The risqué Snapchat ac­count ArsenicTV is spawn­ing a gen­er­a­tion of in­flu­encers

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“Girls want to do Ar­senic be­cause they’re get­ting fol­low­ers. That’s the eq­uity. In the long run, it means dol­lars”

On a Wed­nes­day morn­ing in April, Caitlin O’Con­nor, a 26-year-old ac­tress, drove her­self to a man­sion in the Cold­wa­ter Canyon neigh­bor­hood of Los An­ge­les and took off most of her clothes. She spent the next few hours wear­ing a black bikini and sit­ting in a hot tub, speak­ing into a cell phone cam­era to an au­di­ence of sev­eral hun­dred thou­sand fol­low­ers, mostly young men and teen boys. A viewer asked if she only dated guys with money. “I love girls who make their own money and don’t rely on men,” she replied. The shoot was for Wo­man Crush Wed­nes­day, part of the reg­u­lar pro­gram­ming on ArsenicTV, an un­der­ground broad­caster that’s the Next Big Thing in me­dia.

You prob­a­bly haven’t heard of Ar­senic, which airs only on the Snapchat app. Other pro­gram­ming in­cludes the Q&A 5 Snap

Facts and Ar­senic Flex, a work­out seg­ment. And even if you have, you may want to keep it to your­self. The con­tent isn’t porno­graphic by Supreme Court stan­dards, but as the name im­plies, Ar­senic’s videos can feel a bit dan­ger­ous: Think of an American Ap­parel ad with many, many more thong shots filmed from what would be hard to call a re­spect­ful dis­tance. De­spite Ar­senic hav­ing no spe­cial place­ment on Snapchat—it’s merely an ac­count, not one of the chan­nels man­aged by Vice Me­dia, Na­tional Ge­o­graphic, or Peo­ple, for in­stance—its videos at­tract more than half a mil­lion views each in a 24-hour pe­riod. In March, Ar­senic re­buffed a buy­out of­fer from Play­boy En­ter­prises. “We re­ally like what they’re do­ing,” says Play­boy Chief Ex­ec­u­tive Of­fi­cer Scott Flan­ders. In­stead of cash­ing out, Ar­senic has raised money from tech in­vestors. “Snapchat is the fu­ture of TV,” says Paige Craig, man­ag­ing part­ner of Arena Ven­tures, who’s also backed Lyft. “And Ar­senic is the com­pany that is most adept at us­ing it.”

Calling Ar­senic a com­pany is a bit gen­er­ous. Although Craig was im­pressed by Ar­senic’s au­di­ence num­bers and mes­sage of em­pow­er­ment—a wo­man, Amanda Mi­callef, co-founded the com­pany; mod­els pro­duce their own shoots; and there’s more body-type di­ver­sity than you’d find in a lad mag—he says, “It was the long­est due dili­gence process I’ve ever done.” Which makes sense: Ar­senic is run out of the kitchen of CEO Billy Hawkins, 41, a Har­vard Law School grad­u­ate and for­mer Cre­ative Artists Agency agent who pre­vi­ously rep­re­sented Spike Lee. Mi­callef, 39, a for­mer movie pro­ducer, casts each shoot, and five in­terns help with the cell phone cam­er­a­work. (Mod­els con­trol Ar­senic’s Snapchat ac­count dur­ing their shoots, edit­ing and post­ing photos. “It’s driven by the model’s vi­sion,” Mi­callef says. “They’re the boss of who they are and how they look.”) The only full-time em­ployee man­ages the flow of port­fo­lios that mod­els sub­mit—about 1,000 a day—for con­sid­er­a­tion. Given the en­thu­si­asm, you’d ex­pect Ar­senic to pay big bucks. But O’Con­nor doesn’t make a cent in that hot tub: She ap­pears once a week in ex­change for the right to em­bed her so­cial me­dia han­dles on the videos she records. “Girls want to do Ar­senic be­cause they’re get­ting fol­low­ers,” she says. “That’s the eq­uity. In the long run, it means dol­lars.”

