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Business has been hurting at Francois Purdie’s consignment shop in Toledo, Ohio, since the start of the pandemic. The customers who once walked the streets of the historic Olde Town neighborhood and shopped for antique furniture or vintage clothes at her small shop disappeared and have yet to return in the same numbers. Half the shops on the block have closed.

Purdie recently decided it was time to make a change. She’s applying to a new certificate program at Owens Community College designed to train her to become a media influencer. She hopes the social media skills she’ll learn will help revitalize her business. The two-semester program, scheduled to launch this fall, is a first for the Ohio college and one of the first of its kind in the country.

“I don’t care what anyone says, everyone is doing Instagram. Everyone is doing Snapchat,” Purdie said. “You’re inundated. Where do you grab a person’s attention anymore? Small business is not like it was before COVID, so I’ve got to pivot. I’ve got to learn to do some new things.”

Social media influencer marketing, or posting and engaging on social media about specific products or companies for pay, is expected to be a $15 billion industry in 2022, Forbes recently reported. It’s also an especially attractive field among millennials and Gen Z. A 2019 survey by Morning Consult, a digital media and survey research company, found that 86 percent of Americans ages 18 through 38 would be open to posting sponsored content on their social media platforms for pay.

The new certificate program aims to teach students visual storytelling techniques, including photography, videography and graphic design, in addition to website building and advertising skills. Instructors will help students apply those skills to build a social media brand and attract followers to market products, whether that’s their own business or services or sponsored content paid for by companies.

“What we’re teaching people to do is how to market themselves,” said Jennifer Hazel, humanities program director at Owens Community College, who will head the program. “How can you get yourself noticed, get your brand out there? And even if nothing else, at the end of the day, we’ve taught you how to network and taught you how to build a support system and how to get yourself out there and create a presence. And those are invaluable skills.”

Hazel believes students need these skills to set them apart in the job market, regardless of whether they pursue media influencing as a career, especially after the pandemic forced many people to work from home and build their online work skills.

She’s received about a dozen calls asking about the program since it was announced a few weeks ago, in addition to queries from students at the college who want to supplement degrees they’re already earning. Much of the interest has come from older millennials and prospective students older than them, looking to learn “transferable skills,” she said.

Brooke Duffy, an associate professor of communication at Cornell University, said courses promising to turn people into influencers have proliferated in recent years, though rarely at colleges and universities. For example, she pointed to SocialStar Creator Camp, an incubator program for young social media influencers.

“A few years ago, the news of an influencer education course in China made international headlines,” she said via email. “Many people—somewhat predictably—expressed mockery or disdain about young people’s investments in a career sector that was not well understood. Since then, against the backdrop of the sprawling creator economy, programs of this ilk have become much more common. Yet they are often pseudo-educational initiatives rather than those from accredited institutions.”

The announcement of the new program this summer was met with a mix of celebration and skepticism. Some observers see the move as a cutting-edge venture into a burgeoning industry and a creative way to draw students, while others worry the program might propel students onto an uncertain career path.

Hazel said many community members have been enthusiastic about the program, but initially some were puzzled.

“People were like, ‘We’re teaching people to just dance?’” she said, referring to the abundance of dance videos on TikTok. She tried to assure them the program wasn’t about viral dance choreography.

Robert Kozinets, a professor of business and communication at the University of Southern California, said a media influencing certificate or degree program is an “atypical” college offering and he’s “glad to see this topic acknowledged and brought into the higher education curriculum.”

“It’s an area that touches on so much in society right now, and yet universities and institutions that I work with are very slow to respond to these changes,” he said. “The students respond very quickly because this is part of their world, but the institutions are very slow to change and incorporate this.”

Kozinets is writing the first textbook about media influencing, which is scheduled to be published next year. He has also taught a course that includes how to find and manage successful influencers for over a decade. He believes media influencing is “seen as trivial and treated frivolously” when it could be a rich topic for academic programming, touching on “the psychology of persuasion,” the history of consumers’ growing distrust of traditional advertising and the industry’s fraught legal and ethical complications, among other issues.

