An adorable redheaded 6-year-old squeals in delight as she opens up her front door to discover there are puppies all over her family’s pristine (aside from a few puppy accidents) Northern Utah home. She, her 3-year-old brother, mom and dad run around in a sequence of hasty cutscenes to wrangle all of the dogs. The video then goes on to show some of the kids’ art and a neon-and-adrenaline-infused arcade party. It’s just one of the “Best Days Ever” videos on the influencer Shonduras’ YouTube channel and it has 6.3 million views. Each influencer has their own personal story and their own niche—from family vlogs to fitness to fashion to travel—but the general model is the same: building a personal brand, sharing content that’s relatable to an everyday audience while also living a life that seems a little (or a lot) more perfect than yours and, if they’re lucky enough, making a living out of it. These are the influencers of Instagram, TikTok and YouTube. And a lot, we mean a lot, of them are from Utah.
From the beginning, Utah women and families have been at the forefront of sharing their personal lives online. In the 2000s, bloggers rose to prominence sharing personal, of-the-minute updates about their own lives. These bloggers—some with large readerships, others with smaller networks of family and friends—found a community online. And a noticeable chunk of them were Utahns and/or members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, so much so that the term “Mormon mommy blogger” became a frequently-used catchall.
The internet has changed significantly since the height of the blog era. As our attention has increasingly shifted toward social media, internet personalities primarily focus on platforms like Instagram and TikTok, and the modern-day influencer is more akin to a content creator and brand developer than a personal memoirist. Some of today’s most prominent influencers today were savvy (and lucky) enough to ride the tail end of the blog era and translate it to a loyal following. In 2022, many of these online creators are still, technically, bloggers, but their blogs are just one (increasingly minor) piece of their personal branding empires.
Mariah Wellman is a doctoral candidate at the University of Utah whose research focuses on social media influencers. Wellman explains that it makes sense why Utah is a particular hub for influencers. “In the LDS culture, little girls are taught to journal and scrapbook and practice a kind of memory keeping.” It didn’t take long for these women to realize the potential of digital platforms to continue these practices. Members of the Church also used social media to project a positive, approachable image of a religion that is still often criticized or misunderstood by outsiders, sharing what Wellman calls an “idealized domestic lifestyle.”
It helps, too, that the clean-cut image of many influencers matches the one ingrained in the church’s mainstream culture. “LDS women are also taught that they need to have this internal confidence, but it also should come outward. They should do their hair and their makeup. They should dress in a particular way,” Wellman says. The church also encourages women to stay at home raising children. For many Utah women, influencing allows them to make an income while staying at home—and, in a way, working—with their children. “Being able to be at home and be there for their kids and their partner while also making money for the family through blogging and through being an influencer is a huge pro for them,” Wellman says.
This traditional vision of the two-parent family—dad as breadwinner, mom staying home with the kids—is a key factor in the growth of Utah-based influencers. “A lot of the women who happen to be the most successful either started as stay-at-home moms or still are stay-at-home moms,” she says. “These are incredibly hard-working women, but they also had that luxury of not maybe working 40, 50, 60 hours a week when they were first starting.”
What exactly makes for a successful influencer? Sure, you need photogenic kids, a decent camera and enough free time or support to share content consistently. Building a long-term connection with followers, though, requires more. For both Wellman and the creators we interviewed, one word—authenticity—was often used to explain how the most successful influencers grow a brand that connects with a large audience. But each influencer has their own definition of “authenticity” and ways of being “authentic” on social media (of all places).
• @haileydevine on Instagram: 258,000 followers
• Brad and Hailey Devine on YouTube: 130,000 subscribers
Hailey Devine calls her success with the blog Somewhere Devine a “happy accident.” From the beginning, she and her husband Bradley bonded over their shared passion for videography. “It just comes naturally,” she says. “It’s always been a part of our relationship.” As newlyweds, the Devines traveled the world filming content for companies outside of the U.S. The couple started to blog and share videos on Vimeo as a way to share their travels with family and friends. Soon, their audience grew and brands began offering sponsorships. In 2015, Hailey and Bradley quit their corporate jobs to focus on Somewhere Devine full time.
