In This Episode
As people everywhere have been forced to take their lives and careers online, this week Alex delves into the most digital job of them all — the social media influencer. How does social influencing work in a time of social isolation? Do online beauty and travel gurus have the same appeal in a time of lockdown and lipstick-less Zoom calls? First, Alex speaks with Josh Zimmerman, a life coach for influencers, who offers big picture analysis about how online personalities are staying creative—and solvent—during a time of crisis. Then, she speaks with Alisha Marie, an influencer whose millions of followers are now tuning into her stay-at-home routine—and all the pressures that come along with it.
Alex Wagner, narrating: Hi. Welcome to Six Feet Apart. I’m Alex Wagner. Like basically everyone on planet Earth. I’ve been spending a lot of time on the Internet, like a lot of time. And that includes social media. In fact, it’s mostly social media, just scrolling through Instagram like it’s my job. I am not alone. In many ways, COVID-19 would seem to be the golden era of social media influencing. An entire species is mostly stuck in place, isolated, pining for a window onto someone else’s life. But social media influencers, the people who have massive multimillion-follower accounts, those people are also stuck at home reading the same depressing, terrifying news about a planet in the middle of a pandemic. And they’re grappling with the psychological toll of an unprecedented moment in history. But unlike the rest of us, influencing people, offering that escape on social media, that’s their job. So that’s what we’re going to talk about today. How does social influencing work in a time of social isolation? What happens when your influence as a self-styled makeup or fashion guru meets a deadly pandemic that has almost everyone at home saving money and not wearing lipstick? In a time when brands everywhere are slashing their advertising budgets and rethinking their marketing strategies, what happens to the incomes of influencers whose wallets are dependent on hashtag ads? First, we’re going to speak to Josh Zimmerman. He is a life coach for influencers. Yes, they have those. Josh isn’t a shrink and he’s not an agent. He’s the person that popular influencers turn to in times of crisis and to get creatively unstuck. As you can imagine, he is very busy these days. And then we’re going to talk to Alisha Marie. Alisha is a lifestyle influencer, primarily on YouTube, though she also has a wildly successful podcast and an Instagram feed that puts almost all of ours to shame. But first, here’s Josh Zimmerman:
Alex Wagner: Josh, you are a life coach and you focus on influencers, creators, people that are putting forth a lot of the content that we see on our social media feeds and doing it for large audiences. How did that work before COVID-19, and how does it work now?
Josh Zimmerman: Most creators on YouTube and different platforms are used to working from home.
Alex Wagner: Right.
Josh Zimmerman: And used to working by themselves. So it’s been an adjustment, but it’s sort of been a little bit easier. However, the difference is what’s happened on the outside. When the lockdown started and rolled across the US and throughout the world, I have clients coming to me saying: everybody is now online, everyone’s on Instagram, everybody is going live, you know, they’re taking up our space.
Alex Wagner: Yeah, they’ve flooded the marketplace. All the plebes have flooded the market.
Josh Zimmerman: Exactly. So what we actually saw was a huge watering down of content because of the fact that there were all these other people coming online because they had nothing else to do. And we sort of saw that crest. And I said to my clients, just give it, give it some time. People will know this is a marathon, not a sprint and they’re going to get sick of going live pretty quickly. The other piece that is, what we’ve seen is CPMs, which is cost per million, this is for YouTube and Facebook, how creators make money on the, when ads are run against their videos, that money has dropped significantly. So the way that the creator makes money has now dropped and now they have people coming up behind them that maybe, maybe a celebrity, there maybe these new people, and so now they’re in a almost a, like I have to work three times as hard just to make the same amount of money, and so they’re operating from a place of fear and not creativity. When clients come to me, it’s not working because there’s no stability. And so what we’ve seen, and this is not just for creators but for pretty much anybody, is a lack of stability and routine. And that is easy as like I’m going to be wearing sweats when I’m on the Zoom call and just be dressed from the top up, right? And sleeping in, not doing things because there isn’t anything to be to grasp on, and what that does to the creative process, and really to anybody, but for the creative processes that creates stress and panic and fear. And what happens is when you’re stressed, your body releases adrenaline and there’s only so much adrenaline that you actually have in your body before your adrenals are tapped out. Once your adrenals are tapped out, the body and brain produce cortisol.
