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May 20, 2019

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Banking on personality: How social media influencers make serious money

Social Media Influence


With a common camera and uncommon charisma, you can make your social media life a full-time job.

When Forbes first published a list of the world’s top-earning YouTube stars, the 2015 ranking set tongues wagging. Even for those who grew up in the internet age, it’s hard to comprehend making millions simply by sitting in a bedroom and chatting to a $100 point-and-shoot camera.

The Forbes honorees had a couple of things in common: All earned over $2.5 million that year — with the top performer pulling in $12 million — and almost all were under the age of 30.

When YouTube launched in 2005, it was a purely creative platform where anyone could share and view videos about anything. But it took on a life of its own, and within a year was one of the fastest-growing websites, with more than 65,000 new uploads and 100 million views every day.

Influencers with Vegas ties

There's no single formula for social media influence. For instance, subscriber numbers might be dwarfed by total views on a YouTube channel, or followers on one platform might be in the millions while only fractions are drawn to others. Vegas accounts with top engagement range wildly, from parody films to vanity selfies. Here's a sampling:

DAN BILZERIAN, poker player and thrill seeker. Instagram: 19 million followers; Facebook: 10.3 million likes; Twitter: 1.37 million followers; YouTube: 38,848 subscribers (over 4.7 million channel views)

NIGAHIGA, comedy master. YouTube: 17.9 million subscribers (over 2.8 billion channel views); Instagram: 2.2 million followers; Facebook: 2.1 million likes; Twitter: 1.85 million followers

MILES JAI, improv and parody artist, vlogger and beauty expert. YouTube: 604,930 subscribers (over 87 million channel views); Instagram: 172,000 followers; Facebook: 100,264 likes; Twitter: 62,000 followers

VEGAS_NAY, makeup artist, designer. Instagram: 7.9 million followers; YouTube: 199,940 subscribers (over 2.7 million channel views); Twitter: 28,000 followers; Facebook: 1,069 likes

AMANDA LYNN, model. Instagram: 1.2 million followers; Facebook: 40,084; Twitter: 20,600 followers

Today, YouTube boasts over a billion users (“almost one-third of all people on the internet”), with hundreds of millions of hours watched across the planet daily. As the audience and contributor pool have grown, so has advertiser spending, rising 40 percent year on year. Alphabet CFO Ruth Porat has said that more people in the coveted 18-49 demographic watch YouTube than cable. Advertising on the site adds up to tens of billions, and through YouTube’s Click Per Thousand (CPM) ad-view model of revenue sharing, content providers are tapping the spoils of DIY entertainment.

Seeing the potential to make full-time careers of their social media presence, content creators have upped their game, trading low-resolution webcams and camera phones for the best SLRs on the market, lighting kits, reflectors and professional editing software to produce videos that rival productions coming out of Hollywood. Quite fitting, since some of social media’s top earners are now banking more than some Tinseltown stars.

But how? Earning revenue from advertisements placed in monetized content is one way, but advertisers only pay when viewers watch their ads. Furthermore, with payouts averaging $1 per 1,000 views, the checks rolling in from YouTube tend not to be significant unless subscriber and viewer numbers are in the hundreds of thousands or millions.

Proving to be savvy entrepreneurs, millennials are growing their followings with self-promotion across newer platforms like Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat, and parlaying their popularity into endorsement deals, merchandising, paid appearances, subscription services, direct advertising and fan funding.

The American dream has gone digital, and some of the most recognizable faces in social media have roots in Las Vegas. They range from comedy chameleon Ryan Higa, a YouTube original with nearly 18 million subscribers, to Dan Bilzerian, the GQ-branded “King of Instagram” with 19 million riveted to his controversial bro theater.

Below that tier but still bringing firepower in terms of audience and earning potential, these Las Vegas “influencers” are building their brands in ways that monetize the eyes constantly on them.

They shared their journeys for the benefit of aspiring talents who might be one viral post away from changing their lives, and maybe ours.



Age: 27

Niche: Beauty guru

YouTube subscribers: 563,791

Just four years ago, one of YouTube’s most colorful personalities was struggling as a freelance makeup artist for MAC Cosmetics and a Denver gentleman’s club.

“I was completely in the rat race and could never keep my head above water,” Tyme said. “But I always knew I wanted to be more than just a working makeup artist, so I started to share my love of makeup on my YouTube channel.”

At first, subscribers trickled in for Tyme’s “in your face” hair and makeup tutorials. But with consistent, quality uploads and cross-promotion on her Facebook fan page, the number climbed to 5,000 in just two months — 100,000 by the end of the first year.

