Meet Charlotte's Millennial #Influencers
On Instagram, their lives seem easy. We look at the business behind social media
IT'S A SUNNY WEEKDAY MORNING, and the NoDa offices for Black Wednesday are full of the sounds of iPhones buzzing and quick staccato typing on keyboards. Social media marketers sit behind sleek Macs in the modern space, featuring floor-to-ceiling windows, concrete floors, and black walls. In her office at the back of the spacious studio, the boutique marketing and PR company’s owner, Corri Smith, leans back behind her desk, where a fragrant candle is burning and a cow skin rug covers the floor.
Smith, 32, is a social media maven in Charlotte, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that her office feels Instagram-ready. Smith has been using social media to promote local brands—including her own—since 2012, when she worked for Heist Brewery. She launched Black Wednesday in 2015, after working solo for several local brands, and today the company has three additional full-time employees and two interns.
“It’s really nuts,” Smith says. “When I started marketing businesses, Facebook business pages didn’t even exist yet. You created a page for your business and then friended people. Instagram was brand-new. But I started using social media to get people through the door and engage with them before, during, and after their experience.”
Smith has created an entire career from her social media savvy. In addition to her successful company, she teaches SkillPop’s pop-up classes each month on social media topics. Her classes, which hold 25 to 30 students, are almost always full—often with others who would like to build a business around the medium.
“We’re a banking city,” she says. “So, we live in a space where a lot of people are not necessarily doing what they love. I’m consistently speaking to people who are unhappy in their jobs, because they’re working in a corporate space that’s not their passion.” Smith estimates that about half of the participants in her classes are people who want to turn their side passion into something sustainable fulltime, and hope to use social media to do that.
Vanessa Dyer fit this description. Dyer is a fashion blogger who left her corporate job in April to work full-time on her blogging career. “I loved my job and felt torn between the two, but I realized I was spending a fourth of my time on the blog, and it made as much as my salary,” says Dyer, whose Instagram account, @thecheekybeen, has more than 99,000 followers.
There is undeniably money to be made in this relatively new career option. While most influencers aren’t hitting the payout levels of a household name such as Kim Kardashian (who is reportedly paid in the high six figures for sponsored posts to her more than 113 million followers), many bloggers and Instagrammers such as Dyer develop lucrative partnerships with large brands.
Dyer is a perceptive 27-year-old who has given extensive consideration to her career choice. While her colorful feed features seemingly spontaneous, stylish photos of a cheerful and well-accessorized blond, a few minutes of conversation with her reveal a woman with serious business acumen and ambition. And those photos that at first glance appear to be a relaxed vacationer or a stylish brunch eater? They also include links to purchase the clothes she’s wearing and often promote large brands such as Neutrogena—who, in turn, pay her for the post.
Like many fashion bloggers, Dyer often schedules photo shoots on sunny days and photographs multiple outfits at a time. She then spaces them out on her Instagram feed in a way that feels as if followers are seeing a glimpse of her daily life. It’s similar to a traditional fashion shoot for an ad campaign, but Instagram gives it the feeling of being organic. Dyer compares brands paying for her posts to purchasing billboard space on a highway. “This is better than something you forget 10 seconds after you pass it,” she says. “I think that brands are seeing a better return on investment, in terms of marketing, because there’s such a direct relationship between an influencer and their audience.”
The fees for these kinds of posts can vary significantly and are often negotiable. According to Smith, most influencers charge based on their number of followers. “We once booked an influencer for a client campaign that charged $11 per 1,000 followers,” she says. “So, because he had 39,000 followers, the client paid $429 for one Instagram post.”
These price tags depend on a variety of factors, ranging from engagement to sphere of influence. Influencers will charge more depending on the extent of the work, such as creating a recipe or writing a longer blog. “Some influencers just charge a blanket rate,” says Smith. “I imagine they pick the rate based on the value they perceive their reach to reflect.”
And with followers in the hundreds of thousands, it’s not just about what the influencer posts online. “I was once told by an influencer that she charged $250 per hour to attend an event,” Smith says. This meant that the influencer would charge $500 to attend Smith’s event—not including an additional charge to post. “We said no to her. There’s also the value-add, though, right? When someone crosses paths with an influencer who also has a certain level of ‘celebrity,’ there’s additional value in the cool factor of the product being in their hands, so you might have to pay more for that.”
The idea that followers see influencers as celebrities who are relatable and who they trust, even when their posts are marked as being sponsored, is what sets this profession apart from any kind of traditional media. And it’s why gaining and holding that trust is especially important for influencers.
“Staying true to yourself and what your brand stands for should always be your main focus,” says Charlotte-based blogger McKenna Bleu. “Building the trust of your followers and being consistently you is how you grow a following.”
Bleu would know. The 33-year-old started her blog as a creative outlet when she was working as an Aveda hairstylist, and she has quickly grown her following. Her Instagram account, @mckennableu, has more than 268,000 followers. “I went into blogging with zero expectations,” she says. “It was a hobby I enjoyed doing, purely for fun.”
