Courtesy of Emily Cole
- Emily Cole is a student athlete at Duke with more than 180,000 TikTok followers.
- She reached out to brands after starting her account and posting about nutrition and running.
- She spends up to 20 hours a week on content creation and doesn’t post while out with friends.
This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with Emily Cole, a 21-year-old influencer and student at Duke University. It has been edited for length and clarity.
I started running when I was in high school because both my sisters ran track, and as the youngest, I always found myself doing what they did. I fell in love with it, and by my senior year, I’d qualified for my first state cross-country meet and was favored as a top contender.
The summer before, I’d found some sources on building a perfectly balanced meal, and my new world of healthy food was helping me achieve my athletic dreams, which helped land me a spot on the track team at Duke University.
Over the past two years, I’ve been able to amass more than 180,000 followers on TikTok, and I’ve partnered with brands like Dick’s Sporting Goods and IHOP.
I started posting about my running journey at the start of college just for fun
I wanted to share how intense cross-country is. I’d share on Instagram how many miles I’d run every day and behind-the-scenes photos of what it was like to prepare for competitions and stay in shape.
Two years ago, things took off when I started using TikTok. My first viral video actually had nothing to do with running. Aas a joke, I posted a video that I needed a date to a party. Mitchell Pehlke, who plays lacrosse at Ohio State and has 91,000 TikTok followers, responded that he’d go with me. My video got millions of views, and my TikTok following continued to grow as I posted videos about meeting him, going to the party with him, and even spending time with him afterward.
I made the decision early on to keep my account focused around my brand and values, so I quickly went back to sharing posts about sports, nutrition, and health as a competitive runner. Following the new NIL (name, image, and likeness) laws that were passed in 2020, I started making money from my following.
I got an agent to help with brand deals
When I started posting on social media, I didn’t realize how big it could be — I just enjoyed sharing my story. And to be honest, I didn’t think I had a big enough following for paid brand deals.
Still, I was intrigued by the new possibilities, so I reached out to companies I genuinely loved and used daily to see if they’d work with me in exchange for free products. Some of the brands agreed, and I found that it was always helpful when I described why my audience fit their target market and gave specific examples of how I could help them share their product. As my following grew, companies started reaching out to me.
After a handful of deals, I took a step back and realized this could be a career for me if I took it seriously by posting more consistently and perhaps working with an agent who could help me find companies I could promote that were aligned with my personal values. I connected with an agent who specialized in working with college athletes — he reached out to me after I won a TikTok competition. We instantly connected because we had a similar entrepreneurial mindset. I spoke to several agents, and when choosing mine, I made sure to talk to other athletes he represented to get honest feedback.
It was extremely helpful to have an agent to work on negotiating contracts and strategizing my platforms. My daily life was already packed to the brim with school, practices, and meets.
I had to find a way to balance being an influencer with school
Cole says she doesn’t work with brands she wouldn’t use herself.
Courtesy of Emily Cole
I spend around 15 to 20 hours a week creating content for my social-media platforms, working on my podcast — which launched in September 2022 — and promoting my book, called “The Players’ Plate: An Unorthodox Guide to Sports Nutrition,” which was released in November 2022.
I’ve become really good at batching content on the weekends, where I’ll film a bunch of videos to post during the week. I also take a lot of photos and videos throughout the day but will save those to post at night. To get inspiration, I love looking at videos other athletes are posting and making my own renditions of their ideas.
I remain committed to nutrition and sleep, which helps so much with not feeling burned out. I’m not going to say I’m perfect — I definitely have times when I get tired and want to take a break from things. But I try to listen to myself and my needs, and if that means putting something on pause, like the number of posts I put out one week, I do that.
When I have finals coming up, I take a step back from social media. When my season has ended, I ramp back up. I’ve learned that everything has its ebbs and flows.
I’m learning to navigate the NIL world as a content creator
I don’t say yes to everyone who wants to work with me — I’m very careful to make sure the company aligns with my values before I commit to anything.
For example, if a sports-nutrition company reaches out, I’ll only say yes if their product uses natural ingredients and is something that I would actually take myself. My passion is helping other young athletes understand the unique nutrition needed to fuel their performance and how to avoid mistakes I’ve made in the past.
TikTok and Instagram pay creators a certain amount based on how many views their videos get. So as a side benefit, depending on the month, I also receive revenue from just showing up and being present for my supporters and fans on those channels.
A lot of the money I’ve made so far hasn’t been spent. I’ve put it in investment funds to help it grow and have donated some of it to nonprofits.
I try not to let social media take over my life
Social media can be a huge distraction, making it hard to focus in class or when I’m at practice. I’ve had to force myself to set time limits on my apps and to turn on “do not disturb” throughout the day so that I can stay present.
One of the best decisions I’ve made in the past year is creating boundaries for what I share on social media and what I don’t. I don’t post when I’m out with friends, mostly because I want those personal experiences to be just for me and not let 100,000 people have access to that part of my life.
Before that, I posted nearly every moment of my life, but I realized that that my audience wasn’t getting value out of that, and neither was I. Instead, my audience seems to like content more focused on specific topics — running, nutrition, a healthy lifestyle — and prefers to see consistent content about those things. Knowing that helps me feel more present and appreciate special moments with people in my life without feeling like I have to share everything on social media.
Being an influencer still feels weird
I don’t fully identify with the term influencer yet because I feel like I’m mainly just an athlete who shares what it’s like on social media. But this year, especially after getting noticed when I was out and about, I realized that people are paying attention. That makes me feel so grateful and appreciative to have an audience who connects with my content and my messages. It makes what I do online feel real.
There’s definitely pressure that comes along with it. I feel the pressure to perform well in my sport and put out content that makes my audience proud. The biggest pressure I feel is to look put together when I leave the house in case someone recognizes me. I’m a person who loves efficiency, and I don’t always put on makeup and get dressed up, but it’s something I’m working on a bit more these days.
I’m pretty open-minded about what I’ll do after I graduate
I plan to finish my final year and a half of college. I’d also like to hit a million followers on Instagram and TikTok and sell 10,000 copies of my book. I recently found out that I’ll be the first female athlete to launch licensed merch on the Duke NIL website, so I’m excited to see where this new partnership goes and to be a part of history.
I hope to run professionally and continue my career as an entrepreneur. If you had asked me two years ago what I’d be doing, I never would have said creating content as a college athlete.
If you’re a college student who wants to become a content creator, you have to get over the biggest hurdle, which is thinking people are going to make fun of you for posting videos. Believe in yourself and keep creating content, even if you’re only getting a few views when you start.