At first glance, the Twitter account @MyTurnOns looks like it belongs to a stereotypical teenage girl.
“Why do parents always ruin your day and then act like they didn’t ruin your day and wonder why you’re in a bad mood?” asked one recent tweet, in all caps and with no punctuation.
“Being called babe is such a good feeling,” said another.
But the account is actually run by Josh Quisenberry, the 23-year-old CEO of the Texas-based Dynamic Media Group. And in between messages about relationships, boys and parents come the tweets that are the account’s true reason for being: posts promoting articles on Dynamic Media’s Buzzfeed-style site Trend Junky to MyTurnOns’ almost 300,000 followers.
“Our aim is sort of to provide easily digested content for teens and young adults, ranging from the entertainment world to politics to sports to trivia, humor, et cetera, et cetera,” said Ian Romero, the site’s web editor. “If an 18-year-old or a 15-year-old's day is a cocktail party, we aim to be the amuse-bouche."
Trend Junky’s articles and slideshows, with titles like Celebrity Prom Pictures and ObamaCare Facts for Young Adults, draw traffic from MyTurnOns and other accounts directly controlled by Quisenberry and from an affiliate network of about 175 Twitter users. They promote the site’s content for a share of ad revenue.
“We’re using Twitter to build Trend Junky to a site like Buzzfeed,” Quisenberry told me. He personally tweets from MyTurnOns and other female-focused accounts after noticing women are just more active on the social network, he said.
“I definitely went after the female audience,” he said. “Women are online more, and women are more likely to click on the links than guys are." Affiliate payments for Trend Junky and similar sites like ChaCha and TeensDigest typically come out to just a few cents per click. But for accounts with hundreds of thousands of followers, those pennies can pile up.
And anonymous novelty accounts mixing romantic advice, pictures of cute pets or movie quotes with the occasional affiliate link can earn hundreds or thousands of dollars per month for their owners, many of them “digital natives” still too young to drink.
“Once you get into it, you kind of realize the opportunity,” said Shelby Laufersky, a 19-year-old Michigan native who runs accounts including Heartless Girl, with 150,000 followers, and Drunk Lady Probs, with almost 17,000. “I kind of built [Heartless Girl] for fun, and then I realized the monetary aspect of it.”
Anonymous novelty accounts mixing romantic advice, pictures of cute pets or movie quotes with the occasional affiliate link can earn hundreds or thousands of dollars per month for their owners, many of them “digital natives” still too young to drink.
As Heartless Girl, Laufersky posts blunt romantic advice for teenage girls—a recent tweet said, “You shouldn't have to convince someone who supposedly ‘cares’ about you not to flirt with other people." Another said: “If you stay caught up on someone who doesn't treat you right, you're fucking up your own happiness.”
It’s the kind of advice she would have wanted to hear when she was 15. "I kind of wanted to instill confidence in girls, like you don't need a guy," she said.
She also posts affiliate links to ChaCha content, earning between $25 and $60 per day at a rate of about two cents per click, she said. It’s not a fortune, but considering her rent is only $300 per month, it’s enough to support her full time, she said.
“I’m not a very high-maintenance girl,” said Laufersky, who previously worked marketing and restaurant jobs.
Devoted teenage fans of Heartless Girl send Laufersky Kik messages asking for boy advice and take her to task when she deviates from her steely persona, she told me.
"I've gotten even crap for posting things that technically are feeling-based because I'm Heartless Girl and I'm not supposed to have feelings," she said.
And, to distance her main accounts from the sponsored links, she runs a few “dummy accounts” that tweet nothing but ads, which she then retweets from her primary handles instead of tweeting sponsored links directly.
Some accounts also use link shorteners that generate domain names that look at first glance like pic.twitter.com, where Twitter hosts images that appear directly in the Twitter feed instead of opening in a new browser tab. But Twitter and Bitly, which hosts custom link shortener domains for its customers, have both recently cracked down on those misleading URLs.
Trend Junky’s own link shortening service, called Link Junky, operates a few of these lookalike domains, including pic.twittter.in, though the company’s added a warning that users could be banned by Twitter. Quisenberry says he’s mostly moved away from the practice and started using basic Bitly URLs, since readers who come to his site through a misleading link are less likely to linger.
"As soon as they go to the website, they go off of it, you don't make no money," he said. “But with the Bitly, they click on it [and] they know they're going to a website, so they're more likely to read through."
In general, crafting promotional tweets to earn clicks and picking the right persona to tweet them out is a science of its own. Eli Solidum, a 19-year-old business student at the University of Missouri, told me his various Twitter accounts have a total of about 1.5 million followers. An Anchorman tribute account posting in the persona of Steve Carell’s weatherman character is one of his most popular, along with the dog photo aggregator Emergency Pugs, and he advertises different articles from different accounts.
“I would definitely not market, say, a dog gallery to something like my weatherman account,” he said. “But a movie gallery will do well with the weatherman account.”
Solidum initially made money promoting other sites, then decided to start his own, called Blurred Minds, recruiting a handful of his own affiliates to help promote it.
"The majority of them are similar people around my age that also basically stumbled into the Twitter game and just grew their accounts,” he said.
