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When Popularity Pays: Teens Earn Serious Cash to Mention Brands on Social Media

Twitter, @SEBTSB/Instagram, YourGirlMax

If you want to get inside the head of a powerful marketing mastermind, it’s easier than ever to get connected — you might just need to wait for them to finish school for the day.

Sixteen-year-old social media star Sebastian Olzanski is an online influencer, the hottest new breed of creative entrepreneur. Instead of serving fries like his friends, the Grade 11 student is making business deals with the likes of Cineplex and Disney, thanks to his 213,000 Twitter followers.

“I think the thing about me is I get to reach out to the teenagers who might not be interested in watching TV ads,” said Olzanski. When Aladdin was re-released on Blu-ray this fall, he was sponsored to sing six seconds of “A Whole New World” on his Vine account with the film’s release date superimposed on the bottom. That Vine has looped over 58,000 times.

Because influencer marketing leverages individuals and their followers, brands are willing to shell out in order to target the golden goose of demographics: millennials. “People trust other people more than they trust brands,” said Rebecca Brown, executive director of social strategy for marketing firm J. Walter Thompson Canada. Because influencer marketing can feel more engaging and authentic, it’s already become a pivotal part of any promotional strategy worth its salt. “Anyone who has a robust content marketing practice or social media marketing practice will be working with influencers as well,” said Brown.

That’s where companies like #Paid come in. Created in 2013, #Paid is a platform where brands can connect with people who are popular on Instagram. (They even appeared on an episode of Next Gen Den.) Influencers create profiles, set their own price per post, and then brands engage with them directly. Influencers keep 100 per cent of what they earn — #Paid takes their 20 per cent cut from brands only, said co-founder Bryan Gold. The best influencers, those with hundreds of thousands of followers who rope in the big deals, can make upwards of $6,000 a month, and brands see the return on investment. Win-win.

“Influencer marketing is this untapped world where these guys are so cheap, so talented and it’s way better than a banner ad because you can actually engage your audience through a relationship they already have,” said Gold.

And engagement is the key. When the company first started the site was invite-only and Instagrammers had to have at least 15,000 followers to be considered. Now, Gold and his team will look at anyone who demonstrates a captivated audience.

That’s how Maxime Houde-Shulman (@yourgirlmax on Instagram) got her style-based account noticed. The 22-year-old made her case to Gold, citing her curious fanbase. “The people that are following me, they’re not just watching,” she said. She now works for #Paid as head of talent, seeking out influencers like her to join the site.

Like many of her Instagram peers, Houde-Shulman spends anywhere from 30 minutes to a couple of hours perfecting photos. But while she may be paid to sport a certain watch, or a drink a specific beverage in her shots, she makes sure every post feels genuine. “The best way to do it is to ask, would I be doing this photo if this brand didn’t pay me?” If the answer is no, she declines. For so many young influencers, it’s less about the money than the ability to be creative. “It’s an art for me,” said Houde-Shulman. “I love doing it.”

That love didn’t last for Australian model Essena O’Neill who pulled back the curtain on the world of sponsored posts when she quit Instagram (leaving behind over 600,000 followers) and publicly decried social media as fake, manipulative and all-consuming. But many think O’Neill simply let things go too far, and that social media isn’t actually to blame.

“She let her page define who she was,” said Houde-Shulman. “My page is honestly just fun.”

And fun that helps you pay the rent is even better.