The secret life of Toronto’s social media influencers

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The secret life of Toronto’s social media influencers


When Shannae Ingleton Smith was pregnant with her daughter Kensington, she wanted to do a maternity photoshoot, but the Toronto woman is always thinking outside the box.

Instead of typical maternity snaps of a woman in a drapey dress clutching her bump and surrounded by greenery, she hit the streets in a handful of outfits involving a fuschia fedora, a sleek, leather jacket and a fluffy, forest green coat.

The photoshoot in October 2016 would become one of her first forays into the world of influencers – people who use highly-curated social media posts to affect purchase decisions.

The groundwork for the influencer era was ushered in around 1991 with the advent of the internet, but the creation of platforms like Instagram, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter kicked things into overdrive. Now it’s hard to go a day without spotting an influencer post online and those behind them are netting thousands of dollars and luxurious gifts for spreading the word about the world’s biggest brands. It’s turning some into bonafide celebrities and household names with millions of fans.

But the influencer industry was still fledgling when Ingleton Smith posed for that maternity photo shoot and shared the images on her Instagram account @torontoshay.

“I thought I’ll give this a try and see where it goes. I wasn’t focused really on the numbers at all,” she recalls. “I kept on sharing photos and it grew from there and then companies started reaching out to me.”

She juggled influencing with working for Rogers Media at first, but after nearly 10 years with the company, she couldn’t deny her predictions about how big influencing could become, so she quit to give it a shot full-time.

Now she counts 54,200 people as followers and brands including Pampers, Wonder Bread, Walmart Canada, Coca-Cola and Playtex as partners. A quick skim of her Instagram shows her munching on Cheerios with her daughter, kicking back with Starbucks and surrounded by fake dollar bills to show off Manulife’s services.

Shannae Ingleton Smith counts 54,200 people as followers and brands including Pampers, Wonder Bread, Walmart Canada, Coca-Cola and Playtex as partners..

A typical day, she says, starts with her waking up and responding to direct messages and comments. Then she’s usually off to meetings or busy handling calls, emails and offers.

“I probably say no to offers as often as I say yes,” she says. “Some things are just so not a fit that I don’t even respond because it’s completely off brand and…if you had looked at my content and saw the sort of things that I post about, they probably wouldn’t have reached out in the first place.”

She’s more likely to accept offers that resonate with her brand and that are from companies that she truly believes in or uses. She’s often offered free products, meals or trips instead of cash and weighs those deals by considering whether the value the company is offering her is greater than what she’s offering them.

A quick skim of Shannae Ingleton Smith's Instagram shows her munching on Cheerios with her daughter, kicking back with Starbucks and surrounded by fake dollar bills to show off Manulife's services.

It’s not unusual to hear of brands paying thousands of dollars for posts. Ingleton Smith usually works off what she calls her “four per cent rule.”

“If you have at least four per cent engagement. You can ask for (a fee based on) about four per cent of your following per Instagram post,” she says. “That is the starting point.”

Instagram engagement is calculated differently depending on who you ask, but for the most part, it’s considered to be the percentage of followers or viewers that engage with an influencer’s posts. To calculate an average engagement rate for Instagram, Ingleton Smith divides the number of likes and comments by an account’s follower count.

Brands that ask for more detailed posts, ones involving video or clauses preventing her from taking offers from competitors will typically pony up more.

When Ingleton Smith gets booked for a campaign, she usually puts together concepts, building a storyboard and collecting photo examples of how she wants to bring the content to life. She’ll often scout locations through geotags on Instagram, before booking a site, picking out an outfit and hiring a photographer.

But Ingleton Smith isn’t content with just profiting off influencing. She also wanted to use the platform to do something good: help bring diversity and inclusion to the industry. She started Kensington Grey Agency Inc., a boutique influencer agency rooted in diversity, and the Glow Up, a company helping influencers who identify as minorities negotiate and secure five-figure brand deals.

While most influencers shy away from sharing their rates, tricks and contract details with competitors, Ingleton Smith says that isn’t the case in a forum she runs through the businesses. People swap their secrets with ease and the success of members of the group is already impacting brands, she says.

“They are being more thoughtful about who they’re partnering with. You’re starting to see more women of colour, more size diversity, more age diversity, more gender diversity and sexual orientation diversity,” she says.

“When you don’t include those people in campaigns and when those people aren’t represented, it’s almost your way of implying that they don’t matter.”

