As soon as Lauren Middledorf starts striking poses, you can tell that she’s done this more than a few times before.
Smile. Look at the camera. Look away. Reposition the leopard-print purse.
Tousle hair. Cross legs. Add sunglasses. Repeat.
The photographer — snapping away at her subject on a shadow-bathed outdoor plaza — occasionally chimes in with bits of advice. “Teeth,” she offers at one point, prompting Middledorf to give a broader grin. “Let me take some more of your shoes against that,” she says, betting the sleek black stilettos will pop against a beige block of concrete.
Middledorf is not a model: She has a full-time job as a corporate event coordinator. The photographer is her mom. And Middledorf put on this ensemble in the bathroom of a nearby restaurant.
It’s all part of her effort to gain a modest slice of the mushrooming marketing budgets that retailers and megabrands are funneling to everyday women and men who have amassed large followings for their blogs, Instagram feeds or Snapchat stories.
Brands regard these social-media “influencers” as relatable messengers for their goods. Companies pay them in fees or free products, resulting in sponsored posts in which, say, a millennial gal about town, working mom or fitness buff might talk up a pair of high heels from Kohl’s, show off a recipe made using Progresso bread crumbs or flash a smile that’s been treated with Crest White Strips.
What was an experimental marketing practice only a short time ago has morphed into a mini-economy with dizzying financial stakes. The social-media analytics firm Captiv8 estimates that big brands are spending a collective $255 million per month for sponsored posts on Instagram alone. Captiv8 says Instagram influencers who have more than 7 million followers command an average rate of more than $150,000 per sponsored post.
Some have even signed with agents, who help them get connected for a cut of the earnings. Others have banded into informal syndicates to help promote one another’s posts, making them attractive to more brands.
As the business takes shape, and more people rush to join, some wonder whether the new form of marketing can hang onto the sheen of authenticity that made it successful in the first place. Already, regulators and consumer watchdogs have begun clamoring for more disclosure of the paid relationships. And already, some influencers are feeling the strain of their always-on lifestyle, where the product they’re selling is their own personality and taste.
Theirs is a world where happy hour with friends becomes a moment to trumpet one’s enviable taste in cocktails to followers. Family vacations become paid photo ops. Pleasure becomes business.
In other words, while influencer marketing rose to prominence as a raw, credible antidote to the slick world of television and glossy magazines, it has metastasized into something every bit as calculated.
Middledorf, 24, has a blog called It’s All Good — along with related Instagram, Twitter and Pinterest accounts — where she offers up fashion finds and showcases her life in Northern Virginia’s wine country. She got into the game about five years ago while she was in college, and much has changed since then.
“Now that it’s so saturated, it’s getting harder and harder to get sponsored posts,” said Middledorf, who has almost 5,000 Instagram followers.
That’s part of why she and legions of other influencers go to greater and greater lengths to make sure their feeds feature only the most polished aspirational imagery.
For Middledorf, that means studying Pinterest for fresh posing ideas. She has honed tricks such as walking backward, a tactic she swears actually appears as a more natural walk in photos. And she scouts locations ahead of time to make sure the scenery is a fitting background for a certain outfit. On one Sunday afternoon in October, she shot a date-night outfit — lacy top, skinny jeans, sexy heels — in bustling Reston Town Center. Then it was off to a pumpkin patch in Bluemont, Va., to shoot a casual boots-and-flowy-dress look.
Across the influencer universe, this kind of meticulous choreography is common.
Alicia Chew, a style and food influencer, figured out how to replicate the marble countertops she lacked to showcase beauty products. Her solution: She bought some marble-print contact paper and slapped it on a piece of cardboard.
“I have to make my life a little — well, actually a lot — more glamorous than it actually is,” Chew said.
Getting the photos to look enticing is just part of the process.
Influencers say they often log hours each day trying simply to expand their following so that they can command larger fees: They’ll respond one by one to commenters, post content across channels including Pinterest and Twitter, and “like” other people’s social posts.
