A realist’s guide to making money from social media

As a few surveys have found, one of the most popular choices for a dream career these days is to be a social media influencer, creating content and picking up those sweet sponsorship deals.

It’s easy to see why. You get to be your own boss, get creative in all kinds of media from vlogging to photography and podcasting and, if you can rack up the followers, there are genuine riches to be had. Just ask Zoe Sugg, who went from bedroom blogging to an estimated £4.5 million fortune, or YouTuber KSI who has a net worth reckoned to be £16 million.

But success like this is rare and hard. Can ordinary people really make money on social media and what kind of returns can they expect? We gathered some expert views to find out.

How do you get started? 

Influencers may be presenting an idealised version of themselves, but many of them advise to start by being authentic and building on your real passions and interests. Lauren Mayhew, an American singer, DJ, actress and vlogger, told Thrive Global: “Your fans can smell it a mile away when you try to be someone or promote something that’s not you.”

Be consistent, she adds: you need to post with a reliable frequency and keep the content interesting. She also recommends collaborations to start growing your audience. “It’s hard to grow as a content creator when you exist in a vacuum,” she says. “Being an influencer is more fun as a TEAM SPORT!”

What are brands looking for? 

The good news is that you don’t need multi-million follower counts to get paid for promotions. Sinead Norenius-Raniere, an industry expert on influencer marketing, told Forbes magazine that “huge followings are not critical” and she had worked on campaigns with people who had a relatively achievable 10,000 to 100,000 followers. She says they are looking for influencers who don’t use bots to artificially inflate their following, who have a distinct voice and who produce high-quality content.

How much can you make?

Dig into the stats on social media earnings and you soon see there’s money to be made, but only with a lot of work and creativity. Music licensing platform Lickd.co gathered up the data and put together a Social Salaries calculator to figure out what you needed to achieve to reach a certain earnings level on YouTube, Instagram and TikTok.

On YouTube, you first need to attract 1,000 subscribers and ensure your public videos have been viewed for 4,000 hours between them before you can start making money from ads on YouTube’s Partner Programme. Creators earn about $4.80 for every 1,000 times an ad is viewed. So to make the UK average salary of about £30,000, you’d need to rack up more than 9 million views a year. That probably requires a pretty large and loyal audience.

Instagram is all about partnerships with brands and sponsored content. The Social Salaries calculator reckons that if you can get 5,000 followers, you could earn about £252 per sponsored post. So you’d need 128 sponsored posts a year to replace an average salary – that’s a lot of deal-making and content-creating. On the positive side, payments increase proportionately as your audience gets bigger, up to thousands of pounds a post for those with follower counts in six figures.

A newer entrant on the social media scene, TikTok also has a partnership programme to monetise your social media videos, which you can join once you’ve got 10,000 followers and more than 10,000 views. But with shorter clips and lower rates, you’ll probably need to go extremely viral to make some real money: the Social Salaries calculator estimates you’ll only earn a few pennies per 1,000 views. That means to get that average UK salary, you’ll need to get over 100 million views.