Yes, you can make money on Instagram. But don’t be fooled by the fun photos; earning a living on the platform takes work. We talked with three influencers whom companies tap to sell their products to learn what goes into building an audience — and an income — on Instagram. The conversations were condensed and edited for clarity.
Blogger and business coach
Instagram handle: @theconfusedmillennial
Earnings: $1,000 per month
How did you build your audience? The first few months, I probably spent a good five hours a day on Instagram. I gained 7,000 followers in four months. I think I developed carpal tunnel syndrome — my thumbs still hurt to this day. If I was not on my blog, I was on Instagram engaging with people, getting into conversations and getting to know people. My entire life was thinking about Instagram at that point.
How long before you started earning money? I set a rule for myself when I started the blog: to not even look at monetizing opportunities for at least six months. So the first sponsored post on my Instagram account was Sept. 13, 2016. It was for a K-Beauty full sheet facemask. How I found that was, I had joined some blogging networks where you just get random emails with available opportunities, so I applied to this one. They paid me $75.
What goes into a single post on Instagram? As far as setting up a photo shoot, you’ll probably take about 200 photos, and you’ll have five to 10 that are Instagram worthy, and then over the course of the year you will circulate them out. I try to batch it. Usually Mondays are photo shoot days and we’ll do two or three shoots that day.
Do you have a team of people you work with to do these photo shoots? I have an intern for the blog. I got super lucky — she specialized in photography in high school and has a Photoshop certification. She had photos that won awards when she was in high school, so she is my photographer now. If she’s not around for whatever reason, I’ll actually set up a tripod and use my phone as a remote for the camera, so I can snap the photos by myself. But it goes a lot quicker when I have her there to help me, like, move a light around or set something up, so we can get two to three done in a day.
How much time do you spend on Instagram? I try to stay off of it now. Honestly, after that burst the first six months, I had to take a deep breath. I probably still spend an hour a day on there, replying to comments and just engaging with other people, and scrolling and saving photos that inspire me.
The dedicated dog mom
Former marketing coordinator for Disney|ABC Television Group
Instagram handle: @Tofu_Corgi
Earnings: A few hundred dollars a month
How did you get started on Instagram? I started this Instagram for Tofu because I had so many photos of her and I didn't want to flood my own personal accounts with her photos.
When did you start earning money via the account? It took around 10 months. Our first paid post was a campaign for DreamWorks for the movie “Trolls.” We had signed up with an influencer agency and they presented us with the opportunity. We had roughly 45,000 followers at that time.
How much time do you spend each day maintaining Tofu’s Instagram profile? I spend roughly two to three hours a day on Instagram. The time is usually spent scrolling through our feed and replying to our followers. I definitely don't consider this work; it's something that I really enjoy doing.
What goes into the photos you post? I'm not a photographer by any means, but I like to make sure the lighting is good and that I take as many pictures as I can. Tofu gets easily distracted and likes to move around, so for every 10 to 15 shots we take, usually only one ends up being good.
Any advice for aspiring Instagram influencers? Be extremely picky with the brands you choose to work with. We turn down roughly 80% of the companies that reach out to us because we only want to work with brands that are a good match with Tofu's brand and something we would actually use in real life. We’ve had a couple dog food brands reach out to us about being ambassadors for them, but we turned them down because we are already happy with the brand that Tofu eats. If you accept every offer that comes your way, you can end up looking inauthentic to your followers.
The travel photographer
Travel blogger and photographer
Instagram handle: @lozula
Earnings: A few thousand dollars a month
Where do you find paid opportunities? Probably about 30% are people coming to me and 70% are me going to people. I work with my wife, and we have an idea of what we want to do. We’ll go out and chase that down, rather than just waiting for the offers to come in.
Also, a lot of brands that come to us aren’t necessarily a good fit. I was offered a year’s supply of fish oil, but I couldn’t think of a great way to talk about in a natural way.
What goes into creating a campaign? If it’s a cold pitch, we research what they are likely to want. We work a lot with tourism boards, for example, and they often have a theme. So we want to make whatever we’re pitching relevant to what they are focusing on. Then we send them a pitch document that explains who we are, what we’re doing and what we want to do with them.
Once we agree on everything, we come up with a time frame and put it into practice. That’s where the creative side of it comes in. For our Instagram, normally we do a behind the scenes kind of thing. It’s us walking around the city or using the product. But it takes a lot of time to research: Where am I going to want to get the photos from? Usually the best times of day for photography are sunset and sunrise, so when does that occur? What’s the weather going to be like? All of that kind of stuff.
Then there’s the time on the ground actually doing that work. We spend countless hours wandering around with heavy camera equipment trying to get the shot. I was in Istanbul shooting the Blue Mosque and I stood there for 2 1/2 hours just to get the shot. And that’s just one photo; I’m trying to get five, so I need another four.
Any advice for others who want to monetize their Instagram account? Don’t put all of your eggs into just one basket. Like any social media platform, Instagram has their goals, which are to monetize their platform. It doesn’t necessarily involve making sure influencers and photographers are able to make money from the platform, as well. So they can just change their algorithm and suddenly you don’t get the engagement you were getting. You’re not appearing in people’s feeds. You have to start paying more in order to even reach people. If people were focused just on Vine, for example, they’d be in all sorts of trouble.
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