CINCINNATI -- When Eric Russell posted his first few videos to YouTube . . . well, they kind of flopped.
Four years later, however, his channel, Techy Agent, ranks among the top 5 percent on the video-sharing site, he said. Nearly 40,000 people subscribe, and he's logged more than 13 million views in all.
The reason for the turnaround?
He found his niche.
That's key for social influencers like Russell. And it could be the difference between a hobby and a career. A real-estate agent by trade, Russell is no longer working his day job full time, a mark of success for many who have found a home online.
"And I kind of stumbled into it by accident," he said.
Russell, of Middletown, started TechyAgent in 2014 as a way to teach other real estate agents how to be more tech savvy. He posted four or so videos, but "nobody watched them," he said. They got maybe 10-20 views. So he quickly abandoned the idea.
On a whim, he decided to try again. He likes to work out and had just tried out a new fitness tracker and put together a quick, basic, tabletop review.
That video got a couple thousand hits. A couple of months later, he tried another wearable, and uploaded another review online. It also got a couple thousand views.
He realized he was on to something.
Today, he's uploaded over 300 videos. And at any given moment, there's about 10 people watching, he said. From all around the world.
"I think it was just a matter of being in the right place at the right time," he said. "At that time, wearables were a very new thing, and there were only one or two other individuals on YouTube reviewing them. I found a demographic that wasn't really tapped into yet. And the whole thing has snowballed. Now I'm disappointed if my videos aren't averaging about 40,000-50,000 (views)."
Companies don't pay Russell for his reviews -- he says the integrity of his channel rests on him giving his honest opinion -- but they do send him free products in hopes that good marks will help garner sales.
Russell makes money from ads on YouTube -- you have to meet certain thresholds, he said, as far as subscribers and video views to do so. He's also done video consulting for other organizations and companies.
But Russell also gets paid by working with affiliates, or outlets that sell fitness wearables -- like Amazon, www.clevertraining.com, REI and more. In a product review or video, he'll add an affiliate link, and if someone uses that directive to purchase the product, he gets a small percentage of the sale. Anywhere from 6-10 percent.
All told, Russell makes around $40,000-50,000 a year. The payout is certainly less than what a Kardashian pulls per sponsored Instagram post -- around $1 million -- but for him, it's meant a lot more career control.
These days, he spends a lot more time at the gym -- he shoots his videos almost exclusively at Dedicated Motivated Fitness in Middletown. He's able to support his family, a wife and three kids. And real estate is no longer his full-time gig.
"The more I do YouTube, the less I have to do real estate. I love that. It's my time, and I enjoy the autonomy I get from that," Russell said. "For me, I would love to see YouTube become a full-time situation. That would be ideal. And I think that's totally obtainable."
Maybe that's what makes it so attractive -- that it seems so within reach.
"You don't have to be a celebrity to have influence," says Meghann Craig, director of marketing at Empower, an Over-the-Rhine media company that leads influencer marketing for several clients like Shaw Floors and Dremel. That can be a popular misconception.
The term "influencer" is loosely defined, but is generally considered to be any person who can persuade purchases by the social-media content they create.
And companies are increasingly leaning on influencers of all types to promote their products. Why? People these days "crave that third-party credibility," Craig said. Even if that comes from a "friend" on social media.
"When you think about it, who do you trust more about a new product you’re interested in trying?" she asked. "Are you necessarily going to believe everything a brand says, based on the advertising you see, or a relative or friend recommending it to you? I think it's become clear to brands that you can't just rely on your own messaging. You really do have to work with influencers who can experience your product and relay that information in a meaningful -- and conversational -- way."
Per an April 2017 study by the Association of National Advertisers (ANA) and PQ Media, a Connecticut research firm, brands spent a total of $81 billion on influencer marketing in 2016. That amount is projected to reach $101 billion by 2020.
Combine brand spending and operator revenues -- which include contracted firms, like agencies and media companies -- and $167 billion will be earmarked for influencer programs by 2020. That's a nearly 30 percent increase from the $130 billion spent in 2016.
As "the volume and traffic on social media has increased, the power of influencers has gone up, too," said Rob Pasquinucci, a content strategist at Intrinzic, a Newport branding and communications agency.
While virtually anyone can have influence -- even moms who recommend certain products to the neighborhood Facebook group -- it takes "a lot of work and a lot of relationship building" to do it well, he said.
"You can't just throw a blog out there and hope somebody reads it. You have to have content that's unique and interesting and hits a very specific need," Pasquinucci said. "And for companies, it has to be part of your (marketing) strategy. It's like tapping into a whole other audience."
When JUMPER Threads, a Cincinnati startup, launched its Action Jacket in 2017, a first-of-its kind, do-everything kind of coat, it tapped a few influencers -- health and fitness folks alike -- to help promote the product.
The company needed a way to stand out, said co-founder Daniel Redlinger, since JUMPER builds basic products -- like socks and shirts -- but with better-than-average designs. Redlinger started the company in late 2015 with his brother-in-law, Andrew Mallett, and its name is a play on Redlinger's paratrooper background. So JUMPER's influencers run the gamut -- from trampolinists to American Ninja Warriors, like Nick Coolridge (@moderntarzan), who are always doing crazy stuff.
