How to become an influencer on TikTok or Instagram

Young woman holding online education course

urbazon/Getty Images

It is easy to think that taking a cool photo to post on Instagram or recording a fun dance for TikTok will make you famous overnight. The reality, though, is that becoming an influencer is less about finding a trend to follow and more about consistent and strategic planning to build a brand from scratch.

Many people don’t fully understand the behind-the-scenes work that goes into becoming a full-time influencer. Although this career path might seem like a risky, maybe mysterious, lifestyle to many, there are several concrete steps you can take that could turn your passion into your full-time job.

Like all entrepreneurs, successful influencers always start their career with an idea of what they are passionate about and what content best fits their talents.

Talia Lichtstein and Audrey Trullinger both knew they wanted to enter the entertainment space, specifically in comedy or late night television, so they used social media to create funny videos that allowed them to showcase their talents and work toward their future goals.

Lichtstein, who now has 1.1 million followers on TikTok, is known for her “stuff that I hate” lists and her generally satirical content.

“It all started with the ‘things I hate’ persona and that has evolved but this character is still at the core of everything I am posting,” Lichtstein explained. “The people who follow me are mostly there for that and I know that. You have to be conscious of why people like you and why they follow you and then keep creating the content that they followed you for.”

Her one-minute rants (like the one below) are jam-packed with things Lichtstein hates — everything from boys in tube socks to red nail polish. And every one includes a telltale disclaimer that you can disagree with her opinions but you can’t change her mind! She’ll tell you straight that she likes to fight so if you disagree, bring it.

Trullinger leaned into her comedic passions on her TikTok account and has garnered 1.4 million followers who love her point of view videos, sketches, and story times. Trullinger’s dance content first went viral on TikTok, but she came to the conclusion that she could use the platform for content that she was more passionate about.

“I really love to make people laugh, so I decided if I’m gaining this following I should try to make the kind of content I wanted to make ... when I was younger,” Trullinger said. “So I would say my TikTok is mainly geared toward relatable content and comedy sketches with a little bit of fashion and lifestyle sprinkled in there and my YouTube and Instagram are mostly fashion and lifestyle.”

In the one-minute video below, she hilariously impersonates a sales associate at Lululemon. “Hey, girl, welcome to Lulu. Let me know if I can help you find anything. Oh, those leggings you’re looking at? I love those. I wear them to my 5 a.m. yoga class. Yeah they’re really great. You should get them. … Oh, yeah! They are $148. I know! Ha ha. But they’re so worth it. … Like, I have like five pairs.”

For some influencers, developing a brand starts with one or two viral videos that let them know what their niche is and what content they should focus on. That was the case for Claire-Lise Greve, an influencer from Texas known for her sorority-advice videos that have brought her 944,000 TikTok followers. After going through sorority recruitment at UT Austin, Greve saw how difficult the process could be and took to social media to share the guidance that helped her find her home in sorority life.

“I would do sorority recruitment videos and those would get tons of views and I was like — OK, this is something that people are responding to, something that younger girls want to know a lot about, so then I started making a lot more videos about that, pretty much answering any question I could, while still being in the chapter.”

In this one-minute video, Greve goes through the top reasons you might not get into a sorority, including low GPA and inappropriate posts on social media like underage drinking or smoking.

She was able to stumble upon her audience by creating content that was important to her and her experiences and has continued to let this guide her as she looks to grow her account.

So, to get started, you need to figure out what type of content you want to post: Is it fashion? Things I hate? Advice? Reaction videos? Remember, you don’t have to stick with one — try different things out and see what you like — and what your followers like.

What makes these influencers so successful?

Jay Baer, an author, influencer and founder of marketing advisory firm Convince & vinConvert, described the three strategies that work for successful TikTok influencers:

The first strategy is to create an emotion on the part of the viewer. According to Baer, these are the five emotions that unlock growth on TikTok:

1. Happy

2. Sad

3. Laughter

4. Anger

5. Inspiration

The second strategy is to create perceived intimacy. Baer says that “this is when the audience feels they are a part of the life of the account creator. This is why you see a lot more “raw” production on TikTok v.s Instagram or YouTube. It just feels more real.

The third and last strategy is usefulness. Baer explained that “many of the best accounts on TikTok are similar to the best on YouTube in that they just answer questions that people have difficulty finding answers to otherwise.”

