This week on Why’d You Push That Button, Vox.com’s Kaitlyn Tiffany and I give the people behind the camera some attention. We’re talking about Instagram boyfriends, or simply, the photographers who take everyone’s Instagram photos. The unsung heroes. We want to know how these people feel and how influencers decide who to ask to take their photo.
We chat with Meredith Haggerty about the time she hired an Instagram boyfriend for Fashion Week in New York City a couple years ago. She wrote about the experience for Racked — I highly recommend it. Then Kaitlyn talks to a verified influencer couple, Rachel Hope and Alex Sunshine. Rachel is the face behind The Concrete Blonde, and she and Alex have had to navigate their relationship in both a romantic and business way. We’re now obsessed with them and their mutual support for each other. Finally, we chat with Mae Karwowski, the founder of influencer marketing company Obviously. Karwowski walks us through the world of influencers and how they really get their photos taken. Turns out, they love to date within the creative world.
Listen to the podcast and follow along with Karwowski’s transcript below. Of course, feel free to subscribe anywhere you typically get your podcasts. You know our usual places: Apple Podcasts, Pocket Casts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, and our RSS feed. Subscribe your friends, too! Steal their phones and just sign them up for the podcast; they’ll love it.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Kaitlyn: We’re back with Mae Karwowski the founder of Obviously, which is an influencer marketing company based in New York.
Mae Karwowski, CEO at Obviously: Hi.
Ashley: Thanks for being here.
Excited to be here.
Ashley: I feel like we just have to start out with the obvious question for Obviously: what is an influencer marketing agency?
An influencer marketing agency is really a company that pairs brands with influencers and really helps brands navigate the world of influencer marketing, which this world is very new, and it’s very foreign to a lot of brands. So we provide a lot of strategy and also set up a lot of testing and optimization to make sure brands are working with the right influencers for them, and that they’re approaching influencers in the right way, so that the influencers think they’re really cool and like them as well. There are just so many questions on the brand side, and it is so new and also so booming that we really provide that support. And we also provide all the tech, the analytics, telling them like, “Don’t work with this influencer they have fake followers.” You need to be reaching real people. We want people with real organic audiences who are doing something cool. It’s better if you have 10,000 real, super excited followers rather than a 100,000, but 50,000 aren’t real.
Ashley: So are you repping influencers, or are you more of an intermediary?
We’re very much brand-first, but since we work with so many awesome brands we have really great relationships with influencers, too. And then we built the tech that makes it really easy for a brand to work with hundreds to thousands of influencers at once. So obviously we get to know and hang out and have really great relationships with a ton of influencers, but usually it’s because we’re helping them advance their career and helping them get on the radar of a different brand. But we don’t have a roster. No one’s exclusive to us. We’re not pushing certain influencers rather than other ones.
Kaitlyn: When we’re saying influencer we’re not talking about, like, Kim Kardashian. What’s the scale, the tiers that you would say exist?
The tiers are highly debated, but basically a micro-influencer is really anyone who doesn’t have an agent or representation yet. So that usually comes in on Instagram around like 75,000 to 100,000 followers. You start looking for someone to sign with and who’s going to be negotiating your deals. Some influencers are doing it on their own and doing a great job. You see one awesome influencer who’s a lawyer, and I’ve never seen anyone negotiate as well as she does. She’s in Brooklyn, she’s awesome. That’s actually a whole new part of law that I’ve been talking to a lot of lawyers about because these contracts have gotten more and more complex, and if you have a brand’s legal team, they’re going to put everything in there like a normal contract with the normal vendor. And if you’re just kind of signing on the dotted line and not reading that and you’re not ready for it, it’s really not good. So we really help people navigate that.
And if you’re a micro-influencer, you’re really working with brands to really build up your portfolio. And to be like, “Hey here all the brands I work with.” You’re consistently growing your audience. You’re doing a lot of networking with other influencers. People who are really going for it as a micro-influencer, it definitely is a full-time thing. They’re always on the go, always creating content. And I think people sometimes are like, “Oh yeah, they’re just doing Instagram,” but it actually takes a ton of time to figure out where to shoot, figure out who your photographer is, figure out what you’re going be wearing, styling, and then editing all that content and figuring out when to actually have it go live.
