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What Is an Influencer? How Do They Make Money? I Asked One So You Don't Have To.

A Q&A with new media star Taryn Southern.

Taryn Southern / Instagram

There are thinkfluencers, Pinfluencers and many other portmanteaus of the word “influencer.” In tech and media parlance, however, the term stems from a theory of marketing that prioritizes high-profile figures with their own audiences instead of advertising to those potential customers directly.

At SXSW, brands and advertisers desperate to reach the millennial masses are convening at panels and cocktail parties to talk about how they can connect Instagram and Snapchat stars with companies like McDonald’s or Macy’s to create some #incredible #content. On Monday morning, I moderated a panel in front of a packed room at the Austin Four Seasons hotel on this exact topic, called “This Snapchatter Makes More Money Than You.”

Talking with UTA digital agent to the new media stars Kendall Ostrow, Bessemer Venture Partners partner Talia Goldberg and YouTuber Taryn Southern, we covered everything from the limits and strengths of Snapchat to the nitty-gritty of why it’s tough to match advertisers with Viners and Instagrammers who could hawk various wares to millions of young viewers. It was a good time!

Southern sat down for a quick Q&A with me after the panel concluded. She began her career in “traditional” media, doing various acting and hosting gigs after attending the University of Miami. A few years ago, she quit that work and began creating content on YouTube full-time. She’s made videos with folks like “Family Guy” creator Seth MacFarlane, and she hosted a Web TV show produced by Maker called “Party Fun Times.” She has tens of thousands of followers on Instagram and 456,000 subscribers on YouTube. She also runs her own production company.

Here’s our chat below, only lightly edited:

Re/code: Hi, Taryn! Tell me what it is you do, exactly.

Taryn Southern: I’m a content creator, digital strategist and “internetainerpreneur.” [Ed. note: This is what it says on her business card.]

So what does that mean?

I create video content from development to execution to marketing. I do it for my personal channel, for media companies and brands.

When did you start making video on the Internet?

My first YouTube video was in 2007. That video went viral. It was called “Hot for Hillary,” and it was kind of a lesbian love song for Hillary Clinton.

What made you want to start making Web video?

I was really fascinated by digital media. I had spent time in traditional media as an actress, host and a producer. I made videos on the side as a hobby, and then in 2012, I threw in the towel and started my YouTube channel.

How do you spend your time and energy now?

Most of my energy is spent on my production company, producing content for other entities. I just finished a talk variety show with Maker Studios — “Party Fun Times” — and we’re in the process of finding a home for season two. We had [Vine celebrity] King Bach, Seth MacFarlane and crazy people making waves on the Internet. Like the guy who won the smallest penis pageant in Brooklyn.

Where do you put most of your content?

YouTube is my hub, mainly because the type of content I want to make works on YouTube. I won’t jump on a platform unless I can use it myself. I’ve known King Bach since before he was on Vine, and he said I needed to get on Vine. But I couldn’t see myself using the app, so why develop a strategy? I’m mostly on YouTube, Instagram and Snapchat. I’m on Facebook, but I don’t have a specific strategy. I always recommend that creators develop on the platforms they use and love the most.

You started in old media, but now you make money and do almost all of your work on new media. How do you and other content creators manage your own businesses?

Because I came from the traditional media space … [I learned] there was a system in place. Lots of barriers to entry, talent agents to procure deals and negotiate, and I saw the value in that, having a middleman on your behalf.

A lot of digital stars have a hard time handing over a piece of their business, but it’s imperative that they do. They should have one person they trust and love to handle all their business. You don’t need a bunch of people, or it gets difficult to get deals done. If you do have to have multiple teams working on your behalf, then be very clear about what’s what.

Is there a problem with having too many people on your team?

All these people working for you, it can take up 40-50 percent of your earnings. It’s a real issue. There are creators giving up way too much on their back end. Not just agencies — MCNs [multichannel networks like Fullscreen or Maker], ad agencies, who are all taking money off the top. Sometimes within the ad agency, there’s another ad agency coming in and taking more money.

Where do you see opportunity further down the road?

I don’t know the platforms quite yet, but virtual reality and live video are obviously where there is a lot of opportunity.

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