Studying at a university with a robust journalism program, he had no trouble finding writers willing to contribute content for a byline and “some extra cash to get through college,” he said. And after some issues with the setup of Blurred Minds, he’s in the process of building out a second site, called Profascinate, with articles like “Best College Dining Services in America” and “9 Life Lessons the Anchorman Movies Taught Us.”
Solidum declined to say how much he’s earned, though he told me it’s “a good amount” every month.
“For someone around my reach, I'd estimate they could pull in probably a six figure salary a year if not more, If they monetize everything correctly," he said.
College-related articles, like a gallery of America’s most beautiful college campuses, have proven most popular with his followers, said Solidum, who suspects teens have migrated to Twitter after their parents and grandparents joined Facebook.
And content producers are often happy to gear their articles to their big affiliates’ audiences. ChaCha, for instance, explicitly advertises that it will create custom content tailored to affiliates’ readership.
“In fact, if you tell us what type of content works best for you, we'll create more of it specifically for you!” the company, which didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment, said on its affiliate page. “We can work very closely with our affiliates to create content that best fits your audience, and generate the most money for you!”
Generally, young women and girls seem more engaged with Twitter, making it not atypical for men in the field to adopt a female voice, as Quisenberry’s done with MyTurnOns, said Laufersky.
A lot of young men just aren’t that interested in social networking, she added.
“My boyfriend doesn’t know how to use Twitter,” she said. “He’s like, ‘How many likes are you getting on your tweets?’ and I’m like, ‘Babe, they’re favorites, come on.’”
Still, male-focused anonymous accounts do exist, some offering bro-oriented responses to their feminine counterparts.
“I want someone who will stay with me no matter how hard I am to be with,” tweeted FreakingTrue, a 1.3 million-follower account with a sappy romantic side and a tendency to share Trend Junky stories.
One might think the 999 readers who retweeted that post would be a bad match for BrosLogic fans, since a week earlier, the male-oriented account had tweeted, “When a girl says, ‘If you can't handle me at my worst you don't deserve me at my best,’ it means she's psycho.”
But, said Laufersky, some of the audience for various “bro” accounts actually comes from women who share them with their boyfriends.
“There's always a factor like, ‘hey babe, follow this,’" she said. “You’re a bro, follow this.”
Male and female alike, anonymous account operators say they often work together, sharing advice, and swapping retweets to boost each other’s traffic.
"We all want to partner up and achieve our own goals, because a lot of people, basically that's just what they want,” Solidum said. “We see each other as coworkers and friends and try to help each other out as much as possible."
At the same time, as word’s spread about the money that can be made, the world of anonymous Twitter accounts has gotten more and more competitive. Quisenberry said Trend Junky’s had so much demand that it’s only accepting new affiliates with more than 750,000 followers, and online marketing forums are full of posts complaining of being turned down by other sites.
But that hasn’t stopped new accounts from sprouting up.
“If you just look up the word ‘bitch,’ you’ll find hundreds of mini accounts with under 500 followers that are just trying to make it out there,” Laufersky said. "It's kind of brutal out there for anonymous accounts, but luckily I got a head start."
She said she’s offered advice to creators of new accounts—and made money promoting some looking for exposure.
"I think I did recently $50 for 20 retweets, which seems mindboggling for me," she said.
If you just look up the word ‘bitch,’ you’ll find hundreds of mini accounts with under 500 followers that are just trying to make it out there. It's kind of brutal out there for anonymous accounts, but luckily I got a head start.
Erik Sebastion, a Toronto social media consultant who sometimes posts advice on online marketing forums like BlackHatWorld, said he frequently sees teens trying to make social media affiliate marketing their first job.
“BlackHat is full of 16 year olds,” he said. “I’m only 22 myself, but before that, I was doing construction; I was doing real work.”
For those who get lucky, though, the money easily beats a typical afterschool job.
Esma Ilyas, a 17-year-old Long Island high school senior, told me she and a friend started the Twitter account @TanGurlz about a year and a half ago, after a trip to the beach.
"We were actually tanning,” she said. “That's why we made it TanGurlz."
Now, the account has about 216,000 followers and, after she started posting links a couple of months ago, pulls in between $4,000 and $7,000 per month through Trend Junky’s affiliate program, she said.
But Ilyas acknowledges some of her fans first found her on Tumblr, where she rose to prominence among Justin Bieber fans by trying to pose for photos with the pop star whenever he came to New York.
"Me and my friends, like, stalked him," she said. "I met him a lot. A lot of his fans know me from him."
And for site operators like Quisenberry, the goal is to move beyond simply drawing traffic to individual articles from affiliate links and get to the point where fans check the homepage for new content every day.
“We’re trying to take this to the whole next level,” Quisenberry said. “We're trying to build this into something like TMZ."
Trend Junky also hopes to add longer and more substantial content geared to an older audience, explained Romero. "If Trend-Junky is the PG version of what we're doing, we're also looking to get into more PG-13 and offer more highbrow, for lack of a better word, or informative content to a bit of an older crowd," he said. “We're also looking to expand to another website that would handle these needs as well: [essentially a] Trend Junky Plus, for older folk, where we can touch on more substantial content: i.e. current affairs, global news, the inner workings of government, just more informative content overall.”