. “Start because it’s something you love doing,” he says, “and then keep working hard to build upwards.”

Top tips to become a social media ace

Jane Couchman

iStock

Co-founder of Scarlett PR, who regularly deals with social media influencers

“If a brand sees an influencer commenting on their brand or talking on a particular subject within their industry/community, then this is more likely to attract them than having a certain amount of followers. I would say that health & fitness, beauty and travel are the most popular sectors in which to make a living.”

Gemma Cheung

Supplied

Yoga-loving former Dubai resident and Instagram star with 64,000 followers

“Give your followers value. Interact with them, help, guide and teach them. Make time for them and they will make time for your posts. As well as this, invest in a good camera and play about with editing apps: bright, sharp, professional-looking pictures always stand out from the crowd. Also: keep your message positive. Yes, we all have good and bad days, but try and keep your feed and message as positive as it can be. There’s nothing worse than scrolling through social media and reading people at war with each other’s words and pictures.”

Jason Rawles

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Adventurer, podcaster and blogger with 15,000 followers on Facebook

“Be passionate and honest about what you do, live your values and know what you want from brands.”

Dan Clarke

Supplied

Traveler, photographer and blogger with almost 18,000 Instagram followers

“It’s really important to stay true to yourself and your followers. I always mark campaigns as ‘sponsorships’ which is not just best practice but also a legal requirement in many countries. Likewise, I turn down about 90 per cent of the offers I get because they don’t fit well with either my brand or morals. While it’s really easy to get caught up in the mindset of saying yes to everything for the money, longer term I think it pays off to be selective and not ‘sell out’.”