This math is be­com­ing more and more com­mon­place in a me­dia in­dus­try in the throes of dis­rup­tion. O’Con­nor, who makes money hawk­ing prod­ucts on In­sta­gram, rep­re­sents a new kind of celebrity—and Ar­senic a new kind of celebrity ve­hi­cle— and they’re work­ing to­gether to at­tract the young au­di­ences con­ven­tional me­dia doesn’t. The shift­ing ap­petites of a group that ad­ver­tis­ers widely re­gard as the most valu­able—young peo­ple have a life­time of con­sump­tion ahead of them but haven’t al­ways formed strong opin­ions about brands—have cre­ated an open­ing for “in­flu­encers.” They’re a cu­ri­ous group of for­mer child stars (e.g., Hilary Duff ), lesser Kar­dashi­ans, and ob­scure up-and-com­ers like O’Con­nor who carve out ca­reers as so­cial me­dia sales­peo­ple. If you’ve ever won­dered why In­sta­gram and Twit­ter feeds are full of at­trac­tive peo­ple talk­ing about detox teas, diet shakes, and new apps, it’s be­cause they’re paid to. They’re part of an ad­ver­tis­ing ecosys­tem that’s rev­o­lu­tion­iz­ing mar­ket­ing, how­ever con­fus­ing its dy­nam­ics seem to older gen­er­a­tions ac­cus­tomed to fa­mous spokes­peo­ple on TV, usu­ally not in a hot tub.

The Caitlin O’Con­nors of the in­ter­net are a vi­tal part of this econ­omy. Even though she’s a pro­fes­sional ac­tor with a Screen Ac­tors Guild card and has an IMDb page full of cred­its, O’Con­nor’s break­out role is as an on­line mar­keter. “So­cial

me­dia has 100 per­cent made my ca­reer,” says O’Con­nor, who moved to Los An­ge­les from Union­town, Pa., 10 years ago. She has al­most 300,000 In­sta­gram fol­low­ers, up from about 100,000 when she first ap­peared on Ar­senic’s Snapchat. Be­cause of that fol­low­ing, small brands pay her $300 per post to pro­mote their wares. Re­cently, she’s talked up EMe­di­aS­tar, an app devel­oper; FlockU, a col­lege-fo­cused me­dia com­pany; and Recor, a nu­tri­tion sup­ple­ment. (This typ­i­cal post has re­ceived 5,812 likes and count­ing: “Fol­low @recor­na­tion … They have the best whey pro­tein and pre work­outs I’ve tried!!”) In a nor­mal month, O’Con­nor grosses $6,000 to $10,000. “If you don’t see a line in my post that says, ‘No­body paid me for this,’ then I’ve prob­a­bly been paid for it.”

She main­tains ac­counts on Face­book, Twit­ter, and Snapchat, but she makes most of her money on In­sta­gram. In­sta­gram is big with brands be­cause it’s pop­u­lar, with more than 400 mil­lion monthly users, and not es­pe­cially keen on pri­vacy. The app pro­vides an ap­pli­ca­tion pro­gram in­ter­face that al­lows O’Con­nor’s spon­sors to see how many fol­low­ers she has, how many likes each post re­ceives, and what peo­ple say about them. She also talks up spon­sors on Snapchat, but for now, the so­cial net­work’s struc­ture—mes­sages dis­ap­pear af­ter 24 hours, and there’s no way for a brand to ver­ify how pop­u­lar in­flu­encers are—pre­vents it from be­ing a ma­jor source of in­come for her. Spon­sor­ships for top play­ers are com­mon on video game plat­form Twitch and on Mu­si­, a make-your-own mu­sic video app, where the top user, a 15-year-old who goes by Baby Ariel, has 9 mil­lion fol­low­ers and has cre­ated ads for Nord­strom and 21st Cen­tury Fox.

There are maybe 100,000 peo­ple like O’Con­nor, says Daniel Saynt, CEO of So­ci­a­lyte, an agency spe­cial­iz­ing in cast­ing in­flu­encers for ad cam­paigns. Rates vary widely: Some­one with 100,000 fol­low­ers might get $100 per post, while an in­ter­net-fa­mous celebrity such as co­me­dian Josh Ostro­vsky, aka the Fat Jew, can eas­ily pull in more than $5,000. Saynt, a for­mer fash­ion blog­ger who later be­came chief mar­ket­ing of­fi­cer for Re­becca Minkoff, re­cently ne­go­ti­ated what he terms “six-fig­ure” ad cam­paigns for Adam Gal­lagher, a men’s fash­ion stylist and model, and Mar­i­anna He­witt, a beauty guru. Be­cause cam­paigns that fea­ture mega-in­flu­encers such as Kylie Jen­ner can reach into the mil­lions, many tal­ent agen­cies, in­clud­ing United Tal­ent Agency and One Man­age­ment, now have in­flu­encer di­vi­sions.

