What It Takes to Be a Successful Social-Media Influencer

Makeup reviews are part of the content that Ally Noriega posts to her social-media accounts.
Makeup reviews are part of the content that Ally Noriega posts to her social-media accounts.

Summary

Ally and Ricardo Noriega have turned her former part-time hobby into a full-time enterprise. It’s pretty lucrative—and a lot of work.

As a service to her Instagram followers, social-media influencer Ally Noriega recently tackled one of the most divisive trends in denim: horseshoe jeans, featuring extra-extra-wide pant legs.

“I couldn’t believe how bad I looked," Noriega told followers in a post and video shot from her home in Oklahoma City.

It’s this kind of down-to-earth vibe that has won Noriega more than 100,000 Instagram followers—and enough money to trade in her full-time job as an executive assistant for a full-time job on social media. Enough money, in fact, that her husband, Ricardo Noriega, also decided not to pursue another job after being laid off, opting instead to handle the administrative end of his wife’s business.

The Noriegas are one of an estimated 50 million global “content creators" who are sharing their interests, expertise and handiwork with their online followers, according to a Goldman Sachs report last year. Many take to platforms like Facebook, TikTok, YouTube and Instagram to promote branded products in exchange for money or goods. Others post content in hopes of generating enough traffic to earn a piece of the ad revenue. As this digital ecosystem grows, Goldman Sachs predicts, the creator economy—the amount of money influencers gross by monetizing their content on various platforms—could roughly double to $480 billion by 2027, from $250 billion today.

Still, the competition for the expanding pie is fierce, and likely to get fiercer. Only about 4% of global creators pull in more than $100,000 a year, according to the Goldman analysis. At the same time, according to a survey released last year by Morning Consult, a decision-intelligence company, 57% of Gen Zers (born between 1997 and 2012) said they would like to become an influencer if given the chance.

It also isn’t easy money, however enticing the job is. To beat the competition, many influencers feel pressured to create a nonstop conveyor belt of new, original content.

“If you only have 50,000 or 100,000 followers, you don’t have much leverage because there are a thousand other people just like you," says Angèle Christin, an associate professor of communication at Stanford University who studies the world of social-media influencers. “If you don’t take this job, somebody else will. The competition is fierce. You’re one fish in a very big sea."

Long days

As full-time influencers, the Noriegas, both in their early 40s, offer a revealing glimpse into what it takes to succeed in this ultracompetitive creator economy. On one hand, they can be their own boss, do something they love and enjoy flexible schedules—all while earning a combined income in the “low six figures," Ally Noriega says. On the flip side, Ricardo Noriega estimates that he and his wife each put in 80- to 100-hour workweeks to create a steady stream of engaging posts, photos and videos to retain and grow their following.

“We don’t have a great work-life balance," Ally says. “We are very lucky. But it is exhausting, and we’re tired."

By sharing their lives on social media, they have built a loyal base of followers of Allysoninwonderland—their social-media username—on the web, on Instagram and on LTK, an app and online shopping platform composed of creators who mainly focus on fashion, beauty, travel and home decor.

Before Allysoninwonderland was a business, it was a blog. Ally launched it as a hobby around 2011. At the time she was an executive assistant at an oil-and-gas company and wanted a creative outlet to express her love of fashion and to leverage her college degree in graphic design. Eventually she migrated to Instagram, bringing her style picks and insights to a broader audience. As her following grew, she struck sponsorship deals with fashion brands in which she modeled and reviewed apparel that would appeal to her fan base in Oklahoma.

Ally’s posts portray a busy but carefree life—filled with things like a family trip to Hawaii, date night with Ricardo at the ballet and a Halloween excursion to the Oklahoma City Zoo with their 3-year-old son, Nico. And with just a click, followers can wear the same Nordstrom sweater, stay at the same Ritz-Carlton resort, push the same baby stroller or slather on the same skin cream as the Noriegas, who mainly earn money either from a paying sponsor, such as a clothing brand, and/or from a commission collected on each product sold via their posts.

“One of the things I love about what I do is connecting with people," Ally says.

A few breaks

About five years into her hobby job, Ally got laid off from her administrative job. That was the impetus to becoming a full-time influencer, especially since Ricardo’s job at a different oil-and-gas company gave the family a financial backstop.

“The business was still small," she says. “I was making one-third of what I was making at my old job." Still, she hired a manager to facilitate branding deals and gave her 20% of her commissions. She paid a part-time assistant $25 an hour to handle things like deliveries and embedding affiliate links into her fashion posts.

Then, two negative events became positive turning points for the business. First, her husband was laid off from his job—he negotiated land- and mineral-rights contracts—allowing him to work full time on many of the back-office duties of Ally’s business. Unburdened by accounting, contract management and invoicing, Ally could devote more time to her fashion posts and to engaging one-on-one with her followers.

The second turning point came with onset of the pandemic, when day-to-day activity shut down across much of the U.S. “I thought Covid would end my business," she says.

