I tried, and failed, to earn a living as an influencer. Here are 5 hard lessons I learned after gaining and losing thousands of social-media followers.

A picture of BTS on the left and the post author, Brian Patrick Byrne, on the right.

In 2020, I lost my job and decided to spend my free time pursuing a dream I’d had since teenhood: becoming an influencer. I’d spent more than a decade idolizing YouTube stars like Tyler Oakley to the point that when I heard he was coming to Dublin, Ireland in 2012, I traveled to the city center from my home in the suburbs for the off-chance that I’d run into him. 

Miraculously, I did, and our brief interaction helped encourage me to build my own internet following. I made over 70 videos. Some blatantly ripped off established influencers. Once, I filmed myself cooking while drunk in the hopes that it would attract an audience as it did for Hannah Hart. The video got fewer than 300 views and I made it private soon after. Later, I made a video where I crafted a giant serving of McDonald’s fries out of jello. And in another, I built a shirt out of sliced bread.

I tried everything to stand out, and yet I couldn’t even crack 1,000 subscribers — until 2020.

Picture shows Brian with YouTube star Tyler Oakley in Dublin, Ireland in 2012.

At that time, I’d spent the best part of three years at NowThis, learning how to attract an audience of millions with short-form videos on Snapchat and TikTok. It felt like the perfect opportunity to try to become an influencer again. While at NowThis, I’d produced content about BTS, the biggest band in the world with a famously loyal and dedicated fanbase. One of my videos got close to 900,000 views on Twitter, and fans wrote thousands of affirmative comments praising me for reporting on the group without prejudice.

"It’s so rare to see some actual research on BTS and ARMY," one wrote ("ARMY" is the name of the group’s fandom).

<blockquote class="twitter-tweet"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">In just 7 years, <a href="https://twitter.com/BTS_twt?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@BTS_twt</a> has changed the world. These are the 7 lessons the band has left us with since 2013 <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/7YearsWithBTS?src=hash&amp;ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#7YearsWithBTS</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/ARMY?src=hash&amp;ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#ARMY</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/BTS?src=hash&amp;ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#BTS</a> <a href="https://t.co/a2uON7mmoh">pic.twitter.com/a2uON7mmoh</a></p>&mdash; NowThis (@nowthisnews) <a href="https://twitter.com/nowthisnews/status/1271806529151184896?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">June 13, 2020</a></blockquote> <script async src="https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script>

It helped that I genuinely enjoy BTS’s music, which promotes a message of self love. As a 30-something who has long struggled with low self-esteem, I find lyrics like, "I’m the one I should love in this world / Shining me, precious soul of mine" surprisingly therapeutic. 

I started a new YouTube channel where I combined my background in journalism and building audiences with my appreciation for BTS. I interviewed fans like a 62-year-old military intelligence analyst who said the group saved her life, and the father of a late model who met the group long before they rose to prominence — and yet predicted they’d be superstars.

During my most successful month on YouTube, my channel drew 508,729 views. My channel surpassed 13,000 subscribers, and I had even greater success on Twitter, where I posted news updates and explanatory threads explaining how the US music industry was stacked against BTS, a Korean group which, at that point, had never released a fully English-language song. My tweets generated thousands of retweets apiece and within a few months my Twitter following had surpassed 35,000. To be clear, these numbers are tiny compared to bonafide internet superstars. And as I soon discovered, it would be the closest I’d get to their level of success.

Here were the hard lessons I learned.

Lesson 1: YouTube ad revenue can be inconsistent, so don’t expect to make a living from ads alone.

I loved the content I was making, but it was effectively a full-time job. I spent much of my free time producing videos and coming up with ideas for new ones. And there were expenses involved, like $326 per month for a paid subscription to Mediabase, a music industry service that gave me access to specific radio airplay numbers for BTS songs, which I shared with fellow fans. These updates became the primary driver of my follower growth on Twitter.

However, I was earning hardly any money. My tweets made me nothing, but I thought that by building a following on Twitter, I could direct followers to my YouTube channel, which was monetized. I quickly learned that earnings from YouTube ads can be highly inconsistent. The views on my videos swung wildly, from highs of hundreds of thousands to lows of a tiny fraction of that, meaning I wasn’t developing a loyal audience who tuned into every video. As such, my earnings were unpredictable. One video that took me three weeks to produce currently has 43,121 views and made $76.34; another, in which I rapped in Korean with BTS’ SUGA collaborator MAX, has just 5,737 views and earned $18.67.

A screenshot showing Brian’s YouTube ad revenue for October 2020.

Lesson 2: Before you ask your audience to pay you directly, do your research.

These ups and downs drove swings in my mental health. The correlation between YouTube views and ad revenue meant that when my videos did well, I felt elated and dreamt about how big my earnings might become in the future. But when my videos flopped, I felt paralyzed by fears that I was a failure, and struggled to focus on producing the next one.

