Forward Focus: Social media influencers make thousands on videos made at home

Cowley said there are three routes people take to become influencers: expertise, entertainment, and aesthetics. (WWMT/FILE)

Shanequa Kemp has a busy life. She has dedicated hours working as a second-grade teacher at Post Franklin Elementary School in Battle Creek, caring for her 3-year-old daughter, Naylah, and now preparing for a second child — with the camera lens watching.

Kemp said she expects more phone calls very soon from companies looking to use her to market their baby products using her blog, YouTube channel and Instagram page.

“I am planning on reaching out to different mommy companies since that is something I can do pretty easily right now for pregnancy, and when the baby comes and is a newborn,” Kemp said. “I love showing people I'm a person like you, and anyone can do this.”

Kemp’s 34,000 Instagram followers and 6,000 YouTube subscribers have helped her earn the title of “Social Media Influencer.” She said she makes about $10,000 a year in cash, free products and discounts on merchandise from several companies who see her following as a way to reach consumers.

However, Kemp said, being a social influencer is so much more.

“I don't like to call them followers, I like to call them supporters. I get DM's [direct messages] all the time about how I'm inspiring people. I love those messages the most. This is really what I love to do,” Kemp said.

Falling into a career

Kemp studied psychology and family education at Western Michigan University, graduating in December 2013. After finding it tough to find a job in her chosen field, she said, she fell backwards into teaching. She began working as a substitute, and is now a full-time teacher at Post Franklin. It was a similar journey to becoming a social influencer. After gaining a small following on her Instagram page, she said, she received a strange direct message from a hair product company.

“A company reached out to me and asked me what my rates were. And I actually was like, 'My rates? Wait a minute? I can get paid to do this?' because I didn't know that at the time. I went to my husband and asked, 'Wait, how much should I be charging?'” Kemp said.

Kemp started her social media career with the goal to simply help other women find new and unique hairstyles for their natural hair. After a while, she began to see people really enjoyed her Instagram posts.

“People started coming to my page, people started following me, 1,000 went to 12,000 and it grew to 30,000. It wasn't something I set out to do; it kind of just happened. People were inspired by the hairstyles I was sharing, or my family. I feel like a lot of people came to my page for the hair, and they continued because of my family because I could relate to them or inspire them,” Kemp said.

While pregnant with Naylah, she began blogging and expanding her range of posts to include parenting tips and product reviews.

“It was basically a job pretty much. They would give me deliverables, so things that they wanted me to do every month, like videos, a post or insta-stories. I would create the content and put it out,” Kemp said.

This new way of marketing has been growing for years, said Scott Cowley, an assistant professor of marketing at Western Michigan University. Cowley said companies are moving toward finding real people with large followings to help them sell their products. Cowley, who earned his doctorate in marketing from Arizona State University, said some companies devote at least half of their marketing budget toward social influencer marketing as opposed to traditional means, such as TV and digital ads or billboards.

“Instagram is often a place where companies are using influencers as an advertising replacement. This is where we're going to expose people to products and try and create that demand,” Cowley said. “Influencers and these YouTubers understand that they will be that much more successful if they can make people following them feel like there's something more there than just watching someone from a distance, like a celebrity.”

Three types of social influencers

Cowley said there are three routes people take to become social influencers: expertise, entertainment and aesthetics.

To be an influencer based on expertise, Cowley said, it is all about trust.

“We look at people who write and create reviews and video reviews and test products, so much of their influence and audience is based on people trusting them to tell the truth about whatever topic they are an influencer in,” Cowley said.

The entertainment route is a challenging one, Cowley said. You have to offer the viewer something funny or engaging that keeps them coming back to your page.

“There are people who command a huge following because they are entertaining to watch, they're relatable. There are a lot of good entertainers out there right now, especially on YouTube,” Cowley said.

Cowley said influencers who want to go the aesthetic route receive a lot of negativity, and their career length only goes so far as they can maintain their aesthetic content. This can include the photographs they take or their own looks.

“Either they have a really good sense of style, design. Often in the fashion or beauty categories. We see people who know how to take a good photo, or they're aesthetically pleasing to look at themselves,” Cowley said. “We see a lot of people who are building up an audience just because they represent something inspirational. They represent the lifestyle other people wish they had. The products they use suddenly seem inspirational, and people watching them wish that they could then go have those things themselves.”

Whichever route a social influencer chooses, Cowley said, they should not expect to make any money for a while.

“Someone with 10,000 good followers on Instagram, they might be able to get a few hundred dollars for a post. You take that up to 100,000 then you might be talking $1,000 per post. Once you get down to the lower levels where you're just talking a few thousands, in many cases those people aren't even getting paid. They may just be getting exposure by being able to talk about them working with a brand. It's a stepping stone to a bigger audience,” Cowley said.

The famous social influencers who have millions of followers can command six-figure payments for just a single post are few and far between. However, more companies see the value of Instagram or YouTube followings as marketing tools that reach just as many eyeballs, if not more, than a traditional advertisement.

“You take someone like Kylie Jenner who has 120-something million people following her, and maybe she could command a million dollars just for posting something for a brand on Instagram. It's crazy when you think about it that way. Then you consider the fact that companies are willing to spend $5 million on a 30-second Superbowl ad,” Cowley said. “You might reach the exact same amount of people with just as much influence power by going through an individual, then it doesn't seem so crazy.”

