Some people have jobs that make you jealous: product testers, travel writers, people who eat ice cream for a living. And then there are the “influencers”: those who get paid to look glamorous and hock goods to their millions of followers on Instagram.
Easy work if you can get it, right? After all, besides receiving free stuff and putting filters on photos, what do these people do all day?
The answer, some of Philadelphia’s most followed Instagram influencers say, is not much different from a lot of 9-to-5 jobs. For one, they send emails.
“Every time you pitch,” said Philadelphia influencer Katerina Seigel, 24, of working with brands, “there’s 50 emails to determine what they’re looking for, what product they want to push, what fits for your brand.”
What these jobs are not is lazy and frivolous, said Brooke Erin Duffy, a professor in Cornell University’s department of communication, who recently wrote (Not) Getting Paid to Do What You Love, a book based on her interviews with dozens of influencers. In fact, she writes, the perception that influencers — the majority women — don’t have real jobs is “part of how patriarchal culture has systematically devalued various forms of women’s work,” whether it’s fashion blogging or nannying, Instagramming or caretaking.
“Influencer culture is seen as a 17-year-old girl doing things and posting photos, and that obscures the wide variety of content creators in various niches," Duffy said. “Content creation broadly, and especially on Instagram, which is recognized as idealized, suggest a performance of a lifestyle that belies the labor that it entails.”
Seigel (niche: fashion and plant-based food, followers: 54,300) put it simply: “You’re supposed to look effortless."
Yet it’s anything but, said Seigel, who, post-college, spent a few years working for other companies doing social media and stock photography.
In reality, influencers employ dozens of professional skills. After the emails (pitching) and figuring out the best partnerships (brand building), influencers work with companies to determine the mission (goal setting). Then it’s agreeing on a price (salary negotiation) and trading contracts (learning legalese). Then it’s picking an outfit (styling), finding a location (scouting), and tracking the weather. (Direct sunlight or a tiny bit of rain could render any day’s photo shoot out of the question.)
Then: shooting dozens of photos, editing them, brainstorming the perfect caption, getting approval for the caption, rewriting said caption, determining when to post, and posting. After which it’s spending hours responding to the hundreds of “OMG where can I find this shirt in Illinois?” comments on the photo, not to mention playing whack-a-troll and blocking abusive haters.
Finally, it’s interpreting the analytics and sending them to the brand, and hoping the number of likes and comments is sufficient for that brand to want to hire you to post a photo of their shirt again.
Iesha Vincent (niche: petite fashion and luxury lifestyle, followers: 105K) said some people in her life don’t see what she does as a business. But she said last year she made more money through the 30 hours she works each week on her blog and Instagram “Living Lesh” than she did in her day job as a teacher at Muhlenberg High School in Reading.
Vincent, 27, who lives in Pottstown, said there’s a natural limit to how much money she can make. If she blogs three times a week, and more than five posts a month are sponsored (read: paid for by the brand), her authenticity could take a hit. She could probably take on more deals if she went full time, but Vincent, who’s pregnant with her first child, said she’s not ready to leave the stability of teaching.
“The influencer space fluctuates so much,” she said. “You can have a month of four or five brand deals and then have a month where nothing comes in.”
For influencers at the top of their game, it can be lucrative. Celebrities who are prolific on Instagram (such as the Jenner/Kardashian clan) are rumored to make a million dollars for a single post.
That’s not the reality for most. Influencers on Instagram with millions of followers took years to get to that point. The most successful content creators in Philadelphia are generally “microinfluencers,” or influencers with a half-million or fewer followers. They can make $40,000 to $100,000 a year, the head of an influencer branding agency told Vox.
>> READ MORE: How can a fashion influencer turn perks into pay?
Influencers interviewed for this story were reluctant to share their rates publicly — and certainly in an article with other influencers in the same market. If their rates look higher than competitors', brands may go elsewhere. But if they give rates that seem low, they risk cheapening their brand and making their followers think they’re sell-outs.
What a company is willing to pay an influencer varies greatly, said Michelle Conron, who leads the influencer marketing division at Philadelphia branding agency Cashman & Associates. She said it’s important a person has authentic engagement (not just comments from their friends and bots) and that they mesh well with the brand they’re promoting.
“We want to foster a genuine connection,” Conron said. “It doesn’t work if there’s not alignment on both sides.”
That’s true for the influencer, as well: A tire company might offer $1,000 for an Instagram post, but does that really make sense for an account meant for skincare tips?
“When I first started, I would get really excited if anyone reached out,” said Philadelphia-based influencer Priyanka Setty (niche: boho chic fashion, followers: 10.8K). “But now I want brands that I love or would fit into the things that I share.” Setty, who has a full-time job in public relations, said she spends about 20 hours a week on building her brand.
There’s also plenty of misinformation about money. There’s an Internet rumor that Bethlehem, Pa.-based influencer Kenny Screven is worth $2 million. The makeup blogger and Instagram influencer says he’s doing well for himself. He makes enough to live comfortably. He has expensive taste. And he is not worth $2 million.
Screven (niche: makeup and LGBTQ advocacy, followers: 137K) said he consistently hears that what he’s doing — posting photos on Instagram about makeup and vlogging on YouTube — is “easy work.” He gets it. Some days, he feels lucky to have a full-time job such as this.
Other days, he feels as if he’s fighting for relevance, always thinking of the next “it” thing and worrying he’s going to miss it.
“As far as beauty,” said Screven, 24, “I’m not getting any younger, and I need to capitalize now.”
He knows that’s vain. So he has used his platform for good, creating free “makeup starter kits” for transgender women out of the products sent to him by agencies, and he recently launched Silk After Dark, a support group for young LGBTQ people of color in the Lehigh Valley. He hopes his followers see beyond the contour to his IRL work in the community.
“I’d rather do something like that,” he said, “than worry about how perfect I look in my selfies.”