Seven years and three kids later, the Devines are in constant collaboration to run their family business. “One of us is working; one of us is making lunch and putting babies down for naps,” Hailey says, explaining their day-to-day lives. “We’re booking travel. We’re doing meetings. We’re creating content.” The couple, along with Lucy (7), Greta (5) and Pippa (1), shares their world travels with hundreds of thousands of fans. In their most popular YouTube video, a travelogue of the family’s trip to Tokyo, international travel with a toddler in tow looks like an uncomplicated dream come true. Their content combines wish-fulfillment—slickly edited snapshots of incredible places you may never have the money to visit—and practical advice. Over time, their content has evolved. While they haven’t stopped traveling completely, the coronavirus and a newborn slowed down the family’s usual far-flung expeditions, and Hailey posts about the day-to-day of motherhood with her Instagram audience. In a recent YouTube series, the family shared the process of building their new home in Utah, which incorporated design elements from Norway, where Hailey’s family is from, and England and Chile, where Bradley’s family is from.
Lucy, Greta and Pippa have been a part of the family’s social media presence literally since birth. Hailey recalls followers recognizing the girls in public before they were old enough to understand their own social media fame. Now, Hailey continues to navigate the confines of what is public and what is private in her children’s lives. “We have our family rules of boundaries of what things we share and what things we don’t,” she says. “We film all the time, but we do not share all of it.” Lucy and Greta are old enough that Hailey now asks for permission before sharing content with them online. “We’re kind of the pioneers of this new generation of raising children in social media,” she says. As a person whose job is dependent on social media, Hailey has also had to draw boundaries for herself. “These platforms are designed to be addictive,” she says. “It’s so easy to sit on your phone for hours on end and then you start spiraling.” She has limited her social media use with app timers and avoids screen time at the beginning and end of the day. “My advice to everyone is ‘get out and create and live your life,’” she says.
The Devines have founded two companies—Holdland, which sells backpacks specifically designed for creators lugging camera equipment, and a wholesale travel search engine for hotels, flights and rentals, also called Somewhere Devine. The couple also earns revenue from high-profile sponsorships, including a long-time partnership with Canon. Still, Hailey says it’s important for her to share meaningful content that authentically reflects her own life, instead of hopping on the latest trend. Before sharing something online she asks herself, “Is there a purpose behind it for me outside of the likes?”
The Devines also engage their followers with annual service expeditions, which are currently on pause due to the pandemic. “We feel like the best way to travel is to get to know the people and the area that you’re visiting,” Hailey explains. The first trip had 30 open slots, and the Devines were shocked when they filled up within 24 hours. “They’re all complete strangers from random places all around the world,” Hailey says. In 2019, the Devines hosted two trips, including one to Kenya. For the Devines, this has been a chance to connect with followers in a uniquely intimate way. “I have literally made so many new best friends from all over the world because of Instagram and specifically our expeditions,” Hailey says. “There’s just so much goodness within social media.”
THE DIY MOM
• @huntersofhappiness on Instagram: 408,000 followers
• @huntersofhappiness_ on TikTok: 1.3 million followers
• Most popular viral video: 38.4 million views
Several years ago, Elise Hunter started her blog as a “digital journal.” “I got married in 2012 and started a blog because that’s what you did,” she says. “That’s what everybody did.” Early on, she started sharing her personal experiences with infertility, finding a community of other moms who connected with her vulnerable discussions of a topic that is still often stigmatized. Hunter was, years later, able to have children and then wondered what to use her platform for. “If I wanted to make it a job, I had to pick a niche…and treat it more like a job than a hobby,” she says.
