The rise of the In­sta­gram mil­lion­aires

Fashion Quarterly - - Inside - “I don’t want my fol­low­ers to think it’s not real be­cause I’m get­ting paid”

It’s a bright Oc­to­ber morn­ing in Paris and Fash­ion Week is in full swing. Twenty-three-year-old Aus­tralian Mar­garet Zhang strolls through the 8th ar­rondisse­ment and ar­rives out­side the Grand Palais. A crowd has gath­ered in front of the his­toric ex­hi­bi­tion hall, and as she ap­proaches, a sea of faces turn and surge to­ward her, their cam­eras click­ing away fu­ri­ously. With a quilted Chanel bag swing­ing from her hand, she climbs the steps into the cav­ernous build­ing, breezes past the se­cu­rity guards and takes her seat at Chanel’s spring/sum­mer 2017 show. Zhang doesn’t work for Vogue, nor is she a Hol­ly­wood ac­tress, yet she has ac­cess to one of the most ex­clu­sive and sought-af­ter tick­ets in fash­ion. So how does she do it?

She has 800,000 fol­low­ers on In­sta­gram.


The so­cial me­dia plat­form, which launched six years ago, has swiftly be­come the pre­ferred form of dig­i­tal com­mu­ni­ca­tion for mil­len­ni­als, and in re­cent years has been the breed­ing ground for a new ca­reer ti­tle – the In­sta­gram in­flu­encer.

With brands spend­ing an es­ti­mated US$1 bil­lion per year on spon­sored posts, the In­sta­gram econ­omy is sky­rock­et­ing, par­tic­u­larly in fash­ion. Fast clos­ing in on one mil­lion fol­low­ers and with es­ti­mated earn­ings of well over $800,000 a year (not to men­tion the free clothes, book deals, paid ap­pear­ances and in­ter­na­tional travel), Zhang is just one in a wave of peo­ple mak­ing big money post­ing self­ies. With a cap­tive au­di­ence that hangs on their ev­ery word (or pic­ture), In­sta­gram stars are be­gin­ning to be seen as a valu­able mar­ket­ing tool.

De­spite achiev­ing sig­nif­i­cant suc­cess through tra­di­tional ad­ver­tis­ing, brands have al­ways known that word of mouth is pow­er­ful. Peo­ple trust peo­ple, and when some­one you like rec­om­mends a mois­turiser to you, chances are you’re go­ing to buy it. “We’ve al­ways known that peer-to-peer en­dorse­ment is the best pos­si­ble mar­ket­ing for any prod­uct,” ex­plains Mur­ray Be­van of fash­ion PR com­pany Show­room 22, “But the whole thing now is its own en­tity, a bil­lion­dol­lar in­dus­try.” When some­one like Mar­garet Zhang snaps a selfie in a sweater and posts it on In­sta­gram, that sweater can sell out in days. It’s that sort of in­flu­ence that brands are pre­pared to pay good money for.

“You have a cap­ti­vated au­di­ence,” says Julie Cooper of John­son & Laird man­age­ment. “Just like Lady Gaga’s ‘Lit­tle Mon­sters’, these fol­low­ers are like mini armies.” Founded as an ac­tors’ agency, John­son & Laird launched their dig­i­tal arm two years ago specif­i­cally to rep­re­sent Kiwi so­cial me­dia in­flu­encers. The agency now rep­re­sents 42 of them, in­clud­ing YouTube star Jamie Curry

“Just like Gaga’s ‘Lit­tle Mon­sters’, these fol­low­ers are like mini armies”

(@jaamiecurry, 479,000 In­sta­gram fol­low­ers) and beauty vlog­ger Shan­non Har­ris (@shaaanxo, 1.4 mil­lion fol­low­ers).

De­scribed in mar­ket­ing cir­cles as ‘bridg­ing the gap’, so­cial me­dia in­flu­encers con­nect brands with con­sumers, which un­til re­cently was very dif­fi­cult to do.

“These mil­len­ni­als are on their phones,” says Cooper, “They want to be able to Google stuff or ask Shan­non: ‘How do I put on a winged eye­liner?’ They want to reach out to their peers for advice.” And Shan­non’s advice is par­tic­u­larly valu­able – a re­cent guest ap­pear­ance in Aus­tralia saw hun­dreds of fans storm the mall she was pro­mot­ing, and when she posted about Ben­e­fit’s new col­lec­tion of brow prod­ucts, the surge in traf­fic to ben­e­fit­cos­met­ crashed the site.


John­son & Laird aren’t the only agen­cies rep­re­sent­ing in­flu­encers. Pop­ulr – an Auck­land agency purely de­voted to so­cial me­dia in­flu­encers – opened in Au­gust, and all over the world agen­cies are pop­ping up that have only in­flu­encers on their books.

