Move over Kardashians: Meet the new 'influencers' on Instagram

Instagram ads are making money — for the platform and its young users.
You don't have to be a celebrity to be an Instagram influencer. (Getty Images/iStock Photo)

"I often find myself now with Instagram feeling like I just want to see what something actually looks like without the filter, just an ordinary life. What does it actually look like?"

Spark host Nora Young's question is a familiar one. Instagram, the photo-sharing platform, has gone through some major changes since it appeared on the mobile world in 2010 and was acquired by Facebook two years later.

Earlier this year, Instagram reached one billion monthly users.

Some of those users are ordinary people who have started using the platform to make money by advertising products to their followers.

Add sponsored content, advertisements on the timeline, plus the trend of users presenting a seemingly-flawless life on social media, and suddenly Instagram looks like a whole new platform compared to its early days.

Meet the University students gaining coin and products on IG

Jade White is a fouth-year university student. (Instagram )
Jade White is a fourth-year university student. She has about 5,000 followers on Instagram. She's one of many young adults in the business of being an "influencer" on Instagram.

"I do it whenever a company reaches out to me, they'll ask if I'd like to collaborate with them with their merchandise and whatnot. That happens about four times a month," said White. 

With slightly more than 3,000 followers, Azita Peters also posts sponsored content on her Instagram profile.

"I've always loved social media, especially Instagram, now that it's even more popular with Instagram Stories, and [I like] interacting with different audiences," Peters said.
Azita Peters is an Instagram influencer and a marketing major at Virgina Tech (Instagram)

Peters is also a junior marketing major at Virginia Tech. She is part of a student-run advertising agency called Prism.

"We call ourselves 'next generation marketing'. We have our chief marketing officers, we have account people, we have writers, we have designers, we have analysts. And we work on some of the top brands in the country," said Donna Wertalik.

Wertalik runs Prism. As the director of marketing for the Pamplin College of Business at the university, Wertalik knows a lot about social-media business. As part of its service, Prism will set brands up with students who will advertise for them.

"From a college standpoint we have a lot of the brands that come onto campus or send us emails or other posts for bringing them onboard, and compensating [students] in one sense or another, whether it's from experience, products, or actual compensation," said Wertalik.

A lot of companies ask students in the Prism program to collaborate, and they pay them to promote their products. Wertalik said they are 'paid' in various ways.

Some are given 'actual compensation" in the traditional off-the-url sense: money. In some cases influencers are not paid any money, but are paid via products, or via the increased exposure as an influencer.

Keeping content "on brand" and growing on social

Occasionally, White will post a lone selfie that isn't accompanied by a sponsored product. "[But] I usually take it down because I'd rather use it just for the business aspects" she said.

"I use my Instagram as a platform, instead of just showing my life to people," White added, "so I can get myself out there as well as brands that want to collaborate with me, so we both can grow."

As for Peters, she likes her IG layout to reflect her personality and her audience, which is, essentially, branding: presenting herself online in a way that reflects her shared interests and values.

"I try to do bright and colourful and positive because I think that aligns well with my personality and the people who know me and follow me," she said.

"I definitely try to create that synergy and align my personality and who I am to my posts, which can be hard. But giving off that sense of trust, being able to stand behind the things I'm posting and create a positive, colourful bright vibe to my posts is the goal."

While the business of influencing on social platforms may appear to be one-way, in that influencers are first sought by brands based on their following, there are actually a variety of platforms that act as brokers, connecting influencers with brands, Wertalik said.

Meltwater is one of them. It will take submissions to be an influencer, said Wertalik. Users can submit themselves into categories that they feel they'd be most influential in. Meltwater is a digital media monitoring agency, that also uses AI-driven intelligence.

Brands are also looking at key target audiences and determining an influencer's potential to reach optimum engagement with their followers, Wertalik said.

"Someone could have 5000 followers and every single time engage 250, but someone who has you know 600 followers and every time they post 400 engage, that's a better percentage of engagement, and that person may have more influence to impact and really lead them... to either purchasing the product, trying it, et cetera," said Wertalik.

Examining what Instagram's future might look like

Despite Instagram's growth, and its move towards being an ad-friendly platform, Instagram's founders Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger walked away from Facebook in September.

"I think we're going to see a lot more integration of both platforms. I think you're going to see a lot more of the Facebook features that people really love on that platform, migrating to Instagram, for good or bad," tech journalist Takara Small told Spark.
Takara Small is a tech journalist, founder of Venture Kids Canada, and the host of the Globe and Mail's podcast, I'll Go First

Small is an entrepreneur and founder of Venture Kids Canada. She is also the Globe and Mail's host of "I'll Go First", a podcast about tech start-ups.

In June, WhatsApp founders Brian Acton and Jan Koum left Facebook.

"These are two different companies with founders who decided to leave after they were acquired by Facebook. I think that says a lot as well about maybe where both platforms are going, and how Facebook views these as possibly money-making endeavors because Facebook unfortunately has been in the news for all the wrong reasons. But Instagram and WhatsApp have a much more positive relationship with the public," said Small.

Shortly after Systrom and Krieger's departure, Brendan Iribe, the chief executive of Oculus VR, also left Facebook. Longtime Facebook executive Adam Massari has since been appointed  to head Instagram. None of the founders gave an explicit reason for leaving.

"It can mean maybe that they have reached or achieved whatever goal they set out to do, and then there's nowhere else to go from there, or when they were acquired by a much larger company, it can sometimes maybe mean that they're dissatisfied with where the direction of the company is moving forward," Small said.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?