For some, all that effort can become, well, work. Elizabeth LaBau, who has more than 8,000 Instagram followers on her desserts site SugarHero, said she used to enjoy posting on Pinterest.
“Now I schedule my Pinterest time every week, and I just sit down and do it like a kid eating broccoli.”
Behind the work exists a more philosophical challenge: How does an influencer make money without diluting a carefully crafted, real-girl or real-guy brand?
Influencers typically gained traction because they did not come off as corporate shills. If they clutter people’s feeds with too many sponsored posts or execute those sponsored posts in a way that feels contrived, they might alienate readers.
Chew, for example, maintains a lifestyle blog called Alicia Tenise and an Instagram feed with about 12,000 followers. She has done all sorts of sponsored posts, including with Banana Republic, Rent the Runway, Pepsi, Brita and Enterprise CarShare. But there was one that ticked her followers off.
“I did a campaign with a mouthwash company a little over a year ago, and I got so much backlash over that,” Chew said.
Readers scoffed, complaining that she was endorsing a product that wasn’t in her wheelhouse. Since then, Chew has tried to rethink her strategy, doing fewer sponsored posts but raising her rates to offset the reduced rate of earning.
Sponsors, though, can be tricky to manage. Chew agreed to participate in one brand’s Twitter chat before realizing that the brand had a set of canned answers for her to deliver.
“They asked what a family tradition was for Fourth of July,” Chew said.
She was supposed to respond that she and her family go to the lake. Problem is, Chew can’t swim, and so she thought her followers would sense right away it was phony. She told the brand that she’d need to say something that was more true to her real life.
Such tight restrictions from brands are not unusual. Kimberly Smith of Penny Pincher Fashion said she’s been asked not to use words such as “cheap” or “budget” when writing about a low-priced item. Amanda Kushner of Glitter & Spice says one food company asked her to feature its cracker in an original recipe but said she could not show any photos of the cracker in crumbled form.
At the upper echelons of the influencer hierarchy, there is evidence of just how lucrative this new world can be. Aimee Song, whose Song of Style feed on Instagram has 4 million followers, has signed an endorsement deal with Laura Mercier cosmetics that is reportedly worth more than $500,000. Emily Schuman, who founded Cupcakes & Cashmere and has racked up more than 300,000 Instagram followers, now has a clothing collection that is sold at Nordstrom and Shopbop. Logan Paul, an influencer who is known for quirky, comedic videos, recently said he was paid $200,000 for a single day’s work.
But even with fewer followers, you can do quite well. LaBau, the desserts blogger, said she charged $200 for her first sponsored post years ago but now can command up to 10 times that per post.
Some of the proposed arrangements do not involve money at all.
“I had a company that was going to send me hair extensions — but not pay me for it — but wanted a blog post, three Instagram posts, two Twitter posts and a Facebook post spaced out over a three-month period,” said Anna Dille Cobbs, a Dallas-based speech therapist who runs a fashion and recipe site called Fleur Dille. “That’s crazy.”
Cobbs charges $250 to $400 for a sponsorship package that includes a blog post and one related post each on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.
Sponsored posts are not the only way for influencers to monetize their work. They also can join affiliate networks that allow them to make a few pennies on each click they drive to retailers’ websites or that pay them commissions on the sales they facilitate on retailers’ websites.
But, overall, it’s an uncertain landscape. Regulators have begun insisting that sponsorships be more transparent, with greater disclosures. And the technological landscape keeps changing. For example, Instagram moved recently from a chronological feed to an algorithm-driven feed. This has some influencers worried that it will become hard to enlarge their followings and get as many “likes” as they need to keep brands happy.
Such changes have made some skeptical that the influencer marketing boom can be sustained.
Chew, for one, said she has no plan to abandon her day job working full-time for a media group in Tysons Corner, Va.
“I’m a little hesitant right now,” Chew said, “because I’m not exactly sure when the blogger bubble is going to burst.”