Micro-Influencers, Drinkstagrammers and VC Money: Inside the Hyper-Targeted World of Alcohol Influencers

Cat Wolinski Micro-Influencers, Drinkstagrammers and VC Money: Inside the Hyper-Targeted World of Alcohol Influencers

6 minute Read

A beautiful army of attractive women and dashingly handsome men has invaded our Instagram feeds. Their lives are a carefully curated collection of obscenely perfect moments. They are people (just like us!), yet they exist primarily in social media (like our coworkers’ cats!). They’re called influencers, and they’re here to tell us what to like, what’s cool, and who we wish we could be.

An “influencer” is someone with a sizeable social media following who is paid by brands or public relations or marketing agencies to promote a product. This person’s job is to make the integration of this product into their enviable lifestyle seem effortless, appealing, and above all, authentic. Be it a bottle of booze, a hotel, or a hair treatment, we, as followers, should want in.

From the outside, “influencing” may seem like little more than vanity blogging; but insiders tell us it involves much more than clinking Champagne flutes and walking through a field of flowers in a floppy hat. It’s become a legitimate, $1 billion business that every single one of us is an integral part of — whether or not we realize it, or ever intended to enlist.

Why Brands Like It

“Influencer marketing allows for brands to target and speak to customers directly, through a trusted voice, on a platform where audiences are choosing to look for content and are opting to read and watch,” Zoe Marans, vice president of Mediakix, which represents New Amsterdam Vodka, says. “Brands are transitioning more of their advertising dollars to influencer marketing because it is successful. The space is growing so quickly that brands can reach TV-scale with much smaller budgets, helping to lower spend and drive higher ROI [return on investment].”

Since 2015, consumers have been spending more time on mobile apps than watching television. Advertisers have obviously followed. Google searches for “influencer marketing” have tripled to an average of 10,000 searches a month since 2016. Mediakix estimates advertisers are spending over $1 billion per year on Instagram, and this could grow to a $5 to $10 billion market in the next five years.

Brands are putting their bottles in the hands of influencers and micro-influencers in every arena, from fashion to the frustratingly vague “lifestyle.” If you own a smartphone and have social media accounts, you’ve probably seen them.

Game days are better with my partner @budweiser! #thisbudsforyou

A post shared by Lace Morris (@lacemorris3) on

Maybe it’s New Amsterdam Vodka in a cocktail-making video by YouTube influencer AlphaM (“How to Mix a Drink like a Gentleman – 3 Classic Cocktails and Party Tips“). It could be a bottle of Malibu casually gripped in the carefree hand of former bartender turned social media star, Todd Smith. Or perhaps it’s a can of Budweiser in the manicured fingers of Lace Morris, an ex-“Bachelor” contestant turned Instagram star, to show us what she’s drinking on game day.

Is she really drinking that Bud heavy? It doesn’t matter. A post on Morris’s page reportedly reaches more people than one from Budweiser’s own account, and that audience is more targeted than the people who already follow @Budweiser.

“Influencer selection is the most crucial part of a project,” Georgina Rutherford, head of marketing and communications and IMA, which represents Pernod Ricard, writes in an email. Pernod Ricard works with IMA to promote two of its spirits brands, Malibu and Absolut. “They have a very important role making sure they deliver not only the right message for the brand, but the right message for their audience,” she says.

“Consumers are much more savvy as to what is an advertisement and what they believe to be genuine, which is why they are so much more appreciative of human to human connections and credible recommendations from people they trust,” Rutherford adds.

To promote Malibu, the brand worked with the aforementioned Todd Smith (@todderic), pro surfer Alana Blanchard (@alanarblanchard), and former comedian Josh Ostrovsky (@thefatjewish), who now has his own wine brand, Swish (more on that later). Alana Blanchard may not be an alcohol influencer, but she embodies the beach lifestyle, a perfect match for Malibu.

Agencies use what are often proprietary data tools to measure influencers’ following and engagement. At IMA, an in-house influencer data tool scouts influencers “within and outside our network” of over 35,000 influencers worldwide, Rutherford says. “It is important that we are also thinking long-term — finding true ambassadors that have the potential to work with a brand beyond a single campaign.”