Initially, Hunter was thrilled to share the details of her young kids’ lives—after all, much of her audience had followed her long journey to have children from the beginning. Over time, though, Hunter grew wary of the family lifestyle content that had been her blog’s default. She felt increasingly protective of her children’s privacy, and besides, her kids disliked posing for pictures. Though her initial career was in speech pathology, Hunter had always been interested in interior design, and when she decided to construct built-in cabinets herself, she documented the process online. Her alarmed husband taught her to use power tools: “He was very concerned about me cutting off fingers or something,” she jokes. Hunter found she enjoyed learning how to do the projects, and her followers connected with it too.
Soon, a quickly growing audience watched Hunter improve her home, through trial and error, one project at a time. Sometimes, Hunter wonders why this content resonates with so many women and moms—she is the first to admit that she’s no expert. “I’m just a normal person, but I think that’s it,” she says. Hunter’s audience doesn’t need her to be an expert—they want someone to relate to.
While Hunter maintains a large following on Instagram, TikTok has been an especially valuable platform. “Influencers who jumped to TikTok were able to really grow their following at the start of quarantine and the COVID-19 pandemic,” says Wellman. Hunter started her account in June 2020, and, thanks to some viral videos, her following has grown quickly. “I still don’t really understand TikTok,” she laughs. “I’m trying. I’m not young and hip and cool anymore.” Despite her self-deprecation, clearly Hunter is doing something right. And, just like with her home projects, she has continued a DIY approach, teaching herself how to video edit and use the app’s tools. “There’s no real blueprint on how to do this job,” she says. “It’s such a new job that a lot of people don’t even realize that it could be a real job.”
Whether Hunter is talking about infertility or showing the process of building shelves, honesty about both triumphs and disappointments is a key way she connects with her audience. “It’s easier to share successes. It’s harder to be vulnerable online,” she says. For Hunter, DIY projects have emphasized this point further, as she not only makes mistakes but shares them with strangers online. “If I’ve learned anything over the past almost 10 years of being online, it’s that people connect more over hardships than over successes.”
THE CANCER DANCER
• #redfortia: 113 million views
• Dance studio: The Vault
For most online creators, positivity is an important way to reach an audience. Few people, though, can match the relentless, hard-earned positivity of Tia Stokes. In the past two years, she has maintained her sunny attitude even while documenting a hellish medical journey. In April 2020, she was diagnosed with leukemia and spent a month isolated in the hospital with no visitors allowed. When she left the hospital, she learned her mother passed away suddenly. Over the following months, she contracted COVID-19 twice, received bone marrow transplants, had Graft vs. Host Disease and watched her body transform after steroid treatments.
Before her diagnosis, Stokes cared for her five kids and worked as a fitness instructor. A lifelong dancer who has performed with Beyoncé, she runs a nonprofit dance studio, The Vault, which she says has raised over $1 million for families in need in Orem and St. George. She also had a sizable following on Instagram, where she shared photos of her family and dancing videos.
Stokes says she never intended to reach so many people with her online presence—in the beginning, she just wanted to update family and friends and have a personal document of her illness. “I wanted to be able to look back and heal and remember how hard I fought,” she says. Then, her doctors suggested 15 minutes of physical activity a day during treatment. “With the energy and the wellness that I did have, I would learn a TikTok dance, and then I would get up and I would record it a few times,” Stokes says.
It was an attainable daily goal for Stokes, even when treatment drained her so much that she filmed dance videos from her hospital bed. Stokes juxtaposed raw updates about physical and mental health, grief and body image—sometimes she is visibly in tears filming the videos—with cheerful, lighthearted dances to pop songs.
On TikTok, her following grew quickly, and soon a large community offered prayers and regular messages of support. On Oct. 7, 2020, Stokes saw just how significant her impact had become. Another Utah creator, JT Laybourne, started the hashtag #redfortia, asking other TikTok users to post support for Stokes, wear red (her favorite color) and post dances to Macklemore’s song “Glorious,” which had become a ritual for Stokes during treatment. The campaign went viral, and videos posted with the hashtag have been viewed 113 million times. “I have to honestly say I am grateful for my cancer journey because it’s brought so many relationships into my life,” Stokes says.
