A Green Bay woman’s weight loss journey launched an Instagram business.
A Waunakee mother of three turned a blog for family and friends into a full-time social media career, while a Kenosha father sold his insurance company to go full-time on YouTube.
A University of Wisconsin-Parkside student dropped out of college to make TikToks and a University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate teaches other creators how to make successful YouTube videos.
The rise of social media has brought with it the rise of content creators and influencers, people who are able to earn money and grow a following through posting content on YouTube, Instagram, Twitch, TikTok and other social platforms.
As of October 2020, there were more than 50 million content creators globally, and 2 million of them were earning six-figure salaries, Forbes reported.
With the COVID-19 pandemic changing many people’s attitudes about work and some reluctant to return to a traditional job, becoming a content creator is becoming more of an option to be your own boss, do something you’re passionate about and earn a living doing it from anywhere in the world — even Wisconsin.
Those who have found success on social media say there’s a lot more work that goes on behind the scenes that viewers don’t see. Building a viable social media career takes time, hard work and a little bit of luck too.
Here’s how five Wisconsin content creators have grown their followings and made a living through social media.
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Amber Clemens has amassed an Instagram following of more than 61,000 people by sharing recipes, workout routines, weight loss transformation photos and snippets of her living her everyday life in Green Bay.
Clemens, 31, didn’t set out to become an Instagram content creator. It just sort of happened organically, she said.
Clemens started posting about her weight loss journey on her personal Instagram page after losing 50 pounds. She kept dropping pounds and gaining followers and by the end of 2019, 8,000 people were following her on Instagram.
On Jan. 1, 2020, Women’s Health magazine published a story about Clemens’ weight loss and her following doubled that day. Now, she’s able to make a “fairly decent” income from Instagram.
“It’s definitely not something that I set out to do and I never thought I would be in this position, but I’m very thankful, especially after losing my full-time job because of the pandemic,” she said. “I’m very fortunate that I’m in this position.”
Clemens grew up in Eagle River and in 2014, graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay with a degree in communications and public relations. She was laid off from her job at LaForce in Green Bay in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
It was around the same time she lost her job that her Instagram account was really taking off. Losing her job gave her more time to focus on growing her social media platform, she said, and also, for the first time in her adult life, gave her the opportunity to consider what she wanted to do in the future.
Clemens said she puts as much effort into her Instagram page as she would any other full-time job. She uploads new content almost daily and posts multiple times on her stories, often sharing healthy recipes she’s made, grocery store hauls, workout routines and just chatting with her followers about her everyday life.
There’s a lot of work that goes on behind the scenes as well, she said, such as planning content, negotiating with brands that want to sponsor her and responding to messages from followers.
Clemens credits her success on Instagram to just being her authentic self.
“People who match your energy, who connect with you are going to find you,” she said. “Don’t try to mold yourself into what you think you have to be because people — I think now more than ever — are looking for authenticity and they want to see you being genuinely you.”
Her favorite part of being a social media influencer and content creator is connecting with the supportive community she’s built.
“I feel very blessed to have the community that I do because 99% of the people that I’ve met are so amazing and it’s just a community of people there to build each other up,” Clemens said. “I am very fortunate to be surrounded by a group of people who I’ve never met but feel so connected to and they just want the best for each other.”
“If my Instagram got lost tomorrow, the one thing that I would miss the most would be the community,” she said.
Find Amber Clemens on Instagram and TikTok at @alittlebit_amber.
Twenty-year-old Tommy Winkler has grown a following of 6.5 million on TikTok by sharing what he eats in a day.
Winkler’s followers will suggest challenges — anything from eating only Culvers for a whole day to only eating sour foods for the day — and he happily obliges, filming himself eating breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks, usually nodding his head in approval after he takes the first bite.
Winkler got his start creating online content when he was in high school and he and his older brother started posting videos on YouTube. When TikTok — a short-form video-sharing app — got popular in 2019, he joined and started posting what he called relatable comedy videos.
The next year, he started his “what I eat in a day” videos, he said, and that’s when his content really took off. He gained more than 6 million followers in about a year and a half.
“It’s definitely changed my future,” Winkler said of his online popularity.
Because of his TikTok success, Winkler decided to drop out of school earlier this year to pursue full-time content creation. He had been attending the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, majoring in marketing and playing on the men’s golf team.
“My biggest goal in starting this was being able to be financially successful with it and creating a business where I can start doing it full time, which is what I’ve achieved so far,” he said. “It’s just been so exponential because it’s been all in the last year pretty much.”
