When 671 people in banana suits packed into a concert venue in Austin, Texas at this year’s SXSW technology festival, it broke the world record for most people dressed as fruit in one location.
“And we’re breaking the most Snapchatter’s at one event!” 26-year-old Cyrene Quiamco cheered into her smartphone camera, as a group of banana-clad social media stars hooted and bounced behind her.
The clip, of course, showed up in @CyreneQ’s Snapchat Story as she took her followers behind the scenes of the bash which tripled as a startup launch party, corporate publicity stunt, and Quiamco’s birthday celebration. Even hundreds of miles from her friends and family in Arkansas, she felt surrounded by some of her closest allies and confidantes.
“The Snapchat community is incredibly tight,” she tells Business Insider. “People drove 22 hours to be there. We’re so close because we grew from each other.”
Quiamco is part of an elite handful of Snapchatters who make their living on the disappearing photo service.
Quitting the day job
Once dismissed as a sexting app, Snapchat has swelled into a messaging and digital video powerhouse valued at $16 billion. The app’s young audiences and its opt-in, in-the-moment experiences has major brands such as Burger King and Walmart partnering with creators like Quiamco.
Snapchat stars get paid to temporarily take over a brand’s official account on the app, or to create original programming and interactive campaigns, which the brands sponsor.
Quiamco makes between $10,000 and $30,000 per project on average and booked an income in the low six-figures last year, even though she only focused on Snapchat part time. That potential convinced her to quit her 9-to-5 gig as a graphic designer for Verizon in October.
When she’s not collaborating (or having banana-suited dance parties) with other Snapchatters in real life, she stays connected to a core community through a secret Facebook Group where fellow Snapchat stars swap tips, advice, and the occasional gripe.
One topic that riled many of the Group’s roughly 30 members was a recent interview with the CEO of social media events company DigiTour who said on stage that “there are no Snapchat stars.” Sure, there are the DJ Khaleds and Kylie Jenners — already famous people who amassed enormous followings — but she said that digital celebrities won’t come from the app.
Unsurprisingly, the group of artists and storytellers who had built their own huge followings on the social network bristled at the statement and Quiamco quickly fired off a response on her own Snapchat-centric website.
Not easy to go viral
But even in that post she concedes that Snapchat’s platform really does make it nearly impossible to grow an organic audience. With no user suggestion page, no content discovery portal outside of Snapchat’s Discover hub for publishers, and no easy way to share Snaps, users like CyreneQ can’t exactly go “viral.”
The Snapchat app itself makes money by inserting ads into media brand’s Discover stories, letting brands sponsor “Live” feeds, and charging for custom geofilters or $750,000-a-pop branded Lenses. Snapchat sees itself as a messaging tool between friends combined with a storytelling platform, but there’s none of the influencer-company alliance that you see on YouTube or Vine because it’s not relying on their content to bring in ad dollars.
Even Snapchat’s biggest native stars haven’t had anything beyond the most cursory official contact with the company, if that.
But despite the downsides, the high-barrier to discover-ability is also part of what makes people like Quiacamo so valuable to brands. Getting big on Snapchat requires creativity and authenticity and users essentially build their followings by word-of-mouth. So those audiences are likely to be rabidly dedicated, staying engaged through a star’s sponsored content and willing to follow as they ping across corporate accounts.
And because it’s really hard to get popular, those who have gotten their names out there have become a kind of exclusive squad, consisting of less than a dozen native creators who can actually make a living from the app.
As the service swells into a behemoth, we talked to a handful of top Snapchat creators who are actually getting paid and asked them how they got started and what the life of a full-time Snapchat star is really like:
Christine Mi assumed she'd use her economics degree from Yale to go into finance or consulting. Instead, she's a Snapchat artist.
Mi first started creating elaborate Snapchat doodles as a way to procrastinate on her homework and amuse her friends. But a few months after some artwork she'd posted on Tumblr went viral in March 2014, an agency reached out and asked her if she'd be interested in working with brands.
By the beginning of her senior year in college, she had already started to see the cash flowing in, but still applied to a bunch of 'traditional jobs,' sealing an offer at a respected consulting firm in New York City. She turned it down to focus on Snapchat full-time when she graduated last fall.
'It seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,' Mi tells Business Insider. 'I wasn't sure how much of a fad this would be -- whether it would be relevant for about two years and just go away -- so I really didn't want to regret not riding this wave as it was happening.'
Nick Cicero, the CEO of creator-network company Delmondo, which specialises in Snapchat analytics, says that he's seen an incredible increase in advertiser interest, with his startup partnering with more than a dozen new major brands in the last month, including Spotify, AT&T, and Unicef.
'We're in the top of the first inning with Snapchat,' he says. 'We haven't even gotten into the big wave of influencer campaigns yet.'