Tyme recently surpassed the half-million mark, a major milestone for all YouTubers, but it’s what she achieved two years after starting her channel that the Las Vegas-based influencer considers most memorable.

“It was when I got my first $1,000 check from YouTube,” she said. “When I was working as a freelance artist, I told myself, ‘Oh my gosh, as soon as I save $1,000 I can move from Denver.’”

Beyond the validation of engaging total strangers and advertisers in her love of beauty and incredible on-camera transformations, Tyme was driven by the promise of a significant paycheck. Her strategy included focusing on the tutorials for which she is known and peppering in personal day-in-the-life segments, from shopping hauls to the ever-popular OOTD (Outfit of the Day).

The strategy worked, bringing Tyme’s earnings to six figures.

We’re talking about passive income, drawn from the checks YouTube sends; the inclusion of a subscription service in which fans buy specially curated videos; endorsement deals with such clients as BH Cosmetics, Fashion Nova and Skindinavia (as well as paid appearances); and Tyme Academy, in which participants pay to learn makeup artistry in 12 weeks.

Simply put, this millennial earns money while she sleeps.

“Growing up in an urban community in Denver, I never thought my life now would have been possible,” said Tyme, who moved to Las Vegas to better serve her pursuit of 21st-century fame. “Now, I am in control of my destiny.”



Age: 30

Niche: Lifestyle/mommy blogger

Instagram followers: 153,000

Ashley Diana had zero presence on social media a couple of years ago. She didn’t bother with Facebook and didn’t know what Instagram was. Then a 28-year-old hair stylist, she had a client who suggested the latter and showed her how to get started.

“I am very visual, so Instagram really caught my attention,” Ashley said.

Already planning to start an online business focused on healthy living, she used the platform as a trial before investing in a website and blog. But her photos rapidly attracted a following of more than 150,000.

From the beginning, her aspirational health-and-wellness feed had a specific feel — tight photos of fruit, veggies and other plant-based treats bursting with color, Ashley’s blinged-out nails, hipster jewelry and bright red, sometimes rainbow-colored hair adding to the vibrancy. You know an Ashley Diana image when you see it, and eager for more, fans followed her to her new website. Advertisers paid attention.

“Do not rely on one network,” she said. “You don’t need to be on all of them, but choose a few that work for you and cross-market.”

While she prefers working on Snapchat and Instagram, Ashley maintains a presence on Facebook, with close to 20,000 likes, and on Twitter, where her followers are fewer than 500. Every bit of engagement adds to the overall number she carries to her monetized website, allowing her to command greater advertising dollars.

“It’s also important to connect with other influencers in line with your brand, but who are bigger than you are,” she said. Known as “collabs”, these guest appearances with well-known creators give you access to their followers, some of whom will also follow you.

As with any business, investing is vital to staying ahead of the competition. For Ashley, this meant spending $5,000 on a camera and lenses, and $1,500 on classes to learn how to use them. With technology changing at lightning pace, upgrading equipment is not a luxury; it’s a necessity. “I upgrade my iPhone whenever Apple improves the camera,” she said.

The rewards often outweigh the costs. While Ashley wouldn’t share how much she earns, she stressed that if approached seriously, social media can be a full-time job that pays exceptionally well. She counts fan recognition, building a global network, having her recipes featured at Violette’s Vegan restaurant in Las Vegas, and endorsements with hair-product companies among her greatest accomplishments. But the greatest is in the making. In a few months, Ashley will become a first-time mom, and she’s capitalizing on the flexibility her social media career offers to transition into being a mommy blogger, too.

“Mommy blogging has organically become a key component of my brand, and I am grateful for the opportunity to connect with other mothers through my blog and social networks,” she said. “My life feels complete.”



Age: 37

Niche: Travel photographer

Instagram followers: 411,000

The success of social media influencers gives credence to the famous Confucius quote, “Choose a job you love and you will never work a day in your life.”

For “work,” Spanish-born globetrotter Oliver Vegas bounces from country to country, capturing breathtaking landscapes and the people and creatures woven in. His photographs hum with light, color and dimension, sometimes visited by his disembodied, outstretched hand presenting natural marvels with a magician’s flourish. His Instagram feed, fast approaching half a million followers, is an expertly curated flip-book of the world, from Iceland’s astoundingly beautiful Blue Lagoon, to sunrise in Cuba, to the lights of his Las Vegas home base shot from high above.

While most influencers are social media pros who have to learn videography and photography, Oliver is a photographer developing a relationship with social media.

“I’m not the kind of person who can spend hours on a social networking site,” he said. “I would always wonder about the people around me who spent their time on Facebook and Twitter.”

