A special edition of A Women’s Work where Molly McElwee caught up with the Rock’s bloggers and aspiring influencers.

We all have a personal brand these days. No matter whether you’re entrepreneurially inclined, a shameless online self-promoter (guilty), or have your on-trend business logo as your profile picture, if you have a social media account, you’re constantly creating a brand of you. (Even if you’re an internet recluse, you still have a brand you’re putting out to the world, like atheists or those who *claim* they don’t watch Friends so can’t have a favourite character, your lack of participation says just as much about you – but I digress.)

What we post, like, and share online is given a whole lot of importance, good or bad. And no matter how you might squirm at the idea of being judged based on your drunken tweets or Facebook profile picture from 2009, chances are you probably are (if the Facebook data scandal has taught you anything…), and you should probably do a little spring clean (or update your privacy settings at the very least).

Instead of shying away from the glaring eyes of the internet, some people are embracing their online brand, and curating it so expertly that their social media account or online blog is becoming lucrative business. ‘Influencers’ are signing endorsements, book deals, and jetting off to far flung islands for free, all because of their blue tick Twitter profile or relative ‘Insta fame’.

Some Gibraltarians are tapping into that by becoming online bloggers, and reaping the benefits of their side hustle. Giana Spiteri, 24, started her personal lifestyle blog ‘Tea with Gi’ in 2015 during her time living in Florida on a student exchange, but says it wasn’t until about a year in that she realised she could actually make money from her hobby. She gained readers through sharing her blog posts on Twitter and other social media, which is when companies started to send her freebies to write reviews on.

The freebies ranged from the weird to the wonderful, as cakes, hairbrush straighteners, anti-ageing creams and watches started flying through her letterbox. As these companies promoted her reviews, her following continued to grow, and so more and more opportunities presented themselves to her. Her favourite freebie was a two-week trip to Kerala, India last year. “They were looking for 29 bloggers from all over the world – people from 90 countries entered and I was shortlisted,” she explains. “We stayed in five-star hotels and resorts – it was amazing.”

A lot of the other people chosen for the trip blogged full-time, but she says she’s not there yet by any means. “I think you’ve got to be realistic, I’d say I get an average of 10,000 to 15,000 views a on my blog a month which is good, but there are a lot of people who are a lot bigger.” These figures factor into how much she charges for blog posts promoting other brands, ranging from £50 to £200 a post.

The blogging experience has taught her how to be business savvy, understanding the value she can bring as a brand to another brand, and pursuing opportunities with confidence – even reaching out to hotels so the travel posts on her blog are part funded by her writing.

Not to mention the online production skills she’s gained: “I’ve learnt a lot of digital marketing because I’ve had to learn Search Engine Optimisation (SEO – posting techniques that gets your content as high up on Google searches as possible).” Spiteri says she’s clued up on the ins and outs of social media promotion, combining Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest to boost her blog. With over 7,000 Twitter and 3,600 Instagram followers with the help of Instagram shop by Famoid, she consistently shares lifestyle and travel content from her blog to her thousands of readers, almost half of which are repeat visitors.

Fashion blogger Bianca Pisharello is equally concerned with consistency in her branding. Her blogging grew from her lifelong experimentation with fashion, and is tied completely to her Instagram, which is a complete showcase when it comes to aesthetically pleasing scrolling experiences. She says building a themed, colour-coordinated account through editing is her favourite part of the process: “As a photographer and creative, this is a way for me to show my true self and create a feed that is true to my personal style.”

She seems to be doing something right, as she’s amounted over 15,000 Instagram followers and counts Topshop and Freedom jewellery as one of her collaborations.

The 25-year-old balances her accounting exams, a full-time job and wedding videography enterprise with her blogging and says it’s hard to find time to focus, but apps that schedule posts on social media aid her process: “I bet you wouldn’t believe me if I told you I barely spent time on it during the week.”

