Like their predecessors, today’s social influencers are young, savvy, and creative—and can serve as powerful vessels for brands looking to expand their reach. But this generation is even more business-minded than the last. Here, we profile seven stars and get their 17 rules for social engagement today.
Age: 22 Audience: Instagram: 4.6 million; Twitter: 2.2 million; YouTube: 7.1 million Specialty: Lifestyle vlogs; fashion ‘grams Recent hit: A YouTube tutorial on how to up your back-to-school-supplies game using DIY craft techniques (1.4 million views)
As comfortable playing a lovelorn nerd in a YouTube sketch as she is modeling a bikini on Instagram, Eva Gutowski dominates on a variety of platforms. Set to star in a YouTube Red scripted comedy next year, Gutowski uses her four-year-old channel, My Life as Eva, to post lighthearted videos on everything from how to create a studded iPhone case (6 million views) to how to survive a high school crush (8.6 million views). “It was all really organic, just stuff that I liked to talk about,” she says of the playful tutorials that originally attracted her young fanbase. As she evolves and expands into a more mainstream fashion and lifestyle influencer, Gutowski maintains her devoted tween audience by alternating between self-deprecating “every girl” moments (bad first kisses, sappy song lyrics) and her more glamorous Instagram persona.
Play the long game. Gutowski turns down many of the sponsorship offers that come her way. “I could do really quick one-offs, like tagging someone on Instagram,” she says. “But my strategy is to work with them on the bigger picture and spend time developing a story”—such as a recent series of talk-show-style webisodes for Proactiv.
Share the spotlight. In a 2015 video sponsored by Sperry, Gutowski ran through her packing list for a trip to Hawaii, which included an array of brand-name products: Ray-Ban sunglasses, SmashBox makeup, and, yes, a pair of Sperry Top-Siders. Being featured with other brands didn’t hurt Sperry: Sales of the shoes Gutowski touted went up by almost 200%.
Provide the context. Labeling sponsored posts without alienating an audience requires a delicate approach. For every advertiser-backed update, Gutowski explains to followers why she believes in the product: “Just because #ad or #spon is there doesn’t mean I’m only doing it for money,” she says. “I make sure, in the text, that it’s very obvious that I’m having fun.”
Calculate your content. For Gutowski, the platform determines the post. “If I go on summer vacation, I’d make a funny video about it for YouTube,” she says. “For Instagram I’d show the gorgeous pictures. Snapchat is for the little side moments, like the hotel room, the food. Twitter is for whatever thoughts that come to mind about the vacation.”
Age: 22 Audience: Facebook: 3.4 million; Instagram: 3.1 million; Vine: 9.3 million Specialty: Sketch comedy Recent hit: A frenetic parody of Apple enthusiasts’ horror at the lack of a headphone jack on the new iPhone 7 (3.9 million views on Facebook)
“School wasn’t really my strong suit. I’m better at just being me,” says Jerry Purpdrank, who has parlayed his talent for comedic, semiautobiographical Vine videos into social media stardom and a burgeoning rap career (he recently released his debut mixtape, “Through the Grape Vine”). Purpdrank was a 19-year-old college student when he posted his first video to Vine. A year later, he dropped out of school and moved from Boston to Los Angeles to collaborate with other creators. He now has a rotating crew of regulars who appear in his skits. Today, Facebook commands most of his attention, thanks to its broad audience. “I reach kids from age 13 to people over 40 on Facebook,” he says. “Men and women, it’s all spread out. It’s very international.”
Throw your body into it. Purpdrank’s videos still feature the over-the-top body language that he first honed to make his short-format Vines stand out. “I was expressive, but I didn’t talk much,” he says. “I was very readable. [My videos] got to the point in six seconds.”
Show your weaknesses. When NBC asked Purpdrank to hype the Olympic opening ceremony, he created a viral video contrasting the network’s grandiose shots of Rio with a clip of himself running awkwardly through his neighborhood with a homemade Olympic torch.
Be obsessed. Posting on social media is just a fraction of Purpdrank’s process. “You have to study patterns, pay attention to what gets traction, and keep up with everyone else,” he says. “If I notice a video that’s similar to an idea that I had, I’m like, ‘Okay, that’s scrapped.’”
Without a feature that promotes top users, Snapchat doesn’t make it easy for wannabe influencers to gain traction. Mike Platco was among the first noncelebrities to find fame on the app: His intricate and wry photo illustrations—a cat wearing a royal cape, Josh Groban in Hogwarts garb—draw an average of 185,000 views.
Make it look effortless. Brands hire Platco not just for his following but to tap into his mastery of a platform. To help Walt Disney World launch on Snapchat in 2014, Platco became something of a creative director. He spent weeks storyboarding and conceptualizing with the company before taking over its account with a series of playful illustrated snaps from the park.