"Our first product was an undershirt, but were we just going to take pictures of undershirts all day? No one would ever follow us on social media if we did something like that," Redlinger said. "We also don't need someone to put on our clothes or whatever and take a selfie in the bathroom. That's worthless for us.
"So we thought, why not have people jumping (etc.)? It makes for fun media content. In many ways, it's all about preaching the gospel of your product. It became more about building a lifestyle than a brand."
So far, JUMPER has seen a return on its investment. Redlinger said it's now part of the company's overall marketing strategy. He sees influencers more as ambassadors, and there's a "handful of guys, and one girl" who are paid to deliver a certain amount of content each month with the JUMPER brand built in.
"We're all kind of growing," Redlinger said. "We either stumble upon (influencers) on Instagram or they're already following us, or they reach out, or something like that. Or they'll start tagging us. Some of these content creators, they want to be a part of what we're doing. We're as much an influencer as some of these people -- or even bigger."
These days, "there's an endless array" of bloggers and social-media pundits, so Craig said it's important to find people who pay up their own personal stories; their feed shouldn't just be promotion after promotion.
And bigger is not always better in terms of numbers. While Coolridge has 212,000 followers on Instagram, which is a huge boon for JUMPER, Empower, she said, has worked with several influencers who are a little more niche. Like Covington's Emily May, who pens the DIY blog, Go Haus Go. She has around 3,500 followers between Facebook and Instagram, but was a perfect fit for Dremel, a power-tool maker, during its recent campaign, and the audience it wanted to tap, she said.
"Finding the right influencer is really an art and a science," Craig added. "The bloggers that we feel have been the most successful are those who naturally get into blogging because they want to share aspects of their life."
That certainly fits the bill for Heather Johnson, aka The Food Hussy. Johnson, who once dabbled in standup comedy, leans heavily on her humor to stand out in a bustling food-blogger space.
She was inspired by another site called "Get In My Belly," and thought blogging would be a good way to utilize her journalism degree. Food Hussy initially featured only restaurant reviews, but now includes recipes and other tidbits.
"There are literally hundreds of thousands of food blogs out there, so you have to know your voice," she said. "I'm a smart ass kind of person; I'm snarky, and that's my writing style, which isn't for everybody. But I crack jokes at stuff, or I try to make funny comparisons. Whatever it is, you have to have something about your blog that makes it a little different."
She's been running Food Hussy for a decade now, but didn't start making money at it until Year 6. That was largely by choice; she has a day job she enjoys. But it's given her a little more financial freedom -- and bit of local notoriety.
The site, considered the top-rated food blog in Cincinnati per www.zomato.com, takes about 10-15 hours a week to maintain. The Food Hussy brand has roughly 25,000 total followers on social media. The site gets around 15,000 page views a month.
Between it and some freelance work and consulting gigs -- which she landed because of Food Hussy -- she made around $20,000 in extra income last year. She and her husband recently used some of that money to go on their first vacation together in eight years. And she'll continue to build the blog -- slowly.
She, as well as others working in the social-media sphere, say it's a trend they think will continue. But there are still "buyer bewares."
JUMPER has fallen for it, Redlinger said, fake accounts, or influencers with "a lot of followers and a lot of street cred," but as it turns out, "all their stuff's bought." But companies are catching on.
"Because there are so many influencers out there -- because there are so many celebrity endorsements -- there's a fine line," Craig said. "While maybe you are compensating that person to spend the time to experience your brand or your company, you're not paying them to say certain things. You want that natural, organic testimonial to come from them. I think there could be a trust factor later down the line, but that's why it's so important to really seek relationships with influencers who are authentic."
"It's a slippery slope -- there's a lot of new people who start blogging, and they're like, 'I've been blogging for two weeks, and I haven't made any money yet.' You have to build that traffic up, but you also have to have a balance," Johnson added.
"There's a lot of groups on social media, where everybody is asked to go and share everybody else's stuff. So I've got 25 comments on my blog post, but it's not from actual, real people; it's from people who were basically told to comment. Which isn't authentic, and I think brands are getting smarter (about that). If we want to be taken seriously, we need to make sure we're driving organic, authentic traffic, and that we're keeping the brand's goals in mind. Otherwise, it's going to be a fad."
How to cash in on your social-media savvy
Thinking about trading in your social-media savvy for some cash? Here are some tips to help get you started.
1. Post early. Post often
If you start a blog, stick with it. "One of the saddest things is when someone has a great story to tell, but gets busy in their personal life, and then drops off the radar," says Meghann Craig, director of marketing at Empower. "If you're a brand and you see that drop, you're less likely to want to partner with that person, because their following isn't consistent."
2. Use all the social media
While Instagram seems to be preferred, you need to hit on all cylinders here. Every social-media outlet serves a different purpose and solidifies your brand.
3. Follow your passion
The most successful influencers have an interest -- and then carve out their own personal niche in that unique category. Make yourself stand out from the rest.
4. Be authentic
Brands are becoming savvier. So don’t game the system and buy followers. These companies want to see your own unique voice.