It was a Friday, and that meant one thing in Jessi Afshin’s world: playing dress up.
Afshin plucked a mustard yellow chunky sweater from her closet, threw on a pair of high-rise skinny jeans and, to complete the outfit, slipped into a pair of never-worn high-heeled gray boots.
But Afshin, 24, wasn’t simply getting dressed for the day. This was work. All those clothes came from Nordstrom, which was paying her to model clothes from the high-end department store for her blog, The Darling Detail.
Her 4-year-old blog is so popular that she has four people who work for her, though some are part-time, and even has an office in South Austin. She declined to reveal her monthly readership, but she has 178,000 Instagram followers.
“I went from being a nobody to to being a Top 10 Earner on Instagram,” she said.
Afshin is part of a powerful tribe of social media “influencers,” who use the large audiences they have amassed on blogs or social media accounts to work with brands on ad campaigns. An influencer can be paid in trade, which can range from gift cards to to free vacations in foreign countries, or in cash. Influencers can earn thousands for a single blog post or Instagram picture, and the highest-earning influencers take home millions annually.
Brands are interested in targeting influencers because they are trusted by millennials, who are more likely to buy something that appears on the Instagram bio of a favorite blogger than if it were featured in an expensive TV ad campaign or in a magazine ad. A recent study done by Twitter revelead that 49 percent of users say they are likely to buy something recommended by an influencer.
“Influencers are a way to reach new people and get into niche audiences,” said Caitlin McDaniel, an associate director of social media for Austin ad agency GSD&M. She said influencers started to gain significant traction about two years ago, when brands began to see the value in spending their social media marketing dollars on influencers, who are viewed as more trustworthy sources of what to buy than the brands themselves.
It started with Styles
Talk to any influencer in Austin and the conversation eventually turns to 32-year-old Camille Styles. She was one of the first bloggers in Austin to make money off sponsored content.
She started her Camille Styles blog in 2009, while working as an event planner. (Yes, Styles is her real last name.) “It really did start as a hobby,” Styles explained. But by 2011 she was making enough money off her blog to quit her job.
Styles had stumbled into the newly emerging world of influencers at just the right time, as new social media platforms, such as photo-heavy Pinterest and Instagram, exploded in popularity and made it easier for anyone to promote themselves.
Daniel Carter, a doctoral student at the University of Texas School of Information, has studied influence marketing. He says is a version of a celebrity endorsement, except that influencers are seen as more trustworthy, expert resources for what products to buy, food to eat or trips to plan.
Most, but not all, influencers typically have a blog where a lot of their content is posted. But it’s also not uncommon for an influencer to only post photos or videos on Instagram, for instance.
As the influence industry has matured, the influencers themselves are increasingly acting like media-publishing companies. They are expected to have rate cards, and demographic information about their followers.
Styles, who is frequently featured in her own blog with her trademark long, wavy brown hair, built what amounts to a mini-media empire out of her house. (Styles says she’s in the process of building an office in West Austin.) She employs five people and an army of freelancers who write or take photos. It’s no longer a “blog” but more of an online lifestyle magazine revolving around her brand, covering topics ranging from food to home decorating and beauty.
Most of her revenue comes from sponsored content, Styles said. For instance, in the last year she has worked with West Elm, Target and Old Navy.
Though Styles wouldn’t disclose how much money she earns, she said she averages now about 4 million visitors to her site a month, which is a 40 percent increase from the year before.
“Our growth has been 100 percent organic,” Styles said. She put $50,000 of her own money into it and said she has never sought outside investments.
Styles has also helped spawn an industry of mini-mes in Austin, who have watched her success and want to mimic it. Afshin, for instance, used to work for Styles before focusing on The Darling Detail full time.
The restaurant expert
On a recent Friday morning, 27-year-old Jane Ko strolled into South Austin’s Patika coffee shop, armed with her purse and a camera. Like a lot of people at the coffee shop, she was there to work.
But her work involves free food. Ko was invited to sample and photograph Patika’s new breakfast and lunch menu for her blog, A Taste of Koko. It’s one of the many free “tastings” she is invited to in a given week as one of Austin’s biggest food influencers.
Ko said her journey from hobbyist to full-time influencer didn’t happen overnight. She started the Taste of Koko blog in 2010 while attending UT. “For the first two years I didn’t make a cent,” she said.
In the early years she focused on learning the basics: web development, writing and photography. And even though she was mainly writing about food recipes, restaurants starting inviting her to sample their food for free — with the expectation that she write about it on her blog.
“After a year I kind of became the restaurant girl in Austin,” Ko said. “So I’ve done restaurant coverage for four years now.” That led to the city’s tourism agency, the Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau, anointing her their “restaurant expert.”
Now, she does more than get free food from restaurants. With her nearly 50,000 social media followers, on platforms such as Instagram and Twitter, she has major brands clamoring to work with her. In the last few months she has worked with Starbucks, Target and Uber. “I’m getting paid, and then expenses covered,” Ko said. She recently went on a free Caribbean cruise with Carnival recently, where she swam with stingrays and lounged poolside in Miami.
“Companies are looking to target millennials, or people between the ages of 24 and 44,” Ko said. “They are buying their first house, and have gotten that second raise or third job. They are spending money eating out — that’s what brands are looking to target.”
Ko said for influencers at her level, brands are willing to pay between $3,000 to $10,000 for an influencer campaign. The influencer then commits to a certain number of blog posts or social media mentions. Brands usually aren’t very prescriptive about what or how the influencer writes about them.
Searching for authenticity
Anyone paid to promote products online or through social media is required by the Federal Communications Commission to disclose whether it is sponsored. You’ll typically see this in the form of a hashtag, such as #sponsored or #ad.
Some influencers choose to be more subtle in their disclosures, mixing in different brands in one Instagram post and then tacking the word #ad at the bottom. Others are more transparent. For instance, Ko appended at the bottom of a recent blog post about Starbucks’ holiday-themed gifts this sentence: “This blog post was sponsored by Starbucks but the opinions are completely my own based on my experience. #StarbucksPerfectPairing #ad.”
I asked the Austin influencers interviewed for this article how they managed to maintain trust with their readers while engaging in such obvious paid marketing work.
Afshin, with The Darling Detail, said it boils down to being selective about who you work with. “I say no to about 98 percent” of the brands that approach me, she explained. “It’s was a hard lesson to learn when you first go into blogging because you want to say yes to everything.”
By working with brands that you are genuinely enthusiastic about, influencers said it helps maintain that trust with readers that you’re not just selling out to the highest bidder.
Some of that influencer “authenticity” involves taking readers into their lives. Ko talks about the fact that her boyfriend moved to San Francisco. Styles posts photos of her children and her home on her blog.
But Afshin may be the most candid, both in interviews and on her blog, about what her life is really like.
She told me that building her business required total dedication for years, with no social life, and no time for friends or boyfriends. “It’s a full-time business,” she said. “It’s not only trying on clothes. It’s accounting, invoicing and answering emails.”
Afshin said that she’s trying to use the platform she’s built for something deeper than clothes and fashion. “I’m looking for something more fulfilling,” she said, sounding like someone experiencing career burnout at age 24.
She took a step towards that in a recent blog post, writing about being “diagnosed with chronic stress and fatigue,” challenging food allergies, and the feeling that starting The Darling Detail has taken away “a large snippet of my youth.”
There were no pretty purses or jewelry in sight. And it certainly wasn’t #sponsored.