In the storied days of advertising, mad men in sharp suits sat in smoke-filled, gin-stocked rooms coming up with slogans that shaped generations. “Think Small.” The Marlboro Man. And later: “Where’s the beef?” It was the oligarchical heyday of 20th century marketing: A siloed group of elites exercised total control over a vertical information stream, telling consumers what to wear, what to eat, how to look, how to be, all through the power of traditional ads. But today, the face of such a mad man looks markedly different.
Today, she’s a millennial, smartphone poised above her for the most flattering angle.
Rather than spending a fortune or agonizing over taglines about the benefits of their jeans or cars or zero-calorie soda, companies are bypassing the advertising streams of yore – and even the not-so-old methods of push Internet marketing – in favor of self-made social media stars. You know the type. Good hair. Perfect shade of red lipstick. Ninja selfie skills. All leveraged to slyly share a product with her thousands of followers on her various social media platforms. The brands’ detox teas and gummy bear vitamins get play on all the usual suspects: Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Pinterest and personal blogs. But the biggest platform in today’s digital bazaar is Instagram.
If TV killed radio, and the Internet killed TV, then social media slayed everything. And with more than 600 million users worldwide as of late December, Instagram – the Facebook-owned photo-sharing mobile app – is leading the charge with the potential to tap into the minds of more consumers than ever before. Forget “Got Milk?” Got followers?
Here in Phoenix, the Instagram community is coming into its own with a growing population of local social media “influencers.” These are “mini celebrities,” as one influencer put it, defined by the digital marketing industry as users who have an established credibility and audience (i.e. a lot of followers who trust their style and taste). They span the gamut from so-called lifestyle bloggers to artists to small business owners to fitness gurus – scrappy entrepreneurs who leverage their influence on local and national users alike to stake out a, sometimes quite lucrative, cottage industry in the digital realm.
Together, they form a Valley of Instagram moguls. And just like the powerful men before them, they’re shaping your preferences and your life, whether you realize it or not, one Valencia-filtered photo at a time.
“OK, this is awkward,” Caitlin Lindquist says through her teeth. Fork balanced in midair over her seared ahi salad at Windsor restaurant in Central Phoenix, the statuesque blonde turns her head ever so slightly and masks a smile as other lunchtime diners turn to look. Though this is a restaurant, there’s very little actual eating going on at her table.
Her friend is snapping photos – from above, always from above – on a fancy DSLR Canon camera. The days of taking selfies of herself on her iPhone are over. It’s all about looking perfect but caught in the act, as if a magical band of paparazzi follows her around on the reg, taking well-lit photos of only her best angles.
Lindquist (handle: @caitlinclairexo) is a 32-year-old Scottsdale resident who runs the personal lifestyle blog Dash of Darling. She’s on all the social media platforms, but her Instagram attracts the largest following, with more than 96,000 followers and about 100 new followers – give or take, she says – every day.
At Windsor, she’s in the midst of a shoot for Uber. She partnered with the rideshare company to create a car-less visitor’s guide to Phoenix, highlighting her favorite places to eat, drink and shop. It’s a far cry from the life Lindquist planned when she started the blog as a creative outlet during law school at the University of San Diego in 2012. “I was just taking photos of the clothes I wore to school, in between classes,” she says. Thinking it could lead to contacts in the world of fashion law, Lindquist says her following grew fast and pretty soon big brands – the first was women’s resort wear brand Lilly Pulitzer – started reaching out with offers to work together.
“After passing the bar, I thought I’d ride the [blogging] wave until it fizzles out,” she says. But her following has only grown as more than four years of dust has collected on that law degree. In addition to three to four new photos on Instagram every day, “I try and have a sponsored post at least three times a week from different companies,” she says. These are posts in which she tags a brand and poses with their product. For example, a TAG Heuer-tagged watch is on her wrist in a photo from a fall trip to Sedona.
Lindquist will not disclose how much she charges for such posts but says there’s a base price that goes up depending on what each brand wants: Do they just want a single Instagram post or do they want several plus a blog plus Facebook and Twitter mentions? It’s “smart business practice for brands” to partner with influencers like her, she says. “They’re gonna get a lot of eyes on [their product].” Plus, “the blogger does it cheaper.” That is, cheaper than traditional marketing packages for print advertising and Internet banner ads that consumers have learned to tune out.
Cynthia Sassi (handle: @cynthiasassi), founder of lifestyle website FabulousArizona.com and president of Internet marketing firm Sassi Media, says a sponsored Instagram post from an established influencer starts at around $5 CPM, or cost per thousand. In marketing parlance, that means the price of 1,000 advertising impressions on a webpage. In the case of Instagram, she says, that comes out to $5 per thousand followers on the conservative side. That means a single photo could net an easy $500 for someone with 100,000 followers.
