I Used To Be An Influencer—Here’s Why I Stopped

Being a micro-influencer for several years was fun while it lasted, but it taught me that there’s more to your hobbies than monetizing them.

By Alina Clough4 min read
Pexels/Burak Evlivan

For several years, I monetized my Instagram as an influencer. I had initially started it out of boredom during Covid, cultivating an aesthetic Instagram feed for a while with super washed out “light and airy” photo editing that somehow made me look paler than I already am. Slowly, I started to accrue mini contracts with brands, everything from free photoshoots to free gym memberships and tons of clothes, so many that I’m still guiltily finding things with tags on them in my closet.

I can’t even lie, influencing was a ton of fun. Aside from the free stuff, it was cool to learn about an industry that was pretty foreign to me, one I had seriously misjudged as being a waste-of-money marketing fad. The photoshoots also helped me get a lot more comfortable in front of a camera, and I learned that being photogenic was a skill I could evolve into rather than needing to be born with. Over time, though, the side gig really started to lose its luster, so here’s how I became de-influenced from influencing. 

How Being an Influencer Actually Works

I used to think that influencers were just hot people with insanely cool Instagram accounts who harassed brands for free stuff. And maybe some are (they certainly annoy restaurants and luxury resorts by acting crazy entitled sometimes). What I didn’t know was that influencer marketing is a pretty serious business that works like any other form of advertising, and it’s a surprisingly empirical field. 

First, let’s cover some terms. What people refer to as “influencer” marketing typically falls into two broad categories: influencer marketing and affiliate marketing. Influencing tends to refer to the practice of getting the product organically seen by new people; for example, a celebrity posting pics at brunch and tagging the restaurant or a fashion influencer tagging the brand that gifted her outfit. Some arrangements might involve the post being made with a specific tagging structure or at a specific time of day, and some might even only guarantee extra pay if the post reaches certain metrics. Affiliate marketing is a little different, and its benefits for the brand are making it increasingly popular. Rather than just posting with the product, affiliate marketing gives the influencer a cut of the profits, meaning they have an actual incentive to increase the company’s sales rather than just get the product seen. You’ve probably noticed this when influencers ask you to use their discount codes, but links in influencers’ bios work the same way, even days after you’ve visited them, thanks to cookie tracking. Affiliate marketing may seem more annoying, but it’s key to how influencers actually make money instead of just accruing free things.

Most small-time contracts are increasingly a mix of these formats, meaning they’ll typically give you free products for posts upfront and then offer you cash compensation for being a successful affiliate. The monitoring is also getting more and more advanced. With one brand, I was required to give their marketing manager access to my account metrics so she could see likes, shares, and views on my posts, as well as how many times their brand account was visited. Another brand even gave me a logged in dashboard to check my metrics month to month, and had whole PowerPoint presentations of how they wanted photos to look. Given how effortless and organic most influencers make it look, I was honestly surprised at how high-tech and well-managed it all was.

Itty Bitty Influencing

One thing that might surprise you is how, well, uninfluential many influencers are. When you think of influencers, you probably think of big-time models with 100k follower counts. In reality, these “macro-influencers” only account for about 5% of all content creators. Micro-influencers, on the other hand? They’ve got about a 90% market share.

Micro-influencers, typically defined as having between 1,000 and 100,000 followers, often fly a bit more under the radar, and brands tend to like their accounts because they’re less obvious advertisements. While you’re legally required to tag posts with gifted swag as “Paid Partnerships,” most micro-influencers use their accounts for dual purposes, both as truly personal accounts as well as for influencing, which helps brands pop up in more ways than if they just ran targeted ads. Many brands also re-utilize the photos themselves, which you may have noticed from online shopping: Brands are increasingly trying to appeal to consumers with more “realistic” clothing models, or at least ones that show the clothes outside a studio setting, and they often use influencers as a cheap way to do that.

These days, micro-influencers don’t even need formal brand deals. Many will just sign up with the Amazon influencing program and get commissions from directing people to their Amazon pages. While it might not seem as flashy as free clothes, a lot of women can make healthy side cash with these kinds of deals.

Why I Stopped Being an Influencer

All in all, I did micro-influencing and small-time modeling gigs for around three years, which was more than enough for me. While it was fun seeing myself in ads sometimes and the free stuff was great (I cannot stress to you how much clothing I still have from this era in my life), I eventually found that it was evolving from a hobby into a chore. Having to fit photoshoots into my weekend, especially when it was on the photographer’s time frame, ended up making me pass up time I would have rather spent with friends or doing more active hobbies. 

Curating my feed also ended up feeling like work was seeping into my personal life in some ways. As silly as it is to talk about an Instagram account as your “personal life,” I really did feel like my personal life couldn’t really be personal anymore. I often skipped posting pics I loved of my family and friends because I had influencing deadlines I needed to hit. Over time, I found I obsessed over my conversion metrics, and if you’ve ever felt the post-photoshoot blues realizing the pics don’t look as good as you feel in the mirror, it gets magnified when you’re basing monetary value on it.

These days, there’s a lot of pressure to monetize your hobbies and free time. Whether it’s with an Etsy site, going pro with music or poetry or art, or turning your cooking into a catering business, it seems like you can’t enjoy or be good at things without feeling like you need to be profiting off it. I genuinely enjoy social media for the social aspect, posting memes and cute pics with friends, and making money off it makes me enjoy it less, not more.

Closing Thoughts

At the end of the day, my brief time in the influencer world taught me a lot. About myself, but more practically about just how intense of a business this kind of marketing is. I used to think influencing was pretty much just brands throwing free clothes at people with cute posts, but every brand I worked with was super meticulous about quantifying the value you provided. There are truly no free lunches. Overall, influencing is something I’m really glad I tried, but even happier I quit.

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