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How Influencing As A Career Has Impacted Today's Economy

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

A generation ago, kids didn't dream of being social media influencers. But last year, companies spent around $1.3 billion on marketing through Instagram. So this month's All Tech Considered is all about influencers, their careers and their impact on our economy.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: Today, we hear from two people on opposite ends of this career path. First, Cosette Rinab. She's 19. She has thousands of followers on Instagram and TikTok. That's a platform for short-form videos. And honestly, she's not wild about the term influencer.

COSETTE RINAB: You think of the basic Instagram lifestyle influencer, fashion influencer promoting skinny tea, you know? I think most people gear towards the term creator.

CORNISH: Rinab got started back in high school with a fashion blog. Soon, she was reaching out to different brands, asking to collaborate.

RINAB: I would go on Etsy and find small boutique shops and send them a message. Hi, my name's Cosette. I'm from New York City. I model and act. I have a fashion blog. Would you like to send me some products to try out, and I'll write a dedicated blog post about it?

One of the first companies was a shoe company that bought shoes and bedazzled them. That was one of my first deals that really struck me as, oh, wow, this is actually something that I could be making money off of.

CORNISH: Fast forward a few years. Rinab is now a rising junior at the University of Southern California, and she runs a club for content creators. Hundreds of students apply each semester. Just 10% get in.

RINAB: I actually give a presentation every semester on collaborating with brands and how exactly to approach that because for some people, it's a very foreign idea, and they're scared to reach out to companies. I'm like, how do you expect people to just find your Instagram and reach out to you? You have to make the initiative to actually reach out to them.

CORNISH: You took over this club from its founder, who dropped out of college to do this kind of work full-time. So is college even necessary for someone on this path?

RINAB: That's a good question. I think it depends. You know, he was at his maximum earning potential. He saw - he felt that school was holding him back. And there are a lot of people who, you know, are in such a good place and have such a good positioning in the industry right now that if they don't pursue all of their time, it might not be there forever.

So yeah, I mean, I think college is not necessary for the social media industry, but a lot of it is experience over education in the sense that if you go out and you do the things yourself, you'll most likely learn more than you could learn in a classroom.

CORNISH: What are some things that you think some older people, people who are not maybe as familiar with this world, don't understand about the kind of work you're doing?

RINAB: I think it's really difficult for people of older generations to really grasp that people are making more money off of YouTube than they could be if they were going to medical school and studying - you know, pursuing a career in medicine. So I think it's such a new idea that people just need a little bit more time to get accustomed to the idea.

CORNISH: One thing about this business in particular is it's all about the numbers, I mean, the same way TV's about ratings. But the follower count for people who do social media work is so important. Do you look at yourselves as kind of like athletes? Like, you're in this business to go hard and fast for a long time, and then you'll get out and do something else? Or do you see yourself doing something like this long-term?

RINAB: I see myself doing something like this long-term. I think the goal for me is not to hustle, hustle, hustle, get the big numbers fast and then move on to the next thing. I'm very natural in front of the camera. I love sharing parts of my life with my following. And while I don't think that I'm at a point where I can fully support myself by just doing that, I would love to one day.

CORNISH: Cosette Rinab is a student at the University of Southern California. She runs the club Reach, a club for influencers. I guess I should say creators, right?

RINAB: Yeah.

CORNISH: Cosette, thanks so much.

RINAB: Thank you so much.

CORNISH: Like Cosette Rinab, Sara Li discovered Instagram and its power to persuade when she was a teenager. But she started out an activist. She posted about sexual assault prevention, and it went viral.

SARA LI: The number of people who saw my tiny, tiny account from Topeka, Kan., was mind-blowing. I mean, like, I had actresses from The CW emailing me that said, hey, I saw your project on Instagram. It's really cool. Like, I think it's great that you're speaking out against sexual assault. How can I get involved?

CORNISH: Li is now a social media strategist. She works with influencers, but she says she didn't want to be one anymore.

LI: It just really wasn't for me. I mean, it was definitely a few years ago when it was less regulated.

CORNISH: What do you mean by regulated?

LI: Well, so nowadays, you know, there's a lot more transparency on influencers and kind of their brand deals. We have, like, the megainfluencers, like Danielle Bernstein, talking about how much she makes in a post. We have FTC guidelines. And, you know, five years ago, there really wasn't that kind of transparency.

I was also 17, 18 at the time. And I remember being part of this Facebook group for influencers, so kind of a digital influencer club very unlike the one that she had mentioned. But it was essentially more along the lines of, how can I edit this photo to make myself as skinny as possible? How can I get this brand deal with this company that's really not great? And I just kind of remember sitting there, being like, I don't want to promote skinny teas. I don't want to promote, you know, like, these faulty products.

You know, we're so used to Instagram being this highlight reel that I think that as more and more people talk about influencer culture, we're getting this need for transparency and kind of a more genuine storytelling rather than, here are the best parts of my life, and that's all there is.

CORNISH: It sounds like you're saying that this business has come around in a way that magazines once were, right? Like, now we're just looking at people - beautiful people with a lot of resources doing what they do.

LI: Yes. Yeah, completely. And, you know, I'm not going to say all influencers are bad because that's not true. I know a lot of influencers and content creators who really do put, like, a genuine, authentic version of themselves out there. But on that note, I think it's also important to kind of realize that there is a huge, huge portion of influencers who do - who kind of are in it for the wrong reason - kind of like that glossy, magazine-style life.

CORNISH: How realistic is it to have a sustained career as an influencer?

LI: Very realistic. You know, whether you like influencers or not, it's a very profitable career. And I would say it's not unrealistic to quit your full-time job to become an influencer. I would say if you're going to do that, have an actual business plan in mind because it's not as easy as, you know, I have a huge following on Instagram. You really have to know the business. You really need to know how to adapt to every single social media change. And you just really need to have a plan in mind.

CORNISH: Is there a danger of burnout? Like, when you talk to young people getting into this business, is that something that they're aware of?

LI: Oh, absolutely. But that's the same for any entrepreneur - right? - any self-starter who may be starting their own business at home. I just think as a content creator, there's just more pressure because it's you that you're selling, not just the product.

I know for me, sometimes when I post a lot of stories, I'm just like, I don't even know if I'm living my life or I'm just posting this to make it seem like I have a life. You know, you're watching your own reality directed back at you, and then you're also putting it out there for other people to consume. And it's really intense. It's a lot. And for a, like, full-time content creator to deal with that constantly, it can't be easy.

CORNISH: Sara Li is a writer and social media strategist. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

LI: Yeah, of course. Thank you so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.