My name is Jenni, and I’m obsessed with people on social media whom I’ve never actually met.
I can tell you every detail about @thebalancedblonde’s search for wellness, and I know what @leefromamerica ate for dinner at the airport on her way to Portland. When I’m in the car and pull up to a stop light, I scroll through workout tips from @thebalancedberry and photos of @rachaelsgoodeats’ insta-beautiful breakfast toasts. I feel like I know more about these people’s daily lives than the lives of many of my closest friends. And of course, I know what they’re selling, too.
Instagram started as a place to share personal photos, touched up with flattering filters. But as happens with the internet, it soon became a sales and marketing platform, too. Now, it’s the place where an exalted subset of the online population, a group known as “Instagram influencers,” use their personal accounts to help brands sell excursions, food, clothing, and much more.
For their curated visions of perfectly-lit meals and dream vacations, these influencers stand to command a monumental amount of attention. As of June 2018, Instagram, owned by Facebook, reported 1 billion users worldwide, 500 million of whom use the platform daily. According to Hootsuite, most active users spend at least 30 minutes per day scrolling through photos. Corporate marketing departments have embraced this captive audience wholeheartedly: Statista reports that the U.S. spent $121 billion on influencer marketing in 2015.
Leasing your personal images as a billboard for corporate use always seemed to me partially exploitative and partially brilliant. When I was laid off from my journalism job last March, I became extra-fascinated by the line of work. The influencers I follow have hundreds of thousands of doting followers who compliment their outfits, their food, and their hairstyles. The most successful ones are able to quit their day jobs and make a living by taking selfies in stunning locales.
After I was laid off, I realized that I had some free time, along with a food blog with a fair number of followers. I’m handy with photography and I can write a fast caption. I could make money by posting a picture of myself with a dairy-free ice cream treat in my hand, right? Maybe it was just a matter of learning new hashtags and buying a fancy digital camera?
I started asking around.
Portia Smith and I had planned for a 10:30 am phone call and she was punctual, if a bit distracted. She explained that there might be some noises in the background: She had her daughter with her and was taking the call from her car.
Smith runs a popular travel brand called @obsessedbyportia. Her bio reads: “Mom of 2 💕 Luxury Travel 🌎 @MatadorNetwork “Seattle Blogger to Follow”. 23 countries ✈️. Next stop 👉🏻 London/Rome/Amalfi.” Every image on Smith’s feed contains shades of brown, teal, and watermelon red. Her daughters wear matching red outfits. Her attractive husband smiles broadly in a red hat. There’s a photo of her kids with a red and green watermelon floatie at the beach and a photo of Smith herself, wearing a red life vest during a trip to the San Juan Islands, smiling as her hair whips in the wind. Who wouldn’t want to live that life?
The Smith I talked to was more human than her feed would suggest. Six hours earlier, at 4:30 a.m., she had been running five miles through her neighborhood. (She was training for a half marathon.) Then she came home to shower before waking up her daughters, ages 5 and 7, and her husband. She made breakfast, packed lunches, and dropped her older daughter off at school before heading to a coffee shop to work and talk to me.
A 40,000-follower count is considered the entryway to making some money; hitting 100,000 means you’ve unequivocally “made it.”
In 2014, Smith was a stay-at-home mom looking for a creative outlet. She wanted to lose her baby weight so she figured she’d write about that fitness journey on a blog. At first, she didn’t tell anybody about her new pursuit. But then her blog started to gather more and more followers, which she attributes partly to good timing — blogging was hot at the time — and partly to an authentic-sounding voice that appealed to an audience of like-minded mothers.
Eventually, after observing other bloggers, Smith realized that she could make a business out of her online presence if she could get brands interested. She moved onto Instagram and Facebook, talking about her life as a mom and her fitness journey. Then she thought: What if I moved into fashion?
“I walked into my first fashion blogger event and I was like, ‘Why am I here?’ I’m 36 and everyone was super young. But I got used to that,” she says. In the beginning, brands would offer Smith free products; beverages and health bars, mostly. They wanted her to post photos of their products but it wasn’t required and no money changed hands.
Sometimes, in those early days, Smith would also reach out to brands with varying success. Then, as her follower count grew, brands began to offer her paid incentives: $25 for a photo featuring their products, then $50, then $200. At the time of this writing, Smith’s follower count on Instagram was 61,500. Now, brands mostly reach out to her asking her to feature their products and services, not the other way around.
According to Smith and nearly a dozen other influencers I spoke with, your ability to command respect from the corporate world depends on whether you’ve crossed certain follower thresholds. A 40,000-follower count is considered the entryway to making some money; hitting 100,000 means you’ve unequivocally “made it.” In some industries, such as fashion, larger brands will only consider collaborations after you surpass 200,000 followers.
Recently, Smith pivoted her account again, this time to focus on family travel. Hotels, tour agencies, and even national tourism boards sponsor her family’s vacations with a contractual arrangement that says she needs to share photos of everything she does with her followers. Each brand asks for different things in exchange for a free stay: Photos of certain hotel features, captions with explicit hashtags, Facebook posts with links to the hotels where she stays, a blog post or maybe a Twitter mention. Sometimes, they pay Smith directly for her content — which they use on their own websites — in addition to the free stay or excursion.
She schedules her Instagram posts to go live between 12 and 3 p.m. She uses the same DSLR presets every time. Every photo uses the same filter.
