Jose A Cortes

‘The Power of Online Influencers,’ a documentary by alumna Maria Rodriguez

Maria Rodriguez’s video thesis secured her more than just a master’s degree. It landed her a job.

Rodriguez, who graduated in 2017 with a master’s in strategic public relations, drew inspiration from a guest speaker at USC Annenberg. Gaby Dalkin, founder of the “What’s Gaby Cooking?” blog, spoke about doing what she loves and how lucrative it had become.  

“Today, you have a microphone in your pocket at all times. You can upload a video and tell stories wherever and whenever you want,” Rodriguez said. “It was very interesting to me to see how people were using the available technologies to communicate their passions. Even more so, how that developed in a new form of marketing.” 

This idea clicked for Rodriguez: Social media was creating a new space for public discourse, civic engagement and representation — and opened a new opportunity for online influencers. 

Rodriguez’s love for storytelling had started early on and led her to create a blog in 2012, “Face and Facets.” Her interest in new media grew as her online precense expanded; eventually, she became a broadcast journalist in her native country of Colombia.

Rodriguez’s video thesis, a 40-minute documentary, developed into “New Kings: The Power of Online Influencers,” focused on the evolution of influencers. 

Rodriguez interviewed about 22 people, from USC Annenberg faculty experts to industry makers and tastemakers, who all spoke about this growing phenomenon. 

At a USC-led event, Rodriguez was able to network and secure an interview with Alvaro Paes De Barros, the head of YouTube Space L.A. 

“It was so fascinating how the different perspectives started to fit together like a puzzle. Every person, in their own profession, was trying to solve the challenges involved in this digital revolution,” Rodriguez said. 

And social media has given a voice to audiences, shifting power to influencers. As a result, companies are changing business models and influencers are paving new opportunities.

In the film, Rodriguez highlights this emerging new wave of influential figures, along with documenting the shifting media landscape. One featured influencer, Diego Calvo, shares his fitness journey on Instagram. He excelled in soccer at a young age early on but was told when he was 18 years old that he had a genetic knee problem. As he began sharing his recovery through exercise routines and health tips, his posts became a motivator for others and were impactful.

With her newly acquired proficiency of the topic, Rodriguez was able to apply her knowledge of influencer marketing to her professional career. She was offered a position by one of the subjects in her film, CEO Eric Dahan of Open Influence, formerly Instabrand. 

Rodriguez was also featured in Forbes by journalist Michael Humphrey, who was interviewed in her documentary. Humphrey wrote, “Eventually, Rodriguez the student had become the teacher, so I wanted to hear her insights now that the movie is released.”

What Rodriguez finds so inspiring about influencers is that they have “taken advantage of new media technologies to showcase their passions and put their own voice out to the public.”

For her, she said, “That change has empowered us to be whoever we want to be.”