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Social Status

Influence has always been lucrative, but here's how 10 Minnesotans are making their social media prowess pay off.

Wing Ta
Photos by Eliesa Johnson

You can’t eat a granola bar for breakfast once you’ve amassed 10,000 followers on Instagram.

When you’ve positioned yourself as a social media star and feel like the world is watching, every life moment requires art direction, starting with the morning meal. Picture this: cage-free eggs, over easy on wheat toast. An avocado halved with a gold knife on a weathered wood table. French press coffee in a modern white mug. Peonies peek into the corner of the frame. A Japanese chambray towel in neutral stripes is bunched near the white plate, as if to suggest this whole scene spontaneously materialized. In a flood of natural light.

Through the lens of social media, there are no dirty dishes.

“Whether or not we realized it, from the beginning, social media has been about online reputation management,” says Greg Swan, senior vice president of brand innovation and digital at Weber Shandwick. “Social media is an extension of your personality—but only the best parts.”

While most of us post pictures of kids and anniversaries and vacations (because that daily bowl of oatmeal wouldn’t get many “likes”), there is a select group of individuals who have transcended real life and real friends to become stars of the Internet. Much like the Hollywood celebrities we fawn over in glossies, these unknowns have curated a life that looks better than ours and yet feels approachable because their medium—unlike the big screen—is entirely democratic. Anyone can get online. It’s more challenging to have something to say—and even trickier to retain authenticity while capitalizing on the opportunities influence brings.

There’s no mathematical formula to determine influence, although many websites try. It’s not just about numbers. It’s not necessarily about expertise—there are lots of talented photographers and chefs and personal trainers, but not all of them have hundreds of thousands of followers who click on whatever they post or pin. Social media influence is a combination of tenacity, luck, and that certain intangible something that makes someone fascinating to lots of people. When everybody is watching you, you’ve got power to drive commerce, and that can be very lucrative. For example: Women’s Wear Daily recently reported that top style bloggers can earn more than $1 million a year, commanding as much as $50,000 for a high-profile brand event.

That’s rare, of course, but even in the Twin Cities, some top social media personalities are reaching a point where their “influence” is becoming a full-time job.

Kate Arends Peters of Wit & Delight, a Minneapolis design blogger with 2.6 million followers on Pinterest, was commissioned by Target to create a collection of party goods that will launch in stores in September.

Ali Holman, a Maple Grove fitness expert with 142,000 Facebook fans and 82,000 Twitter followers, counts Dick’s Sporting Goods, KIND, Wholly Guacamole, Quest Nutrition Bars, and Cellucor among the brands she works with—work that includes endorsements and sponsored posts.

And every week, recipes published online by recent University of St. Thomas graduate Monique Volz are picked up by today.com and The Huffington Post—not because Volz has any culinary experience or a high-profile restaurant job, but because her social media audience tops 50,000, which helps to drive nearly a million page views per month to her Ambitious Kitchen blog. That personal success helped her land a job in social media with General Mills. “Having a blog or a website is a way to prove yourself,” says the 25-year-old. “It shows that someone as young as I am could build their own brand.”

 

These are not the Jason DeRushas of the Twin Cities, who had an established media platform as a WCCO-TV news anchor and embraced social media to expand and enhance that reach. Peters, Holman, and Volz represent a growing group of individuals who built their influence independently, online. Each has a passionate interest, which gave them something to talk about. But it takes more than knowing design, fitness, or food to become an influencer. Holman, who created online fitness program corecamper.com, learned that the hard way five years ago, when she pitched a fitness segment on the Fox 9 Morning News.

“When I first went on Fox 9, I told my web guy to brace himself for a ton of hits. We got 20,” Holman says. “What I really realized is, you can’t just put yourself on TV and be popular. You have to interact with people.”

So while it may seem that anyone with an Instagram account can become famous, building influence on social media is perhaps a more labor-intensive path than the old-fashioned method of climbing the corporate ranks. Social media requires a 24/7 commitment and a level of intimacy that would make a 1990s celebrity balk.

“Some days, I don’t feel like posting,” admits Holman, whose content on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest includes inspirational quotes, workout suggestions, healthy eating ideas, and eye-popping pictures of her post-pregnancy abs. “But I’ve built a following, and I feel a responsibility. So even if I’m at Disney World with my family, I’ll stop to take a picture at lunch and post it.”

