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Drawing income from Instagram: St. Louis area 'influencers' make a living from social media

Drawing income from Instagram: St. Louis area 'influencers' make a living from social media

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Jessica Roberts has seven children — and 191,000 followers.

One-year-old Primrose, the baby of the family, is actually somewhat responsible for about 50,000 of those social media fans.

When Roberts, 31, was ready to make her pregnancy Instagram-official, she lined her children up for a photo in their Jefferson County home, each holding a gold balloon indicating their birth order. Balloon No. 7 hovered just above Roberts’ barely protruding belly.

The photo got picked up by the PopSugar website and made the internet rounds, swelling the traffic to her Instagram page, @mrsjessicaroberts, and her “Raising Roberts” blog.

Roberts is a local standout among a nationwide influx of influencers, a profession not in existence a decade ago. The biggest earners — celebrities such as personality Kylie Jenner, singer Selena Gomez and soccer player Cristiano Ronaldo — can earn upwards of $1 million for a single post.

But most influencers operate on a more modest scale, patching together short-term contracts and one-time promos from multiple sources. Some simply work in trade — a product for a post.

In Roberts’ case, it started small. As her family grew, so did her following. She occasionally received samples from companies. Then she nabbed a few paid deals.

By last summer, seven years after she joined Instagram, her status had surpassed that of a “micro influencer” — someone with between 10,000 and 100,000 followers. She’s now part of Los Angeles-based Whalar Corp., which manages her contracts for a 20% cut.

“They know what I prefer. They know my audience,” said Roberts.

She has endorsed children’s shoes, inflatable swimming pools and subscription snack boxes. In between the sponsored posts are snapshots into the family’s busy life: celebrating the Fourth of July, visiting Six Flags St. Louis, sitting on the kitchen counter in matching pajamas. …

Taking the photos is the easy part, Roberts said. “The rest of it takes quite a bit of time — gathering supplies, setting it up, doing captions.”

She usually posts in the evening when her children are in bed and she has time to respond to comments. “I am surprised that I could even make a name from it. I never would imagine that I could make an income spending time with my family,” she said.


Nutritionist Alex Caspero started a blog in 2010 to give her clients recipe ideas and diet tips. She later expanded into social media under the handle @delishknowledge.

Four years ago, she moved to University City from California. She decided to see if her social media presence would allow her to match her old salary as a sports dietitian.

It took less than a year.

Caspero, 34, partly attributes her success to her dietetics credentials. Her followers trust that she knows what she’s talking about. Now the mother of a toddler, she launched a second page last year, @plantbasedjuniors, with another dietitian and mom.

Caspero has a brand manager who secures most of her deals, usually with food or supplement companies like Driscoll’s, KIND and Nordic Naturals. Two part-time assistants help out.

“The biggest ‘a-ha’ was treating my business like an actual business and not a hobby. That’s when my business began to shift,” said Caspero. “I cap it at one sponsored post per week. That leaves six posts just for readers.”

Her 50,000 followers are a tiny slice of Instagram’s 1 billion accounts. Though Facebook and YouTube still have more users overall, 78% of social media influencers list the photo-sharing site as their primary source, according to Influencer Marketing Hub.

About three-quarters of businesses pour resources into advertising on Instagram, which has been around since 2010. The way influencers are utilized varies. There are ongoing ambassadorships, contracted for a specific period of time; one-time product reviews or brand mentions; event coverage; and sponsored content.

“Leveraging real people to share their opinions is not new. But the platform has changed,” said Caiti Carrow, founder of Jasper Paul PR & Marketing in St. Louis. “Influencers can act as your news source to get out information and lend an authentic voice.”

Most big companies try to align themselves with a mix of micro and macro influencers. But it’s more than numbers. “Smaller audiences that are engaged are better than a bigger audience that’s not,” Carrow said.


At 11,700 followers, Psyche Southwell is just above the threshold for micro influencing. But her network runs deep. She has built up a loyal band of fellow bloggers since starting her “Economy of Style” website in 2007.

Southwell, a native of St. Kitts, came to St. Louis as a graduate student in economics at Washington University. She had limited funds but no interest in sticking to the “academic uniform.”

“I was on a budget but liked looking good, and there were a lot of other women who cared about that, too,” said Southwell, 40. Her blogging community followed her to Instagram, and her fashion sense attracted the attention of retailers such as J. Crew, Target and Kindred Boutiques. By 2017, she was landing enough partnerships with @economyofstyle to quit her day job.

“It was definitely scary, but I’ve been able to do this the way I wanted to, being an ambassador for a few brands to provide a base income, and I can choose what else I want to do. It’s important to diversify income sources,” Southwell said.

She also earns commissions from affiliate links, which take followers directly to a product’s website. That’s one way that both influencers and brands can track the reach of a post in what is otherwise a nebulous marketing expanse.

“Every dollar counts for clients. If you’re going to pay, you want to know what you’re going to get out of it,” said Harris Hunter, a data specialist for Timmermann Group in downtown St. Louis.

When her digital marketing agency looks for influencers, they dissect online profiles, examining followers, captions, hashtags and likes. They expect influencers to be able to provide data about their past performances.

Hunter is also the communications chair for the Advertising Club of Greater St. Louis. In the past few years, she has seen a shift from celebrity endorsers shilling for global brands to local influencers who provide a personal point of view.

“The corporate tone doesn’t work for brands anymore. They have to connect to users,” she said.


Making connections with her followers is how Grace Leon, 25, developed her niche. The personal trainer has been active on Instagram since she was a sophomore at Bellarmine University, posting as @fitcollegechick. As her outlook on wellness transitioned from bodybuilding to a more holistic approach, her personal brand shifted, too.

“Within the last three years, I got more serious with it,” said Leon, who lives in Shrewsbury. She has almost 13,000 followers on her @mindbody_grace page. They respond to her lessons on self-acceptance, her workout tips and her words of encouragement.

“I never want to be the person on Instagram who’s really sell-y, sell-y,” she said. “I want to be really authentic.”

Leon offers a discount code for KEFI athletic apparel and receives a commission for those sales. Companies that sell juices or essential oils sometimes send her products to try.

But the newly certified yoga instructor is not planning on making influencing her main source of income. She’s enrolled in a master’s degree program for exercise science this fall.

Leon is the type of small, side-hustle influencer who many companies are now seeking, said Hunter. Consumers are savvy to a contrived situation.

“We adapt as users,” she said. “There was a backlash. People weren’t trusting big influencers.”

Often with good reason. The Federal Trade Commission has found that only 1 in 10 are compliant with its endorsement guidelines.

The FTC requires that any connection — including personal relationships, payments or discounts — between an influencer and a brand be disclosed in posts that could be interpreted as conveying opinions about a product. The agency suggests including #ad or #sponsored, or thanking the company within the first three lines of a caption.

Watchdog groups such as Truth in Advertising have had their hands full trying to follow up on an increasing volume of consumer complaints about less-than-forthcoming influencers.

“Policing the Internet is a pretty hard job, and the FTC has been a little behind the times on this,” said Shana Mueller of the Connecticut-based nonprofit. “It’s become the wild, wild West.

“The reason why influencer marketing works so well is it seems authentic or organic. At some point, you wonder when consumers will get sick of it.”

That’s not likely to be any time soon. Instagram is expected to fuel a $2.3 billion influencer market in 2020, according to Influencer Marketing Hub.

“Instagram is going to be here for a while because it’s so visual,” Hunter said. “We’ve evolved into the digital age, but we still like visuals.

“Brands are becoming more like people, and people are becoming more like brands.”

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