Grab the reins. Platco avoids working with companies that try to dictate content. “When a brand tries to tell you, ‘This is the exact story you’re going to tell,’ it’s not going to work,” he says. “Maybe some influencers will do it, but it won’t hit the brand’s goals.”
Name: Ariel Martin Age: 15 Audience: Musical.ly: 13.1 million; Instagram: 2.9 million; YouTube: 1.3 million Specialty: Lip-synced videos Recent hit: A tousled-haired Martin offers her rendition of the 14-second hook from T.I.’s hit “Memories Back Then” (1.05 million likes)
A widely viewed video for the #shareacoke campaign shows a fresh-faced teenager in a fluorescent pink bikini floating in a pool and mouthing Jason Derulo’s “Ridin’ Solo.” She’s not a model, a singer, or a Kardashian—she’s a top user (or “muser”) of Musical.ly, the two-year-old app devoted to broadcasting and sharing lip-synced videos. As one of the app’s earliest users, Ariel Martin’s teenage sass and penchant for elaborate hand gestures set the standard for the millions of tweens and teens who have since become regular musers. Within a few months of joining, Martin had amassed so many followers that she and her parents decided she should continue her high school studies online to facilitate her rigorous posting schedule: at least one Musical.ly video every day, two YouTube videos per week, plus a handful of weekly Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram updates.
Be a platform enthusiast. Martin’s Musical.ly loyalty played a role in her success: The app featured her often. Although she has joined YouNow, a live-streaming app popular with high schoolers, she posts regularly to Live.ly, Musical.ly’s own live video platform.
Find opportunity in the everyday. Creating sponsored content doesn’t have to involve scripts and a set. In March, Martin took YouTube viewers on a trip to Nordstrom to shop for a prom dress. The vlog has more than 2 million views.
Distinguish your accounts. “I do different content for each [social media platform],” says Martin. “I wouldn’t post videos on Instagram. Twitter is for anything that comes into my mind. Snapchat is for what I’m doing all day.”
Age: 21 Audience: Instagram: 4.5 million; YouTube: 862,000 Specialty: Travel photos and videos Recent hit: A video recap of Alvarrez’s monthlong tour of the Italian coast, produced for Express (1.6 million Instagram views)
For a recent commercial shoot, Jay Alvarrez filmed himself jumping from a plane, biking down a mountain, and leaping off a cliff. “[Hyundai] said, ‘We just want you to do what you do,” says Alvarrez, who founded the production company Savage Isle. Alvarrez has made a career of inducing wanderlust: The model and Hawaiian surfer grew an enviable Instagram following by documenting his adrenaline-filled travels. Now he showcases his talents on both sides of the camera.
Don’t underestimate a pretty face. As a producer, Alvarrez engineers successful projects like the shoot for Hyundai, which has more than 2 million YouTube views.
Embrace limitations. While most commercial shoots are staffed by more than 30 people, Alvarrez restricts his projects to a maximum of four. “We keep it minimal and think more about the creative side,” he says. “When it doesn’t feel like work, you get a natural, fun feeling.”
Names: Jack Johnson and Jack Gilinsky Age: Both 20 Audience: Instagram: 2.2 million; YouTube: 1.5 million; Facebook: 1.1 million; Vine: 6.2 million Specialty: Music videos and comedy skits Recent hit: A video of the pair singing a mashup of J Boog’s “Let’s Do It Again” and Sublime’s “Santeria” on a dimly lit set (800,000 YouTube views)
“With social media, everything is fickle. People come and go, stars burn out quickly,” says Jack Gilinsky, who became famous three years ago for his Vine sketches with childhood friend Jack Johnson. “Even though we had 4 million [Vine] followers, there are people who had that many whose name you wouldn’t know now.” That realization inspired the pair to grow their audience elsewhere while developing music careers that could outlive Vine. The gambit paid off: Today, they’ve shifted from filming six-second comedy skits to touring for their new album—and have a fan base that transcends any single social media account.
Watch the clock. Even though they’re no longer constrained to short Vine videos, Gilinsky says there’s value in brevity: “Consumers’ attention spans have definitely decreased. People realized that quick content is what can fuel the average consumer.”
Strike up a conversation. The YouTube stars of old lacked a convenient way to talk with fans en masse. These days there’s opportunity everywhere. “Especially with Snapchat, anybody can see what you’re doing on a day-to-day basis based off what you post,” says Gilinsky. “People let their fans into their lives more.”
More is less. Think posting about your new product a dozen times in a row will bring in more customers? Think again. “If you tweet something more than three times, you’re clearly being paid,” says Johnson. “I can do a post once and make it extremely genuine if I really believe in the company. That’ll drive more traffic.”
A version of this article appeared in the November 2016 issue of Fast Company