Ashley: I feel like you just gave us the perfect transition into our topic: Instagram boyfriends, which is a loose term. Kaitlyn talked to an influencer with her boyfriend who doesn’t have photos with him really. He’s clearly a behind-the-scenes guy. Do most people rely on friends to take their photos, like the people you work with, or are they hiring photographers?
A lot of influencers are really hiring other photographers who want to build out their portfolio, too. So you’re part of an influencer community, and you’re always trying to find additional photographers who are going to do a cool shoot with you, have a cool idea, and then in doing that, a lot of times people end up dating or really having some chemistry.
Kaitlyn: That’s the meet cute? This should be a Netflix movie yesterday.
It is either going on a photo shoot with someone and just really vibing with them. It’s the new meeting at work. It really is. The other thing is that so many brands are throwing so many events. We do two to three events in New York or another city across the world every week, all these influencers know and like each other and mingle all the time. So it really is a whole community of people who are creators and really into creating photos and videos and sharing tips and talking about which brands are great to work with, which ones aren’t.
Ashley: Do brands look at the photos on influencers’ pages and judge them to determine whether they want to work with them?
There’s really a spectrum when it comes to brands. There are brands who will scroll through every single photo on an influencer’s account, and we’ll get notes back on an influencer list that they see on our platform that’s like, “One photo a hundred down? Yeah. You know, her cat is just kind of ugly. I don’t think she’s going to mesh with our brand.” So there’s a luxury fashion brand who really treats it like a model casting call. There are other brands who are like, “This is all about getting influencers who love our brand and love what we’re doing. And it’s cool if the photo isn’t the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen. It doesn’t have to be in a magazine, or be ready to be a splashed on a billboard, but it really has to convey adequately the right thing about our brand.” So there’s really a spectrum between, “We don’t care what this looks like, as long as it gets great engagement and people click through and learn about our brand,” to other people who are like, “Yeah, you know, she doesn’t make the cut because of that one photo that one time.”
Kaitlyn: We had influencer on a previous episode who said that her fans really hated it when she had her boyfriend in photos because she was a little bit more of the type that had a lot of male followers that didn’t want her to be in a relationship. And then the couple we just interviewed, she didn’t have the same experience because she was more of a fashion influencer with lots of female followers. But I’m curious: if the cat’s ugly, what if the boyfriend’s ugly?
That’s a real thing. If your audience is basically guys who think you’re hot, and that’s a fantasy for them, they’re like, “Get that guy out of here. That totally ruins my perception of you.”
But there are kind of two different things: one is the influencer couple where they’re both influencers, and so if they both take an hour dramatically staging their dinner together neither one is gonna get really annoyed at the other person, and then there’s the photographer and the influencer, or the influencer husband or influencer boyfriend who’s just happy to take the photos. They might carry around lights and is just cool with it, totally supportive.
Ashley: Have you ever heard any like nightmare stories about that type of relationship or has an influencer ever come to you and explained how it’s destroyed their relationship or something?
Yeah, I think that’s why a lot of influencers actually try to date other influencers or date photographers, or maybe they don’t try, but it just happens really naturally because it’s essentially two people who are really into photography and really into creating cool images and documenting their life in a way that probably would be really annoying to someone else. But to them it’s like, “Oh, if we just got out this window right here at this time, the sunset is going to be perfect, and you wear that jacket you always wear.”
Two people who are both very much on that level and on that wavelength are going to think, “This is awesome. We’re having the best afternoon ever.”
If you’re just being dragged around and your girlfriend’s asking you, “Is this the right jacket? Are you sure? Are you sure?” That could potentially be really annoying.
Ashley: Have you ever heard about it from the boyfriend’s perspective?