Who cares? Apparently, a lot of us. A recent Nielsen study found that the number one information source used in the consumer decision process was social media. More than expert reviews or TV and radio ads, people believe what they read and see on social media. That has a lot to do with how much time we’re spending online. Digital experts note the shift in habits from just a couple of years ago, when social media was something we did when we were bored at work or at home. Now it’s something we do when we’re bored in line. Or—wince—at a stoplight. Which is to say, all the time.

“Our parents might have been greatly influenced by Don Shelby or a Minnesota Viking endorsing a car dealership,” says Weber Shandwick’s Swan, who has nearly 9,000 Twitter followers of his own. “Young people today are more moved by an endorsement from people their age, in their interest group.”

The power of influence is nothing new—it’s just who has it that has changed, says Karen Robinovitz, a partner at Digital Brand Architects in New York.

“Pre-social media, the influencers were experts and celebrities. They were voices that brought authenticity and trusted third-party endorsements to a brand,” Robinovitz says. “Social media has enabled a crop of talent to share their point of view, content, and expertise in a new, largely public way.”

Robinovitz represents Minneapolis blogger Elizabeth Dehn of Beauty Bets, who BuzzFeed named one of the 51 most powerful pinners on Pinterest, based on her five million followers.

Influencers can say things companies can’t, says Dehn, who also writes a beauty column for this magazine. “I’m highly opinionated and discriminating about products. Readers trust this person they think they know. Brands partner with me because they want me to say things in an authentic way.”

Suzanne LeRoux, president of a small Georgia-based beauty brand called One Love Organics, knew Dehn to be honest and insightful in her product reviews. She saw that a mention on beautybets.com drove sales to One Love Organics’ website. “When you’re selling something, there’s always a barrier to building relationships,” LeRoux says. So she decided to capitalize on Dehn’s influence—not just by giving her product to try, as many beauty brands do with popular bloggers, but also by collaborating on a new product line.

Dehn and LeRoux’s team worked for more than a year on every aspect of the Elizabeth Dehn for One Love Organics skin care line, from formulation to label design. The products have been featured in national magazines and on numerous high-profile blogs. But even that doesn’t bring the level of interest that Dehn can drive through her own social media, especially Pinterest. Since partnering with Dehn, LeRoux says One Love Organics has “experienced substantial growth in sales and significantly increased our social media interactions.”

Even giant companies like Target are impressed by the power of independent social media influencers. This summer, Target introduced its first Pinterest-inspired party collection. The idea grew out of a statistic that more than 700,000 party-related items are pinned on Pinterest every day. So Target asked three top pinners, including Minneapolis-based Peters, to create a collection that reflects their style. Peters based hers on craft beer.

If it seems like a big leap to go from pinning other people’s photos on Pinterest to designing paper and party goods, Target wasn’t worried. “We really looked at today’s top pinners as tastemakers,” says Target spokeswoman Angie Thompson. “Their style resonates.”

In addition to her enormous Pinterest following, Peters has 60,000 followers on her Wit & Delight Instagram account. Instagram is widely viewed as the fastest growing channel for engagement, particularly within fashion, design, travel, and other visually stimulating fields. When Peters, say, posts a photo of herself wearing a tunic from a local designer (styled and propped to look straight out of a fashion magazine), 2,000 to 3,000 people will “like” it within hours. And they don’t stop there.

Minneapolis-based designer Lisa Hackwith says that Peters and other social media influencers have driven so much traffic to her Hackwith Design House website that she hasn’t needed to advertise or sell her collection the traditional way, at apparel markets. Buyers are beating down her door just based on her Instagram feed and the social media buzz around her.

Target insists style was a bigger factor than fan base in selecting Pinterest partners, but all three of the retailer’s collaborators have audiences in the millions. So what is the magic social media number—the point at which popularity becomes influence? Companies tend not to be specific. They consider engagement along with sheer numbers. If you have 100,000 fans on Facebook but average only a few “likes” per post, that’s less compelling than someone with an audience of 10,000 with more enthusiastic fans and followers.

