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INDIANAPOLIS– How long do you spend scrolling social media each day?  

Chances are it’s a lot more than you’d like to admit. In fact, according to Forbes Americans spent more than 1,300 hours on social media last year.  

People look to Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok for the latest trending topics and even trending products. It’s a big business that’s only getting bigger.

But these days it’s not just big-name celebrities hawking those must have-products or hair vitamins online.

It might be your neighbor. 

Photo credit: @josie.bullard Instagram

Indiana has a budding influencer scene, where everyday people have turned into social media stars with hundreds of thousands—sometimes even millions– of followers.  And that translates into big bucks.  

CBS4’s Rachel Bogle sat down with some of Indy’s biggest influencers to learn the ins and outs of the bustling business of social media and the reality behind their seemingly picture-perfect newsfeeds            

Four years ago, Noblesville native Josie Bullard broke the news to her parents that the traditional education route just wasn’t for her. 

“I saw other people taking off [on social media] and being really successful,” she recalled. ”And I just had this gut feeling like I need to pursue this and take a huge leap of faith… And I left college.”

Meanwhile, Bullard’s own social media following was climbing and she saw an opportunity as an influencer and content creator.

“I feel like when I finally took that leap and dropped out because when things really start taking off for me and it was the best decision I ever made,” she said.

Today she has over 173,000 Instagram followers, over 4 million likes on TikTok, her own blog, a newly-launched Behind the Feed Creator Course (sort of like “Influencer 101”), a business manager, a line of presets, and her own podcast.

And she’s only 22 years old.

The big business of influencer marketing is projected to be worth over $15 billion by 2022.

So, where does all the money come from?

“The bulk of money you’re making is off brand collaborations,” Bullard noted. ”Lots of influencers are making thousands of dollars off a single ad that they are posting,”

She also says there’s a substantial amount of money in exclusivity and usage rights.

“[Brands] will pay you a certain amount to just post a photo but if they want to use that on their own channels to make money off of their own advertisements, you can charge monthly fees for that,” she explained. “I have made multiple five-figure deals before for stuff like that.”

To find out why so many brands are turning their attention—and budget– over to influencers rather than more traditional commercial strategies, we spoke to Duncan Alney, founder of Indy-based social media marketing agency, Firebelly.   

Photo credit: @wearefirebelly

“The reason why brands get involved with influencers is to get access to a new market that has an overlap with what they are looking for,” Alney said. “So, you use the influencer’s audience and their trust and their credibility to get the communication with that audience and you go from there in terms of what you want them to do.,”

And there’s a specific reason why non-mainstream celebrity influencers seem to so effectively cut through to their audience.

“We trust people that look like us or are like us. That we can identify with,” he added. “So, Kanye West can say something and his fans are interested… but maybe it won’t be as interesting as someone who lives in Carmel and you can identify with them. Maybe they drive a minivan like you do and they go to the same places that you do and maybe you have a little bit more of an emotional connection with that person.”

Alney says essentially when it comes to brands if it makes dollars, it’s makes sense. Companies don’t need a traditional ad campaign.

Influencers are their own content creators: pitching themselves to brands, shooting and editing their own campaigns, and generating measurable sales for brand partners. 

Photo credit: @josie.bullard Instagram

But there’s one important factor for brands to consider: a bigger following doesn’t necessarily make for a better outcome.

“What people typically think about is that it’s all about sort of the Kardashian effect. It’s like, ‘They have a huge audience… it’s going to be great for your business.’ And it isn’t always,” Alney said. “It’s really about that matching process.”

And the right match starts with understanding the different types of influencer.

  • There’s mega influencers, who have over one million followers
  • Macro influencers with 100,000 followers or more
  • Micro influencers with 10,000-100,000 followers
  • And nano-influencers with under 10,000 followers

Known online as @bighairandfoodiefare, Kelli Bastin has achieved success as a micro-influencer, finding higher engagement due to the size and concentration of her following.

“Micro influencers in general have more of a local following than if you’re one of the mega influencers because you know if you have more followers, you have more [followers] spread out,” she explained.

Duncan Alney added another added benefit of utilizing micro-influencers or nano influencers.

“A lot of brands prefer working with the micro influencers who is this because it’s easier to work with them and you’re not working with an agent and the legal requirements may be significantly less,” he noted, “Also, the actual influencer can actually be a little bit easier to work with and their level of passion is very high.”

 Bastin’s channeled her passion for food in the beginning of her influencer career, when she launched her blog.

“I would post something on Facebook and then a whole bunch of people would ask me for a recipe. So I was like, ‘I’m going to post it in one place so I can share the link,” she recalled. “Then, there was one time when I shared an outfit with my hair and makeup, and they got like 300% more views than all of my recipe stuff. So, I was like, ‘Okay, I’m going to give the people what they want to see.”

Since then, Bastin has been able to leverage her social media presence as a launch pad for her full-time job in real estate. She was even awarded the title of Indiana’s number one realtor on social media.

Photo credit: @kellisellsindy

“Most of my business… comes from social media,” she shared. ”Instead of cold-calling which I don’t like to do… I get phone calls and direct message in my inbox saying, “Hey, we want to sell our house.’ And that’s a beautiful thing.”

 So, with so much competition in the influencer sphere already, is there room for more? 

“We always talk about community over competition. So… there is room for everyone at the table,” said Bastin.

Alney agrees– with a caveat. 

“I think that the influencer model is solid. I think that there is a path forward for it,” he said. “But I don’t think that everyone who wants to be an influencer will become an influencer. Like not everyone tries out for a major sports team is ever even going to get close to that, right?”

For more:  

Check out this story’s exclusive Web Extras, where Indy’s biggest influencers get candid about mental health, transparency, and why it’s vital for influencers to get real on social media if they want to succeed long-term.