His passions could not be contained indoors. Instead, the curiosity that grew from boyhood travels with his parents was fed by outdoor exploration, by mingling with people of different cultures and creating a visual record.

Having studied film direction to nurture this predilection, Oliver honed his skills and attracted the attention of major brands like Nike, Mercedes, Coca-Cola and HP, to name a few, which commissioned him to capture some of the arresting images used in their ad campaigns. He took pride not in the quantity of clients he booked, but rather, in the quality of what he produced for them, moments so beautifully caught that he took to social media to share them with the world. Actually, it was to share them with a few friends, but Oliver soon learned the meaning of the word “viral.”

“It all happened by chance,” he said. “People just liked what I shared, and this motivated me to work harder to share even better content.”

When asked about the cult following he amassed on Instagram in under five years, he pointed first to luck, and then to rich content and regular interaction.

“My images convey my feelings, and I always try to ensure my photos have a story behind them,” he said. “I also think people support me because I engage with them; I respond to their messages and emails. And for their support of my work and their belief in me, I just want to say thank you.”

The humility and gratitude Oliver feels about the fame social media has brought is best summed up in his future plans. In addition to opening a store where his photos will be sold, and working on getting his first book published, he hopes to share his talents with young people interested in learning about photography, and is focusing a great deal of his efforts on a project for which all proceeds would be donated to charity.

His advice to millennials seeking similar success? “Work hard; life is not just a selfie. You can’t merely live in a social network if you want to succeed in it. You need to experience the real world and always be willing to learn.”


Influential's Chief Technology Officer Piotr Tomasik, CEO Ryan Detert and Chief Operating Officer Dan Steele.

Influential's Chief Technology Officer Piotr Tomasik, CEO Ryan Detert and Chief Operating Officer Dan Steele.


Social media marketing firm

Posing for photos and staging videos isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but there is money to be made by camera-shy entrepreneurs hoping for a piece of the social media pie. The industry around content creators is growing rapidly, and giving birth to talent management and marketing firms dedicated exclusively to influencers.

Ryan Detert, CEO of LA- and Las Vegas-based Influential, made the switch. Five years ago, he was a social media influencer with millions of followers spread across various niche accounts on Twitter and Instragram. “These are verticalized content channels,” Detert said. “Think of @travel on Twitter, @automotive, @FashionAndStyle.”

The followers he accumulated were attractive to agencies and major brands eager to sign off on six-figure marketing campaigns that would give them visibility with Detert’s audience. But the business-savvy, aspiring media mogul saw an opportunity to increase that earning potential by getting other major influencers involved. The greater the reach, the more advertisers would pay.

His initial approach was old-school: calling and texting other influencers, asking them to be part of planned campaigns.

“There are too many things that can go wrong, that will go wrong when there is no technology involved,” Detert said of the lack of tech infrastructure he’d observed on the monetization side of social media. “So I decided to get out of being just a content provider. I realized the giant hole in the marketplace was creating the technology to match influencers with brands and agencies.”

Influential created algorithms that match campaigns with talent and post content on their behalf at peak times to ensure the greatest reach. To date, the company has raised $9 million in seed and Series A venture-capital funding, is earning millions in revenue and works with more than 7,000 influencers who have the top 1 percent of engagement.

“We have monitors that are running 24/7, looking for the best people,” Detert said. “It’s this specialized club that only allows in people that truly have digital value for a brand.”


TechMate founders and partners Prophecy Onasis and Jamie Jones

TechMate founders and partners Prophecy Onasis and Jamie Jones


Social media marketing firm

Over at TechMate’s Las Vegas operation, the father-and-son team of Prophecy Onasis and Jamie Jones is partnering with top influencers like Tyme the Infamous to sell digital ad campaigns while building unique content-delivery platforms to cash in on placements from blue-chip advertisers.

The duo struck a multimillion-dollar deal with AOL in July as certified advertising-supply partners for publishers who own the top websites globally.

“AOL supplies us with advertisements from Fortune 500 companies such as Apple, Samsung, Ford and McDonald’s, to name a few,” Onasis said. “And we then use a code called Vast Tags to place these ads on high-traffic sites.”

Advertisers pay out based on views per ad, and TechMate earns a significant percentage.

Other revenue models TechMate employs include exclusive content subscriptions and ecommerce, which entails selling trending products on social media platforms. And then there’s TechMate Marketing, the company’s own method of building and positioning brands.

In addition to the AOL contract, the startup also struck a major deal that will see it partnering with NASA to provide a content-delivery platform for the agency’s virtual reality tours of Mars and Earth.

Social media marketing budgets are growing exponentially, with brands setting aside billions in advertising dollars to spend with influencers and the companies representing them. Millennials have the edge in this market, but Onasis says there is money to be made by all, provided they do the research to really understand how the internet works.

