Rise of the Social Media Influencers

By Anne May Anderson

Some internet personalities have found that their fame doesn’t stop at their Instagram page — 22-year-old Mehak Vohra, above, was named a top expert on Generation Z by Forbes last year and has even thrown her hat in the ring as a mayoral candidate for San Francisco’s upcoming election. Others have found their brands showcasing some of life’s most intimate moments, like when Chris Lin, below, proposed to Brock Williams, also below, in a video posted to the couple’s well-followed YouTube channel.

Reviewing dishes at hip new restaurants and sharing photos of trendy outfits might be pure fun for some people, but for others it’s become a way to make a living on their own terms.

The rise of social media has given a new voice to consumers, and brands are taking notice, paying for people with big online followings to promote their products and services. These influencers often focus on niches that they’re most passionate about, with blogs and social media presences dedicated to topics like food, fashion, beauty, travel and fitness. And for some of the biggest influencers here in the Bay Area, they’ve found it’s a way to fulfill themselves creatively while setting their own schedules.

It’s not all about trying products for free and going on photoshoots, though: It requires building a following, engaging an audience and keeping an edge in an increasingly competitive market. Is it #worthit?

Taking the plunge

Kat Ensign

Kat Ensign’s journey to influencer status started at Paris Fashion Week a few years ago, when Ensign launched a blog to share photos of the outfits she wore there. She was feeling burnt out in her job at Gap, so as she realized she could make a livable income from continuing to blog, she decided to make a career out of producing the kind of content she loves. She left Gap in 2014 and now her daily schedule is always something different. “Every day I am doing things I’m interested in,” she says. Ensign covers all things fashion, food, beauty and lifestyle on her website KatWalkSF, where she often includes iconic San Francisco scenery in her style photos. She’s amassed 81,000 followers on Instagram and another 23,000 on a KatFoodSF offshoot, working with brands from SoulCycle to Johnnie Walker and Lexus to review and promote their offerings to her audience in addition to producing her own content.

Cheryl van den Berg

Like Ensign, many of the top influencers have experience in a creative role or in the niche they’re focused on covering. Cheryl van den Berg started her Oh to Be a Muse website in 2009, shortly after graduating from college with a journalism degree. She saw the blog as a way to write about things she really cared about instead of just what was assigned to her. She has posts spanning everything from book and movie reviews to travel and fashion tips. The San Jose-based van den Berg has since attracted more than 308,000 followers of her Oh to Be a Muse Instagram, where she collaborates with companies like Famous Footwear, Clarins and Seven Daughters wine. “It gives me a creative outlet, but it’s also on my own terms,” van den Berg says.

Some who have found success online, like Mehak Vohra, have even translated their experience into helping others grow their following online. She was named a top Gen Z expert by Forbes last year, and she’s looking to take her voice to a bigger stage, throwing her name in the ring for San Francisco’s mayoral race. Vohra started out uploading videos to YouTube every week in 2014 about her transition from high school to Purdue University, where she studied for a computer science degree. She dropped out after two years to move to San Francisco and focus on the startup she founded, Jamocha Media, spreading the lessons she learned while growing a big following for her own continued vlogging. Jamocha Media acts like a record label and takes a percentage of an influencer’s revenue while setting them up with brand sponsorships and speaking engagements. It’s a way for her to help others share whatever they’re passionate about. “There’s a lot of power in having a voice and having people listen to you,” Vohra maintains.

A new balance of power

San Francisco-based Pixlee has a front-row seat to the booming demand from businesses for access to influencers’ voices and audiences. The company makes software to help brands find and amplify user-generated content, from engaging with average consumers to the most dedicated “brand advocates.”

“A brand’s message doesn’t have to come from the brand anymore,” says Pixlee CEO Kyle Wong. There’s a surge of “authentic content” available online for consumers to check out other people’s reviews of something before they make a purchase. The idea for Pixlee came from seeing how that content explosion on social media was changing the “balance of power between people and brands,” Wong says. Since starting the company in 2012, he’s seen that balance continue to shift. Becoming the gatekeeper to large online followings can be lucrative for influencers, too: A partnership with a brand can bring in a five-figure payment, and top influencers can pull in more than seven figures of income each year, according to people in the industry.

In the spotlight

Every influencer notes that it takes time and dedication to be in this line of work, though, and there’s no overnight success. The path to life in the online spotlight started four years ago as a “pet project” for Chris Lin and Brock Williams, the San Francisco duo behind lifestyle, food and travel site Yummertime. They weren’t feeling creative in their day jobs, so they started a website to document what they were wearing, what they were eating and where they were traveling. Within about six months, they were gaining enough of a following for Williams to quit his job and focus on the site full-time.

Chris Lin and Brock Williams

That step was encouraged in part by their first payment from a brand: About $75 for a collaboration. It was a small start, but it was a clear sign they could make a business out of it. Lin joined Williams a little over a year later in leaving his day job to support Yummertime.

“I think early on we knew where the market was going and knew that if one of us was able to dedicate their full time to Yummertime, then we could really turn this into a brand,” Williams recalls.

They’ve gained 138,000 followers on their Instagram and thousands more followers on the YouTube account they’ve been adding to over the last few months. The couple has shared everything from hair-styling how-to videos to a video of Lin proposing to Williams (he said yes!) and worked with companies like Ray-Ban, Freeman Beauty and Clarks Shoes. Now, they are in a position where they can say no to collaboration offers that don’t fit the Yummertime brand they’ve built.

Setting limits

Being an influencer isn’t without its challenges, either. Taking time to craft each post — including things like taking and editing photos, writing captions and blog posts, and finding the right hashtags for social media — all takes time and an understanding of the target audience.

“You have to give yourself time to really think about that, otherwise you are just throwing a post together,” van den Berg says.

And amid all that, there’s pressure for influencers to keep posting more as competition in the market grows. “Even if you feel like you’re good where you are, it’s difficult to not compare yourself to someone else,” van den Berg admits. She dealt with that by posting less frequently instead of giving in to pressure to keep up with the most prolific people, who might post daily or even several times a day.  It’s freed up her time to do more things like have a picnic and read a book without having to think about posting. And that’s helped keep it fun for the times when she is focused on creating content — all while making a living from it. Says van den Berg: “This is the point where I’m so happy about what I do.”

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