For years, brands have been advertising through social influencers — people with massive numbers of social media followers — by sending them free samples to talk about in public. Having a celebrity, or a popular social media personality wear your line of clothing, for example, can result in advertising and implicit endorsement from the wearer. But what about those individuals whose fans and followers number in the hundreds, not millions?
A new company called Popular Pays purports to take advantage of the local and highly loyal nature of Instagram communities, by empowering certain users to cash-in on what it calls “social currency.” To gain entry to the free app, the user must have at least 500 Instagram followers — any fewer than that and he or she cannot even log in to Popular Pays. But if one can get in, then he or she can browse a number of deals offered by local merchants that grow in prestige based on the number of followers one has. For example, having 500 followers can earn the user a free coffee or pastry at a local shop. With over 40,000 followers, however, the user can go on a free skydiving trip!
As yet, the app is only live in Chicago, where founder Corbett Drummey has set up shop with his team. Launched in August, the company now has 20 active deals with local merchants. While the benefit to users is evident, we chatted with Drummey to learn about how merchant brands can capitalize on accepting and promoting social currency as well.
Don’t Force Fandom
While Popular Pays rewards users for having a high follower count, the program does not require those individuals to post about redeeming rewards, nor does it post on their behalf. Drummey says this is important because it makes users feel more in control. And, since many of the perks are Instagram-worthy, Drummey has found that users are willing to snap pictures of their free coffees or skydiving experiences anyway. While some users may be wary of Instagram ads, seeing authentic endorsements from friends in their feeds is well-received.
“We don’t want to force users to post. The power of this is word-of-mouth marketing,” Drummey says. According to him, requiring users to post would damage the authenticity of their messages.
In the first month, Popular Pays signed up 758 users, resulting in 69 Instagram images posted. That proportion may seem low, but it turns out that those pictures resulted in 1,008,673 impressions, 38,031 likes and 778 comments. That sort of engagement is undeniably impressive and only likely to grow as Popular Pays signs on more users and merchants with bigger and better perks to offer.
Grow Your Following
One of the biggest early success stories to come out of Popular Pays already is how the program has helped its merchant partners — many of whom are already active on social media — grow their followings. Case in point: Skydive Chicago offers a free skydive to any Popular Pays user with over 40,000 followers. Already, Drummey says his team has sent two individuals out to leap from the sky, with another on the way. The first two skydivers each had about 160,000 followers. When they posted images from their trips, their Instagram accounts lit up with new likes and comments.
Prior to partnering with Popular Pays, Skydive Chicago had 53 followers. After the two aforementioned dives, their follower count more than doubled to 119. Today, they have 656 Instagram followers. “They’ve been doing a good job entertaining their new user base with contests and nice visual content,” Drummey says. It’s hard to ignore the jumpstart in follower growth provided by the Popular Pays deal. Drummey calls that a “booster shot.”
Get Discovered by Social Influencers
Within the Popular Pays app, users can look at a map that shows where deals are offered around town. When they click on a little green flag that denotes the location of a deal, they receive more information about what the merchant is offering and whether or not they qualify for a deal. “All the influencers can look at their app and see where they can go. The thing about our app is that we drive social users to these businesses,” Drummey says.
This aspect of discovery helps introduce influential individuals to new businesses, luring them in with perks and offering them goods worth sharing. As such, if someone with 1,000 followers realizes he or she is within walking distance of a free coffee, he or she may step into a new shop, Instagram a latte and essentially spread the news of this place to hundreds of followers. And unlike Twitter and Facebook, most Instagram users look at all the images in their stream — there’s less risk of getting lost in a flood of content that refreshes every few seconds.
That, in part, is why Drummey limits Popular Pays influence to the number of Instagram followers. While similar programs offer perks in exchange for Tweets or Facebook posts, Drummey sees more value in voluntary Instagrams. “If a picture is worth a thousand words,” he says, “why limit yourself to 140 characters?”
Amina Elahi: Amina is a freelance journalist in Chicago. Her work has previously appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times, Chicago Grid and Popular Science, among others.