It’s kind of funny because a lot of the influencers we work with, we’re having them go and do and receive some really cool things. So for instance, we have one influencer. He got to go on a cruise around the world, which was, you know, a six-figure ticket. And then his girlfriend got to go, as well. So it’s like, you’re not going to be complaining at least for a year after that happens, or have an awesome, all-expense-paid meal at Blue Hill Farms. Like okay, cool. Maybe this is worth it.
A lot of, I mean, a lot of people that aren’t influencers are just taking a ton of photos for their significant others all the time, too. A woman on my team was like, “My husband doesn’t know that he’s an Instagram husband, but he takes my photo a dozen times a day.” I think it’s a normal part of life for some people.
Kaitlyn: Do you hear about the money stuff getting weird because to me it sounds like it’s a lot of work if somebody is asking you to take their photo all the time, and then they’re making money off of these photos. I might eventually feel a little weird about it, especially if your significant other is like, “I’m not paying you for these photos you’re taking, but you can come on this cruise with me.” It starts to feel like a little icky maybe.
Yeah, it’s definitely a new money issue in a relationship that really wasn’t actually ever a thing before. Just like some one person making a lot more money than another person. But I think issues with money in general is a big thing in influencer marketing right now just because the space is so new. There’s so many influencers, and brands are trying to figure out how much to pay people in general, so you get pretty drastic differences in how much one person will get paid than another person, but usually the influencer decides their rate with their photographer already. So I would hope they’re sharing with their partner, like give them a cut. If they were just a professional, hired photographer they definitely would.
Ashley: So when you make a partnership between a brand and an influencer, you talked about how brands will do their background research. Do the brands get to suggest the shots? Or how does photography work after a deal is made?
So all of that is very negotiable, and usually we’re really helping negotiate that because the harder the shoot, if I need you to scale up a skyscraper and take a photo from there, obviously you should be paying that person a lot more money to do that versus, “Hey we’re gonna send you this T-shirt. Wear it however you want.” That’s a much easier, lower ask. Also does the brand get to see the content before it’s posted? Does the brand get to see it four times before it’s posted? Does the brand get to approve the message or not? These are all things that are very much up in the air that we help the brand and the influencer work through.
And it really depends, too, on the size influencer you are. If you’re Chrissy Teigen, you’re going to have your lawyer in there, really setting the terms. Whereas a lot of times the brand is setting the terms with smaller influencers, and so that’s why we’re there to really help and say, “Okay, this is actually the thing that’s going to be the most effective version of influencer marketing.” And usually that means being more authentic to the influencer. No one likes to see a really crappy influencer sponsored post, if it just looks like, “Oh god, the brand just really over-engineered that one.”
Ashley: Apple, with its iPhones, has been pushing all this portrait photography. I’m curious like how people think about their phones and their relationship to their phones. Do you guys ever talk about, “Should we get that new Pixel, or are we going to stick with the iPhone, or do we care about portrait mode?” Things like that.
Yes, so we work with Pixel, so we’re a big Pixel company, but I think the real drive to make the camera on the phone better, and like anyone in that space, to really just keep making sure the camera gets better and better and better because that always is the topic of conversation whenever a new phone is released. Like with Google, they had the new low-light feature, so we would have these dinner parties that were in the darkness or just in candlelight and having people take photos to be like, “Look, you can have all these awesome shots at dinner.” That becomes a huge selling point because people aren’t talking on their phones that often, but they’re taking a lot of photos, and they’re also looking at a lot of photos and looking a lot of videos. So that becomes so much more important.
Kaitlyn: Do you have any favorite Instagram boyfriends or Instagram boyfriend drama that you can share?
Do you know Jenna Kutcher and her husband? She is awesome, and she actually had a viral post where she was on a beach and her husband has six pack abs, and she’s like, “You know, he’s so hot. He loves me so much for me.” And then all of a sudden, he became a huge influencer, too.
I think she has more than half a million followers and he has around 100,000 followers now, but they both became this really cool couple. He was just taking all of her photos before, and now he’s actually an influencer, too, just because she started featuring him more.
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A podcast about the hard, weird choices technology forces us to make.