Meghan Young is a professional Instagram star.

She gets paid to climb beautiful mountains, photograph their glittering summits and post comments about her adventures to her followers.

“My job is to make it look effortless, to look like it’s the most fun ever and it’s never a job,” the American says. “But it is a job.”

Young, 33, makes money from companies that pay her to endorse their products on her Instagram feed.

My job is to make it look effortless, to look like it’s the most fun ever and it’s never a job. But it is a job
Meghan Young, professional Instagram influencer

She is part of a burgeoning ecosystem of social media influencers – a job that did not exist a decade ago – made possible by billions of users eager for their content and advertisers hungry for new ways to reach a youthful audience.

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Companies may end up spending US$1.6 billion this year on this kind of marketing on Facebook’s Instagram alone, and as much as US$6.3 billion when including other platforms such as YouTube and Twitch, the marketing agency Mediakix estimates.

That money has fuelled the rise of influencers around the world, flooding Instagram with millions of #sponsored and #ad posts a year.

Yet most people declaring their sponsorship are unlikely to be earning enough to be making a living from it, says Evan Asano, CEO of Mediakix.

Young is an exception: she is on track to earn between US$50,000 and US$100,000 over the next year as a full-time influencer, from sponsorships as well as photo licensing fees.

It is not the income of a megastar, but it is enough to pay her bills.

Young promotes a variety of products and destinations related to mountaineering.

The process starts with landing sponsorship deals.

Young says companies do reach out with unsolicited offers, but she turns down most of those.

Many such offers have nothing to do with the outdoor adventures that she features on her Instagram page – hiking boots would be relevant, but make-up would not – and others are from companies that are direct competitors with her biggest sponsors, with whom she has relationships she does not want to risk.

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That means Young spends days or even weeks researching potential clients’ planned marketing campaigns and then tailoring the proposals she sends out to match their needs.

She estimates that about 70 per cent of the pitches she sends to potential partners end in rejection.

Young, who is based in Seattle, had thought for years that she would become a lawyer.

She graduated with honours from Seattle University’s School of Law in 2015, but decided she did not want to become a lawyer, so never took her bar examination.

Her parents were shocked by the decision.

“They were worried about what I was going to do, how was I going to find career stability [and] why would I make that decision?” she says.

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Yet her legal skills have not gone to waste. Once companies express an interest in working with her, there is the tricky task of negotiating the terms of the deal.

She goes through each line of the contract, crossing out certain specifications.

When it comes to the money, most companies start with a low offer, kicking off a process that can last for weeks.

Her basic charge is generally US$1,500 per post to her lasting feed, or US$200 per day for stories that disappear after 24 hours.

The work is still unfinished even after she has taken the photographs.

[My parents were worried about what I was going to do, how was I going to find career stability [and] why would I make that decision [not to be a lawyer]?
Meghan Young

When Young returns from her adventures, she carefully edits the images and drafts captions to go along with them.

Then, once the posts are posted, businesses sometimes do not pay on time.

That is when she needs to follow up and send new invoices with a late fee tacked on.

Her least favourite hurdle is when she discovers that a company used her photos in a way that violates the terms of the contract, leading to tense and time-consuming email exchanges.

The biggest stars on social platforms outsource this kind of work to an agency.

In a telltale sign of a fast-growing field, there is now a cottage industry of support services directed specifically at influencers.

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However, agencies take a cut of influencers’ earnings – often ranging from 20 per cent to 30 per cent for bigger stars, and 30 to 50 per cent for smaller ones – making it financially tenable for only those with a large enough following.

With 185,000 followers, Young is probably right at the cusp of needing representation.

She has long been weary of the fees associated with an agency, but with more business coming in, the administrative tasks are piling up.

Even with an agency’s help, social media influencing is still a full-time job, thanks to the platforms’ bottomless appetite for content.

The stress it creates even has its own name: creator burnout. Young has learned to set certain boundaries: she used to obsessively check her posts’ performance, which she says will “drive you insane”, so she stopped.

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She will put her phone away if her partner glares at her from across the dinner table as she types out a reply to her latest commenter.

Yet if she doesn’t reply, people will stop commenting, and without that engagement on her feed, brands will not want to keep paying her.

So she is resigned to the fact that she will be tethered to her phone as long as she is in this line of work.

Beyond the day-to-day headaches of a career online, social media’s inherent uncertainty also poses more existential problems for creators.

Sponsorships come in spurts, and there are times when Young is staring at the calendar without another project in the works.

Plus, the rules of the game change often.

Recently, she noticed that the engagement on her posts was lower, which she attributes to a change in Instagram’s algorithms.

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In the long-term, it can be risky to hinge a career on a single platform, or even on social media itself.

Yet for aspiring influencers undeterred by the fickleness of online fame, Young may be a good model.

Unlike many of the biggest stars on social media, she was not already famous because of things such as professional sports or reality television: she was a law student fleeing the stresses and drudgery of law school, driving to the mountains every weekend and posting photos and comments about her hikes.

After graduating, she expanded her account and influencer earnings steadily, not through lucky breaks. And she did it while working by day as a sales and business development manager at a restaurant group.

In March, she was finally able to quit and focus on her influencer career full-time.

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Young says the hard work has all been worth it, because the sponsorships allow her to spend much of her life in the mountains.

Her ideal day starts with unzipping her tent at dawn so she can take pictures of the sunrise reflecting on snowy summits around her.

Few jobs in the world would allow her to do that so consistently.

“I’m so happy out here, it’s a little ridiculous,” she says, sitting atop a peak on a recent trip, with hours to go before her descent back into the city.

“It’s a lot of hard work to get up here, but then you wake up with mornings like this.”

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