Authenticity is king

Cowley said one of his current students is well on his way to becoming a social influencer. Austin Sherwood only has one semester left at Western. The 23-year-old marketing major also spent his days as a Bronco on the WMU Bass Fishing team. He said he's loved the outdoors since he was a kid, and parlays his expertise in fishing and hunting into discounts and free gear from outdoor equipment companies.

“One thing I knew that I absolutely had to do if I wanted to fish at the college level and beyond that, is market myself,” Sherwood said.

Sherwood said he thinks the key to his success has been the authenticity he displays in his social media posts. He believes people follow him because they share the same interests, and the same desire to watch other people enjoy outdoor sports and get the best tips on what gear to buy.

“The number one reason people will unfollow you, is if you're not being authentic,” Sherwood said. “I think that's why people want to follow other people on social media, is they just want to see other incredible experiences and authentic relationships being formed.”

Sherwood credited expertise in how to capture incredible videos and pictures as another reason he believes his posts are so engaging, though he admitted cellphones made that task much easier.

“Austin is a unique student in the sense that he is making a name for himself on the basis of expertise,” Cowley said. “When you have this combination of great aesthetic sense, and expertise, that makes you very dangerous in a good sense as a marketer. Somebody others are going to want to follow and listen to, someone who is going to be persuasive to an audience making product recommendations.”

Sherwood said the most trusted messages in marketing now come from people’s friends.

“Back in the day, a brand used to be what they told you they were. If John Deere said nothing runs like a Deere, that's what it was,” Sherwood said. “Nowadays, a brand is not what they tell you they are, a brand is what your friend tells you it is.”

Sherwood estimated he made more than $10,000 in discounts and free gear over the past three years. While some of that is natural for someone wanting to become a professional sport fisherman, the rest of the $10,000 came through team sponsorships earned by the WMU Bass Fishing team as a whole. He said rods break and equipment gets worn, so many pro fishers rely on endorsements, but in order to get those sponsorships, you have to be likable.

“In the bass fishing world, we have a lot of sponsorships through our team, and a lot of those sponsorships revolve around social media presence,” Sherwood said.

Sherwood said he sought out other opportunities himself. He contacted drinkware and gear manufacturer YETI because, he said, he's always loved their coolers and outdoor equipment. He then earned a spot on YETI’s pro team.

“That's just a discount, and YETI doesn't pay me cash, but they do provide a discount. The incentive there is I'm getting 30-40 percent off YETI products, but in return I'm going to promote them like crazy. I want my friends to use YETI, I want to use YETI because I want people to see the products because I love them, and I'm passionate about them,” Sherwood said.

Hard work to be a social influencer

Many social influencers have other jobs and hobbies, but most use their hobby to gain a following because it’s something they are passionate about, which can resonates with social media audiences.

Kelsey McConnell of Portage said she works during the day as a marketing and event coordinator for Old Dog Tavern in Kalamazoo. By night, she’s a body builder. Her path to become a social influencer began with a way to hold herself accountable.

“That's why I started posting to my Instagram about my fitness journey. I got hooked, and it just turned into a fitness account,” McConnell said. “It was in the back part of my mind I could make money from this, like that would be a cool benefit, but that wasn't the main motivation.”

McConnell showed her nearly 5,000 Instagram followers her workout routines and meal preparations every week. In the beginning, she was receiving messages from companies asking her to be a brand ambassador, but was hesitant to endorse every product that was pitched to her.

“I do get a lot of requests to be an ambassador, like hey, buy our products and then post pictures of you with our, for example apparel, and you'll get 40 percent off going forward. My thought process with that is, if I don't already use the product I don't want to partner, unless I really see the value in the product. So I think that's an important thing I learned over time, because I don't want to endorse a product I don't believe in because that messes with my followers,” McConnell said.

McConnell works with swimwear company Ravish Sands and Fre Skincare. Ravish Sands gave her hundreds of dollars in discounts for her custom competition swimwear, while Ravish Sands sent her products for free to try out and talk about with her followers.

“I try to be real with my audience, and show them exactly what I'm going through when I'm going through it,” McConnell said.

McConnell said she puts a lot of work into her Instagram account, and tries to give her followers something new, fun, informative or exciting every week. She also tried to engage and encourage her followers, building a bond with them so they feel like more than just a follower.

“I sit down each week on Sundays and try to plan out my posts for the week. 'Okay, what's most beneficial and well rounded?'” McConnell said. “Instagram stories have been awesome. You really get to interact, and that's how I keep my followers in the loop. My page is kind of in the beginning stages, I'd say. Like I have friends who have 50,000 followers.”

McConnell said she realizes this might not be a full-time 9-to-5 career, but she hopes to at least earn enough to fund her bodybuilding career.

“In five to 10 years it would be awesome to make more and get maybe a supplement line as a sponsor. I see that as a possibility, but I'm not banking on it. I could go to the gym tomorrow and pull something or tear something, and it's over. That's the risk of being an athlete,” McConnell said.

So you want to be a social influencer?

Cowley said he continues to teach his Western students all the ins and outs of influencer marketing. He spent an entire day of class just focusing on influencer marketing, and warned students, “there is an influencer for everybody, there is an influencer for every market."

People can get their own taste of being a social media influencer by signing up for If you meet the criteria, companies will send you free products to try in exchange for talking about them on social media.

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