Now, he lives in the Madison suburb of Mount Horeb with his parents, who were at first skeptical of their son’s social media ambitions.
“They were very skeptical, just kind of like, ‘How does this work? How are you making money?’ The older generation didn’t grow up around social media and people turning it into marketing themselves and making a job just by making videos and posting them through your phone,” he said. “My phone is where it started for me and my parents just thought it was crazy that they got me an iPhone and then I’m able to turn it into this huge, successful business.”
But now, they’re on board and fully supportive, Winkler said. His mom even has her own TikTok account.
Currently, Winkler is working on a video series where he travels around the country and tries each state’s most iconic foods. He started in Wisconsin with a lot of cheese and has made it to 16 other states so far, including Hawaii.
Winkler said he plans to pursue content creation and capitalize on his social media success for as long as he can. He hopes to one day own a restaurant, create his own food line or even have a TV show, he said.
“With the right work ethic and with just constantly being able to innovate and create new types of videos that nobody’s seen before, anybody can achieve that kind of success,” he said. “I try and set a good example because I was just a regular kid with normal plans going to college, and it’s completely changed my life in like the best way possible because I love doing it.”
Find Tommy Winker on TikTok and Instagram at @tommywinkler and on YouTube at Tommy Winkler.
If you’re an aspiring content creator and you want to learn how to make YouTube video thumbnails, attract sponsorships or gain more followers, then Muaaz Shakeel is your guy.
Shakeel, 24, makes videos about technology, gaming and social media. His videos aim to help other content creators grow their platforms by sharing tips and advice that Shakeel himself used to grow his YouTube channel to 281,000 subscribers and more than 37 million video views.
Shakeel first started watching video gaming content on YouTube when he was in high school. He played the same games that he watched videos about, so he thought he would try making his own videos, but they didn’t get many views, he said.
“While I was in high school, I was kind of just like, throwing stuff at the wall and hoping it would stick,” he said. “I was really just throwing up content, hoping someone would watch it. But it just didn’t work out, so I ended up quitting for a while. I didn’t fully understand how to really grow a channel at that time. I was just uploading videos and hoping someone would find them somehow. I wasn’t thinking about it strategically.”
As Shakeel’s freshman year of college at the University of Wisconsin-Madison was approaching, he decided he wanted to give content creation another try. This time, he took it seriously, he said, and taught himself everything he needed to know about being a YouTuber.
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He started making gaming content again and the videos were getting a couple thousand views. It was around this time that some of his subscribers started asking him for advice about how they could make videos too. So, he uploaded a few tutorials and those got more views than his gaming videos, he said.
Now, Shakeel’s YouTube channel is dedicated to sharing what he’s learned to help other creators. He works from his bedroom at his parents’ home in Madison, his neatly made bed a frequent backdrop to many of his videos. His channel homepage is full of eye-catching video thumbnails with colorful backgrounds, bold fonts, intriguing titles and expressive photos of himself.
Shakeel has been able to expand his success on YouTube into sponsorships from brands, a Twitter account with 23,000 followers and a Discord server — a community-based text, video, voice and media sharing platform popularized by the online gaming community — with 10,000 members. He also recently launched his own online business, Shoish, where he sells animations that other creators can use in their videos.
Shakeel sees the demand for his type of content growing in the next few years as being a content creator is becoming a more popular goal for young people today. His best advice for aspiring creators is to be consistent with uploading and making sure their video is engaging from beginning to end.
“Back when (my friends and I) were kids, whenever our teachers would ask us what we want to be when we grow up, we probably say like a basketball player or something like that,” Shakeel said. “But now I’m pretty sure that a lot of kids would say they want to be a Twitch streamer or a YouTuber or something like that because these are the people that a lot of these kids look up to now. So I’m sure that over the next few years, even more people are gonna want to become creators and make that their goal.”
Shakeel graduated from UW-Madison in 2019 with a degree in information systems but plans to continue making social media his full-time career as long as he continues to enjoy it.
“This is such a great job to have,” he said. “It’s literally a hobby that became a career. So as long as I enjoy it, I want to continue doing it. And if I don’t enjoy it, I’ll find ways to expand off it. But I’m having fun with it, so I want to keep doing it for as long as I can.”
Find Muaaz Shakeel on YouTube at Muaaz, on Twitter @mws and Discord at Muaaz.
Amy Kiefer hopes she can help other women feel less alone by openly and candidly sharing the struggles that come with being a mom, wife and woman.