For almost two years, Stokes has documented the day-to-day challenges of her illness. On a visual medium, followers can see how cancer and GVHD have changed Stokes physically—from hair loss to body transformation. Stokes says she has never hesitated to share intimate details about her health journey on a large platform. “I get thousands of messages from people saying how grateful they are and how much I’ve helped them through hard days,” she says.
While Stokes has found a large network of support online, she has also received cruel online comments, especially about her weight gain after steroid treatment. Stokes says it has taken her practice to not take the negativity personally, and now she shares some of these comments to speak out against body shaming. “What I love about those comments is that those are moments for us to learn from.”
Many influencers who are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints share their faith online in ways both subtle and explicit. Stokes has been especially open about how her faith has helped her through cancer, and as she shares her beliefs with a global audience, some followers tell her that her story inspired their own faith in God. “I hope that people will always feel my spirit and know that it’s genuine, it’s sincere and it’s coming from my heart,” she says.
As of now, her cancer is in remission, though it takes six years to be considered fully “cancer-free” after an acute myeloid leukemia diagnosis. As she recovers, she will continue to dance through cancer with the support of millions online. “I could either have happy cancer or I can have sad, depressed, miserable cancer,” Stokes says. It’s clear what kind she has.
THE BRAND BUILDER
• Shonduras on YouTube: 3.59 million subscribers
• A for Adley – Learning & Fun on YouTube: 4.18 million subscribers
• Co-founder of Spacestation
In 2014, Shaun McBride joined Snapchat and made his first video under the handle “Shonduras.” He would take pictures and draw over the photos—for example, transforming a sleeping woman on a plane into a My Little Pony character. Shortly thereafter, he surged in popularity, taking part in some of the first Snapchat creator collaborations (“collabs,” as the social media elite say) and monetizing the platform. He also started posting some of his most popular videos to YouTube, where they continued to gain views. “I didn’t really know what kind of potential they had,” McBride says of his early efforts.
Soon, McBride transitioned from Snapchat collabs to travel vlogs—he uploaded a video every day for 800 days straight while he was traveling. In 2015, Shonduras had just cofounded the company Spacestation with his business partner Sean Holladay—which would become the hub for all of their future business ventures—and started a family with his wife Jenny, which meant his traveling days were over. “I can’t go create cool content, travel and tell all of these stories and spend time with my family. But, what if the Shonduras brand was a family brand?” he asked himself. McBride started posting videos about his family’s “best days ever.” “They are all centered around the family, what we do together, our family traditions and vacations,” he says.
Making Shonduras a family brand was a transition born out of necessity, but it freed him up to pursue other opportunities and build an ever-expanding network of brands. In showing the slice-of-life family videos, scored with an almost improbably positive outlook, the Shonduras channel might look a lot like other family-focused influencers’ content, but, now, he’s able to do that while, say, building out his animation studio, Spacestation Animation, which has also launched an NFT project, Quarter Machine. It’s just one of his more recent ventures that McBride’s Shonduras following has facilitated.
One of his other ventures, Spacestation Integrations (expected to generate $19 million in revenue this year, according to McBride) is an influencer marketing agency. McBride built it to guide other influencers to do what he has done with his brand. “There are a lot of creators who have built a following, generated some revenue, and now they don’t know what to do with that,” he says. His services “free up influencers to focus on their story, creative genius and their community.” McBride and Holladay started the agency as they created another company, Spacestation Gaming, to support competitive eSports teams. They did this just before the advent of Fortnite, which put them in prime position when eSports and interest in competitive gaming surged. “We decided to do both, to see which would really take off, and then they both did.” It’s not a bad problem to have.
It’s all about timing and “taking a small opportunity and trying to turn it into a big one,” says McBride. “We created a bunch of free apps for our audience—especially the A for Adley channel,” says McBride. (That’s the YouTube channel centered on his 6-year-old daughter, Adley, who has more than 4 million subscribers.) “From there, we wanted to know if we could go deeper—so we built an animation studio, giving even more value to our audience in that way.” Now that animation studio generates its own revenue and has a team of 30 people.