Alex Wagner: We don’t like cortisol, that’s a stress hormone.
Josh Zimmerman: Bingo. Which also means that it puts you into the fight, flight, or freeze mode. And the first thing that cortisol does when it’s in your brain, it’s actually thinning the walls of your brain.
Alex Wagner: Oh, Lord.
Josh Zimmerman: Like we really don’t like cortisol. And what happens is cortisol affects the whole brain but where it really hits is the right side of your brain, which is the creative side. And the first thing it actually blocks is creativity. So what we see happening, and this is sort of how burnout it happens, is that when there’s a lack of stability, there is fear and there’s cortisol in your brain, you’re actually beat, there’s chemicals blocking you from being creative. And you stress out even more and you can’t come up with any ideas and you’ve got to put a video out, and if you don’t, you’re not going to make money. And we see this vicious cycle.
Alex Wagner: Josh, talk to me a little bit about the sort of economic reality that influencers are facing right now because, you know, consumer spending is way down, the unemployment rate, it is a historic high, advertisers are pulling dollars everywhere—I mean, everyone is feeling pain. And, of course, social media influencers are not exempt from that pain.
Josh Zimmerman: Not at all.
Alex Wagner: I mean, I would assume there is a vast amount of financial stress in this industry right now. Can you tell me what you’ve seen?
Josh Zimmerman: I’m seeing creators drop, losing upwards of 20 to 40% of their income overnight. I’m also seeing, that’s just in the US, but in South America, sometimes it’s down 90%. And the other way that creators make money are brand deals and you, we’ve sort of fallen into two different categories. On one side, we have brands who are in survival mode. And the first thing that they, a company does is pull ad dollars and marketing. So all of those companies that would pay a creator to do a sponsored video have hit the big pause button. So that money is gone. And then on the other side, you have companies that deliver to your house that are heavy into the creator influencer marketing, but they are so overwhelmed right now. They don’t need a creator. They may need a creator to do a brand integration to say, please stop ordering from us, but they can’t keep up with demand so why would they be paying creators for more people to buy their product when they can’t keep it in stock? And our industry is just like every other industry needing to make money, there’s a race to the bottom. I’ll do this brand—I used to do it for this much, but it’s now we only have this much money in, for the deal and the creator is going to take, or the manager is going to take it. And so we’re watching a literally a race to the bottom. So there is a implosion happening that people aren’t aware of.
Alex Wagner: What do you think that means, what does that foretell for the social media influencer industry? I mean, is this like could this be a culling of the herd, if you will, or do you think in a few months, I mean, how do you see the road ahead, I guess?
Josh Zimmerman: I think this is a wakeup call. We’ve seen a lot of different companies come and blossom out of becoming, out of the digital landscape, whether that is management companies, MCNs, all different kinds of companies. And what we’re seeing is this is the stress test and can they survive it? And most of the time, I hope the answer is yes, but the margins are already so slim that they are having to pivot and figure out different ways and lay off a lot of people just to go into survival mode. We’re going to see companies that were dependent on making their money from brand deals or different revenue sources from a creator not be able to survive.
Alex Wagner: Yeah. I wonder how people write the book on social media influence, right, like it feels like a distinctly pre-COVID industry in a lot of ways. And I think that that’s probably playing to the more negative stereotypes, but nonetheless, it just feels like an expression of an isolated but also consumerist society. And now everything is been upended. People have said this is about reordering priorities, it’s about taking stock of what we have and what we truly need. I guess I wonder whether social media influencers that you work with are concerned about whether it even makes sense to do this with one’s life anymore?
Josh Zimmerman: So the clients that I work with, we actually look at going, OK, you have two million people that follow you. That’s the top of the marketing funnel. Let’s think bigger. And what we are doing and most people in my industry are shocked to hear that creators that are working with me are doing strategic analysis. We’re doing SWOTs, we’re doing stuff because I’m because we’re looking at the bigger picture. Of like you’re not just the creator, you are actually a small business, you are an entrepreneur. Let’s treat it like that and lets think bigger.
