The New Dream Job: Making Money off Social Media

By Brianna De Jesus-Banos, SML Research Assistant

How social media has become a money-making platform for micro-celebrities in our digital age.

Growing up, one of the biggest questions adults love to ask children is, “what do you want to be when you grow up?” Most often responses vary along the lines of police officer, doctor, or teacher, which doesn’t seem out of the ordinary. Throw ‘Social media influencer’ into the mix and you might get mixed reactions, raised eyebrows and shaking heads, but believe it or not social media has become a job now. Not a part time one, a full-time paid position and all you have to do is build a personal brand.

Social media influencers have become micro-celebrities, creating personal brands online with every post and attracting millions of followers. These influencers range from makeup gurus, to fashion bloggers, to vloggers, to Youtubers. All have captured the hearts of their ‘followers’ and created a special parasocial relationship with those followers that has changed the game of advertising and the art of social media. With social media becoming an integral part of people’s everyday lives, it has become the perfect niche for companies to reach targeted audiences by incorporating influencers into their marketing campaigns. Of all the things the internet has to offer, making money off social media has become one of them.

Influencers typically are characterized in three different categories: reach, resonance and relevance. Reach is the extent to which a user can have an influence on an audience, resonance refers to the engagement with the audience, and relevance is how the user’s content is related to their online brand. Typically, influencers are known for creating their own personal brand through social media platforms (e.g. Twitter, Instagram, YouTube) and attracting a large following through their creative content.

Every social media influencer has one thing in common: the power of reach. Reach is beneficial for brands because content posted online can easily be shared among followers across platforms, thus extending the effect and the reach of the products’ audience. Brands capitalize on influencers’ celebrity-like status among niche groups, using their power of reach to effectively target those consumers.

A study by Booth and Matic (2011) looked at how brands map and integrate influencers into their brand perception. Social media has created multiple channels of communication at once, allowing people to share content more readily across different platforms, benefiting brands by spreading content more widely. That also means corporations are responsible for managing the conversation about their brands across all communication media. Influencers with a presence on multiple channels offer brands an opportunity to spread their messages across those channels as well.

Brands are reaching out to key influencers through something known as a ‘valuation algorithm’, which measures viable connections the influencer has with their audience, and the relevance of those connections to the brand. Valuation algorithms take variables like viewers per month, post frequency, engagement index, subject/topic-related posts, and the like into account in their calculations. Once an influencer index is created, brands begin building campaign strategies to produce an optimal influencer outreach. By creating a strategic influencer index to evaluate the degree of influence best for a social media campaign, companies obtain the measurable results necessary to best build brand equity.

Dr. Brooke Duffy’s new book

One of our very own professors in the Communication Department at Cornell, Dr. Brooke Duffy, recently published a book “(not) getting paid to do what you love: gender, social media, and aspirational work” about the illusion of success associated with social media influencers. Through personal encounters with social media influencers, Professor Duffy stepped into the work lives of prominent women who run blogs to understand the ethics that go on behind the screen of full-time social media careers. Through her book, it becomes clear that social media has become a platform of expression for women interested in working at home on projects in areas like health, beauty, and fashion, and being their own so-called ‘girlboss.’

Duffy describes how much social media work begins unpaid, with the idea that hard work pays off later. Aspiring influencers hope to eventually receive compensation through brand deals, but getting there requires putting in numerous hours of unpaid work to increase exposure and gain a following. This ‘creative economy,’ as Duffy puts it, is attractive to a generation of social media lovers because of the idea that anyone can make it big. This idea — that you can create the life you want through hard work even against steep odds — sounds a lot like the familiar American dream. But how far will users go to attain the idealized lifestyle they see on influencers’ social media platforms?

In the age of influencers, social media has had an outsize impact on marketing. Social media sites have become marketing hubs, spaces perfect for corporations to brand themselves and advertise products at all hours of the day to anyone in the world. While traditional advertisements were posted on billboards or shown on television, social media marketing embeds ads on almost every single platform in different ways. Social media sites have helped advertisers segment their content to likely consumers. Social media influencers, who have created relationships with their audiences, are perfect for this. They can translate a relationship between influencer and follower into a relationship between brand and follower, without sacrificing the trust and authenticity which is the selling point for any product.

The foundation of trust between an influencer and their audience is ideal for brands, as influencers have an impact on consumer decisions that goes beyond more traditional forms of marketing. We’re most likely to buy something when someone we trust tells us it’s good, than something the television tells you is worth it. Influencers can close this gap between consumers and advertisers, and those with reach and awareness are often paid thousands of dollars to do it.

Next time you ask a child what they want to be when they grow up, don’t be surprised to hear influencer on the list. There is nothing wrong with being a social media influencer. In our digital age, it is almost impossible to ignore the impact the internet has had on our society. Every child born in this age has encountered the internet in some way, shape or form. Our constant exposure to it has influenced us in ways we are not always aware of. If you were to count how many times you were exposed to advertisements on a daily basis on social media, you would be shocked to learn the number is far more than you expected. Truth is, we hardly realize we are targets of brands and corporations who are using every inch of their power to sell us something we think we need. Social media has changed the landscape of advertising to online digital platforms that are constantly in our reach.

(note: to learn more about how influencers get paid and how much check out:



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