In March of 2020, Ellyce Fulmore found herself without a job and with plenty of time on her hands, like millions of her young millennial and gen-Z peers.
That’s when Fulmore took to TikTok. Though she’d been working as a kinesiologist, she had been setting up a business as a life coach on the side. And she’d also had a stint working at a financial aid office at a recreation centre in Kelowna, B.C. where she helped people low-income individuals and families access recreational opportunities.
After experimenting a bit on the social media platform, Fulmore quickly found her calling.
In whimsical 60-second videos, the then 25-year-old started tackling topics like debt management and budgeting under the handle queerd.co.
The videos would often feature Fulmore lip-syncing to rap music while bite-sized financial tips appeared as brightly coloured text on the screen.
“I realized that a lot of people also obviously got laid off and were struggling with their money and not having emergency funds and things like that,” she says.
Two years later, Fulmore, who is based in Calgary, has amassed a following of more than 400,000 TikTokers. She is also quickly building up her fan base on Instagram, where she now has 12,000 followers. Companies like fintech startup Neo and robo advisor Wealthsimple have partnered with her. Countless others, she says, have asked her to be their brand ambassador.
Welcome to the world of so-called finfluencers, where 20- and 30-somethings talk about finances the way they discuss pop culture, fitness hacks and beauty routines.
The recent explosion of financial content on social media comes with questions around conflicts of interest, misinformation and outright scams. Regulators say when it comes to who should own the responsibility of policing bad financial content, the duty shouldn’t necessarily be on the platforms themselves. Instead, the regulators think they should be working with them.
In the decades since the introduction of MySpace and the eventual rise of Facebook and Instagram, the entrenchment of social media in the day-to-day lives of Canadians has become nearly inescapable. Global News is unravelling the many facets of influence these platforms have, including on young people’s investment decisions and their relationship with money.
In many corners of the internet, personal finance has long shed its boring image. In the blogosphere and on YouTube, there are plenty of resources that will explain concepts like index investing or tax planning without jargon or the usual cadre of stock photos featuring piggy banks, calculators, professionals in suits and hourglasses.
On TikTok, though, the idea that “finance is cool” has reached a whole other level. It now can be, legitimately, entertainment.
Take one of Fulmore’s most popular videos, for example. It’s called “Starbucks isn’t the reason you’re broke.” In it, Fulmore, performing one of her signature lip-sync dances, captures the zeitgeist of an entire generation who’s been watching the dream of homeownership fade away amid skyrocketing home prices.
“Your daily Starbucks isn’t the reason you can’t buy a house,” goes the first caption. The next slide reads: “$6 Starbucks x 5 days/week = $30 a week.” Then Fulmore does the rest of the basic math: $30 a week multiplied by the 52 weeks of the years works out to $1,560 spent on lattes annually.
“That $1,500 would barely make a dent in a down payment,” the text reads next. The conclusion? “If your daily Starbucks brings u happiness, and fits into your budget… BUY IT.”
The video has more than half a million likes.
Funny videos tend to do better on TikTok, says Hector Diaz, a 24-year-old from Ontario known to his 188,000 followers as cryptocomix.
Diaz, who was working at a call centre before achieving TikTok stardom, says after experimenting a bit on the platform he landed on what he calls “crypto humor.”
“Those ones got more traction, and that’s what gave me the initial kick-off,” he says.
One of his early successes is a video entitled “The most expensive pizza ever,” about the now-famous story among the crypto community of Laszlo Hanyecz, an early adopter of Bitcoin, who reportedly spent 10,000 bitcoins to pay for a Papa John’s Pizza in 2010. The purchase would be worth more than $600 million at the current rate of the world’s most popular digital token.
For 25-year old Vasiliki Belegrinis, known on TikTok as passionstoprofits, the secret sauce of many viral videos often involves mention of Aritzia, the popular Canadian fashion brand. Belegrinis, whose day job is at Clearco, a revenue-sharing firm led by Michele Romanow, of Dragons’ Den fame, has nearly 28,000 followers.
One of her most popular TikToks, for example, is about her shopping at Aritzia for a coat while also buying Aritzia stock.
“It’s (about) making things much more relatable to the audience that’s actually going to enjoy the content,” she says.
The best finfluencer content out there is approachable and just plain fun, says financial planner Alexandra Macqueen. It demystifies concepts ranging from diversifying investments, using registered accounts and planning for unexpected expenses. There are even videos about how to plan meals for the week.
“There’s a lot of content that just breaks down, you know, the basic building blocks of life,” Macqueen says.
And social media has offered a finance-oriented platform to diverse voices, with finfluencers often discussing how race, gender identity and mental health, among other factors, affect money management.
“That diversity inclusion piece is very important,” Macqueen says. “Finance is demographically older. It’s white and it’s male.”
Reaching users through their phones has become even more important during the pandemic. The average amount of time Canadians spent on their phones increased by a whopping 20 per cent in 2020, according to analytics firm App Annie. And overall, consumers in Canada spent $2.9 billion through their phones during the same period.
Successful finfluencers don’t just talk about money — they also make money off their online cachet.
For financial companies, pairing up with social media stars is a great way to reach and gain the trust of an elusive but all-important demographic who use their phone for everything from paying taxes to investing but are often inured to traditional marketing channels.
Teaming up with a social media creator with tens or hundreds of thousands of loyal followers can make for powerful branding.
At CloudTax, a Canadian tax software startup that launched in 2019, finfluencer marketing has been “a huge success,” says founder and CEO Nimalan Balachandran.
