Students find fame and financial success through TikTok


TikTik logo courtesy of Unsplash, graphic by Nicole Hasek

Through the TikTok Creator Fund, content creators are able to profit off of their videos.

When traveling through the Des Moines airport last month, Lea Nelson, senior in journalism and mass communications, never expected to be recognized for something she does for fun.

Nelson, better known as “leacj12” on TikTok, has over 38,000 followers and has earned 4 million likes throughout her videos, mainly about playing on Iowa State’s softball team.

“A lady stopped me and was like, ‘Are you Lea?’ and I’m like ‘Yeah,’” Nelson said. “She said ‘My niece follows you on TikTok, can I get a picture with you?’”

Starting softball at three years old, the sport has become a substantial part of her life. She is often recognized by girls at tournaments, making her feel like a role model and inspiration to young softball players.

After making videos on the now-canceled app Vine when she was young, she hopped on the TikTok trend in 2020. The day after posting her first viral video, Nelson woke up to a spam of TikTok notifications and a feeling of disbelief.

“It was kind of thrilling, as much as that sounds surface level,” Nelson said. “It was exciting to see that people liked what I made or could relate to it at least.”

With her collection of viral videos growing, Nelson now prioritizes content creation and uses her free time to make videos and brainstorm content. She typically films in her uniform before softball games, as those seem to gain the most attention. When looking for other content to post, she takes time finding sounds or trends that peak her interest.

“I spend quite a lot of time on it, but I really enjoy it, so it doesn’t really matter,” Nelson said.

Nelson advises aspiring content creators to post frequently and post whatever they want. She said the videos she spends the least amount of time on tend to do the best, and you never know what will catch viewers’ attention.

While Nelson opts out of the TikTok Creator Fund, it is possible to profit off TikTok videos. Creators who are a part of this fund are paid two to four cents per 1,000 views.

In order to join the creator fund, which is how most creators are compensated, a user must have at least 10,000 followers, receive 100,000 views in the 30 days prior to applying and post original content that meets their community guidelines.

“My biggest thing right now is TikTok; that is the only platform that I really make money on,” said Olivia Gehling, a sophomore in event management.

While she has created content on Instagram and YouTube, TikTok is where she makes her income.

Gehling posts TikToks under the username “ourlovelynstory,” where she has 1.4 million followers and 87 million likes. She frequently posts content with her three-year-old daughter, Lovelyn, whom she had in high school. As she gets older, Lovelyn’s enthusiasm for being in videos grows.

One of her most viral videos, captioned “pov you’re being raised by a bunch of college kids,” shows Gehling bringing Lovelyn to football games, dorms, local events and being surrounded by Gehling’s friends.

Balancing content creation, raising a toddler and taking classes can be challenging, but Gehling has worked with her adviser to find the perfect schedule to ensure she has time for all of her priorities.

A video of a text message trend Gehling posted in 2020 was her first to reach over a million views. Instead of shock, she felt as if she had hit a milestone, as the attention on her videos before this had been increasing.

“We didn’t mean for it to go viral, but I kind of figured out the algorithm and what posts would go viral and what wouldn’t,” Gehling said.

Since achieving TikTok fame, Gehling has been recognized for her posts. While traveling to Florida, a group of girls who were fans of her videos approached her.

“When that happens, it’s very surreal,” Gehling said. “Like it doesn’t feel like that is even possible living in a small town in Iowa.”

Aside from the TikTok Creator Fund, creators can also earn money from brand deals. Gehling often works with music producers who pay her to use their music in the background of videos. She has also promoted products for Walmart and FabFitFun. Brands reach out to Gehling’s management team who takes care of negotiations and contracts.

Maggie Engelhard, a freshman in veterinary medicine, has had brand deals to promote products from Gales, a shoe brand, and Happy & Polly, a company that sells cat trees. Her account, “maggiie.anne,” currently has over 182,000 followers and nearly 11 million likes.

“The cat tree was like $300 originally, so just getting it alone was enough of a payment to me,” Engelhard said. “Some other brands have definitely paid me like $50 to $100.”

Like many creators, Engelhard’s first viral video, which featured her dogs in 2018, was unplanned. When she signed back into the app, her notifications read “99+,” the first indication of a popular post.

As she has started the vet med program at Iowa State, her content has been focused on this aspect of her life. Before becoming swamped with classes, Engelhard spent hours creating vlogs. Now, her content creation comes second to school.

“Obviously school comes first because if I fail at school, then I have no content to make,” Engelhard said.

Outside of vet med school, Engelhard plans to continue making TikToks when she becomes a practicing doctor, tailoring her content to this experience. She feels these posts help students in the same field, as she gives tips for students in the program.

After putting time into a video that may not do as well as planned, she feels as if she’s wasted time that could have been used for schoolwork. In an attempt to help the post gain more attention, she often asks friends to repost, often still failing to meet her expectations. She feels it often takes a few flops before posting a popular video.

“You have to be consistent,” Engelhard said. “I found with TikTok that once in a blue moon, you’ll have one that does really well. If you’re really sporadic in your posting, they tend to not do well for a while. Whereas if you’re posting every day, one is more bound to blow up.”