When Ingleton Smith needs some advice, if she doesn’t turn to the forum, she’s got her friend Tania Cascilla to call.

The pair met in the early 2000s through mutual friends before Cascilla, who long worked in the fashion industry, moved to New York from Toronto.

After a surprise birthday photoshoot Ingleton Smith planned for the pair in 2015 during New York Fashion Week, Cascilla posted the images on her Instagram account @darling_tee.

“People started following us and strangers were commenting on the photos. That was so weird to me,” Cascilla recalls. “It was kind of surreal.”

The popularity was enough to convince Cascilla to give in to Ingleton Smith’s prodding to become an influencer. (They also run Glow Up together.)

Tania Cascilla was encouraged to become an influencer by her friend Shannae Ingleton Smith.

She’s racked up about 50,000 followers on the account and says her average Instagram post gets 1,500 likes and her blog gets about 3,000 visitors monthly. According to her media kit, 75 per cent of the audience she reaches are women and 70 per cent are between the ages of 25 and 40 – a key demographic for marketers.

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Cascilla has collaborated with a growing number of companies including Amazon, La Mer, Nespresso, Dior, Netflix and Swarovski.

Her influencing gigs have even given her once-in-a-lifetime opportunities, like the chance to walk the runway for a fashion show Sorel footwear hosted.

Her career initially confused her family.

“My mom didn’t get it at first. She was like, ‘why do you want to post your pictures on the internet for strangers to look at?” says Cascilla, now laughing. “Once it started picking up and it was a lucrative business, she was like ‘oh wow, you got all of that just from posting your photos on Instagram?”

Cascilla could spend most nights at events if she wanted to, but she’s gotten more judicious about her time.

“Sometimes they’ll give an Uber code to entice you to attend, which helps because who doesn’t want to go to the event in an Uber you didn’t have to pay for?” she says.

“In the beginning when I was just getting my feet wet, I was just happy to be invited but now after a few years in the game, I’m thinking is this serving any purpose? Am I authentically a fan of this brand?”

Cascilla and Ingleton Smith are used to people thinking their jobs are easy, but they are always busy and their posts take hours, if not days, to plan and execute.

Ingleton Smith says influencing puts you constantly in “creator mode” because you are a producer, editor, photographer, art director, copywriter, manager, negotiator, accountant and publisher on top of family obligations.

“There’s a misconception that anyone with a phone can snap a few photos and post and be Insta famous,” adds Cascilla. “That’s not how it works…I’ve invested a lot of money into it.”

Still there are no shortage of critics willing to complain about people shilling for brands they would never buy or getting frustrated with influencers who would much rather snap 100 photos of food than eat it.

In the last few years, swarms of Instagrammers have forced a Hamilton sunflower farm to close, caught flak for promoting the fraudulent Fyre Fest and been accused of fabricating images and stories. Some have drawn criticism after demanding brands cover the expense of their lavish weddings, vacations and evenings out.

North York food industry accountant Johnny Cheng has so far managed to avoid controversy with his side hustle: Instagram account @foodie.fob.

He started it in 2013 to chronicle his travels and food he eats, but friends peppered him for restaurant recommendations, so he started taking it more seriously about three years ago.

“I still didn’t even have a camera. I was just posting,” he says. “I didn’t know what I was doing. I was at the restaurant and I’d be snapping the food right away and making a post without even putting a hashtag.”

He knows better now. His account has 22,300 followers and he’s posted almost 900 times. He rarely appears in the photos. Instead, he prefers to put the spotlight on massive spoonfuls of spaghetti, a rainbow of desserts and giant platters of seafood.

Influencer Johnny Cheng visits restaurants and posts his food photos under the handle @foodie.fob.

Unlike most influencers, he doesn’t take money for posts or restaurant visits. He’s just happy to network and feel like part of the foodie community.

“I understand how hard it is to run a restaurant because rent, food, labour, all those costs are so high, but then when you try to add in marketing, you see a lot of restaurants, don’t have that kind of budget, so I’ve been trying to help as much as I can,” he says.

The best part of influencing, he says, is the impact he’s had on small businesses like Scarborough restaurant Oo-Kinza Fish House.

Cheng says it’s run by a family, who invited him to visit. He shared marketing tips with them and they were delighted when his advice brought in business.

“It got them so busy that they were booking a month ahead and they were very, very thankful for me helping,” he says.

“Now we have become really, really good friends and that is something that I value way more than money, way more than anything tangible.”

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