Baer analyzed the accounts of the previously mentioned influencers and determined their particular “success equations.” Talia Lichtstein, for example, has seen success because she is able to ignite an emotion (anger) while creating a feeling of intimacy with her audience, while Audrey Trullinger’s content also brings out an emotion (laughter) and allows her to build intimacy with her followers. Claire-Lise Greve relies less on emotions while using a combination of intimacy and usefulness to attract followers.

When figuring out what content you are going to create, take some time to derive your particular success equation and how you plan to employ it. How will emotions, intimacy and usefulness come together to form your brand?

Just do it

One of the scariest step is that first post when you actually put your content out for people to see.

“Anyone who is interested in the idea of entertaining — you need to just do it,” Lichtstein said. “You have a camera in your hands now, you have the editing software right there.”

While it is easy to let the fear of being judged by your peers stop you from posting, the piece of advice repeated by every influencer was to just get started and push through the fear.

“You might deal with a little bit of adversity from the people around you thinking that you’re never going to actually become an influencer,” Trullinger said.

Everyone has encountered the haters online — even when you’re just posting a comment on someone else’s Tik Tok or Instagram post. But you should be prepared that when you are a public figure, you will get a lot more feedback — both positive and negative.

“People will always knock you down and you always have to keep it going if it’s something you really want to do,” Trullinger said. “Try to block out the people that are unkind because it’s usually rooted in jealousy. Plain and simple. They wish they had the courage to do that. Who doesn’t want to make fun videos for a living?”

How to build your following

As most of us know, having a natural talent for something does not automatically translate into gaining a following or becoming famous.

“The key to a successful post is creating content that is based on feedback from your audience,” said Sam O’Brien, chief marketing officer at Affise, a company that specializes in using trackers and analytics to simplify partnerships between creators and brands. “That will not only help you gain more followers but increase the engagement on your posts. ”

“Hang out in the forums,” O’Brien advised. “When people are chatting with you in the comments, take the time to actually respond. That increases the engagement so you’ll get more people following you and more people appreciating you as a person.”

This means that staying on the app and interacting with anyone commenting on your content will help you build stronger relationships with people who already follow you and extend the reach of your posts to help you gain more followers.

Trullinger was able to build a base of followers by listening to feedback from viewers. Her followers make it clear which videos resonate with them by commenting “More of this please!” or even “I need you to be my best friend” on the TikToks they find funny. She takes that feedback and works to give the people what they want.

Lichtstein often posts content with her opinions about things she dislikes, so she’ll get everything from people who find her hilarious to those who disagree. Some videos have comments like “Main character energy!” or “I need this kind of attitude in my life,” while others can be more negative. She often responds to negative comments with TikToks that poke fun at the way the commenters did not understand her jokes, and this only adds to her content and her relationship with her followers. By responding and interacting with a variety of viewers and comments, influencers are able to build a community and refine their content to what is doing well with their audience.

Once you have one or two posts that gain traction, it is more important than ever to sustain intimacy with your followers by letting them into your life and making them feel like they really know you.

“If you look at some of the most successful influencers, one of the things that they have in common is that they let their audience in. They’re not afraid to be vulnerable. They’re not afraid to show their audience bits and pieces of their life,” said Baer. “You turn your audience into a community by making your audience feel like they are a part of your success.”

It is also important to remember that depending on which app you are primarily using, there are different tips to use the app’s algorithm to your advantage and increase your reach.

According to, here are some of the best ways to grow your following on Instagram:

  1. Post Reels regularly: Instagram has been promoting Reels as a newer feature on the app and is more likely to show your posts if you create high quality and relatable content. This is a great way to end up on the explore page of potential followers.
  2. Cross-promote content: If you use any other social media platforms such as TikTok or YouTube, you can gain more engagement with your posts by posting them on all of your accounts. This helps you get noticed by a larger variety of people and increase your following.
  3. Use the right hashtags: Using popular hashtags makes it easier for people searching for specific content to find your posts and your account. It is important that instead of using a lot of hashtags that you make specific choices that help promote your content to your target demographic.
  4. Use geotags to boost local discovery: Tagging your location helps new followers to discover your posts when traveling to that area.
  5. Organize your stories into highlights: Highlights provide a quick way for followers to gain more insight into the type of content you post and helps to give a taste of what they might see if they follow you.

