Want to Be an Influencer? This Agency Wants to Teach You How
In 2017, entrepreneur Alex MacLean had amassed an Instagram following of 150,000, thanks in part to his successful clothing brand, East Coast Lifestyle. The apparel line—which he developed a few years earlier during an undergraduate course at Acadia University—gained mainstream attention when celebs like Ed Sheeran sported the threads and MacLean was invited to meet then-U.S. President Barack Obama after winning a global student entrepreneur award. It didn’t take long for big companies, like Samsung and Chevrolet, to reach out about sponsored content deals, offering him money in exchange for posts about their product. Things were good. But despite his business acumen, MacLean didn’t know how to handle the sponsorship opportunities.
MacLean learned about a four-year-old digital and social agency, Viral Nation, after the firm reached out to him. The Toronto-based start-up was helping influencers grow and monetize their online presence—whether through Facebook or Instagram—in exchange for a cut of the profit. It seemed like a great option for Maclean to develop his personal brand and earn money on the side. So, he signed on and let Viral Nation handle the business leads coming in from social media.
MacLean is one of the more than 900 people who have launched influencer careers thanks to help from Viral Nation. The agency, which was founded by Joe Gagliese and Mathew Micheli in 2013, has a roster of celebrities, pro athletes and influencers, including NFL superstar Tyreek Hill and actor Zach McGowan. And now, since more brands are engaging audiences through micro- and nano-influencers—people that might have a few thousand or a few hundred followers, respectively—Viral Nation is also creating an app that will help anyone build a social media following.
The global influencer market is valued at $16.4 billion as of 2022, but in an online landscape oversaturated with content, it can be difficult to stand out. Most people need a bit of help with their socials, whether they’re a bona fide celebrity or not. “It’s a way for everyday people to get a leg up in the job market. Entrepreneurs use it to develop their audience,” says Gagliese. “Having a strong social media presence is the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree for the next generation of folks.”
The big business of influencing
Gagliese and Micheli got the idea to start their agency while they were students at the Ted Rogers School of Management. They watched as platforms such as Instagram and Snapchat exploded, giving everyday people an opportunity to become their own brands. “We had the idea that, with social media, everyone had influence over their audience,” says Gagliese. “We thought maybe there was a way for us to help people make money.”
Viral Nation started by trying to help NHL players monetize their brands. (The founders were friends with one hockey pro, which led them to connecting with others.) By 2016, business was booming, with more than 100 influencers joining the roster. The founders stopped attending classes and devoted themselves to building their agency. The business model works like this: Viral Nation identifies influencer talent and helps them broker endorsement deals, develop their followings, sell merchandise, license existing content and create new content to sell to streaming companies like Netflix. In exchange, Viral Nation takes anywhere from five to 25 per cent of earnings, depending on the influencer’s earning potential.
“We live in a world where, if you’re an athlete or celebrity, you run the risk of becoming irrelevant and not making money in the future,” says Gagliese. “We want to help them increase their value, so that they can continue to monetize their likeness, even once their careers finish.”
Since launching, the team at Viral Nation have taken full advantage of the booming influencer market. Earlier this year, the company raised $250-million with investments from John Ruffolo of Maverix Private Equity and U.S. billionaire Todd Boehly, a part-owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers. As a result, Viral Nation received a whopping $650-million valuation, which hints at the scope of the business behind the influencer business.
“We live in a world where, if you’re an athlete or celebrity, you run the risk of becoming irrelevant and not making money in the future”
The firm is also expanding its offerings. Viral Nation is releasing an app next year that will give everyday people a playbook on how to monetize their personal brand, covering everything from building an account to creating engaging social media content and staying up-to-date on trends. It will be available via subscription for somewhere between $40 to $60 a month. (Gagliese hasn’t finalized the cost yet.) Viral Nation wants to be able to help everyone turn their personal passions, whether that be fashion or fitness, into influence—and capitalize off it. “We’re not here to replace academy learning by Instagram, TikTok and YouTube,” Gagliese says, “but to help everyone succeed as they embark on their social journeys.” Plus, the duo sees the educational app as both a B2B and B2C play. While the app is for the general public, Gagliese says it will also be valuable for businesses looking to generate leads through social media.
Doing it for the ‘gram
Since joining Viral Nation, MacLean has expanded his social media presence, enabling him to earn money while increasing brand awareness for East Coast Lifestyle. He’s also connected with other influencers, which has led to international travel and speaking opportunities. On Instagram, MacLean now boasts more than 400,000 followers and his feed includes images of him smiling alongside the likes of NHL legend Sidney Crosby and investment guru Gary Vaynerchuk. Viral Nation helps MacLean with his creative strategy, coming up with posts that maximize engagement and, thus, monetary potential. It has helped him broker brand deals with Apple, Canon, Doritos and Xbox.
And Maclean says monetizing social content is attainable for anyone willing to invest the time and effort—even if they’re not already well-known online. “If you put in the work, day after day to grow the feed, anything is possible.”