For Palmer­ston North teenager Maia Cot­ton, get­ting an agent in Aus­tralia opened the door to earn­ing money via In­sta­gram. Hav­ing been on the site since her early teens, the model saw her fol­low­ing (44,500) be­gin to grow sig­nif­i­cantly around 2014, and at around 10,000 fol­low­ers brands be­gan to call by with free prod­uct. “At the time I was 15 and I was like, ‘Oh my god, that sounds like the most amaz­ing thing ever. I get free clothes and all I have to do is post on In­sta­gram’,” says Cot­ton. “And then I re­mem­ber the first brand that asked what my fee was. I was like, ‘What? You can get a fee for this?’”


Ima Asali of Mel­low Cos­met­ics launched her brand two years ago via In­sta­gram and mar­kets her prod­uct al­most solely via in­flu­encer part­ner­ships. “Any­thing above 10,000 fol­low­ers we send out free prod­uct, and any­thing above 15,000 fol­low­ers we’ll pay for,” ex­plains the Auck­land mother of two, whose busi­ness is now soar­ing. With 300 in­flu­encers on her PR list, she pays up to $7000 per In­sta­gram post and up to $25,000 per YouTube video, which seems like a lot, but it works. “It’s fas­ci­nat­ing to see how the fol­low­ers just buy what they [the in­flu­encers] ad­ver­tise,” says Amali, who for ev­ery dol­lar spent on In­sta­gram in­flu­encers sees a $2-3 re­turn in sales.

And Asali’s isn’t the only brand that has seen a me­te­oric rise from in­flu­encer part­ner­ships. Auck­land 23-year-old Iyia Liu be­gan sell­ing waist train­ers via In­sta­gram, and af­ter pay­ing Kylie Jen­ner $300,000 to wear one in a sin­gle In­sta­gram post, has grown her com­pany, Waist Trainer NZ Aus, into a multi-mil­lion dol­lar busi­ness.

“The more fol­low­ers you have the big­ger your fee would be, but to even get paid you have to have a big fol­low­ing,” ex­plains Maia Cot­ton, who like Jaime Ridge (47,400 fol­low­ers) makes good money from her In­sta­gram ac­count, but not enough to live on – yet. She es­ti­mates a liv­ing could be made once you reach around 100,000 fol­low­ers.


In Amer­ica it’s a le­gal re­quire­ment to dis­close any so­cial me­dia part­ner­ships (New Zealand doesn’t have this law yet), and the Fed­eral Trade Com­mis­sion has sug­ges­tions for how to tell your fol­low­ers a post is spon­sored. With In­sta­gram, how­ever, the rules are still very vague. The way they should be dis­closed is up for de­bate, and with some in­flu­encers us­ing hash­tags – #spon­sored, #part­ner­ship, #ad, #SP – some writ­ing “thanks”, and oth­ers sim­ply tag­ging the brand, it can be dif­fi­cult to tell whether a post is spon­sored or not.

When it comes to fees, Cot­ton won’t dis­close how much she earns, and this is a com­mon trait amongst in­flu­encers. “I think peo­ple are cagey about it be­cause, for me, I don’t want my fol­low­ers to think it’s not real be­cause I’m get­ting paid,” she says.

Jaime Ridge, like Cot­ton, in­sists that she only ac­cepts spon­sored post deals with brands or prod­uct that she gen­uinely likes. “I’m very se­lec­tive with who I part­ner with,” says Ridge, who turns down around 90% of brand part­ner­ship op­por­tu­ni­ties that come her way. “It’s very much a gen­uine part­ner­ship. I would never part­ner with any­one or any­thing that I wouldn’t per­son­ally en­dorse.”

It’s a stance that Cooper agrees is im­per­a­tive in or­der to build a fol­low­ing and re­tain trust with your fol­low­ers. “It’s about try­ing to make sure your brand is al­ways the most im­por­tant part,” says Cooper, “Other­wise you might as well go get a Kmart cat­a­logue.”

How­ever with a min­i­mum of one in five of an in­flu­encer’s posts be­ing paid for, and the spon­sored con­tent fill­ing our feeds feel­ing in­creas­ingly less or­ganic, Mur­ray Be­van thinks we’ll even­tu­ally reach sat­u­ra­tion point. “What I truly think is that there will be an even­tual back­lash by younger au­di­ences … they’ll say: ‘Enough is enough, we’re see­ing too much. Give me less, give me bet­ter, slow it down, mean some­thing to me’.” But in the short term, with more brands pop­ping up on In­sta­gram and more money to be made, the era of the in­flu­encer is only just get­ting started.



@shaaanxo wear­ing @mel­low­cos­met­ics


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