Each influencer I spoke with had a different view about how to refer to brand-sponsored content. Many told me that their followers have come to expect that all Instagram content is sponsored so they don’t even mention it when they’re sharing photos with products or services in them. Others use #ad in their captions to signify sponsored content. A few explicitly explain their partnerships to their followers.
Emelina Spinelli, a social media consultant whose @ecspinelli account (“Instagram Consultant, Coffee Boss + Beverly Hills Life, New Yorker in LA”) has more than 51,000 followers, suggests erring on the side of honesty. People won’t be upset about sponsored posts, she says, but they will be upset about inauthenticity. Instagram recently launched a feature that allows people to tag sponsored brands in their posts, as they would a location. None of the influencers I spoke with use this feature; they say it limits their reach.
At this point, Smith makes a full-time living from @obsessedbyportia, which is actually a rarity among influencers. But there’s a reason for her success: She follows the playbook pretty damn perfectly. She schedules her Instagram posts to go live between 12 and 3 p.m., when statistics show that her mom-heavy audience is most active. The distinct color palette in her feed makes things look consistent, well planned, and intentional. Whether a photographer she hires is taking photos of her or she’s taking them on her own, she uses the same DSLR presets every time. Every photo she posts uses the same filter.
Although her feed might give you the impression that she’s trailed by cameras every minute of every day, most of Smith’s shoots with a professional photographer are planned in advance and last for part of just one day per month. She “batches photos” during photo shoots, changing outfits, then using the photos in multipronged postings to her blog, Facebook, Pinterest, and Instagram over the next few months.
Many of the influencers I spoke to talked about the planning that goes into image-making, and the disconnect between the gauzy images and an often-dull reality. “My life isn’t that interesting! I sit at a desk,” says Jenn Haskins of @hellorigby, a Seattle-based fashion account with 25,000 followers (“A modern girl & her 🐕 living in a colorful world. Fashion👗, beauty💄, home🏡 & travel✈️!”).
Almost all of Rigby’s fashion content is sponsored by brands and nearly every photo in her feed features Jenn looking into the distance, giggling, and holding a sponsored item, while wearing bright colors or floral prints. She recently reduced her hours at her tech job to spend her time investing in her Instagram account, but she talks about her growing side gig with a hint of resignation: “It’s a lot more work than people think.”
Being an influencer is all-encompassing, she and other influencers say. You need to respond to your followers’ comments every day, which means you’re rarely able to put down your phone. You have to be your own promoter, marketer, head of sales, head of finance, visual director, and content creator. If you want to keep your follower count stable and, in turn, keep making money, you’ll need to be tied to a version of yourself — the traveling mom, the finance maven, the coffee connoisseur, the self-love guru — for years. And of course, your professional life will bleed into your personal life: How do you really vacation when your vacations are work?
You’ll also spend your time tied to a platform that may or may not live past the next 10 years. And brands are becoming increasingly cynical about the influencer market. An Atlantic story last summer noted that hotels have become overwhelmed with free-stay requests from influencers, and have become more likely to scrutinize and push back.
Plus, Spinelli notes, as the number of people on Instagram increases, the threshold for entry will get higher. “It’s just going to get harder from here,” she says.
There’s another downside to this influencer business, and Spinelli is brutally honest about that, too: Working on Instagram can take a toll on your mental health. Public health studies have shown that the platform can cause depression, lack of sleep, loneliness, poor body image, increased bullying, and heightened anxiety. The most honest influencers acknowledge how unhealthy social media can be for their own health, yet they depend on people behaving unhealthily in order to make a living.
“There’s no way to be on Instagram for more than five minutes and not feel like you suck as a person,” Spinelli says. “Seriously, the app is designed to make you compare yourself to other people. I do my best not to go on the app anymore and if I do, I set a timer so I get out fast.”
Spinelli says she coaches her clients to set strong boundaries around Instagram. “A lot of them are on their phones 24/7 and it’s not financially profitable,” she says. Instead of being constantly available, Spinelli even recommends scheduling out content for months or weeks in advance and ignoring the app itself most of the time.
Working in this industry seems to require a comfort with these troubling dualities: presenting a reality on your feed that isn’t actually your reality; enticing people to spend time on a platform that’s bad for their health; and enthusiastically representing brands that you may or may not truly support. I met influencers who seemed to genuinely care about their followers, who rarely took sponsored deals unless they had used (and liked) the products in question. I also met people who were willing to take any brand deal, at any time, no matter what it was.
Influencers are a varied, complex bunch, driven by many different motivations. In short, they’re like people working in any industry. And that’s the main thing I realized, after talking with many influencers, reading through pages and pages of stats about internet usage and mental health, and scrolling past hundreds of pictures of cute children, flowy patterned dresses, and sunset landscapes: This job is just a job. The five perfectly sculpted photos you see every week on your favorite influencer’s feed belie a 40-hour work week filled with sales emails, marketing conversations, constant community engagement, and tedious photo editing. For the most part, being a successful influencer comes down to hard work, persistence, and a preternatural focus.
Thus, being an influencer is not, I realized, a job I’d necessarily want for myself. And in this newly-invented field, where the ground rules change by the month, even the most successful practitioners have their doubts. When I asked bloggers about their advice for people who want to break into the industry, each gave me a variation of the same answer: Are you sure?