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The Business of Being a Fitness Influencer - Fashionista
Fitness and wellness enthusiasts with large social media followings are cashing in on a trillion-dollar market.

Melissa Eckman was working in corporate accounting in Boca Raton, Florida when she signed up for her first Pure Barre class. Over time, she started going every day, eventually landing a teaching gig in 2013 — on top of her 65-hour work weeks. The following year, she started a fitness-focused blog MelisFit.com, along with an Instagram account @melisfit_, where she would create content before her 6 a.m. class. "I would get to the studio early and prop my phone up and record different poses, and then screenshot the video. I posted images of myself that way," recalls Eckman. Soon, she transitioned into practicing yoga, recording and sharing her flows along with inspirational quotes every morning. Later, that inspired another Instagram account: @yogspiration.

Gradually, Eckman's online audience grew as brands took notice. Sometimes she would post a photo of herself in a Pure Barre outfit, or in activewear from Beyond Yoga or Splits59, which then led to those brands reposting the photos on their accounts. Currently, across both of Eckman's Instagram handles, her followers amount to almost 300,000. Her first paid partnership was modeling clothes for a local yoga brand, and at the end of 2015, she decided to quit her job, sell her South Florida home and move to Los Angeles to focus on her blog. "I built a business. I was working so much, it ended up worth it in the end," she says. In addition to managing content and partnerships for the MelisFit brand, Eckman does social media consulting, teaches yoga and is signed to Wilhelmina as a fitness model.

Eckman is just one of many examples of women and men who've found themselves making money simply by documenting their fitness endeavors. Jocelyn Steiber, a former dancer, got her start in influencer marketing from the other side of the table; she worked with influencers under her company Jost Media. In 2014, she produced a series of videos starring New York City fitness influencers for Lucy Activewear's #ChildsPose campaign, which later inspired her to build up her own online presence with Chic and Sweaty. "I would say in the last year, I realized [influencer marketing] was a thing and it wasn't going anywhere. It was just growing," says Steiber. "I took the producer role that I was doing on different projects, and started becoming the influencer — and I enjoyed it."

Steiber has been growing her online following through her blog and regularly posting photos on Instagram — mainly dressed in activewear and doing yoga — while adding hashtags and attending events around New York City. "The biggest thing is interacting with people," she says. "I spent the last year and a half networking." The partnerships she's garnered have ranged between product placements on her Instagram to more long-term promotions, such as a six-month campaign for a newly opened New York Sports Club location in Manhattan, to writing articles and doing social media takeovers for Mind Body Green.

The global business of wellness is worth $3.7 trillion. Between 2013 and 2015 alone, the industry grew 10.6 percent, according to the Global Wellness Institute. For influencers like Eckman and Steiber, there are lucrative opportunities aplenty, especially through social media, when it comes to promoting an active and healthy lifestyle. "The one great thing about the fitness industry in terms of influencer marketing is that they really were one of the first to unlock the potential of influencers," says Mae Karwowski, Founder and CEO of influencer marketing platform Obviously.

Companies selling nutritional supplements and niche activewear brands have taken off primarily through social media. Karwowski brings up the example of Quest bars, a business that launched in 2010 and grew by 57,000 percent in a span of only three years by giving free protein bars to the fittest people with the biggest followings on Instagram. "People with six packs are walking billboards," said Tom Bilyeu, Quest's President and Co-founder, in an interview with Bon Appétit.

Like the fashion and beauty industry, consumers are drawn to products that are displayed in context. Authenticity is another factor for building brand awareness, and what better way to portray that than through real, regular folks as opposed to a major celebrity or professional athlete? Lululemon, for example, has built a 1,600-strong community of its own group of local influencers to help endorse its brand among longtime and new consumers.

"Fitness, wellness and nutrition content and influencers have taken off because they are able to share a much more authentic journey, experience and struggle with something everyone has a connection to," says Vanessa Flaherty, partner and senior vice president of Digital Brand Architects. "It's no longer a celebrity or physician-driven topic, instead it's everyday people showing off what works and doesn't work for them."

