‘Instacouples’ Are Big Business For Brands. But Monetizing A Relationship Has Its Challenges

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Welcome to VOL.UME: Love Now, a new series of stories chronicling how we find and experience romantic connections in the digital age. For the full experience, head to volume.mtv.com.

By Mary Emily O’Hara

When Italian style influencer Chiara Ferragni, 32, married rapper Fedez in September 2018, their wedding was like a fairy tale come to life. Guests were whisked off to Sicily on a chartered plane, arriving at an actual castle decked with thousands of white roses and twinkling lights. She wore not one but two custom-designed Dior wedding dresses. The ceremony was covered in major fashion magazines like Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, and was devoured so raptly, it could have been a royal wedding. The event also shattered records for what digital branding experts call Media Impact Value (MIV), an algorithm that calculates a brand’s financial return based on metrics like social media engagement; the quality of industry media coverage; and overall reach, or how much everyone is talking about your event.

When you have over 17 million Instagram followers, as Ferragni does, brands like Dior, Prada, and Lancôme clamor for sponsorships; after the wedding hashtag #TheFerragnez exploded, brands that spent with the couple earned millions back in online engagement and spending. Digital marketing platform Launchmetrics estimates Ferragni’s wedding resulted in 67 million digital interactions and $36 million in audience-driven MIV, WWD reported. That’s a lot of profit from a wedding estimated to have cost around 1 million bucks, assuming the couple paid for the location, flowers, or the custom amusement park they had flown to Sicily (we can safely assume most of it was gifted).

The financial impact of weddings and other significant relationship transitions can’t be overstated in a world where influencers now drive just as much—and sometimes more—advertising for brands as traditional models.

The financial impact of weddings and other significant relationship transitions can’t be overstated in a world where influencers drive just as much—and sometimes more—advertising for brands as traditional models. Those pivotal love moments, like the birth of a child or an engagement announcement, draw so many offers from brands that some influencers now plan elaborate marketing campaigns around what might otherwise be private, personal events. When done effectively, those events blend in seamlessly on an influencer’s highly curated social media feed, and most of us aren’t any the wiser. But if a marketing deck pitching the event to brands surfaces, as it did during Marissa Fuchs’s whirlwind engagement trip, followers may feel betrayed and begin to call your life “an episode of Black Mirror.” (For her part, Fuchs’s fiance, Gabriel Grossman, told The Atlantic she had no knowledge of the deck.) Other influencers don’t appear to take on any wedding sponsors but still benefit from peak engagement; when YouTube star Gigi Gorgeous married oil heir Nats Getty, a steady stream of engagement and wedding content posted to social media led to regular press coverage.

In 2019, many of us are still catching up to the fact that digital influencer marketing is now a massive industry; the marketing agency Mediakix published a study projecting brands will spend between $5 billion and $10 billion on social media influencers in 2020. Few people will ever see the pitch decks that influencers and brands actively send to each other, which are now industry standards; we only ever see what the respective parties want us to see. There are entire agencies that exist to manage the Insta-famous, and still more agencies designed to match brands with the influencers that can best sell their product. Just a few years ago, many of today’s most powerful fashion and style influencers were bloggers experimenting with social media to drive traffic to their websites; now, social media in all its variants is a primary source of traffic and income. Companies have learned that people are jaded when it comes to traditional advertising — we leave the room during commercials and use ad-blockers on our browsers. But when it comes to the personalities we follow on social media, the people who make us laugh or inspire us with everything from recipes to style tips to self-love messaging, we listen and watch with rapt attention.

Followers expect to be included in influencers’ big life moments, so brands now do, too — in both organic and pre-planned ways. Some companies send elaborate press packages to influencers in the hopes of an organic unboxing on Instagram stories, while others send flowers to celebrate birthdays and big career moves. When Courtney Quinn announced her engagement to longtime boyfriend Paris Sims on her popular Color Me Courtney account, she was flooded with sponsorship offers. “The second Courtney posted our engagement on Instagram, brand after brand reached out like, ‘Let me make your dress,’” Sims tells MTV News. “It was overwhelming.”

