Despite possible TikTok ban, Atlanta influencers remain optimistic

Diversifying income and platforms the key to navigating an industry in flux.
Brook Berry, head of creator development at Snap Inc., shared best practices and tips for creating content on Snapchat to an audience of roughly 400 influencers at Collab Studio ATL earlier this year. Courtesy of Collab Studio ATL

Credit: Collab Studio ATL

Credit: Collab Studio ATL

Brook Berry, head of creator development at Snap Inc., shared best practices and tips for creating content on Snapchat to an audience of roughly 400 influencers at Collab Studio ATL earlier this year. Courtesy of Collab Studio ATL

Content creator Chastity Harris had been looking for a way to connect with other influencers and industry executives when she came across #CollabThursdays, a networking and content creation event held at Collab Studio ATL in Summerhill. The 23-year-old Denver resident lives 1,500 miles away, but she booked a flight to Atlanta to attend in April.

Harris, a recent college graduate and mother to a 3-year-old boy, has had a knack for filming her life since she was a small child. But it wasn’t until 2021 that she posted her first video to TikTok: a short vlog of her morning routine.

Asked why, she says, “I was just seeing how people were benefiting from (content creation), going on brand trips and having brands contacting them.”

Harris had been struggling to find networking events for influencers in Denver. “I feel like there are way more opportunities here,” she says of Atlanta.

In the four years since the New York Times proclaimed Atlanta the new influencer capital of America, the industry has expanded to accommodate a growing number of content creators.

In late 2020, teenagers led the scene with dance videos that inspired people craving social connection to dance along with them amid the pandemic. Today, the community has matured to include creators who focus on food, comedy, lifestyle, beauty, cars and more.

Digiday, a trade magazine for digital media, reports the influencer economy is worth $250 billion today, an amount expected to nearly double within three years. To capitalize on Atlanta’s sports and entertainment industries — including an expanding group of profitable content creators — United Talent Agency opened an office in Atlanta last year.

“It’s a pretty amazing time in the creator economy. It feels like a real renaissance,” says Ali Berman, partner and head of digital talent at UTA.

Collab Studio ATL founder Keith Dorsey poses at a local event with Snap Inc.
Courtesy of Collab Studio ATL

Credit: Collab Studio ATL

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Credit: Collab Studio ATL

It is not uncommon these days to encounter someone with a handheld tripod on the streets of Atlanta. In grocery stores, at restaurants, inside gyms and elsewhere influencers are branding themselves and monetizing both the extravagant and mundane facets of their lives.

And, they’re doing so with minimal concern about the impact a potential TikTok ban might have on their livelihoods.

Less than a week before #CollabThursdays’ April event, President Joe Biden signed legislation that could lead to a ban of TikTok, the short-form content app that rose in national prominence just as Atlanta’s local dance influencers were doing the same. ByteDance, the Beijing-based owner of the app, has nine months to initiate a sale of its company or the popular social media platform will be banned in the U.S.

The news didn’t put a damper on festivities at the #CollabThursdays event a few days later. The industrial brick building in Summerhill that houses Collab Studio ATL, a 5,000-square-foot event and content creation space, is situated amid an otherwise quiet neighborhood. It’s a short walk to Georgia State University’s Center Parc Stadium (formerly Turner Field) and Thai restaurant Talat Market, Georgia’s sole finalist for a James Beard Award this year for best chef in the Southeast. A row of cars lined both sides of the residential street as content creators shuffled into the building or stood outside enjoying birria tacos from a food truck. And yes, of course, many of them were filming every moment.

Despite being new to content creation and the threat of a TikTok ban, Harris says she remains optimistic about her influencer aspirations in general. “I’m trying to get enough followers there that I can gravitate toward Instagram and other (platforms). I can’t put all my eggs in one basket,” she says. As she works to grow her 2,000 followers on TikTok and beyond, Harris is also working toward becoming a diagnostic medical sonographer.

TechCrunch technology reporter Amanda Silberling says responses to a potential TikTok ban have been “mixed” among influencers throughout the country. “I think it’s definitely going to hurt newer creators the most,” she says. “Creators that I’ve talked to that are more established, they’re not happy about it, but they’re not panicking. Creators who are newer feel very discouraged because they’ve put all of this effort into building out this platform, and there’s just not a lot of time to port that over to Instagram.”

Brittnee Gaines of Atlanta always wanted to create food content. At the beginning of 2022, she wrote an affirmation in her journal declaring that she would be a full-time content creator before the end of the year. She’d only been posting short-form content to TikTok for a few months when she was laid off from her full-time job.

“I didn’t know being fired was going to be the reason why, but I can say I was a full-time content creator by the end of 2022,” she says, chuckling.

It’s this candor that quickly garnered the 28-year-old a rapid following. She had roughly 200 followers when she posted a video one day of herself making eggs on toast while discussing her struggles with eating. She gained about 10,000 followers within a week. Within three months, Gaines’ follower count climbed to 300,000, and she was being featured by national publications like BuzzFeed.

“I never planned on talking about my personal journey with food. I almost thought it would sound contradictory for me to say I’m a cook, I cook as much as I do, and yet I’m struggling to eat. I don’t want to eat, and I don’t eat some days until I’m sick because I’m so hungry,” she says. Now, she realizes her candor helped her establish an authentic relationship with her followers.

