HomeCommunityThe harsh truths of the social media influencer pathway

The harsh truths of the social media influencer pathway


It’s no secret that the average teenager approaches the idea of their future career in an idealistic fashion, whether that be ambitions of playing football professionally or becoming a Grammy-winning recording artist, but with the rise of social media, a new career has presented itself in a way more accessible than ever before—the lifestyle of a social media influencer.

The projection of realism is important in the landscape of the career of a social media influencer. With Instagram accounts frequently comprised of photos depicting everyday actions, it’s easy to see why the career looks promising: but what does such an on-camera lifestyle entail?

Montana Sprague, a popular user on Instagram with more than 10,800 followers on the social-networking app, has an account with all the hallmarks of an average social media influencer—though not considering herself one by any metric—including an ambassadorship with a swimwear brand and high-quality images standing alongside scenic backdrops in her native Monterey.

Sprague’s Instagram account is nothing revolutionary. With photos showcasing the STEM major posing in front of scenic views, doing anything from filling up the gas in her car to taking lavish vacations abroad, Sprague has curated a social media presence that focuses on her own fitness and self-enrichment.

“I would say it’s really a personal decision…but I don’t think it’s for everyone,” Sprague explains. “I try to post regularly, but it definitely takes a backseat to everything else in my life.”

Sprague’s ambassadorship with Hoaka, a swimwear brand, further occupies portions of her timeline. Tagging their brand’s account in pictures of her clad in their swimwear, the Hamilton College sophomore is one of many Instagram users who have partnered with clothing brands as a form of advertisement.

“I’ve been fortunate to have options as to what companies I do ambassadorships with, so I decided to work with companies who have a mission I support,” Sprague says.

These sponsorships vary in levels of both pay and prestige—in fact, a number of brands have advertised ambassadorships with their company to Instagram accounts with upwards of a certain follower count. The level of payment varies for these sponsorships: They frequently pay a certain rate by follower count, with between $5 and $10 per thousand followers being an average rate, though often paying only in free merchandise.

If you haven’t grown your account to a reasonably high standard—one that, despite the prevalence of gurus with upwards of a million followers on Instagram, is nearly impossible without making connections to other influencers or paying your way to success—it’s safe to assume that the most valuable thing you’ll earn from an Instagram ambassadorship is a free swimsuit or pair of sunglasses.

Being aware of the common desire for a sponsorship, pyramid schemes too have come to prominence in the form of “companies” looking to form alleged partnerships with unsuspecting targets on Instagram.

“[These partnerships] often involve being a beta tester of a product, like a new streaming platform that promises to feature you as a creator,” reveals a Monterey native with negative experiences in the world of social media advertisers. “They start questing personal information and asking for constant product placement, usually by making captions for you that ask the reader to tag their friends in a post, giving them more exposure.”

This local explains the pressure that comes with creating a balance between overt product placement and posts that the average consumer would follow an influencer for in the first place.

“It’s hard to find a balance between posting stuff that your following actually wants to look at without making your page exist just for advertising,” she reflects. “It’s hard enough to get a sponsorship…but once you do that, you also have to maintain your reputation and not just be known for doing that.”

Carmel High School junior Scout Curry, who is involved with numerous ambassadorships, explains that for every use of her discount code—a sort of coupon used by brands for discounts from Instagram users—she earns 15 percent of what her company earns from that discount code. Curry’s involvement with the brand stemmed from their desire to reach a more widespread audience, with start-up companies frequently reaching out to Instagram users for exposure.

“In my case, the companies were starting up and trying to get their names out there,” Curry explains. “They reached out to me for an ambassadorship, which usually means wearing the company’s merchandise and tagging them in pictures.”

But an Instagram sponsorship isn’t always an easy route to success. Though seeing accounts topping a couple hundred thousand followers with trendy captions and high-quality photos is commonplace on Instagram, the reality of their financial circumstances is anything but lavish.

Even when armed with ambassadorships, the average self-proclaimed influencer still doesn’t necessarily make enough to create a sustainable living for themselves, with Curry earning a small percentage of purchases made solely through the use of her discount code. With each suit costing around $35 after use of a discount code, an ambassadorship might offer as low as $4 per suit sale—and that’s assuming your discount code is used in the first place, meaning promotion must be frequent.

Of course, a lack of realism regarding an idealized career is nothing new for teens, but never before has a career as public and accessible as that of a social media influencer been so attainable to the average teenager, something which extends further to other social media-based careers, including being a successful YouTube celebrity or a SoundCloud rapper.

“Being an influencer is popular among our generation because they’re relatable [without] usually being very talented,” senior Ryan Stannard laughs. “It makes them easier to connect with.”

But the monetary realities attached to these careers are just as telling. Despite the financial promise of YouTube as a mode of financial stability, an analysis done by Mathias Bärtl shows that 96.5 percent of those who set out to become YouTubers still make less money than required to live above the poverty line. Essentially, even with a seemingly high subscriber count in the hundred thousands to the low millions, another job would still be necessary in order to compensate financially.

The chimerical essence of a career in social media is, unfortunately, dogged by these harsh realities.

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