Allie Tong, @allie.eats Age: 24 Location: Lower Pacific Heights, San Francisco # of followers: 28,300 Fun fact: Tong used to be roommates with another social media influencer, @cyneats, who she met at an influencer event in San Francisco. less Allie Tong, @allie.eats Age: 24 Location: Lower...
Photo: Allie Tongemail@example.com
Social media influencers are like ducks.
“I just threw this two-piece, $1,200 Gucci suit on as I rushed out the door this morning,” a local fashionista’s recent post implies.
Her life, just like her blown-out tresses of long brown hair, looks effortless. This is why people follow her. They do not want to see her struggling to squeeze into a pair of Spanx, nor do they wish to see the two hours it took her to take a single Instagram photo. The public lives of influencers are simulacra — they are fake, yet symbolic of the organized, aestheticized lives we wish we had ourselves.
Like ducks, which seem to glide effortlessly across the surface but are paddling furiously below water, social media stars make it all look easy.
“I feel like I’m always working,” said Kathleen Ensign. The 32-year-old San Franciscan runs a blog and two Instagram accounts: @katwalksf for fashion and @katfoodsf for eats. Between the two pages, Ensign has more than 126,000 followers.
…an Instagram celeb like Kylie Jenner, with more than 100 million followers, earns about $1 million per branded post.
By her estimate, she spend at least 60 hours a week working on the brand, whether piecing together outfits, writing blog posts, answering emails or attending local influencer events, of which there are many. When we spoke earlier this month, Ensignhad had events scheduled for every single night of the week: Sunday was the Verve Clicquot day party. Monday called for a comped meal at the new chicken restaurant Peri Pica. Tuesday was a Grey Goose party at 15 Romalo.
Our discussion about “what it’s really like being an influencer” was peppered with phrases like: “I enjoy it, but it is work,” and “I get a lot of free stuff, but it is also a lot of clutter.”
Ensign does make money off her accounts — mainly from sponsored content and hosting gigs — and sometimes a sizable amount, but she still relies on “side hustles,” like managing social media for restaurant groups.
“Everyone’s trying to jump into it thinking it’s a get-rich scheme,” she said of blogging. “I don’t think they understand how much work goes into it.” Being self-employed, she says, means you don’t have the benefit of health insurance or built-in vacation time. And when the line between your real life and your business is so thin, it is often difficult to not work.
The five Bay Area women I interviewed for this story, many of whom have been blogging for 10 years or more, said they spend about 40 to 60 hours a week running their pages. Two consider influencing their full-time jobs — one is the mom of two school-aged children and one employs a full-time management team. Two, including Ensign, work part-time with restaurant groups to manage their social media, in addition to their personal pages. One woman, Kelly Huibregtse of @asideofsweet, works as a physician in the neonatal and pediatric ICUs at UCSF and Alta Bates in Berkeley.
Huibregtse was baking macaroons when we spoke by phone in early October; I could hear the oven beeping in the background. She had returned from an all-night shift at UCSF a few hours before, napped through the morning, and now she was baking. At 6 p.m., she’d return to the hospital for another night shift.
Huibregtse’s Instagram post from that day shows her eating pie from a shop in Texas, looking serene in head-to-toe pink. “There are two kinds of pie — pie I’ve eaten and pie I haven’t eaten,” she captioned the photo, which has 570 likes.
The account is a labor of love, something that “satisfies the other part of my brain” outside the strict hospital protocols of her day job.
“I get a lot of emails from pre-med students and residents who found my blog in this dark time of studying so hard and being broke,” she said. It’s comforting to know that “somebody is out there balancing it all.”
Brands have taken notice, too. Huibregtse has worked with big-name companies ranging from Amazon and Anthropologie to Target and Williams-Sonoma. Projects can range from one-off product plugs to a series of Instagram photos to all that plus a blog post. Sometimes brands invite influencers to promote their companies off the internet by inviting them to host product launches and events.
Everyone I spoke to was happy to espouse the companies they’ve partnered with, but mum on the subject of how much they got paid to do so. Because a job like influencing is just beginning to be considered, well, a job, there’s not much reliable financial data on the internet.
Tribe, a tech company that matches brands with influencers, told the Financial Times that payment depends on the influencer’s number of followers. Someone with 3,000 to 10,000 followers can charge about $2,700 per Instagram picture, the company said, while celebrity influencers with millions of followers can charge between $6,000 and $17,500 per post. Hopper HQ, a social media planner, estimated that an Instagram celeb like Kylie Jenner, with more than 100 million followers, earns about $1 million per branded post.
According to an analysis by Mediakix, a marketing company that specializes in influencers, companies spent more than $1 billion on influencer marketing last year. That figure is expected to double by 2019.
Returns on investment from influencer marketing can be hard to measure, but the strategy is not solely about moving product, in some cases. Given that companies can align their items with certain pages, which radiate specific values and lifestyles, influencer marketing can also be an effective tool for shaping brand identity. Mommy bloggers get tagged to promote baby food and children’s books. Arty girls are sought by makeup and fashion brands, and so on.
Instagram has guidelines for marking content as sponsored, but it’s difficult to regulate more under-the-table transactions. Many of the influencers I spoke with are regularly invited to eat at local restaurants for free, the implicit exchange being a post on their social media account about the food. In most cases, these posts fail to mention that the meal was not only comped, but that they were invited to dine there by the business, rather than selecting it organically.
Balancing authenticity with financial viability is like a dance. Too much of the latter, and you lose followers. Too much of the former, and you can’t make enough to live in San Francisco. Rather than ducks, perhaps a more apt simile for influencers would be ballet dancers, or circus jugglers.
“I’m trying to keep it real,” said Ensign. “If I’m getting paid to wear something, it’s because I’d wear it in real life.”
It is easy to be skeptical of some of the perks influencers receive, and their sometimes dubious methods for reporting them. Instagram’s format does not help this, given that authentic (i.e. non-advertisements) appear side-by-side with sponsored content on the platform. Paid posts are not always marked as such, especially in the Instagram Story feature where the rules for denoting sponsored content are more lax than in the traditional media world.
Jessica Doll, a professional photographer who runs the travel/lifestyle Instagram @hejdoll, has taken about half-a-dozen sponsored trips this year so far, including all-expenses-paid visits to Puerto Vallarta; Eureka, Calif.; Napa; Mendocino; South Lake Tahoe; and Los Angeles. Travel writers for magazines and newspapers are often invited on the same press trips, she said.
“Sometimes you meet traditional journalists who just scoff at you — ‘You’re not a writer,'” she said. “I’m like, ‘Yeah, duh.'”
Last year, Oxford Dictionaries added “influencer” to its database: “A person with the ability to influence potential buyers of a product or service by promoting or recommending the items on social media … particularly when they do so in exchange for money or for samples of the product they are promoting.”
Ally Chen, of @fashionbyally and a popular YouTube channel of the same name, offered a definition of her own: “I’m a small media company and an entrepreneur.”
“I encompass all these different roles,” she said. “When a brand hires an influencer, it is one person playing all of them.” She thinks influencers deserve to get paid better “because they do so much work” — including taking photographs, styling shoots, engaging with followers, etc.
Part of the trouble with “influencing” is that it has yet to be clearly defined by the culture industry, even as the practice continues to sway the products we by and the lifestyles we idealize.
Beyond the highly toned photographs and the put-together outfits and the #foodporn, I wondered who these women really were, and what goes into creating these polished images of themselves. The five influencers speak for themselves in the above slideshow.
Their responses have been condensed and edited for clarity.
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