For Gen Z, Playing an Influencer on TikTok Comes Naturally
Rachel Aaron, a 24-year-old who works in public relations in New York, recently dressed up for a work event at Bloomingdale’s. In the era of “get ready with me” videos on TikTok, it was a golden opportunity to create content.
Ms. Aaron, who has just 3,300 followers on TikTok, filmed herself chatting to the camera while selecting a black Skims dress, a blazer and a belt. Her post garnered a few hundred views and some favorable comments like “Slay mamas.”
Ms. Aaron is not a major social media star, nor is she a celebrity. At least not yet. But she is part of a generation that is increasingly posting on social media in the manner of professional influencers: sharing daily routines, pitching or unboxing products, modeling clothing and advertising personal Amazon storefronts. These videos are often viewed as cool and entrepreneurial by peers (and sometimes by bemused parents). They can also lead to free stuff and extra cash.
Ms. Aaron lists an email for brand inquiries on her TikTok profile and a link to her page on Linktree, a site that gathers her commercial affiliations into one place as a way to signal her clout as a tastemaker. Among the links is her Poshmark page, where she resells her clothing.
“It’s more generally accepted among people my age to speak to the camera and give product recommendations and that sort of thing,” Ms. Aaron said.
She added that Generation Z — defined as the group of people born between 1997 and 2012 — is particularly fluent in such dialogue, and is accustomed to regular people hawking goods on YouTube and Instagram. “For a lot of people in my peer group and Gen Z creators that I know, we go on camera and speak like we’re on FaceTime with a friend, which is probably less cringe,” she said.
As people like Ms. Aaron spend time on TikTok and other social media sites, it’s no big deal for them to act like advertisers, without the secondhand embarrassment that can accompany selling items door-to-door or delivering multilevel marketing pitches.
The driving idea is that anyone can be a creator and bring in money and free products from companies, who are eager to work with the young and the savvy on TikTok, where it can be hard for brands to break in. More than 70 percent of 18- to 29-year-old women on social media follow influencers or content creators, and half of them have purchased something after seeing an influencer’s posts, according to a Pew Research survey from last year.
“You might have 12 followers and you’re selling swag,” said Vickie Segar, the founder of Village Marketing, an influencer agency. “The macro movement of everyone being a creator, and the idea that creators should monetize themselves in every avenue they can, is just trickling down to the everyday person.”
Ngozi Oka, a 21-year-old junior at the University of Buffalo, said that she was inspired to start dabbling in TikTok influencing after giving a presentation about women of color and makeup to the Black Student Union on her campus.
“I was like, if I can create PowerPoints, I think I can create TikToks, too,” said Ms. Oka, who has about 5,100 followers on the platform, and has specialized in videos about hair and wigs.
Ms. Oka said that she made a new email account to put on her TikTok profile for business inquiries, along with a link to her Linktree, where she lists recommended wigs, and to her Amazon storefront. When people buy her picks on Amazon, she earns a small commission. Despite her modest following, Ms. Oka said that several brands have contacted her to endorse their products, and that she has earned hundreds of dollars from doing so.
The mere presence of a Linktree and Amazon storefront helps show you’re “very much into the whole content creation and influencing realm,” she said.
“It’s very eye-catching if you go on someone’s page and see that,” Ms. Oka added. “It’s kind of like a LinkedIn.”
Because most social media sites allow users to promote only one link in their profiles, millions of people insert a Linktree link in that space, directing visitors to a page with a list of any number of sites they want to share. While several companies offer similar services, Linktree has caught on with performers and social media personalities, from the pop star Katy Perry to the TikTok icon Dixie D’Amelio. Even the White House recently joined the service. (People also use Linktree for more than e-commerce, listing personal websites, Spotify pages and more.)
“What Gmail is to email, Linktree is to ‘link in bio,’” said Benoit Vatere, the chief executive of Mammoth Media, a marketing firm that connects TikTok creators with brands. “It’s a status marker for the Gen Zs.”
One of the hot links to include is to an Amazon storefront, where people curate their recommendations for clothing, makeup, body lotion and more.
According to Linktree, its data suggested that most users who link to Amazon storefronts are not influencers, but rather, people acting like influencers. 77 percent of Amazon links created on Linktree last year came from users who received fewer than 1,000 visits to their profiles.
Still, many young people spend a painstaking amount of time curating their Amazon storefronts as part of their TikTok personas. Often, it’s the sole link in their TikTok bios or the first one on their Linktree pages.
Chloe Van Berkel, a 19-year-old freshman at James Madison University, lists 47 items on her Amazon storefront in categories like “skincare” and “summer essentials.” Ms. Van Berkel, who has about 6,800 TikTok followers, said that the commission she earned from her storefront was paltry, bringing in roughly $10 a month. But, she added, there was always the chance that a video might go viral and send a lot of traffic to her site.
“It’s just something on the side to help make more money, and it’s cool to be able to promote stuff that you like, obviously, and to tell your friends to buy it,” Ms. Van Berkel said.
Ms. Van Berkel, who has also received free bathing suits and workout gear in exchange for endorsing them on social media, estimated that one out of seven of her friends were pitching products on TikTok or Instagram in their spare time.
“All the time, people are making videos saying do this, buy this, here’s stuff you’re going to need for your dorm,” she said. “It’s definitely not something you see and think it’s weird.”
The norms are different for many millennials and older generations, who might be more jarred to see a social media friend suddenly pitching products into their phone cameras.
Ms. Aaron said that millennials often hesitate a beat before talking into the camera, in what she and her friends jokingly refer to as the “millennial pause.”
College students have been inspired by other undergraduates who have become famous on TikTok in the past couple of years. Several women pointed to the meteoric rise of Alix Earle, a senior at the University of Miami, who has more than five million followers and prominently advertises her Amazon picks, while also partnering with brands like Nars and American Eagle.
Ms. Oka said that she admired Monet McMichael, a TikTok star who has over three million followers and graduated from nursing school last year, which Ms. Oka said she viewed as an aspirational balance.
But fame and large followings are not necessarily the main goals.
“You don’t need to have thousands of followers and that’s a big misconception that a lot of people have,” Ms. Oka said. “Once you have that email in your bio and are demonstrating that you are influencing, and you want to do more influencing, I feel like you will grab the attention of who you’re trying to seek.”
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