If you are starting out on TikTok, here are some of the top tips from to gain a larger audience:

  1. Have a good hook: TikTok promotes videos based on several factors including whether or not users finish watching your video. To increase the chances of this, get straight to the point of your video within the first two to three seconds. You want to stop the viewer from skipping to the next video in their queue.
  2. Lean toward shorter videos: With video completion rates being a significant factor in your video being promoted, it is much easier to gain views with a shorter video that people do not scroll away from.
  3. Post at the right time: In order to increase engagement on your posts, you should post during the hours that your followers are most active. Look at your TikTok analytics to better understand the activity of your audience and post when they are most likely to be on the app.
  4. Use trending sounds: TikTok has a strong focus on audio, so the TikTok algorithm will show your videos to people interacting with posts with that same audio. Using a trending audio means that it is more likely people will be interacting with that audio clip.
  5. Use keyword-rich captions: Use captions that make it clear what your post is about without becoming too long. This will catch the interest of viewers and make it more likely for them to stop scrolling to watch your video.

How do you start making money?

Coming up with the idea for content may seem like the hardest part of the job, but according to the influencers it is actually what comes after gaining a following that can be the most confusing and tricky to navigate.

Once you have a solid base of followers, you are in a position to start making money, and this often comes in the form of brand deals. That happens when an influencer is paid to promote a product or brand on their account. It’s the most common way to start making money on social media, but it’s not always the most stable income if you do not know how to negotiate a payment that accurately reflects your worth in terms of engagement with your followers.

According to Baer of Convince & Convert, if you are hoping to get noticed by some of your favorite brands, you can optimize your account by focusing on increasing the size of your audience, increasing engagement and being clear about your topics of interest. Having a short, incomplete bio is a common mistake as brands will often use these bios in their search for brand ambassadors.

Another thing to keep in mind is that while you might find that certain jokes or posts get a good reaction from your followers, it does not mean that this is what brands are looking for. “Most brands don’t want to be associated with influencers who walk too close to the edge. It’s hard because that stuff that’s a little edgy actually really succeeds with the audience but you have to remember that for a corporation to write you a check they have to be really comfortable with everything you’ve ever published.”

Consider getting a manager

One piece of advice that all the influencers emphasized was looking for a manager or someone to help you negotiate and understand the contracts you are signing. Lichtstein and Trullinger both worked with managers who negotiate their brand deals, and allow them to better understand how transactions within the industry work, so that they are paid commensurate to their worth. Trullinger explained that her management company even helps her to edit her videos, giving her more time to focus on creating more content and growing her account.

As an influencer it is up to you to seek out management if you feel that it will help your brand in the long run. Trullinger found that she was struggling to determine the rates she should be charging brands when negotiating deals. That’s when she found a management company that best fit her needs.

“If you want to start monetizing, it is best to get a little bit of guidance. There are people whose whole job is figuring out the rates that you can charge and they can help you immensely.” Without a manager, you face the risk of misreading contracts or underselling yourself to brands, which could hold you back in expanding your business.

However, it is important to keep in mind that managers take a cut of every deal so if you are not at the point where you can afford to give up any of your profit, it may be better to wait until you have reached a higher number of followers and can charge higher rates. Trullinger had around 200,000 followers when she looked into management and found that with their help she was able to turn the brand deals into a full-time job, making the partnership worthwhile.

However, with the new technology that tracks your analytics it is becoming even easier to take care of the negotiations on your own. If you do not have the budget to hire a manager, you can look into online data analytics platforms, such as Affise.

O’Brien at Affise advises creators to look at platforms that will show them their analytics and reach so that they can expand their opportunities without giving up a cut of their income. This will allow them to invest their money into other business ventures instead and begin building more stable revenue streams.

“I’d go on the side that the creators should be getting more of their money. Look at a platform where you’re able to get recurring revenue from your traffic,” O’Brien said. “Start selling to people instead of focusing on brand posts. Focus on selling a product, selling a subscription, etc.” He acknowledges that brand partnerships and sponsored posts are a good way to begin making money, but to solidify a career in social media it is important to start creating a more solid stream of income and a more developed business model.

So, you’ve started making money — now what?

When you start making money from social media, the proceeds can go into savings or be invested back into your brand.

One big misconception that many people have is that becoming an influencer is only achievable if you are in a position to take risks without having to fully support yourself financially. While it can be risky or unstable as a profession at times, by getting started while you’re still in college or already working a full-time job you can build your following without taking on the kind of risk that might be true later in life.

Greve explained that while she is beginning to make money from brand deals, social media is not her full-time job, and as she prepares for grad school, her income goes into savings to help her in the future. This strategy allows her to continue growing her account without relying on social media for her total income.

Trullinger, who just graduated from college in May and has used her income as an influencer to work toward paying off student loans, rent an apartment in New York and pay for her day-to-day needs.

