How millennials are branding their Instagram profiles to monetize on their follower count
Her lululemon leggings cling to her stone-like quad muscles as she is captured by Toronto photographer Allie Mavian on an empty street in Toronto’s Liberty Village, just outside Reebok CrossFit Liberty Village. The Canadian Olympic weightlifter, crosses her arms and stares fiercely into the camera lense. Two days later Lahela releases her workout plan and posts the photo on her Instagram account, @isabel.lahela, accompanied by the hashtags #slimthickworkout #stw #liftlikelahela. “I’m trying not to post sexy pictures anymore,” says the personal trainer. As a positive body image advocate, Lahela uses her Instagram profile to promote her “slim thick” workout plan. She says weightlifting and embracing one’s natural curves are what the “slim thick” monthly workout plan is all about. Lahela is trying to rebrand her Instagram account, which has over 106,000 followers, and steer more female followers to her feed. She hopes to leverage the healthy lifestyle she showcases in her Instagram feed to advertise for businesses that complement her personal brand.
In this follower-reliant business venture known as influential marketing, it is paramount that the demographic of followers suits the influencer’s personal brand in order to form business partnerships. With Instagram’s “Insight” update available to business Instagram accounts like Lahela’s, influencers can view these analytics. Lahela’s “Insight” page says 90 per cent of her followers are male, while only 10 per cent of her followers are female. The first big jump in her follower count came after a popular Instagram account called @squat.fitgirls posted a photo of her in a bikini. With this attention, her number of followers jumped within days. However, a male-dominated following, the majority being from Chile, it’s not providing much incentive for companies with female-gendered fitness and lifestyle products to reach out to her to advertise for their brands. Lahela wants to preserve her motives of promoting body positivity with her healthy lifestyle and needs to reach a female demographic to do so. Now the self-made Instagram influencer needs to rebrand her Instagram feed if she wants to preserve her authentic motives or she risks selling-out, that is, promoting products she doesn’t believe in just to make money. She needs to engage more with companies that produce goods directed towards females. With the release of her new workout plan, Lahela says she’s taking her Instagram account more seriously by steering it in a business-oriented direction.
Influencers like Lahela are flooding into Instagram, where companies pay good money for the perfect photo to advertise their products. Behind the smoke and mirrors of curating a compelling Instagram feed are influencers with thousands of followers. The influencers use social media as an “Insta-business,” where a high follower count is the basis of the business. Whether a part-time passion or full-time pursuit, influencers like Lahela are trailblazers who use smartphones to weave Instagram businesses into their daily lives and perpetuate personal brands through instant postings.
Since its launch in 2010, millennials have driven and shaped Instagram. TapInfluence, a software company, lays out the tale of influential marketing, starting from the 2009 recession, when millennials began to have more purchasing power than the Baby Boomer generation. In turn, this younger demographic became the primary target market for brands. With technology at millennials’ fingertips and social media platforms fulfilling and maintaining their need to communicate, Instagram became a quick and easy source of influence. On the brand side, certain companies re-envisioned their marketing strategies to adopt this new way of propelling their brand message. Marketing agencies picked up on the influence Instagram had over millennials, which led them to launch campaigns that consist of short-form visual content to gain interest in products. Millennials saw the opportunity to influence their own demographic. They started trends such as selfies, Throwback Thursday and hashtags which gained traction. Millennials became a consumer demographic that valued authenticity and engagement with brands. The next logical step was for millennials to become influencers themselves. From this grew the relationship between brands and influencers to build a mutually beneficial exchange of exposure on behalf of the brand and for monetary compensation to the influencer.
Influencers use the platform to intertwine their various passions into their daily lives to monetize their interests. With smartphones being the co-pilot in these ventures, influencers who categorize their Instagram account as a ‘Business’ have the tool in hand to study metrics and determine instantly each post’s reach. Ash Mollalei, owner of community.to, a space for influencers to connect with brands, says digital marketing needs to be consistent and influencers need to find ways to convey their authenticity to the consumers. Community.to is an agency that couples the influencers he manages with brands that have a cohesive message—like a modeling agency but for influencers. “It’s a boutique approach that is more customizable,” says Mollalei.
In an industry that has yet to standardize its business model, influencers look to agencies to handle their contractual agreements and manage their client list. Mollalei says agencies are a way for influencers to assure consistency in rates, and where brands can count on the credibility of the influencer and the delivery of their posts. “Social media is almost as a search engine,” says Mollalei. “Tools are going to emerge where you can better quantify your progress and activity.” What this comes down to is determining credibility solely by raw data quantified by Instagram analytics. Influencers who don’t call themselves a business are more reliant on the in-person engagements and comments as feedback for consumer response.
It’s just after 6 p.m. on a Thursday in late October at Blow Fish Restaurant on King Street in Toronto. The last bit of the day’s natural light shines in on the photo shoot in the cocktail bar. Anna Napolitano hovers her Samsung S6 smartphone over four food dishes, which are arranged like a puzzle. The dishes display spicy tuna on crispy sushi rice topped with a jalapeno pepper, spicy tuna with spicy kewpie, pan-searing dumplings with balsamic basil dip and steaming edamame. Four other Toronto influencers arrange eight plates on top of a black coffee table’s oriental designs. Deep house music is the backdrop for the restaurant’s #thirteenthursdays event, engaging customers with after-five drinks and sharable tapas-style Japanese dishes. “Can I get hands?” says the influencer known as @dineandfash. Napolitano grabs a set of black chopsticks and imitates the action of reaching for a piece of spicy tuna. @kristenmcne reaches for her pink-hued cocktail, but once the photo is taken she releases her hand from her cocktail glass and doesn’t take a sip. Napolitano follows suit and sets the chopsticks back on the table. “Never go to an event hungry,” advises Napolitano. Twenty minutes later, the dishes are cold but still enjoyed nonetheless. The number of rock shrimp orders quadruples by the end of the evening, and the bill comes to $500, which is covered by the restaurant’s marketing department. Napolitano’s meticulously curated photo is posted just after nine the next morning with the caption: “Not pictured here are the many portions of Rock Shrimp consumed @blowfishrestaurant.” She receives 500 “likes,” and counting.