Around the same time, she discovered that she was pregnant. “I had a kid coming. I really needed to grow this [business] and be as lean as possible," she says. To that end, she let go of her manager and assistant, and she and Ricardo became a two-person show. In a surprise to both of them, business almost doubled, fueled by sales to work-from-home fashionistas with ample time on their hands.

How it works

Most of Ally’s posts follow a familiar life cycle.

A luxury retailer will contact her to create a campaign promoting apparel. They come up with the content deliverables and the fee, which for Ally starts at around $1,000. (The contract typically spells out the amount paid per post or video.) The brand may want just one Instagram post promoting a single item. Or it may want her in an “ambassadorship," typically a one-year contract in which she promotes the brand in a continuing campaign. She usually has some latitude in the products she models and reviews—she won’t promote something if she doesn’t like the look—and the retailer gets to approve the content before it’s posted. After the content goes live, the company receives an invoice for payment.

Relative to a bricks-and-mortar business, the Noriegas’ overhead costs are low. While the brand typically wants the promoted items back, it sometimes tells Ally to keep items featured in her posts. Many of the services for her hair and makeup are comped in exchange for a promotional plug. Photos and videos are shot mainly from home using an iPhone and editing software.

While becoming full-time entrepreneurs wasn’t entirely planned by the Noriegas—the layoffs forced them to make the decision—a soft landing into their social-media business worked in their favor. A 2014 study found that people who established a business venture on the side before quitting their full-time jobs are 33% more likely to survive than those who quit jobs to start a business from scratch. “Knowing that you [already] have a viable venture is crucial," says the study’s co-author, Joe Raffiee, an associate professor at the University of Southern California’s school of business.

A gradual ramping up also is crucial for many social-media influencers. “After they have built a large audience—say, 100,000 or 200,000 followers—many quit their day jobs to work full time as an influencer," says Stanford’s Christin. “But to keep the momentum and grow online, most need some kind of assistance. A person or people to sort through comments, help with editing, come up with ideas for videos, put in [affiliate] links. You may want a manager or an agent if you’re dealing with contracts and other negotiations."

An online coach

Early on with Allysoninwonderland, Ally applied to join LTK. She now has 120,000 followers on LTK. And when followers on her Instagram account click to shop for apparel, the link takes them to her account on the LTK platform.

LTK coaches its members on ways to engage and expand their following, while simultaneously representing brands seeking influencers to promote their products. To date, LTK has built a network of over 250,000 creators and 7,000 brands, says Allison Yazdian, the Dallas-based company’s senior vice president of creator growth and success. “We encourage creators to be more authentic, offer visibility into their lives, with opportunities to monetize it." About 90% of the creators on LTK are women, many of whom still have full-time jobs, Yazdian says.

LTK matches creators with brands for partnerships that pay creators either a flat fee or a commission on sales via the LTK platform. Creators are not charged to use LTK. The company makes money from platform fees paid by the brands, and it also charges a transaction fee to the merchant on sales made through the platform. The platform’s technology tracks the creators’ postings and shoppers’ online activity and purchases. These metrics are, in turn, available to both the creators and the brands that were promoted.

“It’s a huge source of my income," Ally says. “The benefit of the app is that we get paid for what we do. Before that, it was mainly Instagram and always banging your head against the wall because of changes in the algorithm."

At their mercy

The big social-media platforms—Facebook, YouTube, TikTok, Instagram—have the power to determine what content is most visible to users. Changes made to their systems force content providers to quickly pivot. A good example of this occurred in 2022, when Instagram announced changes to the algorithm that would give more visibility to short-form videos (called reels) than to static photos. Many creators switched over to video production, which is more expensive and has a steeper learning curve than still photography.

“You’re kind of held hostage by the platform and how it operates," says Christin.

An algorithm change is just one of the risks social-media influencers grapple with. “It’s a bit like the Wild West, the world of influencer marketing. There are a lot of agents who aren’t actually agents," Christin says.

And con artists abound. “A lot of influencers report getting scammed by pretend brands," Christin says. “They’re told that they have to buy the products that they’re promoting and we’ll pay you back 10-fold. Then they disappear."

Racial bias also comes into play, says Christin, who co-wrote a paper last year that identified a pay gap between white influencers and influencers of color. It found that nonwhite influencers are less likely to succeed in their negotiations with brands, and that when they do succeed, they are paid significantly less than expected based on industry estimates.

Knowing that the social-media platforms and trends shift quickly, the Noriegas have diversified their offerings. Last year, Ally signed a licensing deal with a clothing rental-subscription service so her followers can wear popular styles and designer brands for $125 a month. Her dream of having her own clothing line was put on hold when Covid hit. Now, with the economy on surer footing, she’s talking to a manufacturer about starting production. She also is taking on more local projects, such as promoting “The Nutcracker" for the Oklahoma City Ballet, and talking about photo ops at Oklahoma City Thunder basketball games.

“Social media is constantly changing," Ally says. “You can’t have just one iron in the fire. They can shut off the lights at any time."

Beth DeCarbo is a writer in South Carolina. She can be reached at reports@wsj.com.

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