Kozinets worries, however, that students may go into the new certificate program with too rosy a picture of what it might offer them. He noted that successful influencers usually attract followers through an area of interest or expertise—anything from in-depth commentary on Marvel movies to renowned cooking skills—and that talent and finesse can’t be taught. The industry also isn’t a level playing field, he said. Professional influencers in Los Angeles, for example, sometimes make their videos in studios equipped with robot-operated cameras, special lighting and makeup artists on hand.

“I think it’s very trendy to say, ‘We can turn you into an influencer if you just take this course,’” he said. “I think that’s very deceptive, because people assume that means they’re going to be like Kim Kardashian. There are very few people who are posting online who are making $100,000 a year. You have to be careful about how you sell this as a profession.”

Nonetheless, he sees the program as a “step in the right direction.”

Duffy also worries that students may be headed for an unpredictable job market.

“It’s a very precarious industry as participants are at the whims of audiences, brands, and above all platforms,” she wrote in an email. “There’s also a degree of luck involved in influencer/creator job—and that’s something that (of course) is difficult to teach.” Meanwhile, social media platforms are always changing, so any knowledge about platform algorithms, for example, “may be obsolete by tomorrow.”

Davis Jenkins, senior research scholar at the Community College Research Center at Teachers College of Columbia University, believes other community colleges should follow Owens’s example and look to offer fresh programs that train students for jobs that might not show up in local labor market data, which can be “based on jobs of the past.” One of the draws of community colleges is their flexibility to quickly create programs responsive to “jobs of the future.”

“This is precisely the kind of thing community colleges need to do to attract students,” he said, though he emphasized that colleges need to do labor market research and incorporate transferable skills to ensure these programs still ensure good job outcomes.

He noted that enrollment at community colleges has been declining for more than a decade—a trend only exacerbated by the pandemic—making these efforts to innovate especially crucial. He’s also encouraged to see a career-oriented program spearheaded by the college’s humanities department, reaching beyond the traditional role of liberal arts education.

“We’re saying very bluntly to colleges, ‘You’ve got to focus on this,’” he said. “‘This is existential if you’re going to be relevant, because your enrollments are tanking, and students are voting with their feet.’”

While programs teaching media influencing remain rare, this wouldn’t be the first time higher ed has dipped its toe into the industry. Some institutions have enlisted student influencers to produce social media content on college life and draw prospective students. Cape Fear Community College, which has a robust TikTok account, posted a video about community college stigma that garnered more than a million views. The college also sometimes shares videos of students dancing on campus while sharing facts about their programs. Plenty of students also work side gigs as influencers for outside companies to make money.

Emily Perez, a sophomore at Baruch College, is one of them. She’s sponsored by two companies: Niche, a college ranking and review site, and UStrive, which pairs high school and college students with career mentors.

Her videos range from interviews with strangers about their careers to information about her sponsors set to upbeat pop songs; they bring in about $1,450 per month. She initially jumped at the sponsorship opportunities, eager for an alternative to a frustrating retail job, but now she’s switching her major from political science to marketing in hopes of continuing to work in media influencing after she graduates.

She said she likes the idea of colleges offering programs in media influencing because it’s easy to feel directionless as a freelance media influencer.

“For me, honestly, sometimes I don’t know what I’m doing,” she said. “So, I think having a college program would really help students struggling with, like, they don’t know what to do or they don’t know how to go about it.”

She also sees media influencing as an increasingly viable career path, though she recognizes “it sounds a little crazy.”

“I know some people are mad at the fact that people do a dance and then they get paid for it,” she said. But “it’s something that’s actually going to become profitable in the future. And it keeps on becoming an actual career that’s becoming more and more stable. It’s just this major shift that we’ve had since the pandemic, because more people are scrolling on their phones or people are working from home and they have nothing better to do, so it’s a great way for companies to market their product.”

Purdie, the consignment shop owner, said she’s eager to start the certificate program at Owens and is trying to convince her niece to enroll with her. She also believes going back to college to learn media influencing might eventually motivate her to pursue a bachelor’s degree.

Struggling to keep her business afloat for the past two years “made me look out of my little box, and ask for help more, and help myself,” she said. “So, this is one of the ways you do it. You have to become educated.”

(Note: This article was revised to correct references to Owens Community College as a rural college. The college is located in the Toledo metropolitan area.)  

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