Go back just a few years and if you wanted to crack your way into showbusiness then your automatic focus would be on taking the entertainment world by storm in the traditional sense.
Get noticed by a big-time music producer. Go to drama school and seek Hollywood fame. Become the face of prime-time reality TV. Work your way up from CBeebies presenter to sitting on the This Morning sofa next to Philip Scofield. These were all the dreams of people who wanted to “make it big”.
It’s a seemingly impossible dream. But for some it does happen, and so it makes others hope that one day perhaps it might be them.
Now there’s another option, or rather another category, for those with a talent for entertaining. That of the online influencer.
With the astronomical growth of Instagram since its launch in 2010, following in the footsteps of the other major social media platforms, connecting with an audience no longer needs to be done through a TV or cinema screen.
You can now post a simple photo and a few words online, then within seconds that content is receiving reaction from people around the world.
Some influencers become famous because of their witty and relatable Facebook content. Some become famous for their eye-catching and thought-provoking Instagram feeds. Others use YouTube to inform and connect with a fan base.
However they do it, in recent years this new form of fame has become BIG business.
Once influencers gain an audience, it’s only a matter of time before brands come knocking on their door offering freebies and cash in exchange for posts and videos encouraging people to buy their products.
The world of online influencers is absolutely fascinating to me. It’s not just because I perhaps technically could be called a micro-influencer, although I cringe at the term and certainly don’t see myself as in anywhere near the same league as the real online influencers of my generation. I do not make a full-time wage from my blog, I make a few hundred quid a month.
It’s because it’s become the new fairytale for the 21st Century.
Look at Mrs Hinch, aka Sophie Hinchliffe. The 29-year-old Essex hairdresser went from sharing clips of herself scrubbing her sink with a dozen Instagram followers to publishing a book and being featured on the front page of Sunday newspapers in less than 18 months.
She now has more than two million followers on Instagram, her book has been a smash hit best-seller, shifting 160,000 copies in two days, and no doubt there will be more business opportunities on the horizon.
And she did it all without leaving her own modest home – unless you count the odd trip to B&M to stock up on her beloved Zoflora.
So-called rags to riches stories capture our imaginations because it gives us hope that if it can happen for them, it can happen for us too.
Rise of the mummy blogger
Surely the fastest growing, and most competitive, of niches in the influencer/blogging community is parenting.
The rise of the “mummy blogger” – a truly Marmite phrase that so many detest and yet it’s a label you simply can’t escape if you’re a mum who happens to have a blog – has been unprecedented.
The reason for it is easy. While many start a blog simply hoping to have a good old vent to whoever will listen about what a nightmare motherhood can be, some also see it as the potential doorway to flexible work.
It’s a career we see others doing. Brummy Mummy of 2 blogger Emma Conway quit her job as a teacher to focus on her YouTube and Instagram success full-time. Mumboss Vicki Psarias grew her brand Honest Mum because she realised her career as a filmmaker would not give her the flexibility she craved as she raised her sons. Toby and Roo blogger Harriet Shearsmith grew her Instagram to more than 100,000 followers because she wanted more time at home with her young family instead of returning to her career in retail.
We see they’ve been able to forge a life where they stay at home all day with their kids, and yet still bring in enough of a wage to pay the mortgage, buy new things and have holidays. Mamas see that and think, well, if they can do it, then so can I!
Starting a blog has never been easier. You don’t even need a laptop and a fancy camera, just a phone and a half-decent wi-fi connection.
These days you don’t even need to pay to set up a website to be a mummy blogger. YouTube will host your content free of charge if vlogging is your thing, or it costs nothing to start posting pictures from your daily life on Instagram. On Facebook you can sit and write a quick post in 10 minutes at the end of your day before sharing it to your page.
It’s easy to become a mummy blogger. It’s an entirely different matter when it comes to becoming a “successful” one, if for you success is defined by how much money you make from it.
There are no figures on just how many mummy blogs there truly are out there in the UK. However to give an idea, one of the biggest parenting blogger communities, TOTS100, says it has more than 8,000 members.
The true figure will be far and above this number. Of course many of these may be updated just a handful of times before they are left to rot in the internet graveyard of blogs, where billions of words typed out with passion by their authors are now sitting unread and unnoticed.
While thousands of blogs lay abandoned, there are still thousands with ambitious and hard-working parents working on them. You only have to consider the fact that influencer networks – such as Mumsnet Influencers, BritMums and TOTS100 – exist to realise that the UK’s mummy blogger community is booming.
These networks exist to connect brands with influencers. They are the “middle man”, taking a slice of the profits for co-ordinating influencer campaigns. They would not exist were there not a huge business opportunity to capitalise on the influencer trend.
Lightning in a bottle
And yet the truth is that most of us just do not have that “lightning in a bottle” that you need to be a truly successful influencer. By that I mean, one who makes a proper full-time wage from it.
