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‘There is a shift taking place’: The rise of the influencer-worker

By Eve Upton-Clark

Photo credit: Tomko91/Shutterstock @emily.the.recruiter/TikTok @leigh_mcnasty/TikTok (Licensed) by Caterina Cox

Most people post on social media from time to time. Some people build up enough of a following to pique the interest of brands and start to make money off their posts. A small percentage will make enough to quit their 9-to-5 and pursue content creation full-time. However, a growing number of so-called “influencers” are rejecting this move, even when their follower count indicates they could be earning enough off social media alone. Instead, they are opting to keep their day jobs, and, for some, it’s proving lucrative. 

Business of Fashion recently wrote about the rise of influencers who juggle social media with more typical day jobs, advising brands to take note and work with them. For a growing number of followers, the appeal of watching creators perform a life of luxury is fading. Instead, there’s a growing class of creators that are valued more on their accomplishments off of social media than their online following. For brands, these creators bring with them not only the credentials of their 9-to-5 but also an engaged network of followers to tap into. 

These are people who may not have “influencer” at the top of their CV. Yet, videos about people’s professional lives have become wildly popular across social media, from days-in-the-lives of certain occupations to break downs of the ins-and-outs of a job. Baristas, retail workers, and delivery drivers have become overnight social-media sensations. For some of these creators, their social media side-hustle can start to overtake their actual paychecks, with brands looking to cash in on very specific customer bases. In a world where social media influencers have infiltrated our daily lives as well as popular culture, the influencer-worker can be a refreshing change in an industry crowded with carbon-copy creators. 

Twenty-eight-year-old Leigh McClendon from Louisiana is a fourth-grade elementary science and math teacher with 3.6 million followers on TikTok. He started posting videos to TikTok in 2019, and one day, he woke up with 10,000 views. This quickly spiraled to 100,000 views. Since then, Leigh admitted in an interview with Passionfruit, “I’m addicted.” 

McClendon said he now makes the bulk of his total earnings from posting to TikTok, with sponsored posts from the likes of Captain Crunch and Grammarly. However, he is continuing to work as a teacher full-time. Mainly posting comedy skits to his TikTok, McClendon is constantly fed inspiration for his videos from the kids in his class and has no current plans to give up the day job. “I’ve thought about it because I am working two full time jobs. I don’t stop working until like 11 o’clock at night. But hands down first, I enjoy working with kids. It’s one of those things I’d really have to sit down and think about but right now, I’m content,” he said.

With influencers increasingly coming under fire for their lack of relatability and frequent tone-deafness in the face of the spiraling cost of living, these influencer-workers are in a unique position to rise above that. Often experts in their respective fields, their content is more than hauls and outfit posts; who they are is increasingly more important than the size of their following. Their expertise is important for drawing in lucrative brand deals, with brands hoping to tap into the network these influencers have developed with their success online. As a result, influencer-workers can often be more selective about what partnerships they take on, demanding higher pay when they do. 

Emily Durham, 27, from Toronto has worked in the recruitment industry for seven years and now runs a YouTube channel, Instagram, podcast, and TikTok account offering career tips and “internet big sister” advice. “I think once I hit 50,000 followers on Instagram, I was like, ‘Am I an influencer?’” Durham recalled questioning. “I don’t use the word influencer for myself but when I hit 100K on TikTok, that’s when brands started reaching out and I started with my agency.”

While Durham has considered going down the route of doing social media full-time, she also knows there is value in staying in the recruitment industry. By being involved in the day-to-day at her job, she is frequently the first to know about career trends, staying ahead of the curve and hearing people talk on the floor. As well as the added benefits to her social media career, she also simply loves her day-job and isn’t prepared to give it up just yet.

Alongside credibility in their respective fields, these creators also bring a relatability to their content that is often lacking in other full-time influencers. “A lot of people don’t think of me as an influencer. I love that I’m not the cool girl going to Cabo with Benefit Cosmetics. I’m the chick who is walking her dog at 5am looking like shit because I’m about to go into the office,” Durham said. “I think there’s a sense of credibility and comfort where it’s like people are not watching an influencer, they’re just FaceTiming with Emily.” 

The pay-off for brands collaborating with these creators is that the sponsored content tends to feel more authentic. Durham has recently worked with big-name brands including IBM and Staples. “I wouldn’t take a deal if I didn’t back it up, because that’s my livelihood,” she explained. “I really am a recruiter and if your software sucks, I’m not promoting it. That’s also why I think having the support of a full-time job is great because I turn down 90% of the brands that reach out because I don’t believe in their values. It gives me the flexibility to say, nope, I’m fine with not having a brand deal this month.”

Alex Payne, the CEO and co-founder of Room Unlocked, a direct marketplace between brands and influencers, told Passionfruit there is a shift occurring in how brands approach creators.

“There is a shift taking place from ‘brands buying their way onto influencer grids’ to a much more collaborative attempt for brands to be included in the stories an influencer wants to tell. This softens the impact, adds to the authenticity and raises audience engagement.” he said. “Where influencers are able to portray themselves in a more rounded capacity to their audience, and to work on a more mutually beneficial basis, brands can expect to get a greater volume of content and a better cut through with their audience.”

Some major retailers, including Dunkin’, Wendy’s, and Walmart, even tried to get ahead of this curve by inviting employees to post videos at work in a marketing push designed to tap into the interest in behind-the-scenes at work content. In fact, Dunkin’ created a “crew ambassadors” program where employees are paid to post videos while on the job, attempting to assert greater control over employee content. 

However, for the creators juggling two full-time jobs without the backing of a major corporation, it’s just as much work as it sounds.

“My day job is 40 hours a week and I 100% work 40 hours a week or more on the social media side,” Durham said. “On average, I’m pushing out four to six TikToks every day, an Instagram post every day, a podcast episode a week and two YouTube videos a week. [I also have] my career workshop sessions and ongoing clients for coaching.” Most days, Durham will wake up around 7am, record next month’s content for her socials, and start her day-job at 9am. After work, she’ll be working on her podcast or prepping for workshops before finishing the day at around midnight. 

Despite this heavy workload, it’s likely that the number of influencer-workers will rise as more people feel the need to establish an online presence and market themselves to potential employers and clients alike. No matter the job, having a following on the internet will, most of the time, only benefit one’s career. And these creators are proving that for every niche, there is an audience waiting to follow.