Here’s how she described how she was able to balance supporting herself while starting her new social media career.

“My parents did take out parent loans, but then there were also loans that I have myself. I felt really bad relying on them so the first two years of college I waitressed at my college bar. That’s how I supported myself for the first two years. Sometimes when you want to start you can’t give up everything. Sometimes you have to start working a 9-5, or working a service job or a retail job, so that you can support yourself while you grow until you have that opportunity to monetize your content,” Trullinger said.

Gaining a following takes time and it is important to make sure that you are not relying on your account to be your full-time job until you are making enough money to not only support yourself but save for the future.

Trullinger had to quickly learn how to manage her finances because as an influencer income can vary month-to-month, making it difficult to plan and save.

“I decided to look into credit cards, investing, and high yield savings accounts,” Trullinger said. “Every time I get a check I put 15% of the check away into a high yield savings account, so that if one month doesn’t do super well I always have that money to fall back on. Also, since I am technically self-employed, every time I get a check I put about 25% into a different savings account for my taxes.”

She recommends that others should also take the time to research the best financial options the works for them if they are serious about building a career on social media.

Baer advises that you be conservative with your spending, even if the money is going toward building your career.

“No influencer, unless they are the very top, should ever assume that the fact they were successful means that they will be successful tomorrow,” Baer said. “Lots of people want to be influencers and … competition will be more fierce tomorrow than today. You need to operate in the influencer business as if it is a short-term business.”

How to make being an influencer your full-time job

Greve, Lichtstein and Trullinger were all college students when they started their accounts just a couple years ago and were able to pursue their social media careers full time straight after graduation by building marketable and sustainable brands focused on their talents. This isn’t something that happens to everyone, of course — you might need to do it as a hobby or side hustle at first and also keep a job that pays the bills.

The transition from making some money off of social media on the side to making it your full-time job requires extensive research into what career options are available to you and which ones will best resonate with your followers. For some influencers, this means working on podcasts or shows. This was the case for Lichtstein, who explained that signing a contract to work on a podcast often means a more steady and consistent income.

“It’s a little bit scary because it’s a little bit inconsistent. You know you can have one month where you have three brand deals that you post and the next month you don’t get any,” she said. “I need a consistent flow of money in order to feel comfortable. I knew very early on that I would need to leverage my following into an opportunity where I could get consistent pay and that meant podcasts and, in my case, a Snapchat show.”

Lichtstein has been working to grow her reach through a podcast called “The Influence” by Doing Things Media, a platform that originated as a meme account and is now branching into other forms of content. She also hosts a TikTok show called “Just The Tips” created by Fallen Media where she gives dating advice.

Baer also supported this idea of looking for revenue streams from carefully chosen ventures that best resonate with your audience. In his experience, while many influencers tend to gravitate toward brand deals, shows and podcasts, they should also look into projects that include public speaking, writing books, creating training courses or selling their own products. This can often mean a more steady stream of income and helps to tap into different audience demographics.

“As quickly as possible you need to bury your revenue streams and create as many as you possibly can,” Baer said. “If you have three ways you’re getting [revenue], the most important thing you can do is make it four. Every additional way that somebody can pay you creates less risk in your business.”

Anyone can become an influencer

For most of us, the idea of becoming an influencer seems almost unattainable: a glamorous and exclusive group of people who were able to gain large amounts of followers simply by sharing their lives online. But in reality most influencers are simply hardworking entrepreneurs looking to use their talent for connecting with people.

Lichtstein had her doubts at first but now loves being a content creator and sees that this is an industry that opens the door for anyone to follow their passions and create a lifestyle that is the best fit for them.

“I graduated college and I was looking for a 9-5 job in the media realm and then on the side I was making these videos because I figured I might as well start practicing, and I thought maybe in 10 years I’ll be able to host videos for someone else and get paid for that. It was just a mix of luck and strategy and I went super viral the summer after I graduated. It took a long time to convince myself and convince my parents that I didn’t need to do the conventional thing. It was sort of like I skipped a step and I had some hesitancy accepting that. It just felt really unconventional but at the end of the day I wanted to entertain for a living and it happened faster than I thought and in a different medium than I ever expected it to.”

So, if you want to do it, you’ve got to hustle. You have to be out there creating content as often as you can, engaging with your followers and figuring out what works. Plus, the more you do — the better you’ll get on camera. And you never know where that might lead!

Ananya Mehrotra
Ananya Mehrotra