Content creator Brittnee Gaines makes pasta dough at her apartment in Buckhead.
(Miguel Martinez / AJC)

Credit: Miguel Martinez

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Credit: Miguel Martinez

Today, she has nearly 500,000 followers on TikTok. Followers come for her recipes and mouthwatering visuals of meals such as her “fat steak sandwich” with three cheeses, sautéed onions, arugula and garlic chive mayo. They stay for her vulnerable voice-overs and the community she’s fostered.

“I was expecting to get comments like, ‘I need the recipe,’ or ‘This food was good.’ That’s standard,” Gaines says. “I did not expect comments saying, ‘You’re the reason I went to therapy.’ ‘You’re the reason I’m healing my relationship with food.’ ‘You’re the reason I ate today.’”

Despite the fact she has twice the following on TikTok than on Instagram, Gaines says she doesn’t think her income would be significantly impacted by a ban. “Most of my brand deals only request to be posted on Instagram,” she says.

Brand deals are Gaines primary source of income as an influencer. They typically provide enough income to last for several months, despite what Gaines sees as limited offers for food creators overall. “It’s enough to sustain, but it’s also very, very nerve-wracking,” she says.

Still, Gaines admits she misses the stability of a traditional full-time job sometimes. Before sharing her recipes online, she studied public relations and took lessons from her mother, an entrepreneur. Although she’s best known publicly as a content creator, Gaines also does freelance work in public relations, marketing and graphic design, in addition to selling digital trackers and planners online.

For many Black creators, Collab Studio ATL has become the center of the city’s influencer scene since it was created to replace for Collab Crib, a local content creation house for Black influencers, in 2022. Entrepreneur Keith Dorsey, who owns the space and manages talent through his company Young Guns Entertainment, became a de facto spokesperson for local Black influencers in 2020 when his efforts to create a content house to rival the ones in Los Angeles were featured in the New York Times article, followed by the Hulu documentary “Who Gets to Be an Influencer,” a collaboration between the streamer, the Times and FX.

“That changed the whole trajectory of not just us but Atlanta when it comes to creators,” says Dorsey. “Now, I look around after that article, and I see creators really making content on their own. They’re out, putting their phones up and you can hear the TikTok (recording countdown) beep. Boop. Boop. Boop.”

Collab Crib closed as a result of increasing rent costs, but Silberling says it was aligned with the national trend of moving away from content houses. “I definitely think now, as opposed to early on in the pandemic, the content house setup is less common. I think it’s something that maybe served a time and a place for the creators involved,” she says.

Collab Studio ATL — which includes photo stations, a podcasting studio, meeting rooms and a bar — hosts educational events where influencers can meet with platforms such as Snapchat and serves as a place where they can come to make content “without being charged all this crazy money or having the hassle of spaces that don’t understand creators.” Despite the $7,500 rent, utility and staffing costs, Dorsey tries to keep the space free for influencers by renting the venue out for branded events and getting grants from social media companies.

The day before #CollabThursdays, 21-year-old Jaquan Howard arrives at the space in a black McLaren. Howard, who grew up near Old National Highway, says he started taking content creation seriously in high school because he didn’t want to go to college. Today, he makes most of his income from the hourlong lifestyle videos he publishes on YouTube, although he also makes car content. Howard posts new content every three to four days and receives ad revenue based on how well they perform. His average view duration is 30-40 minutes.

“I wake up, eat, go outside and record my life, and try to make something interesting out of it,” Howard says.

While TikTok has been the newest social media app to achieve widespread success, Silberling says platforms such as YouTube remain a source of stability for a lot of influencers. “If you asked any creator if you could have one channel to monetize on, they would probably say YouTube,” she says. “YouTube has the most robust creator program for ad revenue sharing. If you are popular on YouTube and you’re in the creator program, it’s very within reach to make several thousand dollars a month from ad revenue if you’re churning out consistent content that people are watching.”

The app Snapchat has proved lucrative for some influencers, too. Last year, Collab Studio ATL participated in the platform’s 523 program, which provided Black creators $10,000 per month and internal support in an effort to develop and grow diverse voices on the platform. Dorsey says he launched CollabTV through Snapchat Discover during this time and also received a 50/50 ad revenue split for the program. In total, the entrepreneur says he paid out $2.7 million in revenue to influencers who participated in the show. Snapchat has since shifted its focus from programs such as CollabTV to putting advertisements in the public profiles of influencers.

While grants and ad revenue splits have helped some creators, it’s not a universal solution to profitability. “We haven’t gotten to a place where platform monetization at scale is substantive enough for the majority of creators out there,” Berman says. “For some of our top creators, it’s the brand deals that can make up anywhere between 60% and 80% of their revenue.”

Ultimately, the changing priorities of social media companies and the potential TikTok ban have served as continued reminders for many influencers that diversifying their income and relying on various platforms is the only way to achieve a semblance of stability in a rapidly growing market.


UATL LAUNCH

Jewel Wicker is a contributing writer for the AJC’s UATL team. The new source for Atlanta Black culture, UATL connects with audiences through stories, videos, events and partnerships. Visit ajc.com/UATL for more.