Alex Wagner: And that involves pivoting your business model.
Josh Zimmerman: It’s like, OK, great, I built this massive top end funnel, but what do I do with this? Because you’re not going to be relevant on a platform forever and you don’t know when it’s going to end.
Alex Wagner: Right. I think for everybody, it’s like nobody really knows when the music stops. That’s true on an existential level, but certainly on a financial and business level. Like, I think that’s the hard lesson of right now, right, like, all of a sudden, boom.
Josh Zimmerman: It’s important to also note that there is a huge responsibility on any creator or—anybody that has a audience. I don’t care if it’s 5 people or 15 million, they have a responsibility right now to make sure that they are putting information out there that is accurate, that is helping people, and that is helping slow this thing down. So when we see creators and creatives, and different people going out, not listening to the CDC, not listening to the WHO or whatever health organization is giving them the advice, and they’re hanging out in groups. What I say to them is, OK, there’s two million people that that follow you. One of those people sees you and goes, oh, it’s OK to go outside, and they go out and one of your fans goes outside and they’re asymptomatic and they go see somebody, who goes see somebody, and someone ends up dying. I said, and I’ll say, do you want that on your conscience? You need to also be aware that an action that you may not be aware of where you think, oh, this only affects me, could actually kill someone.
Alex Wagner: Yeah, we all need a Josh Zimmerman life coach in our lives quite clearly, that’s what I gleaned from this conversation my friend. Thank you for taking time to help us see how the most popular among us are managing a period of isolation and confusion and general darkness. Thanks, Josh.
Josh Zimmerman: Absolutely Alex. Take care.
Alex Wagner: Before we get to Alisha Marie, we’re going to take a quick break to hear from our sponsors.
Alex Wagner, narrating: And now here’s social media influencer Alisha Marie.
Alex Wagner: Give me the latest in terms of the sort of the following that you have on social media.
Alisha Marie: Oh, gosh. I mean, on YouTube, on my main channel, we’re definitely over eight million, which is still insane to say that out loud.
Alex Wagner: That’s bananas.
Alisha Marie: It’s crazy to even, it’s crazy. My second channel, which is my vlog channel, that one is a little over three million. And that’s just more of a personal like here’s my day-type of channel. I have a podcast with my best friend that’s doing amazing. We’ve had some, like, top chart things, which has just been so freaking cool because again, that just feels like we’re best friends talking to each other, after doing this for twelve years of just, just still being able to do it, I’m just so blessed and honored and thankful.
Alex Wagner: And you have like 3.8 million followers on Instagram, is that right?
Alisha Marie: Yes, yes, yes. It’s been, we’ve been trying to hit that four million mark, it’s been a minute, but—
Alex Wagner: Well, girl this is the podcast that’s going to take you over the top, I promise.
Alisha Marie: [laughs] Oh my God. Well, if you’re listening, definitely, you know, subscribe, follow, all of that fun stuff. But, yeah, no, it’s really awesome.
Alex Wagner: You are a part of this 21st century phenomenon known as influencing, social media influencer. Just for people who aren’t familiar with your story, how did you get to be an influencer?
Alisha Marie: Yeah, it was never something that I just decided and wanted to do. It really was my hobby. I just randomly, randomly stumbled into YouTube from makeup tutorials from MAC Cosmetics, Sephora and I found out that there’s this whole community there because I found these just, you know, normal girls also doing these tutorials. I just loved it so much. I was obsessed with beauty and fashion and makeup, and I was horrible at it. I don’t know why anyone watched those videos, but over just the years of doing it, I started to grow somewhat of an audience. And I remember having that exact moment of realizing that they don’t even really care what I’m uploading, they just want to see me, Alisha, upload more. And that was such a huge turning point for me, realizing that, oh, like people actually care about me and I can actually have like a little, you know, a little family here on the Internet. I don’t know if you’ve watched YouTube back in the day, but, you know, you had your Michelle Phan. You had these like makeup artists and everyone looked up to them. And then there was kind of a group of us who were just girls who liked makeup, but we weren’t people you should probably like listen to you for, like, crazy advice, you know? So, yeah, I think that whole, like, lifestyle genre kind of picked up. And it was cool because, you know, we would do these tours or we would go around and like meet fans and it was just so cool how people, like, knew us and they, like, related to us and they’d ask about my dog or like little things like that. And I’m just like, wow, this isn’t just your typical tradition or traditional media where there’s a character online and people like the character, like these people care about us.