McBride’s ever-expanding crew under the Spacestation umbrella also helps him meet the challenge of balancing work and family. “I had the luxury of starting a little bit older—I was 27 when I started on Snapchat and now I’m 34. So, I understood if we went slow, did this right, and built out Spacestation and all of the support before we went forward, it was going to be much longer-term than to just jump right in, film a ton of videos and get burned out.”
“When we’re filming, it’s a fun environment for the kids,” he says. “Some of the kids’ best friends are there, and after we’re done filming, we play games together, so there is very little stress or pressure on our family.” They also have the support of the Spacestation team—including dedicated editors and filmographers, so the family never has to shoot or edit their own content. “My wife and I can do what we want to do and be fulfilled and find happiness, and we’re never under the gun,” says McBride.
McBride has his own theories about why so many influencers come from Utah. “Utah has these awesome environments…and tons of families and return missionaries who went out and experienced the world—great people who have accomplished great things and have stories to tell.” And, compared to other influencer-dense areas, like L.A., Utah’s influencer culture isn’t as cutthroat. “Influencers in Utah are so collaborative,” he says. “All of us want to win together. That teamwork allows us to accomplish more than people in other places.”
And, as long as the audience continues to show up, influencers like McBride will keep showing up too, making content and building their brands. “We have an audience that loves our content, and we can build a whole bunch of brands around that,” he says. They now employ 120 people under the Spacestation umbrella, with 160 total on the payroll. To think, it all started with some fun Snapchat videos. “I haven’t used Snapchat in years,” says McBride. “The Shonduras brand has changed so much since then.”
The Future of Influence
Influencers, both inside and outside of Utah, all have their unique interests, personalities and business strategies. What they all share, though, is an ability to relate to the audiences who follow the minutiae of their everyday lives. “Those who are able to grasp the concept of authenticity are the ones who are ultimately the most successful long-term,” Wellman says. For creators, this is a delicate balance. Sponsorships are a part of the gig for pretty much any influencer who turns social media into a career, but if branded content feels disingenuous or inauthentic, followers may be turned off. Influencers also connect with fans by showing the reality behind their picture-perfect image—to a certain point. “You can be authentic and bring out some kind of negativity, but it’s very easy to cross a boundary and you lose followers,” Wellman explains. For many creators, it’s a challenge to strike the right tone. “In the last couple of years, especially with the pandemic, the increase in realness is even more expected,” Wellman says. There is such a thing, though, as too real. “That’s what Utah bloggers do so well…They show an idealized family,” Wellman says.
Let’s be honest, there are lots of criticisms to make about influencer culture, some more valid than others. There are even websites and Reddit forums dedicated to picking apart and criticizing bloggers and influencers. Still, despite the cynicism from some outsiders, influencers and their followers are finding genuine connections online. Motherhood, especially during the pandemic, can be isolating, and Instagram can be a place where these women find other women just like them, going through the same experiences. And, as Hunter and Stokes demonstrate, many social media creators build a community for discussing difficult or taboo topics like infertility and mental illness.
Now a new generation, raised on social media, is consuming influencers’ content with a new set of expectations. Many members of Gen-Z are rebelling against the manicured aesthetic that their millennial forebears created and perfected—one 2019 headline from Inc. read: “How to appeal to Gen-Z on Instagram: Be Weirder (and Uglier).” This generation, in general, is also more interested in politics and social justice, challenging many creators who strived to build broad appeal by studiously avoiding controversial topics altogether. In the coming years, Wellman expects that influencers, both the old guard and new upstarts, will continue adjusting their content to the ever-changing online landscape. This will mean appealing to younger generations, adopting new platforms and finding creative new ways to monetize their audience. “Influencers are realizing they can’t actually rely on the platform for anything but a follower base that they can hopefully turn into consumers in another way,” Wellman says. The parameters of social media fame will certainly continue to evolve, but Wellman believes high-profile creators are up for the challenge. That’s “the good thing about influencers,” she says. “No matter who they are, I think they’re all adaptable.”
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