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How to be a social media star for a living

YouTube displayed a giant play button with the names of creators chosen to work with the company at VidCon. (Marketplace/ Eve Troeh)

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According to numbers from Google Research, 70 percent of teenage YouTube subscribers say they relate to online creators more than traditional celebrities. The research firm L2 says 70 percent of companies use influencers for marketing. That often means deals with social media stars, who fill their fun-looking social feeds with brokered brand placements. As part of our series on the creator economy, Marketplace Tech host Molly Wood talked to Troy Solomon, who has more than 45,000 Instagram followers for his verified account A Bear Named Troy. Solomon has built a niche as a plus-sized, gender-bending model. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation. 

Molly Wood: Do you consider yourself an influencer?

Troy Solomon: I have a really hard time with the word “influencer.” I think we use it because we don’t really know what other word to use, right? So it’s like, do we say celebrity? Do we say insta-famous? Do we say all-in personality? We don’t really know what to say because I feel like as “influencers,” we’ve become this new form of celebrity that we’ve never seen before. It’s a really weird thing for me to say about myself.

Wood: I guess one way to classify it would be to ask, “Is this your only job?”

Solomon: For the most part. Periodically, I work in freelance just doing some, like, transcribing work, just to kind of get some extra cash. But basically, yeah … collaborations and things like that is typically what is now bringing in a lot of my income.

Wood: So then how do you get connected with brands and companies for these collaborations?

Solomon: A number of ways. So it’s really interesting with me because I identify as male and because visually I appear to be male, but I also mess with gender norms and things like that. I think brands have a harder time kind of knowing what to do with me. They’re still a little nervous. They’re not sure, I think, if the consumer wants to see someone like me representing their product and if that will actually translate into sales, so I would say it’s probably like 70-30. I think 30 percent of the time, brands are reaching out to me, and the other 70 percent is probably me and my manager just emailing and calling and texting and messaging and just kind of trying to create those brand relationships on my own.

Wood: And then you also have the freedom to only work with brands doing stuff you like.

Solomon: Yeah, for sure. I mean, I think that’s one of the most important things for me to do with my brand is to make sure it always comes across as authentic. Because if I were to try and promote a product that has nothing to do with me, that I wouldn’t normally use in my real life, my followers are going to read that instantly and be like, “What?” Actually, my followers are probably going to be like, “OK, we get it. Get your check. But … we know that’s not you.”

Wood: Yeah. It feels like there are potentially a lot of pitfalls there for you. There’s the blurring of the thing that is your job and the thing that is your personality, and sharing is your job and your life. How do you keep those boundaries separate?

Solomon: Yeah, it’s pretty much a constant thought in my head about where that line is. I’m such a self-analytical person. Almost to a point of obsession, I feel like I have to make sure I’m always staying on that right focus where I’m not going to get too far ahead of myself. I come from a very twisted past. So knowing where I’ve come from, I won’t allow myself to get beyond who I know I truly am.

Wood: So in the business nuts and bolts thing, when you are striking a partnership with a brand, do you have a package? Like, all right, “You get two tweets and an Instagram post for X amount.”

Solomon: It depends. Typically we just say you get two Instagram stories now, three static posts for X amount of dollars. Or you guys want to push more stories because you want the swipe-up function. OK, cool, so I want to be good by them, I want them to be good by me. But it’s usually a package, yeah.

Wood: This is kind of sensitive, I know, but are you able to tell us how much money you can make doing this?

Solomon: I can’t. I can’t tell you what I make, but I can tell you someone like Bella Thorne, who has millions [of followers], she makes $60,000 a post. And I know that people who have 5,000 followers could be making 200 bucks a post. So everyone’s trying to figure out — including me, including all my friends — what are their valuations? How much are we really worth? You have to think about the fact that as influencers, we are walking ad space. So I can guarantee 45,000 unique users are going to see your product, and trying to figure out how much each person’s eyes are valued.

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