Balachandran estimates social media marketing drove around a quarter of the company’s growth. In 2021 alone, CloudTax partnered with more than 15 finfluencers, including Belegrinis.
“We were able to kind of get the message across about filing their taxes by themselves and the services that we offer,” Balachandran says of the hard-to-reach gen-Z audience. “We got quite a bit of great feedback and also a lot of new, younger people signed up for the services through influences.”
Partnerships between finfluencers and financial companies may be a match made in marketing heaven but they come with risks for both parties.
Companies must make sure any sponsored content they bankroll is accurate and abides by existing regulations, especially when it comes to promoting investment products.
Wealthsimple says it works closely with influencers to develop content that’s distributed on the robo advisor’s site rather than on the creators’ own platforms.
The company also says it steers clear of anything that could be construed as providing investment or tax advice. A compliance team vets and approves all content before anyone hits “publish.”
Creators themselves must be careful about who they collaborate with. Trust, after all, is the currency of the finfluencer business.
“Trust is huge and it’s very easy for a creator to kind of stain their name or their reputation,” says Diaz.
That’s why finfluencers often say they do their own vetting of the companies that ask to piggy-back on their social media success.
Fulmore says she mostly pairs up with brands she was already relying on for her personal banking and investing and that she already knows well.
“I turn down a lot (of them), like, 10-plus a week because it’s really important to me that I’m only working with those companies that I would actually use or do actually use and really support myself,” she says.
TikTok, for its part, says it requires all content creators to disclose branded content and takes action when it spots unlabelled sponsored content. The company told Global News it has also added public service announcement-style messaging that appears automatically on content carrying popular finance-related hashtags such as #fintok, #stocktips and #cryptotrading. The warnings encourage users to do their own research.
Meta, until recently known as Facebook Inc., which also owns and operates Instagram, says it removes content that purposefully deceives, misrepresents or otherwise defrauds or exploits others.
Still, the proliferation of investment advice on social media has Canada’s securities regulators pondering whether they need to step up their game.
The British Columbia Securities Commission has proposed new rules that would apply to anyone promoting specific investments online. The consequences of flouting the rules, if they came into effect, would include penalties of up to $1 million for each contravention.
Disclosure requirement laws vary from province to province for companies whose stock is being promoted and the investor relations they might hire, according to the Canadian Securities Administrators (CSA). The BCSC would like to see more transparency for anyone telling others on social media they should buy, hold or sell investment products.
“The key idea here is that some people who are promoting stocks online actually have a conflict of interest,” says BCSC executive director Peter Brady. “That could include something like owning shares of the company. Or it could be that they’re getting paid by somebody, not necessarily by the company itself — it could be by another shareholder or investor. We think it’s important that when people are encouraging others to buy investments online that they come clean and tell people what’s their stake in the game.”
The proposed regulations are still under review, but Brady says the goal is that they will eventually be adopted across Canada.
What prompted the BCSC to draft new rules was a flurry of aggressive and opaque promotional activity on social media that started even before the pandemic and involved cannabis and blockchain companies, Brady says.
One big concern is online pump-and-dump schemes, whereby scammers pump up the price of an investment by creating buzz and spreading misinformation only to then dump their holdings of the investment when the price has reached its peak as a result of the promotion. Naïve investors are usually left to hold the bag when the investment’s value suddenly collapses along with the collective enthusiasm for it.
“At any time, there’s (something) like cryptocurrencies (that) are very trendy, that’s going to attract fraudsters,” Henderson says. “Anything that’s trendy — be very careful about the advice that you’re reading or the recommendations that you’re following.”
But in the quality spectrum of online personal finance content, there’s much that lies between the two extremes of sound, unbiased information on the one hand and outright scams on the other.
Dubious advice, unverifiable claims and questionable investment strategies abound. After a 21-month bull market, for example, there is no shortage of videos of TikTokers bragging about reaping windfall profits with risky bets such as buying and selling crypto or a single stock.
That’s a murkier area for regulators to wade in.
“I actually don’t think we should enforce against bragging,” quips Grant Vingoe, chair and chief executive officer of the Ontario Securities Commission.
But if someone is making concrete statements about the quality of an investment without disclosing that they hold it or have bet against it, then that could be construed as spreading misleading information, Vingoe notes.
“Under general principles of fraud and misleading statements, it’s just wrong to make recommendations like that without disclosing your financial interests,” he says.
Talking up investments on social media poses another tricky question: is it tailored or generic investment advice?
“If someone is giving you advice on what you should invest in that is tailored to your particular circumstances, that person has to be registered under securities laws,” says Gail Henderson, an associate professor at Queen’s University Faculty of Law.
Securities regulators maintain a searchable online database of professionals who are registered as investment advisers in the province they do business in. They also often flag popular investment scams and schemes on their website.
It’s a different story for personal finance advice. Although there are a number of professional certifications for those who give money advice for a living, including the Certified Financial Planner (CFP) designation, there are no licensing requirements in most of Canada.
With the exception of Quebec, anyone can call themselves a financial planner, although Ontario, Saskatchewan and New Brunswick are working on regulating that designation.
For her part, Fulmore says she’s very careful to stay within her comfort zone when discussing finances. And she steers clear of talking about specific investments, she adds.
She’s studying to become a certified financial planner (CFP).
The plan, though, isn’t to eventually become a traditional financial planner, she says.
“Part of me getting certified is so that I can just expand on the information that I’m giving online,” she says.
“I see my business as more of a financial education platform, and that’s kind of the goal for the future: to just make financial education more free and accessible.”
© 2022 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.