“The state of the internet is no longer about Googling something and sending an email,” Onasis said. “There’s lots of money to be made. So wake up, baby boomers. If I figured this out, you can, too.”


    • Which platform is for you?

      Ask yourself: 1. Does this platform make sense for my content — do I plan to communicate with videos, photos, text or all of the above? 2. Who are my potential fans and target audience, and do they spend time on this platform? 3. Do I understand how it works?

    • Facebook

      1.71 billion users; most are 18-65+; audience skews slightly female

      Its global dominance makes Facebook one of the most important platforms for influencers seeking to increase their reach. You can even pay to boost posts to a targeted audience. On average, a $5 Facebook campaign will boost the promoted post to over 750 people and net you approximately nine new page likes.

      The combination of photos or videos with a message and users’ ability to comment enables influencers to build relationships with their followers and followers with each other, creating a sort of insiders’ club. This level of interactivity also showcases the person behind the brand, fostering bankable brand loyalty.

    • YouTube

      1 billion users; most are 18-54; audience skews slightly male

      YouTube is the television of millennials. In addition to leveraging their popularity to secure endorsement deals and promotional fees and to monetize their websites, influencers using the visually driven platform cash checks directly from it. The site embeds ads in their content and uses the Cost Per Mille (thousand) or CPM measurement to calculate earnings. Payouts average $1 per 1,000 views, but are higher for influencers with the highest levels of engagement. Content is generally short-form and revolves around how-to videos, product promotions and vlogs — personal videos sharing a day in the life.

      Some useful tidbits from successful YouTube gurus include: 1. Utilize natural light for best video quality. 2. Keep videos between five and seven minutes, as interest tends to fall off at the seven-minute mark. 3. Avoid using songs, particularly in monetized videos, as this may lead to video removal over copyrights issues. 4. Be consistent with your uploads, because users develop patterns for watching videos and look forward to seeing new content on the same days at the same times.

    • Instagram

      400 million users; most are 18-29; audience skews slightly female

      Instagram is still relatively new in the realm of social networking, but the timing of its arrival perfectly capitalized on the fact that consumers spend more time playing on their phones than on their computers. The photo- and video-sharing app may be dwarfed by Facebook, but it still boasts impressive stats, particularly in terms of engagement, with Bloomberg reporting more than 300 million people engage with the app every day.

      Although the direct monetization available on YouTube’s platform is not available on Instagram, influencers with large followings can still earn on the photo-based app by attracting advertisers who want visibility with their fans. Opportunities for earning include partnering for ad campaigns and endorsements.

      Instagram previously ordered posts from oldest to newest, but the app’s new algorithm-driven news feed prioritizes posts from the accounts users engage with most. So ensure your posts top your followers’ feeds by interacting with them regularly, posting vivid images and including useful information with the visuals.

    • Twitter

      313 million users; most are 18-49; audience skews slightly male

      Twitter is best suited to users who are great with words and seek to regularly engage followers in an “as it happens” conversation. The 140-character limit makes the platform perfect for breaking news, updates, calls to action and questions for which the poster seeks an immediate response.

      A key tip for increasing followers is to be supportive of your community. Twitter influencers call it the 80/20 rule: Approximately 80 percent of your Twitter engagement should be dedicated to retweeting and commenting on other posts, and the other 20 percent can be about you.

    • Pinterest

      100 million users; most are 18-49; audience predominantly women

      This online scrapbook allows users to showcase products, services and interests by way of beautifully curated boards, thereby allowing followers to tap into the essence of the brand. Pinterest is made for lead generation, which account holders can utilize to drive traffic to other platforms, such as monetized websites or blogs.

      Unlike Facebook and Instagram, where engagement with a particular post dwindles over time, statistics show that 50 percent of visits to a Pinterest board happen within 3.5 months of the first pinning. That longevity makes Pinterest an excellent tool for ecommerce marketers. To capitalize on this, ensure your content is “pinnable” in that others will see it and want to repin or share on their boards.

    • Snapchat

      Number of users unknown; most are 18-24; audience predominantly women

      The newest of the major social networks is quickly ascending the ranks to favorite status. As Instagram followers grow weary of the posed, filtered and edited images, they are turning to Snapchat for a more candid look into the lives of the influencers they love.

      The mobile app allows users to send videos and photos called "snaps", which self-destruct after they are viewed. The ability to add captions, doodles and other graphics makes this a fun window on an influencer’s lighter side. While the number of active monthly Snapchat users is unknown, Bloomberg reports that its daily engagement is 150 million, surpassing Twitter’s 140 million.

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