Alex Wagner: I want to get to sort of how this current moment has affected your ability to do the things you do, right? I mean, a lot of what you present to us on social is, you know, stuff that people have basically had to put on hold for the moment, right? Whether that’s hanging out with their friends, whether that’s even, I mean, even things like makeup, people aren’t going outside. So tell me about how you’ve been thinking about all this.
Alisha Marie: So I think a lot of people think, oh, like you’re on YouTube, you know, not much will change because your job is just uploading videos. But something super interesting was when, you know, the first big week kind of came and everyone started going on lockdown. And I got into like this hyper superhero mode where I just wanted, I felt like my sole purpose in life was just to put out so much content so people could be entertained and kind of have a distraction from things. I was pumping out content like crazy. I’ve always loved home videos like home vlogs, content organizing, so luckily, like content-wise, it’s the kind of stuff I’ve always done. But it was really interesting because my views were almost double than what they were prior to all this, which I wasn’t expecting. But it does make sense because a lot of people are home. However, my, the actual ad sense and money I was getting from those videos were cut in half, I would say. So I think it’s interesting realizing how, you know, even people on the Internet making videos like you’re still affected, because if the advertisers aren’t putting money into the ads, like you’re not getting money, you know. So definitely took a little hit that way. And it’s, I think it’s also just so hard because every county has different stuff right now. You know, they have different regulations. So being on a public platform, I’ve noticed a lot of influencers struggling with that.
Alex Wagner: How do you deal with that, though, right? Because you’re influencing people who are across the country living in different states now with different regulations. Do you feel like you have to tailor your content around that? I mean, tell me a little bit about how—you’re still in quarantine, whether it’s like how to stay healthy and quarantine or, you know, how to, like, look cute in quarantine. That’s not going to be the case for people in other parts of the country, so how do you think about that as you’re thinking about content?
Alisha Marie: Yeah, especially when everything first happened, I started overthinking everything in my life. I had no idea what was offensive and what was OK to say and everything, and I just kind of started going in circles and I realized, Alisha, you’re making content right now—I really want to make content for people to have an escape right now, for them to be entertained, for things to feel normal, you know? And it was so interesting because I’m an avid YouTube watcher, and especially when everything first started, the last thing I wanted was for YouTube to like, the YouTubers I watch to talk about it, because that was my world 24/7. But then as a creator, I felt such a need to talk about it because it was such a huge thing. Most of my videos up until now have had like a disclaimer in the beginning just saying that thing exactly, that I really want this to be an escape for you. I’m not trying to be insensitive. I uploaded a what I would have done to Coachella video, and clearly like a music festival, getting canceled is not the biggest of my concerns right now, but it was a fun video and it was really cool seeing the feedback on that, because I put a disclaimer at the beginning and said that, I was like, yo, I like I, I hope no one thinks I’m just one of those influencers who’s thinking, oh my gosh, a music festival’s canceled. But at the same time my job is to entertain people and the response was really great. And even the comments of people saying I love how you approached that, made me feel like it’s OK to still, it’s like I don’t have to only do quarantine content or the masks or like that kind of stuff, you know?
Alex Wagner: Is it hard for you to brainstorm content like this in a moment where people are suffering, you know, bodies are piling up in morgues, or is it a release? I guess I’m trying to understand how you’re navigating this sort of two ends of the spectrum.