Changes to algorithms on social media mean user home feeds are no longer a level playing field dictated by chronology for bloggers, but rather a maze of personalisation – what you see is based on what you like regularly, meaning it can feel impossible to reach new audiences. The difficulty both Pisharello and Spiteri have found more recently is trying to grow followings while staying true to their original intentions for their blogs. “I’ll get emails from car dealerships saying oh we’ll give you £150 to write about servicing your car – firstly I don’t have a license or a car so this would make no sense,” says Spiteri. She says she’s turned down brands that don’t fit her content style, as she feels her readership needs to have a clear idea of what she’s trying to put out to the world – no matter how great the opportunity for promotion or money.

Conversely, local recipe blogger Ashleigh Vella’s content has constantly evolved along with her own lifestyle. She began a few years back with her blog ‘My Gluten-free Gluttony’ to share gluten-free recipes after suffering from severe IBS. “I started making recipes and putting them online because I knew there were similar people and gluten-free wasn’t such a popular thing as it is now – if I said it to the waiter they wouldn’t really know what I was talking about,” she says.

But as her intolerances eased and her eating habits changed, Vella began reintroducing food groups and so her recipes reflected that, becoming less health-based, and more about what she was starting to eat again. She rebranded to ‘Fit as Fudge’ and changed her focus. Her signatures recipes are baked goods, with drool-inducing images of peanut butter brownies regularly featuring both on her Instagram, where she has nearly 6,000 followers, and on her blog. Her development in the kitchen even inspired the 26-year-old to take up post-graduate study in nutrition alongside her career in finance.

Unlike Vella, Pisharello, and Spiteri, some other bloggers only use social media platforms to express themselves. Gibraltarian 20-year-old Michelle Sanders is a case in point example of an unassuming Instagram user who slowly but surely has grown a massive following. 100,000 at the last count. “I’ve reached 100,000 within four years,” she says.

“I just liked to use Instagram and keep my activity flowing, until I was asked to collaborate with some brands being promoted on Instagram. As my followers grew, bigger brands such as Daniel Wellington [a watch company] approached me to promote their products on my page, which then led them to share my posts on their highly followed accounts and brought activity to my profile.”

Her stylish travel snaps and selfies have earned her collaborations with fashion and beauty brands alike, and as a student she says the extra cash and freebies don’t go amiss. Sanders says that though there are numerous opportunities involved in working for brands because of her huge following, for now her Instagram is simply a hobby: “I never intended to become ‘Insta famous’ and wouldn’t really consider myself to be – to me it’s just a regular social media platform.”

The side hustles these women are working on aren’t as easy as they look to the outside observer. They’ve all juggled their studies alongside their blogging, as well as full-time work, with some sending countless emails to PRs to get brands interested in their potential. Because of the importance of self-promotion on social media for these brands, sometimes it can feel like you’ve got to constantly be switched on.

More to that, blogging has always been a very personal practice for all four of them – and sometimes putting yourself out there means putting yourself up for criticism. Spiteri says she has separate personal social media accounts to her blog, as that way she can almost forget people are reading it, especially people she knows. Vella says she didn’t want to put her name on her blog initially, as it “felt really awkward”.

“I did find it weird blogging in Gib, it wasn’t really something people did. I’m quite shy in person so I’d get awkward when people would come up to me and say I follow you. When I’m posting I kind of forget that I’ve got all these followers if that makes sense.”

Pisharello says that at first she found it difficult to do, which is why she only started her blog last year, even though she had had the idea for a long time. “I used to care a lot about what other people think – heck I still do – we’re human, especially in such a small place like Gibraltar. But you learn to ignore it and you just have to do what makes you happy. At the end of the day I’m not forcing anyone to follow me, and those who do I like to believe enjoy my daily posts and follow me for a reason.”

In a world of weird freebies, tricky PR walls and online trolls though, these four freelancers are pushing the boundaries on what a side hustle can truly turn into, and how a passion project could potentially open so many doors you wouldn’t think were even there. Considering the amount of time we all spend on our phones, you might as well make something productive out of it, and that’s what they’ve done.