Today, her blog and social media handles are her full-time job, and take her all over the world—often on travels paid for by destinations and hotels. Bleu’s bright blond waves, fit physique, and year-round tan give her the look of a model. And from ocean-side photos in Bali to pictures by a pool in Palm Springs, her Instagram feed feels like the pages of a fashion magazine—which is, of course, the point. From travel destinations to colorful bikinis, each image has been meticulously created to sell its contents.
Bleu understands this as well as anyone. “I totally get it,” she says. “The image you see on Instagram is a very well put together, happy, living-my-best-life on a random Tuesday… But what isn’t shown is me working hard to organize, create, and shoot that scenario—because that’s what my job description is.”
She points out that she’ll never complain about the job, but that like any job, it’s work and a business—and what people are seeing online isn’t the full picture. “Five out of the seven days if you run into me in Charlotte, I’m looking like a hot mess in shorts and a T-shirt, with my hair in a bun,” says Bleu, laughing. “Sometimes I even look at some of my images and then look at myself in the mirror, and wish I was as cool as that girl I see online.”
Dyer agrees. “People think that it’s super glamorous and we live these perfect lives,” she says. “But our feed is very curated. It takes 100 pictures to get a good one.”
Dyer and Bleu are using this kind of grassroots social media marketing to promote their personal brands as fashion, home décor, and travel influencers, but many other Charlotteans use the platforms as places to promote very specific aspects of their professions.
Local mixologist Bob Peters has more than 47,000 Instagram followers for his images of beautiful cocktails with creative recipes. Hairstylist Arya Varji has more than 25,000 Instagram followers for his shots of edgy haircuts. And fitness trainer and activewear designer Jillian Frein has more than 184,000 Instagram followers checking in on her yoga poses. These kinds of niche audience accounts are often exactly what advertisers seek, because they can be certain the followers are especially interested in the specific topic—and subsequently advertisers’ products.
All of these niche feeds are carefully curated to tell a specific story to their followers. And while the goal may be authenticity, it’s not necessarily transparency. In other words, followers are seeing the real story—but maybe not the entire story.
Some local entrepreneurs, though, are trying a different approach. Brian Schindler, a 28-year-old Charlotte wedding photographer with more than 85,000 Instagram followers, is focused on what he thinks of as his social media legacy. “I’ve been reading a lot about how Instagram and Facebook are the legacy we will leave behind for grandchildren and even our children,” he says. “So, what kind of legacy do I want to leave?”
Schindler, who was working for Apple when Instagram launched, says that he was one of the first 80,000 users on the app. He landed on Instagram’s “Suggested User” list twice, which propelled him first to around 20,000 followers and then to around 100,000. “I realized that I’d been given a real gift that a lot of people don’t get in this lifetime—influence,” says Schindler, who points out that after the second jump, the number of people following him was four times the population of the small east Tennessee town where he grew up. “And so, I just decided to be really honest.”
For a while, Schindler dabbled in partnerships, from promoting sock companies to working with uptown’s The Ivey’s Hotel, but has become much more selective. These days, his feed includes primarily photos of his recent wedding, his new wife, their travels, and food. “I’ve decided to take a step away from sponsored posts for (a) bit, to get my head around what I want the platform to be used for,” he says. “If one of the people who follows me meets me, they’re going to expect me to be what they’ve seen online. And why would I want to make myself into someone that I’m not? I love the journey I’m on, and I want to document that journey.”
Davita Galloway, 38, who co-owns local shop, gallery, and event venue dupp&swat with her brother, likes the idea of using Instagram to show their imperfections. “Social media grounds things,” says Galloway, who likes to post short videos on Instagram. “It shows we’re still human. We want people to understand that we’re approachable. We post real things—whether we’re going through bad times or good times.”
Dupp&swat has close to 9,000 followers on Instagram, which is small in comparison to some of the aforementioned influencers, but Galloway notes that it’s their engagement that makes the difference. “Followers aren’t everything,” she says. “We like engaging our audience—letting people know they can talk to us.”
For PR firms such as Black Wednesday, seeing that engagement is crucial for determining the actual level of influence. “There’s a whole black market space for social media that people don’t know about,” Smith says. Because being a social media influencer can equal a paycheck, many ways to purchase followers and likes on the platform have popped up in recent years. And as those programs become more sophisticated, it’s more difficult than ever to determine who is truly an influencer and who has simply purchased a fake following.
“We stalk them and figure out what’s real and what’s not,” Smith says. “There was a blogger in Charlotte who every Thursday I looked at her profile, and her follower count would go up by exactly 1,000, but her likes weren’t going up. It’s less and less of an organic space.”
But even with all of its changes and flaws, Smith isn’t worried about the power of social media going anywhere. She points out that, ultimately, it’s about knowing that marketing—whether it’s for yourself or your brand—matters. People have migrated from Facebook to Instagram, and they’ll move on to whatever the next space is, but the power of social media marketing will remain.
Dyer agrees that while inevitably the platforms will evolve, the basic concept that has garnered her 94,000 followers won’t change. In fact, she sees it growing. “My followers are the same age as me,” she says. “When we have kids, they’ll have kids. I don’t see it going anywhere. At the end of the day, people just like reading about other people’s lives.”