For Mrs Hinch, it was a combination of her personality, her enthusiasm and the fact that scrubbing your sink has become the new form of therapy for so many of us.
For Anna Whitehouse from Mother Pukka, it’s her eye-catching style, her way with words, her humour and her Flex Appeal campaign – where she has called for employers to be more open to allowing mothers flexible work so that they can stay in jobs they love.
For Sara Tasker, who makes a six-figure salary thanks to the popularity of her Me & Orla Instagram account and expertise in the social media platform, it’s her romantic images and in-depth courses teaching business owners how to use Instagram to grow their profits.
And yet you could try and copy all of these qualities that successful influencers have, and still you could not emulate their success. There is a certain je ne sais quoi to becoming a full-time, money-making influencer. It’s something that cannot be bought. It cannot be copied. It cannot be faked.
The reason for that is that being an influencer is more than a full-time job. It’s letting your audience in to every single aspect of your life. Sure you can try to wall off certain parts of it, but ultimately you need to show up on social media every day and be real. The audience notices you, they see who you are, they take another look, they laugh or cry, then they become invested in you as a person. That is “lightning in a bottle”, and it takes more than posting the odd silly picture and a few emotive words.
For those who get there, it can be a dream career. Flexible work. Glamorous events in the capital where big brands shower you with goodie bags, free food and cash just for turning up. Free stuff. An adoring audience who validate you with words of love every single day.
And yet for all of the advantages that being a mummy blogger can provide, there are dark and disturbing downsides.
The online forum Tattle has given trolls a platform to vent at what they see as the hypocrisy of online influencers. They rant at the videos or Instagram posts marked as “ad”. The complain the influencers who have made it to the big time and are earning a big living are no longer relatable.
They seize on inaccuracies and any error in a blogger’s content, reporting them to the Advertising Standards Agency and urging fans to abandon ship.
Experienced bloggers have been reduced to tears by the brutality of the keyboard warriors. They spew vile abuse, insults and engage in downright bullying behaviour as they engage in hate-watching – where they regularly watch content from creators they dislike.
When they see influencers become upset by their comments, the trolls gleefully discuss the reaction they have provoked. It is school yard bullying at its very very worst. Conducted by grown adults who surely have better things to do with their time.
In this day and age, when mental health awareness is such an important issue, it is a disturbing side of human nature.
The social media numbers game
If you’re a mummy blogger who wants to make a few quid from your blog and social media channels, the numbers matter. And the numbers can drive you completely bonkers.
Brands will only work with you if you have a certain number of followers, with a decent engagement rate. Many brands want you to have the elusive “swipe-up” feature, where you can provide links to external content in your Instagram stories. This feature is only available for those with 10,000 Instagram followers. A number that is not easy to hit.
As someone who has in the past huffed and hurled my phone down in frustration as I see a post reach only a dozen likes in the first hour, or seen my follower count rise by 10 only for it to drop by 30 the next day, I know all too well the dangers of the numbers game.
It’s a game you will struggle to win if you want to play the game at its rules. Yes some hit Instagram, Facebook or YouTube with exactly the right formula of amazing content, an engaging personality that people WANT to see more of and just that little bit of luck (the lightning in a bottle).
Then there are others who play the system. They buy followers. They buy likes. They use Facebook communities where members offer likes for likes (I myself have used these communities and occasionally still do). They follow hundreds of people a day on Instagram in the hope they will follow their account back, then unfollow them two days later to start the cycle all over again.
This isn’t meant as a criticism of the bloggers who do choose to bend the rules. To each their own, and if you’ve decided this is what works for you, fine.
The trouble comes when others see fellow bloggers growing at an alarming rate and wonder what on earth they are doing wrong. Why do so many others seem to have the “lightning in a bottle”?
And that’s when influencers can become overwhelmed, stressed and despairing.
I have a love/hate relationship with Instagram. While I often enjoy the interactions I have there, I sometimes feel like I’m trying to crack my way into a clique that just wants me to stop bugging them. It’s social anxiety for the internet age!
Would I still start a blog?
So the question is, knowing what I know now, would I still make the investment in my blog that I have made if I could turn back the clock?
The answer is that I would, but I would have far less expectations if I were starting out now.
I wouldn’t chase the viral post, because it only happens for 0.01 per cent of influencers.
I wouldn’t worry about why someone with the same number of followers as me has double the number of likes on their posts.
I would focus on creating good, quality content. Content that offers people information that helps them.
When it comes to Instagram, I would share real posts from my everyday life without worrying about taping flowers to my living room wall or trying to stick my phone to the ceiling above my bed. While I love those type of pictures, I know that just isn’t what I do best. I’m not an amazing photographer, who can compose a clever shot with creative props. I just like to take nice pictures of my kids.
We can’t all have lightning in a bottle. There’s no way to sell it, teach it or guarantee it.
As micro-influencers, or bloggers if you prefer, we need to accept that like in all walks of showbusiness, we aren’t all going to “make it” to the big time.