Napolitano’s Instagram account evolved naturally. Her knack for finding the best eats in Toronto became an interest of her growing following. During the day, Napolitano is a team leader at Rogers, where she helps provide the right tools for small businesses to run successfully. She dedicates her evenings and weekends to attending influencer events around Toronto. The events are arranged by Dulcedo Management, who works with a collection of individuals—among them influencers, models and celebrities—to introduce to companies for their advertising campaigns. Although Napolitano makes money in influential marketing, she says it’s a personal hobby. She won’t promote something she doesn’t enjoy, and likes to write captions based on something that happened at the event where the photo was snapped. “I love my puns,” she says. “I think they’re hilarious.” Worried about how her Instagram account is perceived, she has yet to make her Instagram account a business account. It would allow her to examine her analytics but she worries that her work will then come across as scripted and disingenuous.
While Napolitano is worried about her credibility, in the United States, the Federal Trades Commission has clamped down on overt paid product placements. They have enforced advertisers to disclose their paid partnerships and endorsements with #ad in their caption. There is no such rigorous monitoring of Canadian accounts, so users are in a grey area. Napolitano says she would love to eventually make the transition to be a full-time influencer. If and when Canadian users are required to use something like the #ad hashtag, she won’t have a choice—she’ll be forced to label her Instagram account a business.
It’s starting to get dark out by the time Siffat Haider, known on Instagram as @icingandglitter, enters Sorry coffee shop in Yorkville for the second time on Friday, Nov. 11. The full-time influencer is decked out in a camel coat, the season’s latest trend, topped off with a felt, wide-brimmed hat of a complementary hue of nude. The coffee shop has become one of her many “offices” in the past few months, she said it’s very “instagrammable” with its white marble deco. She orders her routine hot chocolate and chats with the baristas with whom she’s become well acquainted. Once she settles into a modular chair with a low-table she pulls out her business-partner— her iPhone 6, and begins scrolling through her back stock of pictures from her trip to New York City two months earlier. She decides on posting a photo of Happy Bones NYC. It shows a large donut and two cappuccinos. She captions it, “Because I’m craving a donut the size of my face.” As she holds her phone inches from her face, she starts tagging food accounts, among them being @buzzfeedfood and @inspocafe. She slides all of the tags to pile on top of one and other on the top right of the photo, making a caché of accounts she is trying to get the attention of—a trick of the trade to not coming across as an advertisement to followers and maintain authenticity. She posts the photo just after six o’clock in the evening, which is prime time for user viewership. Over the course of the week it was posted, it raked in just under 2,000 Instagram likes, with 132 comments and counting.
Haider quit a job she loved as a fashion web editorial assistant at Elle Canada to commit full-time to becoming an influencer. Her blog and Instagram account began as a creative outlet, a type of portfolio for her creative work. At first she didn’t realize she could monetize her creative venture, but when her follower count steadily climbed she realized she had the sure opportunity to go into the business full-time. “People have been spit out,” Haider says of influencers she has known to have not been able to maintain their accounts enough to have consistent income. With her boyfriend as her main photographer and coffee shops as her office, she is completely mobile with her business. She currently has over 41,000 followers on Instagram and says her appeal is in her authentic, diverse posts about lifestyle, fashion, food, beauty, Toronto and travel. “I don’t want to pigeonhole myself—it’s part of being entrepreneurial,” she says. With the help of her agency, Shine Influencers, Haider operates as a full-fledged business and gives 20 per cent to her agency for acquiring clients and assuring the contract works for her. “It’s not like a three-year phone contract,” Haider says. She has the ability to make her own creative decisions in curating the advertisements and she consults with her management to firm up the details in contracts. Haider says she couldn’t do it without her management team, especially when there are no standards set.
While the perks of influential marketing may mean freebies galore and attending elite events, exclusive contracts are becoming more prominent in the industry, restricting influencers on the products they consume and the brands they show support for. Influencers may score a great campaign where they make good money, but the exclusive contract keeps them from engaging with brands with similar products, closing out a huge chunk of potential clients and money. Companies such as Tim Hortons are tying influencers to their products exclusively and not allowing them to support competing coffee companies while under contract. Tim Hortons is trying to appeal to millennials with Instagram campaigns showcasing photos of the signature burgundy takeout cup being consumed by twenty-somethings in bed wearing silk pyjamas. In the game of authenticity, this toys with influencers’ ability to remain true to their own preferred brands. They sacrifice some freedom but enter into contractual binds that bring in extra money.
Rays of sunshine light up Baddies Cafe at Bloor and Lansddowne Streets as three female influencers gather for brunch. It’s their version of a weekly boardroom meeting. On this Saturday morning in early November, @food.diva, @icingandglitter and @dialaskitchen are trying out the new café’s creative menu items. Some are adorned with flower petals, others with photo-ready foam art. “You get what you give,” says Haider of her string of friendships she’s forged with other influencers. Being the trailblazers for this industry, they take the opportunity to talk shop about rates and potential clients, forever anticipating where influential marketing will go and how they plan to take it there.