“Eighty percent of brands are leveraging influencer campaigns in their marketing mix, an increase from the previous years,” Alison Bringé, the chief marketing officer of Launchmetrics, tells MTV News. “It makes sense; as brands are targeting the younger consumers who value authenticity and connectivity, they turn to digital influencers to provide that, and so it is evident why this tactic continues to grow and is now at the heart of brands’ strategies.”

Because we the audience continue to crave candid peeks into the lives and relationships of the fabulous, influencers can feel obligated to let viewers in — and that includes taking partners, family, children, and friends along for the ride. Fans crave intimacy and authenticity, and influencers provide it by letting us into their homes, vacations, and weddings. And while excessively scrolling through Instagram’s perfectly curated version of life and love has been shown to have negative impacts on self-esteem and body image (one 2017 British study aptly referred to the phenomenon as “compare and despair”), when it comes to brands, our rapt (and possibly unhealthy) attention to our feeds translates into dollars.

Fans crave intimacy and authenticity, and influencers provide it by letting us into their homes, vacations, and weddings.

Pivotal relationship moments especially don’t just drive clicks, they sometimes create careers. Terrell and Jarius Joseph started a family Instagram account for kicks. “We had never thought this could be a business,” Terrell told MTV News. But after announcing the birth of their “twins,” Aria and Ashton through two surrogates in 2017, the couple was swarmed with media attention — and the brands soon followed. When MTV News contacted the couple for an interview, they had signed with a talent manager for the first time that week, overwhelmed by the success of their content and in need of help.

While some influencers are learning how to navigate the business of being themselves,  not every influencer is comfortable merging their personal and professional lives. For fashion designer Nicolette Mason, drawing boundaries that separate her romantic relationships from the world of digital marketing is a matter of respect.

“I am very, very aware that as far as people I’ve dated and been in relationships with, they didn’t sign up to be an influencer,” Mason tells MTV News. “It is something that I do actively, it’s part of my career, and it’s been a huge platform and place for me to have incredible opportunities. But the people who I am in relationships with … did not sign up for that.”

Quinn and Sims are comfortable with their “Instacouple” status; they built Color Me Courtney together, and Sims has his own fans on her platform. Initially, the project was launched while Quinn was completing a master’s degree in business, as a way for her to land a job in fashion. Sims is a photographer and publicist in marketing and advertising, and the couple says Color Me Courtney has helped each grow professionally in a symbiotic way. But Quinn says she’s still careful to check in every time she pulls out her phone to take a pic of dinner or live stream part of a vacation. She’s aware that comfort with being on social media can change from one day to the next.

“I believe in being fully transparent and telling you what’s going on, but that doesn’t mean that you have to know every aspect of my life,” Quinn says. “So it’s also being respectful of the privacy in my relationships. It helps to set those boundaries. Paris could be into it today, and tomorrow he could not want to be on my stories. You just have to double-check every day.”

When Mason got married in 2015, she was aware that partnerships were on the table — but decided not to work with any brands. “I just didn’t want to be thinking about work obligations or posting requirements or things like that on my wedding day,” she says (the couple has since split). “I could have — I’m sure the opportunities were there. But I just felt like, things that are really personal life moments, I didn’t want those to be influenced by a brand or by an advertising need or by someone else’s creative brief.”

Pivotal relationship moments especially don’t just drive clicks, they sometimes create careers.

Mason said she doesn’t judge influencers who do work with brands for personal events like weddings, and she understands why companies are so eager to join in the festivities. “My wedding photos still are my most-liked and engaged photos I’ve ever shared on social media,” she says. But that corporate eagerness doesn’t mean an influencer has to say yes to a branded wedding. And for those who do choose to work with sponsors, a certain balance must be struck between work obligations and one of the most important personal events of their lives.

“At the end of the day, me and Courtney have been together for a long time. This is our day. It can’t be this big fabricated or phony thing,” Sims says. “We just want to share this day and have it be special. If there’s an opportunity to weave in some brands we’ve partnered with before in some sort of seamless integration, then sure, why not? But we’re just not going to sacrifice our day to accommodate brands.”