Alisha Marie: Hmm, yeah/ I think at first I really did struggle with feeling like why the hell am I uploading at all, like this is not important, like this is, this isn’t, it’s like not what people—I don’t know, like, it felt weird to be uploading stuff. And I think even today, like, I feel like every video I kind of have to take a balance of, OK, what is important right now. And I think as long, I think as long as your viewers see that you’re even thinking about it. Like, I would rather them see that I’m struggling and thinking about what’s right and wrong and what’s OK to post and what’s not OK to post, even if I don’t come up with a definitive like, oh, because it’s not black and white, everything is great right now, you know? Recently it’s to that point where, like, that list is really low, and I’m trying to think of things again. You know, how many times can I reorganize my makeup drawer or whatever? But then there’s also weeks that it’s a great idea, but you’re just not so, so freaking passionate about it, and that’s OK. I think that’s a little where I kind of have to turn into the more like, oh, this is a business thing, mindset more so and realize it’s ok—
Alex Wagner: Right. This is your J O B.
Alisha Marie: —if a video doesn’t go viral. Yeah, yeah.
Alex Wagner: Yeah. I think a lot of people don’t understand that part of social media influence is like you’re creating a product from yourself. You’re, you are the factory.
Alisha Marie: Yes.
Alex Wagner: And to be doing that in a moment of social isolation has to be really challenging, right, like the stimulus that would otherwise be feeding you is in a lot of respects, gone. So you’re just kind of self-generating content under an enormous amount of pressure because it’s your job, it’s your income, it’s what you do. So we’re at this weird moment where it feels like some parts of the country are opening back up and to some degree, life is getting back to normal. But there’s this expectation that we’re going to be caught in this kind of weird, sort of dangerous territory for longer than we probably understand or know or expect. I mean, do you think it’s going to change the business that you’re in? Do you think it’s going to change you as someone who’s sort of personality and force of life is the driver behind, you know, your job?
Alisha Marie: For so long, and I think it’s just because I’ve done YouTube for so long—again, it’s been 12 years—I like, conditioned myself to be this happy, almost TV character of Alisha Marie people, and just honestly, the past two years more so, but even the past year, I’ve really opened up more and realized it’s OK to show that I’m not happy all the time. It’s OK to not just give the people what I think they want in the sense of, oh, everything’s happy, everything’s fine, don’t worry where, you know the reason why YouTube is huge—all platforms but I always say YouTube, just because it’s my main one—is because people are being real and open and vulnerable and talking about real stuff. And it’s not just this perfect TV show. I do hope that I open up more and talk about real stuff. And even if that causes people to not like that, like that’s worth the hate to me, because at least I’m speaking my mind. And that’s been a goal of mine this whole past year mostly. And I feel like, honestly, all of this with the coronaviruses just even confirmed that for me, because there’s no way I can have only happy videos for like a whole year or two, however long this ends up being or whatever. So I think I think that’s kind of a huge part.
Alex Wagner: It’s forcing all of us to get really, really real.
Alisha Marie: Yeah. And then on the actual business side, obviously, you know, YouTube is going to be even more saturated. I already have so many friends I’ve encouraged to start YouTube because I think they’d be amazing at it. So I do hope a lot of people start getting on it. And it’s weird, even my friends who are teachers, you know, they’re having to submit their classes online and tutorials on YouTube. So it’s been interesting seeing how it’s almost going to be like that’s just a skill you’re going to need. Like when the computer first came out, everyone had to learn how to type. I think now knowing how to upload digital content or videos just in general is going to be so normal. And I hope a lot of businesses, especially ones struggling right now, can try to incorporate social media, because I think it’s just going to be taken over even more with just everything.
Alex Wagner: Girl, one day you’re going to be teaching all of us, with the number of followers that you have.
Alisha Marie: I was like, maybe, maybe I have a future being professor or something.
Alex Wagner: Well, it wouldn’t surprise me. Alisha, thank you for your time. Good luck with the content. Good luck with the year or months or however the how long it is—good luck with the time ahead. And thank you for your time.
Alisha Marie: Thank you so much.
Alex Wagner: That’s all for this episode of Six Feet Apart. Our show is produced by Alysa Gutierrez and Lyra Smith. Lyra Smith is our story editor. Our executive producer is Sarah Geismer. Special thanks to Alison Falzetta, Stephen Hoffman and Sidney Rapp. Thanks for listening and stay safe.