In 2013, Joanne Encarnacion started her fitness and health journey, which she documented on Instagram with the hashtag #gofitjo. Social media was not only an outlet for Encarnacion to share her struggles with self-image, but it also held her accountable when it came to working out and eating well. "My message has been about the real, honest and raw side of fitness and what people can't talk about — anxiety and depression," says Encarnacion. Eventually, her hashtag became an official blog and Instagram account @gofitjo, and an audience (currently at over 52,700 followers), press mentions and brand partnerships soon followed. Her first paid gig was in 2015 with Lucy Activewear as a monthly contributor to its website.

Last year, Encarnacion stepped down from her role at VSCO to study holistic health and nutrition coaching, so she can start her own practice as an Integrative Nutrition Health Coach. "Leaving my full time job was really scary," she recalls. "I left it without a backup plan or savings to cushion myself when things go wrong. Thankfully, I've had some really incredible brand partnerships to help me sustain raising a family and making a small income during this transition."

In a similar trajectory, Paola Marquez, who started Pao's Fit World last year to ward off stress and lose weight from her job in engineering, switched careers to certify as a personal trainer and nutrition specialist. Pao's Fit World boasts more than 14,000 email subscribers and Marquez has thousands of clients for nutritional consultations and her workout plan called Strong and Sexy Body Method. (Of course she's not the only one to find success with online workout guides: Kayla Itsines, whose Bikini Body Guide boasts a worldwide following and community, was recently named the top fitness influencer by Forbes.) Marquez is now working on a second part to her own guide, focused on HIIT cardio, as well as meal plan ideas and recipes.

So just how lucrative is being a fitness influencer? Like any niche within influencer marketing, rates and compensation are a huge gray area. (And those who can likely afford it, such as luxury brands, are still catching up.) "It's a little bit all over the place," says Karwowski from Obviously. She notes that sometimes compensation is just free product, or a free class or gym membership, as these influencers would need those facilities to lead an active lifestyle anyway. Steiber advises fellow influencers that for every 10,000 followers, they should charge brands about $100. Overall, influencers will base rates on the brand, what the partnership entails and ultimately how much time, effort and resources (a photographer, for example) it will require.

And while the majority of the fitness influencers we spoke with are not represented by an agent, Faya Nilsson was signed by London-based Prjct Management about a year into starting her blog Fitness On Toast. (On Instagram, she has 124,000 followers.) "I grew to a size I couldn't manage any longer. It was time for professional assistance," says Nilsson. "The volume of partnership inquiries was quite overwhelming and I didn't know how to deal with that myself. It's hard to value your own work, so it's good to have a third party."

But, unlike fashion and beauty influencers, those in fitness can seek marketing and content opportunities across categories beyond just activewear, such as food, beauty, gear/tech accessories and fitness studios or gyms. Wellness, after all, is a lifestyle. (Though, fashion bloggers are finding new ways to extend their brands as well.)

"In the last three to six months, I feel like I'm more approached by non-fitness-related businesses, but in line with wellness and lifestyle," says Adrienne London, a former professional dancer and now certified personal trainer. In addition to being an Adidas Ambassador, she's partnered with Garnier, Virgin Active and Whistles, among many others. "You can blur the line and talk about skin care or hair care. You end up diversifying a bit," she says. 

At Obviously, Karwowski's fitness-focused clients include Uniqlo's Activewear line; Olly, a smoothie and nutritional supplement; Chopt Salad; Frè Skincare, specifically made for women who work out; and Choice Hotels, to highlight its gym and health amenities. She's even been approached by tequila and vodka businesses that are looking to tap into the fitness community. And if you've ever scrolled through Instagram under the #fitness or #fitspo hashtags, the community is certainly robust with engagement. 

"There are a number of influencers, who maybe didn't start out with the intention of being an influencer, but now they're in this community where people can ask them questions and they share feedback, which is different than what you see among fashion influencers," says Karwowski. "Followers might comment about an outfit, but the conversation doesn't go much deeper than that."

Homepage image: Joanne Encarnacion. Photo: @gofitjo/Instagram

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