Part of the reason the couple plans to be choosy about wedding sponsors is that  making content isn’t as easy as it looks. Hours of work can go into a post; shooting photos, writing captions and blogs, negotiating with brands on specific copy requirements, and cross-posting on multiple feeds at prime social media hours all require more time and energy than most people imagine. So while it’s tempting to take up offers of “free stuff” for an event as expensive as a wedding, Quinn says, “A free option isn’t ever free. If it’s done on an exchange basis, you end up working harder because there’s not a clear outline of deliverables, and you’re trying to do all these things to please the brand.”

Brands are aware that weddings and other big events cause an uptick in post engagement for whoever uploads the photos, too. But when asked whether those events command higher offers and bigger contracts than usual, Mason’s manager, Kristin Enlow, says that’s tough to measure, since each offer is based on varying factors — from the influencer’s number of followers to the product being marketed, as well as obscure concepts like “niche value.”

While some influencers are learning how to navigate the business of being themselves, not every influencer is comfortable merging their personal and professional lives.

“What’s their engagement rate? What’s the amount of impressions that we’re going to get? We obviously have to have that conversation depending on the talent,” says Enlow, a talent manager at Digital Brand Architects. “If they have that celebrity value, if there’s a ton of press around them, we know that they’re going to convert really well in the category. There are so many things that factor into pricing.”

Payment is a closely guarded secret in the influencer sphere. Few people talk about how much brands pay influencers, in part because there’s no industry standard. And while exact amounts are near-impossible to unearth, it’s clear that influencers are used to being paid for their time. When MTV News contacted the manager of one prominent influencer with just over half a million followers, the manager asked whether the interview would be a “paid opportunity.” MTV News explained it was not; the influencer’s team did not arrange an interview by deadline.

When Terrell and Jarius received their first offer for a sponsored post, it was around $500 to post a photo of a children’s book. But now, Terrell says, “Companies have gotten very strategic to cover themselves — sometimes it will be in your contract not to discuss deliverables and salaries and budgets.” The couple now makes enough income that Jarius quit his job to focus on running the family’s digital influencer business full time; Terrell works remotely and has the flexibility to travel and participate in shoots as needed.

Like any parents, Terrell and Jarius discussed the pros and cons of bringing the kids into their work. “It’s about making sure they’re comfortable, making sure they are not being overworked, and making sure money gets put aside from these campaigns that they are involved in, too,” Jarius says. If brands want the kids to be part of a campaign, the couple requests that the children be written into the contract and given their own fees, which are then put aside for them.

Does the couple ever wonder whether they are being sold short? It’s complicated. As a queer black couple, Jarius says, there are times when they wonder if they didn’t get hired for a campaign due to their sexual orientation or other factors. “But in terms of the value we add and the box we check off in terms of diversity,” Terrell says, “there aren’t that many black same-sex dads with kids in the influencer realm.” Straight white women with tens of millions of followers can command massive offers — yet they still can’t possibly represent black LGBTQ+ dads.

When it comes to the impact that influencers have and the brand recognition they can drive, one thing is clear: Followers are a major cog in the overall machine. Without us, influencers would just be people posting pictures like anyone else. But when we pile by the thousands onto an Instagram page, we infuse it with power that translates to capital and, sometimes, to a very awkward experience for the person behind the account.

Mason chose to pull back from sharing her personal life after her 2015 wedding. “I experienced such a weird level of entitlement around my personal life,” she tells MTV News. “People who I didn’t know, [were] asking to attend my wedding, or for really personal and intimate details about my life in terms of my relationship.” Afterward, the added turmoil of a breakup firmed Mason’s desire to protect not just her own privacy, but to also respect the privacy of her ex as well — something that is uniquely challenging after a wedding that’s been covered in the press.

These days, followers are as invested in the major life events of influencers the way that other generations have traditionally obsessed over Hollywood celebrities. Whether we’re looking for inspiration, or feeling down and inadequate and looking to escape into a fantasy realm, influencers often appear to be living a perfect version of what our own lives could be. But there’s more to life than branded deals, and even the influencers who make their living off those dotted lines know it. No matter what’s actually happening behind the scenes, what we see on influencer feeds is the beautiful version of life: colorful, luxurious, aspirational, and — perhaps most significantly — exactly what they choose to share with us.

Back to VOL.UME: Love Now.





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