Starting with a blog and Instagram account, Kiefer has created a host of content all geared toward empowering women.
Kiefer first got into social media through blogging when she still worked full-time as a nurse. She has a degree in exercise science, so other women she worked with would come to her for nutrition and exercise tips. That led her to start a blog called Balanced Ames, where she put all that information in one place for people to find.
At first, only family and friends read her blog. When she started using Instagram to support her blog, people outside her circle began to find her content, Kiefer said.
Now, Kiefer has more than 41,000 Instagram followers and is the cohost of two podcasts, HERself and Pursing HER Purpose. She and her sister also started Expecting and Empowered, a workout program for pregnant and postpartum women.
Her content creation ventures are now her full-time job. She left nursing at the end of 2019, she said.
Through her social media, Kiefer has shared her experiences and thoughts on being a working mom, marriage, parenting, pregnancy and entrepreneurship. Her Instagram account frequently features her husband and three boys, ages 5, 4 and 2. The family lives in Waunakee.
“Everyone’s human, everyone has struggles,” she said. “I think that my followers really connect because I’m willing to be really open about things. I was in therapy for a year. It was one of the best things I’ve ever done for myself and I shared that whole journey with (my followers). Anything I can do where I’m like, ‘I know that another woman just needs to hear that.’ It’s very important to me to make sure that other people are feeling supported and not alone like that.”
In addition to sharing her own perspectives, Kiefer also likes to bring experts, like therapists and authors, into her content to help her followers learn and grow.
She hopes her content shows women that they can have multiple passions and don’t have to keep themselves in just one box.
“It’s just incredible to connect with women from all over,” Kiefer said. “I’ll post something and I just can’t believe how well it will resonate and someone will say, ‘I just I needed that today.’ In this day and age, people really can have a deep connection on Instagram, especially with those moms that are maybe breastfeeding in the middle of the night or whatever it is, they’re going through a season where they’re kind of in isolation, as we all were when the pandemic started. The connection is truly amazing. And that’s my favorite part still today. “
Find Amy Kiefer on Instagram at @ameskiefer.
Dan Becker was a 40-something father of three who owned an insurance agency when he decided to sell his business and become a full-time YouTuber at the beginning of 2020.
Becker, 43, started posting videos about backpacking, hiking and camping in 2018 after he turned to YouTube for advice about how not to be claustrophobic in a hammock. He couldn’t find any videos on the topic, so he had to figure it out on his own.
He realized there were probably other people out there who were looking for similar advice, so he made his own video and uploaded it to YouTube.
“I came back a couple days later and went, ‘Holy cow! People actually watched this,'” Becker said. “And I just thought, ‘Well, maybe I’ll make another one.’ And I made another one and more people watched it and then eventually I was like, ‘This is a thing. I think I could do this.'”
Since then, Becker has amassed a following of more than 125,000 subscribers and his videos have nearly 12 million views. His Instagram account has more than 12,000 followers.
Becker’s channel is all about the outdoors. He posts reviews of camping gear, tips and advice for fellow hikers and takes his followers along on his backpacking adventures all over the country.
He works with outdoors brands that send him free gear to review or pay for him to travel to a new location, like Yosemite National Park in California, to make a video. Becker said he travels about once a month from his home in Kenosha — where he lives with his wife and kids — to film videos.
When Becker first started making videos, he knew very little about using a camera, editing or posting on social media.
“It was just kind of like, here’s a dad who’s just about to turn 40 who’s going to be a YouTuber. Okay, let’s try it.”
He and his wife made the decision that YouTube would be Becker’s full-time career when they realized he was able to make a steady income and his earnings were projected to grow.
Becker, now 43, never set out to be an online content creator. But for those who do, Becker wants them to know that it’s not as easy as it may appear online.
“I think people are super discouraged when they make 15 videos, and they look back and nobody watched any of them and then they give up,” he said. “The reality is that it may be your 100th video that you’ve made that people start watching you. It’s a lot of work for people who want to do it. But it can be very lucrative at the same time. It’s definitely a fun job, for sure.”
For Becker, the best thing about being a full-time content creator is that the flexibility that comes with being his own boss allows him to spend more time with his family.
“I get to make content about one of my biggest passions,” he said. “I’m just basically filming what I love to do.”
Find Dan Becker on YouTube at Dan Becker and on Instagram at @danbeckeroutdoors.
Contact Natalie Brophy at (715) 216-5452 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @brophy_natalie.