Mi says that in the last year she's made an income in the low-six figures -- 'definitely more than I would have if I had taken the consulting offer' -- through projects with the likes of Bloomingdales, Coca Cola, and DreamWorks.
She's had one-day gigs that earn a bit over $10,000, but that's juxtaposed with her work for VH1, for example, which spanned an entire season of their TV show 'Scream Queens' (she took over their account to post each time it aired).
Mi and other Snapchat stars say that the metrics that brands care about are number of views, how far viewers get in their Stories, and the number of screenshots.
Where to find her: @Miologie
'Shonduras' is widely heralded as the first home-grown Snapchat celebrity, quickly growing in popularity thanks to his goofy, care-free personality, quirky drawings, and high-energy.
But he also fully intended to make it a business right from the outset.
To date, he's partnered with over 50 brands, makes an income of 'hundreds of thousands of dollars,' and has also started doing consulting work and social media-focused speaking engagements to supplement his in-app work.
He tells Business Insider that his favourite part of being a Snapchat star is constantly thinking of ways to 'push the limit.'
For example, the other day, he turned his house into a skatepark, putting ramps on his table and doing tricks off his couch.
'It was basically every kids dream that their parents won't let them do,' he says. 'But I'm an adult and I can do it cause it's my house.'
Where to find him: @Shonduras
Evan Garber says that one of the most surprising things about being a Snapchat star is that there's almost no hate on the platform. 'If you compare it to Instagram or YouTube or Twitter, it's just so much more positive,' he says.
Garber has been active on Snapchat since early 2014, and credits his success by realising early that there was an opportunity, and diving in headfirst.
He worked in engineering back in 2014, but had a penchant for sending goofy, artistic Snapchats to his friends. But when he Googled around to find out if anyone else was creating the kinds of pieces he was, he couldn't find anything. So his started putting his work out there, and, sure enough, got written up by a bunch of different publications.
Then, once brands caught on that they should take Snapchat seriously, he was one of the only names out there.
He started getting enough inbound requests from brands to know that he could really make it on Snapchat, so he quit his job.
'Between last year and this year, brands were just dabbling,' he says, 'And now they're going full-speed ahead, and integrating Snapchat into their whole ecosystem. They're rolling out actual budgets to keep it in the loop.'
He says that one of the best parts about Snapchat -- whether he's working with a brand or just posting personally, is how interactive it is.
'I try to create stories where my audience is really part of it,' he says. 'They're not just consuming my content, they're sending in Snaps that I include or I'm using their answers to my questions to complete my story. You're building a relationship with your audience on a one-to-one scale, and that's really powerful.'
That intimacy is a big part of why it's so valuable for brands.
Where to find him: @emgarber
Mike Platco, a Boston-based Snapchat star, says that he always gets noticed at events like ComicCon or SXSW, but has also been approached by strangers even when he's just out and about.
'I've been recognised by teenage girls at the mall and my wife just blushes and walks in the other direction,' he laughs. Platco makes sure to carry around little stickers to give out in those situations.
He's also received fan art and letters, including postcards from the 'Hogwarts' theme park, after he mentioned loving it once in a Story.
Job-wise, Platco says that he loves working on longer projects where he gets to develop a real relationship with a partner, building trust and gaining more creative freedom.
For example, he's snapped for the show 'Pretty Little Liars' for the last four seasons (he says that the show has the largest branded Snapchat account on the platform right now). The way doing a TV show works is he'll watch the episode and Snap out reactionary responses for viewers to follow along with, giving them a 'second-screen' experience.
All told, the most he's ever made off a single campaign was $80,000, and projects generally range from $10,000 and up.
Another unexpected side-effect of being a Snapchat star: It's hard to use the app like a normal person anymore.
'You don't get about half your Snaps,' he says. 'Once you get a certain number, Snapchat just starts marking them as 'read.''
Once, a brand who wanted to work with him reached out on Snapchat and it completely slipped through the cracks the first time around because of the constant deluge of messages he gets.
Almost all Snapchatters will upload at least a handful of their stories to YouTube, both to have a sort of 'resume' to show to brands and to send more people to their accounts. Here's Platco's 2015 recap:
(video provider='youtube' id='I_3QsOxRkMM' size='xlarge' align='center')
Branden Harvey, who describes his job as 'unique, fun, and crazy,' loves getting flown from his home in Nashville to other parts of the country or world for Snapchat adventures.
Unlike the other stars on here, Harvey isn't 100% Snapchat native, because he was pretty big on Instagram before bringing his story-telling skills to SC.
'Snapchat campaigns are so much fun, because they're so experiential,' he says. 'There's no room on Snapchat for boring, bland content.'
Harvey says that he's never been paid less than five-figures for a project and has hired a business manager to help him keep track of all his different gigs. For Snapchat, he's worked on campaigns for Yoplait, Paramount Picutres, Unicef, and ABC's 'Pretty Little Liars.'