“It’s not necessarily about the biggest audience but about having the right audience for a brand,” says Blois Olson, founder of Fluence Media. For food blogger and cookbook author Amanda Rettke of I Am Baker, 10,000 hits a day was the point at which she started to make money on advertising and sponsorships. Then there’s the challenge of accepting those dollars without looking like a sellout and losing audience share. Rettke says she works with products and brands she would use in her own kitchen even if she weren’t being paid. She spends a big chunk of her workday making sure sponsored mentions are in her voice and style to feel true. Still, fans can be fickle. When Rettke did a sponsored post for California Dairy, her hometown followers raged, “Minnesota has its own cows!” “I try to be as original and authentic as I can,” says Rettke, a mother of five from Bethel. “At the end of the day, it was a paycheck. I need to buy diapers.”

 

Abraham Piper says his blog became a viable business when he reached two million page views per month. Piper, of Arden Hills, created twentytwowords.com, a site for weird, quirky news stories that people feel compelled to share on Facebook. Now he averages 10 to 20 million monthly page views. The website is his full-time job, and he has a full-time employee. Still, he worries he’s one computer crash away from oblivion. “I feel like I’m always playing catch-up, trying to figure out what to do next, what the smart move is,” Piper says. “So I try to do semi-smart things until then.”

Piper has four kids. The oldest, age 9, announced that he wants to make money this summer. “You’ll need to work to make money,” Piper told his son. His son replied, “Then I’ll start a blog.”


ROLL CALL

wingta-(2).jpg WING TA | photographer

Her influence: Social media networking has taken Ta from Minneapolis wedding photographer to a nationally sought-after fashion and lifestyle photographer. She gets more jobs for her Canary Grey photography business (corporate and weddings) through Instagram and Pinterest than she does from her website. Her feed gets mentioned on popular fashion sites like Refinery 29. Madewell is among the brands that have recruited Ta to incorporate their merchandise into posts on her Instagram account, with her signature sun-drenched, minimalist style.
Pinterest etiquette: “I don’t pin my own photos; I think that’s tacky. I feel like Pinterest is an outlet to show what I’m about, what I’m interested in. But I have gotten clients that say they like the mood of my Pinterest boards—they think my style would work for their brand.”

@canarygrey | canarygrey.com | Biggest audience: 204,650 on Pinterest




ALI HOLMAN | fitness expert

Her influence: Building a robust online audience—Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest, as well as Facebook—has drawn so many customers to her online fitness training program that she no longer does one-on-one training. Her tri-weekly fitness segments for Fox 9 are now nationally syndicated. She’s done endorsement deals, is developing a product line and DVD series, and was recently signed by one of the largest sports management firms in the country. Interacting is key: “I really try to connect with companies that are connecting with my audience. For example, I’ll tweet a recipe I made with KIND bars. KIND will retweet that because they like to see people using their products. Their followers will say, ‘Hey, I’m going to check out that recipe.’ And it leads to me getting a sponsorship with KIND.”

@corecamper | corecamper.com | Biggest audience: 141,000 on Facebook
 

 


KATE ARENDS PETERS | designer and creative consultant

Her influence: Her blog started out as an expression of personal style and grew into a source of inspiration for fashion and design enthusiasts. Early to Pinterest, she quickly developed a huge following for her consistent good taste and keen ability to spot the next big thing. With requests pouring in from brands that wanted her advice and endorsement, she left her graphic design job to transition Wit & Delight from blog to business. Her highest-profile project launches next month: a “Pinterest to Party” design collaboration with Target. Peters also recently opened a cooperative workspace in the North Loop along with five other social media influencers—and immediately gave it a hashtag, #theCOMN.
The power: "People trust people more than they trust institutions."

@witanddelight | witanddelight.com | Biggest audience: 2.6 million on Pinterest




DAVID SCHWEN | designer and illustrator

His influence: When he left a big ad agency, Schwen needed a way to get his work noticed without taking out ads. He started publishing his own illustrations and video clips on Instagram and built a sizeable audience, which led to a steady stream of work. Warby Parker, Yoplait, and Skittles are among the brands that Schwen says discovered him, and hired him, entirely based on his colorful and creative Instagram feed.
On over-posting: "Sometimes I have a really fun idea I want to rifle through and post maybe 15 times in a half-hour. I might lose followers, but it's my own account and I try not to take it too seriously."

