Tapping through Palak Joshi’s Instagram Stories recently, you might have come across a photo that looked like standard sponsored content: a shiny white box emblazoned with the red logo for the Chinese phone manufacturer OnePlus and the number six, shot from above on a concrete background. It featured the branded hashtag tied to the phone’s launch, and tagged OnePlus’s Instagram handle. And it looked similar to posts from the company itself announcing the launch of its new Android phone. Joshi’s post, however, wasn’t an ad. “It looked sponsored, but it’s not,” she said. Her followers are none the wiser. “They just assume everything is sponsored when it really isn’t,” she said. And she wants it that way.
A decade ago, shilling products to your fans may have been seen as selling out. Now it’s a sign of success. “People know how much influencers charge now, and that payday is nothing to shake a stick at,” said Alyssa Vingan Klein, the editor in chief of Fashionista, a fashion-news website. “If someone who is 20 years old watching YouTube or Instagram sees these people traveling with brands, promoting brands, I don’t see why they wouldn’t do everything they could to get in on that.”
But transitioning from an average Instagram or YouTube user to a professional “influencer”—that is, someone who leverages a social-media following to influence others and make money—is not easy. After archiving old photos, redefining your aesthetic, and growing your follower base to at least the quadruple digits, you’ll want to approach brands. But the hardest deal to land is your first, several influencers say; companies want to see your promotional abilities and past campaign work. So many have adopted a new strategy: Fake it until you make it.
Sydney Pugh, a lifestyle influencer in Los Angeles, recently staged a fake ad for a local cafe, purchasing her own mug of coffee, photographing it, and adding a promotional caption carefully written in that particular style of ad speak anyone who spends a lot of time on Instagram will recognize. “Instead of [captioning] ‘I need coffee to get through the day,’ mine will say ‘I love Alfred’s coffee because of A, B, C,’” Pugh told me. “You see the same things over and over on actual sponsored posts, so it becomes really easy to emulate, even if you’re not getting paid.”