Lately I’ve been increasingly aware of—and alarmed by—students and fresh graduates who are aspiring to become “social media influencers.”
What is an “influencer,” anyway? Medium.com defines it as “an individual who can reach many people through various communication channels and can therefore, potentially, influence them to like or dislike, to adopt or ban, to buy or skip buying, products and services.”
“Influencer” may seem like a viable career option because it “allows you to do what you love”: shop, put on makeup, dress up, travel, dine at restaurants, take tons of photos and pose for them, shoot and edit videos, and post all this content on different social media channels.
You might say I’m one to speak when I’m a blogger, I attend events, and post about brands on my site and social media. I never gave myself the “influencer” label. Brands who work with me call me one of their “influencers” because I’m compensated to blog about their products and campaigns.
But I made the jump from editor-in-chief to blogger after a lot of planning and preparation. So I speak from experience when I say graduates should find work in a company or business before aspiring to become an online “influencer.” Here’s why:
Employment teaches you discipline and work skills you never learned in school
I was only confident enough to make that jump to managing my own brand after over a decade of full-time employment. I trained for it in my previous jobs (from PR and marketing practitioner to managing editor, editor-in-chief, and social media head), saved up enough of my salary, and built a strong enough network. I covered all my bases.
Working for a company or business teaches you how to work well with others of different ages and backgrounds. Working hard for that monthly paycheck teaches you the value of earning your keep.
Most of all, employment will help you determine how much you’re worth, salary-wise. Until you land your first job and your next job or promotion, you won’t be able to truly know how much your time is worth. Rise up the ranks, become a valuable asset to the company, and then you can demand what’s worth your time because you’ve earned it. You can back up the figures with your expertise and value.
Is “Social Media Influencer” even a job?
There’s a Reddit thread on how “social media influencer” is “not a legitimate job title.” Someone shared how an applicant put that in his résumé and the potential employers didn’t understand what that meant. When the applicant explained, they concluded he was “unemployed.” There’s a whole debate on the thread whether or not “influencer” can even be called a job.
One of Instagram’s biggest influencers, The Fat Jewish (a.k.a. Josh Ostrovsky), who made a name for himself on the platform by posting irreverent memes and wild antics, makes a case for this. “Everybody just wants to be an influencer now. Nobody wants to get a job,” he told CNNMoney in an interview last year. “I just think people need to learn how to actually build things from the ground up… That will take you farther than the internet.” That’s exactly what he did: He co-founded a company called Swish that sells wines with statement names.
“Eventually there will be too many influencers, the market will be too saturated, and the value of influencer posts will continue to plummet,” Ostrovsky warns in the same interview. “It’s a very standard value proposition. The more people join, the more options there are for the brands—the less each influencer is worth.”
Backlash on calling oneself “influencer”
I put “influencer” in quotations for a reason: There’s a hush-hush consensus among my peers in media, PR, and marketing that people don’t like people who call themselves “influencers.” You don’t get to call yourself that. Your influence is measured by how many people’s opinions and purchase decisions you affect, so you’re not really the one who determines your own influence; others do. People who call themselves “influencers” are deemed presumptuous, at best.
Even if you just use Instagram and Facebook, you still need to invest some money to earn a good number of “followers.” These platforms have learned to monetize likes, follows, reach, and engagement. Without putting money behind them, you’d be hard-pressed to earn enough following for brands to notice you. Even then, more brands and PR companies know that Followers and Likes can be bought. So how do you assure them that your “influence”—even if it’s by the tens of thousands—can turn their sponsorship into profit?
A lot of legit “influencers,” bloggers, and vloggers also pay for products (i.e. makeup) and services (i.e. hotel stays) they review. If you’re a fresh graduate who’s not from a privileged family who can foot the bill, who can no longer depend on allowance from your parents, and who doesn’t have a significant amount of money saved, how will you cover these expenses?
Some successful “influencers”—those who didn’t get into it just because they happened to be celebrities already or were associated with somebody famous—did it part-time while managing a full-time job or business.
First try landing a job in a publishing company, an advertising agency, or even in the marketing department of a brand you like and support. Learn how brands work with “influencers,” find out what they’re looking for, build strong work relationships, and save. Once you know you can shoulder the costs that come with becoming an “influencer” and sustain the lifestyle it entails, go for it.
Freebies can’t pay the bills
Truth bomb: Not a lot of brands actually pay “influencers” in cash. Often, “sponsored posts” are paid in kind: post about their brand in exchange for swag. Yet free cosmetics, clothes, and gift certificates can never pay rent and utilities.
Consider Cornell researcher Brooke Erin Duffy’s book (Not) Getting Paid to Do What You Love “that examines the myth that working hard on a personal brand will pay off in the long run.” Read her interview on Quartz titled “Becoming a social media ‘influencer’ is the new unpaid internship, and just as exploitative.” It will really make you think twice about aspiring to become an “influencer.” Ever.