@dschwen | dschwen.com | Biggest audience: 89,000 on Instagram




AMANDA RETTKE | baker, blogger, cookbook author

Her influence: Her blog receives more than two million page views a month, which has helped get her cakes and cookies featured on the Martha Stewart show and in numerous books and national magazines. The author of Surprise-Inside Cakes, Rettke—a Bethel mom who homeschools her five kids—was blogging about baking before Twitter existed. But social media has dramatically expanded her reach. Brands hire her not only to write recipes, but also to post their products on her Facebook page and her Instagram feed, which is up to 23,000 followers.
Social media impact: “My content is unique enough that I think I would have the same relationships at this point without [social media], but they wouldn’t be as profitable. If I put an hour of work into scheduling Facebook posts, I see 10,000 hits to the blog.”

@iambakertweets | iambaker.net | 489,000 on Facebook




ELIZABETH DEHN | beauty expert

Her influence: Dehn’s tell-it-like-it-is writing style, good taste, and unbridled love of all things beauty-related have made her a respected expert among women seeking advice and great products. Beauty brands beg for her endorsement, which is proven to drive traffic and sales. She has an agent to help her weed through requests for brand collaborations and sponsored posts on her blog and social media. Meanwhile, she’s also a beauty columnist for this magazine and a digital strategist. She has her own product line, Elizabeth Dehn for One Love Organics. It’s now among the company’s top sellers.
Going viral: “I still don’t know what made me take off on Pinterest. When you’re not a celebrity, there’s an element of luck. One day my account had gone from 400 to 10,000 followers."

@beautybets | beautybets.com | Biggest audience: 5.7 million on Pinterest




MONIQUE VOLZ | food blogger

Her influence: She started a blog after graduating from the University of St. Thomas in 2011 as a way to share recipes and her passion for healthy eating. Social media helped quickly grow her following to include nearly one million page views per month. Her recipes are frequently picked up by The Huffington Post, today.com, and BuzzFeed. Food brands are eager to partner with her, whether on creating recipes or incorporating their products into her cooking. Those partnerships could earn her enough to pay the bills, Volz says; however, she’s in no rush to leave her day job with General Mills as social media strategist for Pillsbury.
The importance of a personal brand: “I definitely think I got my job because I had built my own brand. It showed that someone as young as I am could do it. Companies expect that now.”

@ambitiouskitch | ambitiouskitchen.com | Biggest audience: 25,000 on Facebook




ABRAHAM PIPER | editor

His influence: The blog Piper founded in 2008 with the idea of doing 22-word posts has grown into an aggregator of news—mostly the stupid-human-tricks variety—from all over the web. Piper has a knack for knowing what will go viral. Twentytwowords.com averages more than 10 million page views per month. Last November, it received national attention for more shared content on Facebook than BuzzFeed, TMZ, and The New York Times. Twentytwowords.com makes its money on advertising—enough to support Piper’s family, including a wife and four children in Arden Hills, as well as a business partner and a full-time employee.
The pressure: “My happiness is directly linked to how many people are on my site right now.”

@22words | twentytwowords.com | Biggest audience: 192,000 on Facebook




NICK MASSAHOS | online entertainer

His influence: He’s the king of six-second videos that aim to do nothing more than entertain. His popularity among young people, which grew from mash-ups of Disney clips set to pop music, has prompted organizations from General Mills to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to hire Massahos to make Vines on their behalf. The 28-year-old former Apple store Genius administrator says he fields brand inquiries almost weekly and gets recognized at Target. Meanwhile, he lives at home with his mom in Eden Prairie and is looking for a full-time job in social media.
Making a difference: “I get a lot of letters from people—someone recently sent me five boxes of Girl Scout cookies and Sour Patch Kids with a note that said she loved watching my Vines.”

@nickmastodon | Biggest Audience: 388,000 on Vine




THE PRODUCT POET | branding cheerleader

His influence: At a time when personal branding seems imperative to many careers, the Twin Cities businessperson behind The Product Poet set out to prove that a genderless, faceless character could engage corporations through poetry. It worked—The Product Poet has major brands from Hilton to Applebee’s tweeting in haiku and begging for 140-character endorsements. With followers including Tony Robbins and Snoop Dogg, the Poet speaks to companies (showing a face but not sharing a name) about social media engagement, leads online brand chats, and gushes about everything from Cinnabon to Downy—without pay. Charitable donations appreciated.
Listen up: The Product Poet is known to base restaurant and hotel decisions on which brand replies first over Twitter. “If you as a brand don’t pay attention to me, why would I listen to you?”

@productpoet | Biggest audience: 148,000 on Twitter




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