Across town at the Hotel Valley Ho in Old Town Scottsdale, fellow Phoenix Instagrammer Samuel Harwit (handle: @samuelanthony) is helping one of his brands do it for next to nothing. The 32-year-old president of PUBLICpr, a public relations firm specializing in connecting brands to digital influencers, Harwit is art-directing a photo shoot for Clutch Jewelry and Crowns, a Valley-based jewelry line specializing in Mad Max-esque woven metal crowns and neckpieces.
An influencer in his own right with about 80,500 followers on his personal account, which he uses for fashion and travel posts, Harwit harnesses his social media savvy to pull the most coverage for the least amount of money from one shoot. There’s a lot going on here: Harwit has secured the luxe presidential suite from the Valley Ho for free in exchange for a post about local staycations on his blog The Frenchy Toast, plus “scattered social media coverage” (translation: tagging them in Instagram posts); his client, Clutch designer and CEO Stacy Eden, is getting a swank setting for an editorial shoot showcasing her jewelry line; and the models they’re using are posing for free in exchange for exposure (translation: being tagged in the resulting photos posted to social media).
“If you’re able to work with other influencers, you’re able to rapidly boost your profile,” Harwit explains of why everyone seems fine working for barter instead of a paycheck – it’s like free advertising for every player in the room. Add up their various followings, and each one gets the opportunity for more than 150,000 pairs of eyeballs to see them.
That’s not to say you can’t strive to make actual money off posts. “It’s a huge, huge, huge range” of what you can make posting sponsored photos, Harwit says. “Generally, I’ve seen people take as low as $100 [for a single photo in which a brand pays to be tagged] to I’ve personally had to pay $20,000 to be tagged in a photo for a client.”
With the advent of social media, there are no rules any more for how to advertise and how much to pay. “Instagram has changed everything,” Harwit explains. “The reason that social media marketing is so effective is because people don’t really perceive it as advertising.” Instagram allows users to carve out their own space, or to put it in social media speak, establish their “personal brand” – “you define your brand and make the decision to only work with brands that fit you,” Harwit says. It’s easier to swallow when an individual whose taste you admire nudges you toward a product instead of the big, impersonal business that produced it.
paigepoppe, seen here in her Scottsdale studio, utilized Instagram and YouTube to build an enviable following of potential buyers, and friends.
While others use Instagram to sell a lifestyle, people like Phoenix native Olivia Girard (handle: @ledinersaur) use it to sell something more tangible: in her case, sandwiches. But the 28-year-old baker is still conscious of staying consistent with her Le Dinersaur brand. “One of the biggest things I like about Instagram as a platform is it allows people to form a sense of trust with your product,” she says. “If they see consistency in the things that you’re making… they have a sense that they’ve formed a relationship with what you’re putting out there.”
Girard quit her restaurant gig to run Le Dinersaur full time in January 2016 as a sort of one-woman lunch delivery service. She does everything herself – bakes the bread, crafts a new sandwich menu weekly, and hand-delivers about 180 of them in lunch boxes around Downtown Phoenix every week. Instagram started generating direct business, she says, when she began posting photos of her menus every Monday, thinking more people would see it while idly scrolling through their phones instead of directly seeking out her website or IG profile.
She says a lot of clients were first introduced to her through Instagram so it’s important to maintain a certain “look” with her feed. “Obviously, I put thought into [Instagram posts.] It seems like such an extension of the whole process,” Girard says. The hipster handcrafted-ness of her lunch boxes is reflected in her minimalist photos, which feature a lot of white space and wood grain backgrounds. “That looks says, ‘Here’s what I should expect from Le Dinersaur,’” she says.
Consistency is also the name of the game for Scottsdale artist Paige Poppe (@paigepoppe), whose Instagram feed is a colorful swath of her cheery watercolor desert scenes. “It is my No. 1 business engagement marketing tool,” the 24-year-old says of her account, which boasts an impressive 11,300 followers. “Instagram was the best tool for me to start saying, ‘This is who I am and this is what I do.’”
After moving back home from California in 2014, Poppe says she utilized Instagram and YouTube to build a community among both local creatives and beyond. “Almost all of my friendships – in the industry and outside – are people I’ve met online,” she says. Within that interaction, she says, lies the key to building a steady following: engagement. Spoken of reverentially by social media mavens, engagement refers to the number of likes and comments a post receives. It also refers to accessibility, in that it’s important for the poster to interact with her following.
A lot of that comes in the form of hashtagging, Poppe says. A hashtag is a word or unspaced phrase preceded by the ‘#’ symbol meant to characterize the theme of the post (e.g. #watercolor or #phoenixartist). Hashtags are searchable on Instagram, meaning when you click one, the platform will populate all the top posts with that particular tag. “When I take the time to hashtag [a post], you can definitely see your following and your engagement go up.”