With no other jobs lined up, and my savings starting to dwindle, I knew I needed to earn a reliable income – fast. Ad revenue alone wouldn’t cut it, so I drew inspiration from other influencers with loyal followings and started an account on Patreon, a paid membership platform. I set up multiple tiers, offering common rewards like exclusive content to subscribers in exchange for a small monthly fee.

I advertised my Patreon on Twitter — and immediately received a backlash.

While it made sense to try to diversify my income and not rely on YouTube ad revenue alone, I made a huge mistake by not speaking with others within the community first about whether starting a Patreon was a good idea. Basically, I didn’t do my research. Instead, I shared a news update about BTS and, in a second tweet, told my followers that they could support my content on Patreon.

The backlash came almost immediately. Hundreds of accounts condemned the fact that I was asking for money from a fandom that’s known for its ethos of volunteerism. Many fans before me had built followings by posting chart positions and other updates without asking for a dime. As a result, some stated I had established influence within the fandom for the sole purpose of reaping financial rewards. Several users with large followings, including those that had supported my work in the past, unfollowed or blocked me. 

Lesson 3: Be wary of changing your brand after you’ve built a following. If you do, expect a large chunk of your audience to unfollow you.

While the criticism eventually passed, as it does for many things on the internet, my anxiety about my future did not. While I was still determined to make it as an influencer, I knew now that the following I had grown would not support me financially. Sure, I did have a handful of patrons, but like my YouTube channel, I earned a pittance: $190.97 in three months. This led me to my second mistake.

During a conversation with a more established influencer in the K-pop community, I learned that they had grown a significant subscriber base on Patreon by posting reaction videos to various K-pop groups. While I never found out how much they were making, their expression of disbelief as they talked about the sheer amount was enough to convince me to try the same thing on my YouTube channel. Until this point, I’d mainly posted content about BTS, so producing reaction videos of other groups was a significant pivot. That’s because on the internet, K-pop groups are like sports teams. If you declare yourself a supporter of one, fans may not be pleased if you start stanning their rival. In my case, I’d declared myself a BTS fan, only to later post content about a competitor, BLACKPINK.

The week I published my reaction to BLACKPINK’s "DDU-DU DDU-DU," I lost 8,000 Twitter followers. After sharing the video on Twitter, my follower count started to freefall. I tried to address the mass unfollowing by tweeting that I didn’t intend to shade other K-pop groups, including BTS. But that only made things worse.

<iframe width="560" height="315" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/UNFX4dn45Mk" title="YouTube video player" frameborder="0" allow="accelerometer; autoplay; clipboard-write; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture" allowfullscreen></iframe>

ARMYs expressed their outrage in the comments: "This my friends, is an example of a perfect clout chaser," one wrote. "He identified as army, hopped off on a profit gaining train from us, and now he’s onto another fandom." 

Another posted: "Why do u think he used first army and now blinks [BLACKPINK’s fandom]? I don’t understand why both fandoms or others support youtubers when they only use kpop groups for views."

Lesson 4: If you want to be an influencer, be prepared for regular, public criticism from strangers, even if you feel it’s unwarranted.

Through these missteps, I realized what it’s actually like to be an influencer: In exchange for the dopamine boost of watching your posts rack up thousands of likes and retweets, there exists a cohort willing to tear you down the moment you make a mistake. It’s a kind of bad-faith scrutiny that assumes you only have the worst intentions when the truth is often far more complex.

It was my own fault for not explaining that because I spent so much time producing content, I either needed to earn more money from it, or quit, and find something that did earn me a livable wage. I considered posting a long-winded response, but when I asked some friends, their reaction was mixed. Some supported me trying to clear things up, while another, who has a considerable following on YouTube, said I wouldn’t be able to change the assumptions people had already made about me.

"It happens as you grow," they wrote to me in a DM. "People create narratives & backlash is bigger. You know how the saying goes. The bigger you are, the more hate you get."

Lesson 5: My experiences taught me that being an influencer isn’t for me. But if you can avoid the mistakes I made, you could have what it takes to succeed.

For all the upsides to becoming an influencer — the dopamine rushes and the supportive comments — my mental health means more to me. I’m happier being a nobody. For you, though, things could be different. If you can avoid letting financial insecurity rush you into poor decision-making and have skin thick enough that bad-faith comments won’t wear you down, becoming an influencer may be for you.

Just recognize that it’s a lot easier to gain new followers than it is to convince them to spend money on whatever it is you’re creating. Understand that making a living on the internet is hard, and to succeed, you’ll need the patience and persistence it takes to find a means of monetizing your content that is palatable to your audience.

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Brian Patrick Byrne June 14, 2021 at 05:33PM

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