Hitting Your Target, Online and IRL

Along with athletes and artists who have millions of Instagram followers, brands are sniffing out “micro-influencers” to reach more targeted niches. Depending on the source, a micro-influencer could mean someone with anywhere between 1,000 and 250,000 followers. For scale, Todd Smith has about 1 million, the Fat Jewish has 10 million, and Kim Kardashian has 115 million.

In this micro-market, mixology-obsessed “drinkstagrammers” turn their passion for cocktails into successful careers, and attractive aficionados with day jobs transform their hobbies into lucrative side hustles. But that’s not to say it doesn’t take hard work to get there.

“I basically devoted an entire year and half [to] doing nothing but this,” Natalie Migliarini of Beautiful Booze (@beautifulbooze) fame tells me. “My parents live in North Carolina. I just didn’t see them for like two years. I totally committed myself, and I probably worked 18 hours a day. Once I totally committed to it, I was hardcore. I did anything and everything that I could possibly think of doing.”

Migliarini left her home in Seattle and began traveling the world full-time to build a business out of posting cocktail recipes on her blog and on Instagram. Now she writes for publications like VinePair, where she contributes weekly cocktail recipes, and creates content for spirits brands and bars’ social media accounts. She also teaches about social media abroad, including a recent course in Paris.

“When I started building up a following and I had that online portfolio, companies were more willing to pay me for certain campaigns,” Migliarini says. Her first client was Total Wine and More, but she has several contracts with brands today that she prefers not to name. “I’m going to be using some kind of spirit to make the cocktail that I’m posting every day, so I can kind of put value to their campaign without it being blatant advertising.”

She says she makes more money as an alcohol influencer than she did at her full-time government job.

It may sound like a dream, but for those who are living it, it’s a very real job. “When we’re in the office, we are juggling the various aspects of the Yes Way Rosé wine, new business opportunities, creating content, developing future product and partnerships, and managing the huge number of incoming inquiries that we’ve received since the wine launched in March,” Nikki Huganir, co-founder of Yes Way Rosé, writes in an email.

Co-founder Erica Blumenthal adds, “We wanted Yes Way Rosé to have life outside of our phones, and exist IRL too.” The brand started as an Instagram account (@yeswayrose), but has evolved to include totes, T-shirts, a dry Provençal-style rosé, and an upcoming book.

This aspect of existing IRL, or “in real life,” is key to influencer marketing: Brands are selling a lifestyle as much as they are a product, serving ads to precisely the people who want to buy in.

“While we feel that we’ve been an influential part of the popularity of dry rosé in the American market, we think of ourselves more as co-founders of a wine and lifestyle brand than as influencers,” Huganir says. Yes Way Rosé has never been paid “just to post about wine,” she adds, because that wouldn’t be “authentic.”

“We have done a few paid collaborations here and there,” she says, “but in those cases posting was one aspect of a larger partnership with a brand we love. That way when we post about a wine that’s not Yes Way Rosé, our followers know we are genuine fans.”

Josh Ostrovsky, a.k.a @thefatjewish, told CNNMoney last month he believes the future for Instagram influencers is offline. Ostrovsky’s wine brand, Swish, includes the Insta-famous White Girl Rosé, Family Time Is Hard, and Babe, a line of canned wines. ZX Ventures, an investment arm of Anheuser-Busch, parent company of Budweiser, acquired a minor stake in Swish in March. Now, over 20,000 retailers carry its products.

“I think being a wine influencer means that you shift tastes in what people are drinking and inspire what they buy from a unique perspective,” Blumenthal says.

Consuming a Lifestyle

Influencer marketing is both hyper-targeted and far-reaching, grasping the attentions, affections, and, eventually, dollars of niche audiences. The success rate here exceeds a brand’s own channels. Where traditional advertising is abrasive and unwanted — we skip ads on YouTube and walk away from Hulu during the commercials — influencers strike a more personal pose, slipping seamlessly into our feeds alongside our friends, families, and favorite Kardashians. (Or in my case, craft beer geeks like Jake Clark, a.k.a. @girlnamedjake.) We feel connected to them as people, not brands. In reality, they are often both.

As with most careers, it’s an easier gig to get if you start out with connections and cash — and, let’s be honest, a pretty face. And it works for the same reason it irks us. These people and their perfect lives seem so accessible. That it requires years of unrelenting hard work can be hard to swallow.

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