Cara McGinnis, founder of Twist Agency, a social media marketing firm in Scottsdale, says advertising on Instagram is all about subtlety. “We’re selling product without the selling,” she says. Instead, it’s about “sharing images and inserting a marketing message in the caption without people even knowing that’s what we’re doing.” It’s no longer about the 60-second TV commercial, she says, “it’s about who can I find on social media who can sell my product without me having to sell anything.” Whether that’s the product maker themselves or an influencer, they need engagement to give them credibility, McGinnis says.
But engagement can be a tricky beast, according to McGinnis. “If somebody has 17,000 followers, I’d expect [their posts’] likes to at least be in the thousands.” To pump up the numbers, social media influencers can buy followers and even likes using shady software. But “brands want to see engaged audiences,” McGinnis says, so businesses should be wary of partnering with influencers who have thousands of followers but only a hundred likes and a couple of comments on each photo.
“There’s such a saturation of what’s real and what’s not,” she says. “But that’s the beauty and the beast of social media marketing.”
Reality may be blurred nowhere worse than on Instagram fitness accounts. Search #fitspo (an abbreviated portmanteau for “fitness inspiration”) on Instagram and you’ll be hit with a deluge of nearly 40 million posts of rock-hard abs and glutes that will make you want to renew your gym membership stat. Among them is Phoenix bodybuilding coach and personal trainer Kelly Schmidt (handle: @kellyschmidt1), who has nearly 11,000 followers on Instagram.
His feed is a compilation of inspirational quotes and photos of him working out or posing in muscle tees that barely contain his bulging biceps. Schmidt, 38, has been a personal trainer for 17 years, with about 30 clients at his brick-and-mortar gym in North Phoenix. But Instagram and social media are helping him go global. “I do a lot of online coaching now,” he says. Communicating through e-mail and video, Schmidt maps out fitness programs for clients in locales as far away as Dubai.
“Ten years ago you had to actually be a trainer and get certified,” Schmidt says. “Now in the digital space, you have people that just work out [a lot] or have done a fitness competition and they get an Instagram and say they’re an online coach, but they’re missing that foundation.” He estimates about 80 percent of his online clientele reported working with other online coaches and didn’t have positive experiences.
A recent Forbes article profiled one Instagram fitness entrepreneur in London who says he makes at least 500 pounds a day through his $50, 12-week body transformation guides, downloadable PDF booklets outlining general nutrition and fitness plans. For his part, Schmidt charges between $1,400-$1,600 for 16 weeks of more personalized online training. “I’m a little more expensive than a lot of other people there… but you deal with me,” he says. Calling out the writers of these “cookie cutter guides” and other fitspo accounts who utilize sponsored posts and ads for shady fitness-related products such as non-FDA-approved weight loss supplements and protein powders, Schmidt says they’ll “take money and that’s the last you hear from them.”
Schmidt says people might be willing to pay more for his help because he’s honest. “I’ve got [pictures of] me not eating so healthy… problems I’ve had dieting, rebounding, steroid use in the past, I’m very honest about that,” he says. “I don’t BS and say I look like this and I’m perfect.”
Back on the Windsor patio, Lindquist has finally dug into her salad after looking through the camera’s feed to make sure there are enough shots for her blog post. “I don’t want it to be staged,” she says of the shoot. “I want it to be authentic.”
But it is staged. Her entire Instagram feed is an extremely well-curated ribbon of beautiful photos wrapping wistfully through the seasons – amber-tinted photos of fall hikes blend seamlessly into stark and snowy pictures of a trip to Utah. That’s no accident; that’s just good salesmanship. “When someone comes to my page,” she says of her Instagram profile, “I want it to look good as a whole.”
Alexander Halavais, director of the master’s in social technologies program at Arizona State University, says this façade of perfection on social media – and especially on a heavily visual platform like Instagram – is doublesided. “Young people especially, I think, are influenced to a greater degree than they ever have been [about] how they put on their public face,” he says of our online personas. Being bombarded with perfection every time you scroll through your phone could make you feel inadequate and as if you’ll never measure up. On the other hand, Halavais says, “it’s kind of cool that young people have a literacy about photography they didn’t used to – they have this artistic eye about the world around them and I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing.”
Before walking next door to Churn for an ice cream cone to photograph for dessert, Lindquist points out that it usually surprises people how much work goes into appearing effortlessly chic. “You have to always be ‘on,’” she says. “When I’m out and about, I keep my eye out for cool moments or shops. I’m constantly taking photos on my phone or camera.”
But this lifestyle isn’t beyond reach, she insists. “Who knew you could create your own business through social media? It’s really cool that it’s attainable and relatable.”
Walking into Churn, the sublime smell of fresh-baked waffle cones wafts and hits like a punch. “What is your cutest ice cream?” Lindquist asks the lady behind the counter. Settling on a cone of vanilla and strawberry with rainbow sprinkles on top, Lindquist offers this advice: “If you want to be different” – that is, if you want to differentiate yourself in the perfectly coiffed Instagram rat race – “be yourself.”
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