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Want to be a social media influencer? Here are some tips for getting started

Illustration shows an influencer in a fuzzy white top live streaming using her phone
Building a brand and cultivating an audience requires consistent production and willingness to hustle.
(Juliette Toma / For The Times)

Eddie Infante, 23, started posting comedic videos on TikTok after he graduated college. His content seems effortless — jokes about dating as a young gay man in Southern California and a lot of food posts, including his popular “What I Eat in a Day” series. Those videos always start with an iced coffee at a doughnut chain.

But what seems off-the-cuff was strategic. When he first began his channel in 2020, Infante would pull into the drive-thru line at his local Dunkin’ by 7:45 a.m. so he could film, edit and post his food reviews early enough to make users’ For You pages, just as they got up to get their own morning coffees. The Long Beach-based influencer, who has 23,000 followers on TikTok, said he kept to this schedule for months.

Building a brand, cultivating an audience and maintaining a consistent level of production requires time, energy and a “willingness to hustle,” Infante said.

When he started his channel, Infante was still working full-time doing influencer marketing for an agency based in Costa Mesa, Calif.

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“So at the same time I was kind of growing little by little, doing my own thing,” he said. “During break I would see what I could film quickly, post, then get back to work.”

A digital content creator or influencer is someone whose online videos, photos or podcasts are followed, listened to and trusted by a sizable audience. They tend to specialize in a topic — beauty, lifestyle, pop culture and food are some of the most popular ones — but you’ll find influencers of all kinds.

Anyone with a social media account can try to join the influencer ranks and help define the Next Big Thing. But gaining an audience requires a strong work ethic, resources and creativity, as well as some uncontrollable factors like luck, good timing and some help from social media platforms’ mysterious algorithms.

What kind of content should you make?

Find your niche and be authentic, Infante advises.

Retaining your authenticity, he said, is more important than whatever money a brand is offering you. He acknowledged not all influencers operate under the same guiding principles but warns to not be lured by the promise of income in return for the trust of your audience.

Soy Nguyen, who’s known as foodwithsoy to her more than 558,000 followers on TikTok, said brand awareness is key to having a successful feed. Empowerment and positivity are central to her brand’s message, and she creates content with that in mind.

There are some videos — ones where she’s slurping up spicy ramen or drizzling street tacos with mouth-numbing salsa — that she knows will consistently get a lot of views, and others, such as her “eat with me on Sundays” series, that she makes not for the hits but because they represent her brand and the message of positivity she wants to spread.

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Melody Cheng, Helen Wu and Janet Wang, co-founders of the podcast “Asian Boss Girl,” worked in corporate America for more than 10 years and had hours of stories to tell about workplace drama and their lives as Asian American women.

Vulnerability and compassion are two traits that Cheng said will make your content more appealing to your audience and therefore boost your interaction. Authenticity, she said, isn’t necessarily shown by having high-quality production or being the “best of the best.” Just being the best at what you do is more than enough.

Also, although one platform might be all the rage at any given moment, don’t push yourself to create things you’re not comfortable with. The awkwardness and discomfort will show onscreen, Cheng said. You can use some platforms just for fun, Wu said, and others for business.

For many people who pursue entertainment as a career, it takes years to get yourself to where you are making money from your creative work. For making money in the meantime, there’s always waiting tables. But more and more people are turning to platforms like TikTok, Twitch and Patreon.

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How do the platforms work?

Each social media platform uses algorithms to select and promote a fraction of the content posted there to a wider audience. That’s how the platforms introduce users to content creators they hadn’t previously discovered. But like the man behind the curtain in “The Wizard of Oz,” the code behind the algorithms is kept out of sight, their workings a mystery to the public.

Here’s some of what we do know. Algorithms are designed to fill users’ feeds with content that is interesting enough to keep them on the site as long as possible. To do that, the algorithms consider what users reveal about themselves in their profiles and their behavior on the site, including the content they’ve interacted with and the content that similar users have found most engaging.

But each platform’s algorithms are different. That means it takes a lot of trial and error to find out what works for your content, according to Infante.

Despite the secrecy and unpredictability of algorithms, there are things you can do to harness their power.

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Nguyen said strong content is most important and the more consistent your interactions are, the more likely you’ll make it into the stream of content the platform’s algorithm promotes widely.

Taking a look at what’s on your own feed, Infante said, is a good way to gauge what’s going to resonate. Looking at trending hashtags, songs, dances or topics can help prime the pump for your content’s success.

Thematically consistent and frequent on-brand posts with calls for users to interact in the comments, Infante said, are some good guiding principles when it comes to creating your content.

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How do people make money at this?

The key is to amass a sizable number of subscribers or followers. With billions of people checking social media obsessively, the potential audience is enormous. But so is the competition for attention.

The more frequently a platform’s algorithm picks up your content, the more views you’ll get and the more your audience will grow. The more your audience grows, the more money you can make from advertisers, sponsors and other sources. But you’ve got to attract thousands of devoted followers in order to make a meaningful income.

On TikTok, the Creator Fund pays the people who post popular videos based on how many views and followers they have. To qualify for the fund, you have to be at least 18 years old and have 10,000 followers, and your videos must have attracted at least 100,000 views over the previous 30 days.

For creators like Infante who are just now starting to see success, that means you can go months without being paid. How much you get paid depends on multiple factors. Glassdoor estimates that influencers can make between $29,000 and $141,000 annually.

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Those with larger audiences can make revenue through other means. For the “Asian Boss Girl” podcast team, their main sources of revenue are advertisers and merchandising.

When it comes to working with corporate sponsors, Infante warned: Know your worth and always ask questions.

He said to consider how much time, energy and money you put into producing your content. Calculators online can give you a rough estimate of how much you could — and should — charge per post.

Infante explained that some companies send free products just to get whatever promotion they can, while others want something specific in return. Always be sure to know what their expectations are before saying yes to anyone. Consider a deal with a corporate sponsor like an hourly wage. Are you being paid enough for the work you’re performing? If the answer is no, he said, pass.

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Guidance is crucial to starting a career in entertainment, and at some point you’ll need an agent. How and where can you find one who gets you?

What are you getting into?

Maintaining a brand as a social media influencer isn’t a regular 9-to-5 job. Depending on the size of your audience and the type of content you produce, you can spend anywhere from two hours a day like Phillip Miner, a queer art curator, to eight like Ngyuen creating and assembling material.

But this line of work isn’t for everyone. Miner said if you’re looking to really “make it big,” pursuing the life of a social media influencer may leave you feeling “unhappy and unfulfilled.” Do it for you, he said, and be aware that the road to success isn’t an easy one.

Protecting your mental health, Infante said, is more important than any platform growth you could have. Nguyen advised against getting into it with people in the comments and maintaining work-life boundaries so you don’t become consumed by bad actors spewing negativity and hate.

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And if you do manage to grow your audience, Nguyen said, really sit down and evaluate your “why.” A larger audience also means more people will be interacting with you, in ways good and bad. She also suggests having an ultimate goal in mind to keep you grounded and guided in your creative process.

Careers in the entertainment industry can be mysterious for those just starting out, and even for those working in the business. The Los Angeles Times brings you explainers and advice for starting and building your career in Hollywood.


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