- Vi Lai was working full time as a realtor, but that changed when the pandemic upended her career in March.
- Now, Lai is earning money as a skincare influencer on TikTok and Instagram, where she has hundreds of thousands of followers and posts content about skincare routines and product reviews.
- "I would not have survived" without TikTok, Lai said.
- The skincare industry has seen a surge in social-media content and engagement since the start of the pandemic, as more people spend time at home and spend money on self-care.
- Lai spoke with Business Insider about how she's been able to earn over $5,000 per month using affiliate codes and how she's navigated brand sponsorships.
- Subscribe to Business Insider's influencer newsletter: Insider Influencers.
29-year-old Vi Lai was working full time as a realtor in Boston until the pandemic upended her career in March.
"I'm a realtor, I need to socialize for business and when COVID happened, that really ruined everything," she told Business Insider.
But around the same time, Lai had started posting to TikTok about skincare as part of a social-media side project she had begun two years prior on Instagram. On TikTok, she became a huge hit. Her mixture of glowing skin and prickly sarcasm helped her find a massive audience for her product reviews, routines, and advice.
Lai's following grew rapidly because of TikTok — she now has over 580,000 followers on TikTok and 130,000 on Instagram — and gave her extra income to make ends meet.
"I would not have survived" without TikTok, she said.
"I don't even have to work my real-estate job anymore," she continued, adding that she plans to get her esthetician license in the near future.
Lai is one of several "skinfluencers" who have had an influx of followers and collaborations with brands in the last few months, particularly on TikTok. This new generation of influencers focuses less on the glamour of beauty and skincare, but instead emphasizes affordability and humor in creating content and encouraging their followers to try out new routines or products. Others like Hyram Yarbro (over 6 million TikTok followers) and Young Yuh (over 1 million) are part of this new wave.
The skincare category as a whole has also surged on social media this year, increasing its overall engagements by 197% between 2019 and 2020, according to data from the influencer-marketing firm Traackr.
"Especially during a pandemic, people are spending time inside, feeling sad, feeling insecure, feeling like they need self-care now more than ever," Lai said. "In 2020, skincare just blew up, but it was already on the rise before that."
Skincare has not only helped Lai cope — she is candid about her experiences with anxiety and depression — but it's now saved her career.
Lai makes money as an influencer in a few main ways.
Most of her income comes from using affiliate links, which allow influencers to earn a commission on sales for products or brands they promote (typically between 1% and 20%). Lai now earns about $5,000 to $6,000 per month this way, which Business Insider verified through sales documentation provided by Lai.
She uses several different affiliate programs including brands like Paula's Choice, a skincare brand popular among beauty influencers and known for its skin exfoliants. Lai also works with other companies like Amazon, Colorescience, Allies of Skin, and Naturium. Lai makes the most through her Paula's Choice affiliate links, which she attributed to her long-term promotion of the product that began before she secured a paid sponsorship with the brand.
Outside of affiliate links, Lai also makes money through branded content on her Instagram and TikTok, which she tries to negotiate into long-term partnerships versus one-off ad deals.
Lai is also part of TikTok's Creator Fund, which pays influencers directly for views, but she described it "gas money."
Affiliate marketing is more efficient on Instagram for Lai, even though she has more followers on TikTok
Lai started using affiliate links in May of this year and most of her affiliate link traffic comes through Instagram, she said, despite her TikTok audience being much larger.
She includes affiliate links in most of her Instagram Stories and saves many of those stories with links to her profile as highlights. She also includes her brand-specific links and discount codes in her bio using Linktree (a free tool that lets creators make a landing page of sponsored links).
"TikTok is not as sophisticated because it doesn't have swipe link," she said. Even if she mentions in a TikTok that she has an affiliate link in her bio, it's hard to make sales, she said. Sometimes if a TikTok video goes viral, there's a chance she'll make some money. But overall, she has found revenue from affiliate marketing on TikTok to not be reliable.
It's easier for her followers on Instagram to swipe up and checkout right in the app.
The amount of money she earns through affiliates depends on the program and its rates, she said. For instance, she only earns a 4% commission through Amazon, but earns a higher rate through Paula's Choice, which uses the affiliate-marketing platform Impact.
How she lands multi-month brand deals
Lai's biggest partnership to date, with Paula's Choice, started with her posting about the brand well before she was paid to do so.
Lai was an honest fan of the product and posted organically about it before becoming an affiliate and earning commissions from sales she drove. Then she negotiated a custom sponsorship deal with the brand in which she gave it a discount on her flat rate for sponsored content in exchange for a long-term relationship and a commission element. Lai said that this structure of half fixed rate and half commission also gives her an incentive to perform better, since she has the potential to earn more based on her conversions.
For brands she has not used before, she takes six to eight weeks to test out the product before any contract is signed, she said.
"If I don't like a product, I don't like a product," she said, so this testing period determines whether or not she will go forward with the partnership.
"Once I like the product, we will talk about like signing a contract or any opportunity to collaborate on a paid sponsorship," she said.
She limits the number of partnerships she does, however, and instead pushes for multi-month collaborations. She said that doing too many sponsored posts could hurt her credibility with her audience.
"Even if everyone loves me and believes me, it still makes people a little bit skeptical," Lai said.
To read more about the influencer industry and how creators make money, check out these Business Insider articles:
A TikTok influencer with about 260,000 followers also works full-time as a nanny. Here's how much money she makes from brands and how she balances 2 jobs.
Gen-Z influencers are charging the highest rates for sponsored Instagram content, beating millennials, Gen X, and Gen Alpha
The top 7 merchandise companies helping creators on YouTube, Instagram, and TikTok earn money without relying on ads
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