Rep­re­sen­ta­tion agree­ments, how­ever, are the ex­cep­tion in this world. O’Con­nor has a man­ager, but she makes most deals her­self, con­tact­ing brands di­rectly or go­ing through apps such as Pop­u­lar Pays or BrandSnob, on­line mar­ket­places where ad­ver­tis­ers post gigs. “What Airbnb did for hospi­tal­ity, we’re try­ing to do for ad­ver­tis­ing,” says Pop­u­lar Pays founder Cor­bett Drum­mey. Re­cently, Pop­u­lar Pays listed spon­sor­ship op­por­tu­ni­ties for Macy’s and Core Or­ganic, a low-cal soft drink whose name seems work­shopped for mil­len­ni­als.

For now, many brands are sit­ting on the side­lines, wary that these pro­fes­sional in­flu­encers aren’t all that in­flu­en­tial. “Unilever, Proc­ter—they’re not there yet. That’s go­ing to take two or three years,” says Gary Vayn­er­chuk, CEO of Vayn­erMe­dia, a new-me­dia mar­ket­ing agency that counts Pep­siCo and An­heuserBusc­h InBev as clients. “Right now, you’ve got en­tre­pre­neur­ial peo­ple reach­ing out to these in­di­vid­u­als on In­sta­gram and pay­ing through Pay­Pal. It’s rugged.” Or brands are wary about fraud, which is ram­pant. In­sta­gram fol­low­ers can be pur­chased from dozens of shady ser­vices that, for about $50, will pop­u­late your feed with bots, dol­ing out fake likes and generic com­ments (“Beau­ti­ful!!!”). Saynt, of So­ci­a­lyte, says he vets prospec­tive spokes­peo­ple be­fore hir­ing them. “If some­body has 100,000 fol­low­ers but they’re only get­ting 1,000 likes per post, we as­sume 50 per­cent of their au­di­ence is in­au­then­tic,” he says. Ad­ver­tis­ers also strug­gle to walk the line be­tween mar­ket­ing and ma­nip­u­la­tion. Some in­flu­encers la­bel spon­sored con­tent with “#spon­sored” or “#ad,” but those hash­tags are of­ten buried at the end of a post, and many peo­ple don’t bother mark­ing spon­sored posts at all. O’Con­nor doesn’t, she says—fol­low­ers un­der­stand that most of her posts are paid.

Ar­senic, for its part, has yet to make deals with mar­keters. It’s “pre-rev­enue,” CEO Hawkins says, us­ing a tech catch­phrase that es­sen­tially means, We’re fig­ur­ing it out. Even­tu­ally, the plan is to work with ad­ver­tis­ers and share pro­ceeds with mod­els. But Ar­senic’s am­bi­tions go be­yond babes in biki­nis: In April it launched ArsenicAu­dio, a mu­sic-fo­cused Snapchat ac­count fea­tur­ing in­ter­views with DJs that at­tract more than 50,000 daily view­ers. “We want to be MTV in its glory days,” Hawkins says.

O’Con­nor says she hopes to use her sta­tus to fol­low the path of other so­cial me­dia stars such as An­drew Bach­e­lor, known on the video-shar­ing app Vine as the co­me­dian King Bach, and Colleen Evans, of YouTube’s Mi­randa Sings, who used their perches to win big­ger roles on TV. “My goal is the main­stream,” O’Con­nor says. “I’d love to have a net­work com­edy. I don’t feel like I’ve made it.” Some dig­i­tal mar­keters ar­gue that she’s got it back­ward. “The real celebri­ties are [the in­flu­encers],” Vayn­er­chuk says. “I’d much rather have a hit show on Snapchat than on NBC or ABC.” <BW>

Ar­senic founders Mi­callef (left) and Hawkins

O’Con­nor’s Snapchat videos for ArsenicTV—here she in­ter­views the mu­si­cian Di­plo—get more than 500,000 views each. But the real goal is In­sta­gram fol­low­ers … … be­cause the more peo­ple who fol­low her and like her posts … … the more valu­able her en­dorse­ments are.

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