Every Season of The Bachelor ends the same way: A limo pulls up, often to a tropical location festooned with flowers, candles, and anything else you’d find by Googling “fairy-tale marriage proposal.” Then the first of two final contestants exits Limo Number One, the bad, scary limo carrying the soul who won’t be receiving an engagement ring. On March 9, 2015, Louisiana-born Becca Tilley stepped out of Limo Number One, and the world watched Chris Soules—“Prince Farming,” if you’re a fan—dump her on the show’s season 19 finale. (In the grand scheme of the series, Tilley was spectacularly gypped: Instead of Antigua or Fiji, she got the news in Soules’s Iowa barn.) And so Tilley’s time on the franchise came to an end.
Only it didn’t.
The next year, she showed up as a contestant on Ben Higgins’s season (he was a second runner-up on The Bachelorette and won over scads of viewers—including Tilley—with his heart of gold). Higgins sent her packing about midway through their “journey,” and by all accounts, she should’ve joined the ranks of adored-then-forgotten reality stars. Instead she’s managed to prolong and capitalize on a brief moment of cultural relevance because of the social media sponconomy—aka sponsored content economy—wherein people with substantial followings are paid to plug the wares of advertisers.
Tilley, like most every Bachelor contestant who sticks around for half a season or more, saw her Instagram following skyrocket. A squeaky-clean image and sweet, self-deprecating personality earned her an army of online worshippers, many of whom stayed put after the cameras stopped rolling. The newfound fame allowed her to tap into the sponconomy’s ample perks (at worst, free products; at best, lots of money). “I have a friend who is a blogger, and she was like, ‘You can get stuff sent to you in exchange for a photo,’ ” Tilley says. “It was a new concept in my world that anyone was getting paid for posting anything. I was mesmerized that someone would send me a free outfit or makeup and all I had to do was post a photo.”
The more that companies pursued Tilley in an effort to reach her fan base, the more she realized she wasn’t suited for her gig as an assistant in a San Diego chiropractor’s office. In 2016, she moved to L.A. to start her career as a full-time influencer, a job whose description includes floating in the cerulean sea off Panama’s coast, enjoying a night out with Gal Gadot, and brunching with her Bachelor bestie, JoJo Fletcher (who, as the occupant of Limo Number One on Higgins’s season, has scored 2.2 million followers herself). She then posts pictures of it all after the fact. “I felt like L.A. was where I needed to be, so I took this leap of faith, hoping Instagram could support me,” says Tilley, who lives in an apartment in Brentwood now.
The decision to move has paid off. At the time of this article’s writing, Tilley has 1.1 million followers and counting. She’s landed contracts with brands like Dermalogica, McDonald’s, Ponds, and Calia by Carrie Underwood, some of which are for single posts, while others are for ongoing deals. Many of the pictures on her feed are just pictures, but the rest are the fruit of brand partnerships. In one, she fluffs her ponytail while wearing specific workout gear (subtle); in another, she’s casually lounging alongside a pouch of Ponds Towelettes, as if lying next to skin-care products was a totally normal thing to do (a little more in-your-face). Captions on those images always include a hashtag denoting their sponsored status—something like #ad or #PondsPartner. According to her management team, it isn’t uncommon for an influencer of Tilley’s caliber to be making more than $1 million in brand partnerships per year. “Every single day I have a moment where I say, ‘I can’t believe this is my life,’ ” she says.
Brands are betting big on the idea that Instagram users see themselves in the influencers they follow, which means seeing themselves wearing the same sweater or staying in the same hotel. A study from the agency Mediakix valued the social-media-influencer market at $500 million in 2015; it’s estimated to hit between $5 billion and $10 billion by 2020. While celebrity endorsements are nothing new, what is new is that anyone with a good camera, a strong personal brand (wanderlusty millennial, makeup tutorial maven), and the admittedly ample time necessary to snap, edit, and caption a picture can become a celebrity on social media.
From fashionistas and exercise gurus to recipe bloggers and especially adorable pets, social celebrities are followed because their brands are synonymous with their lifestyles, and theirs are the lifestyles people want. New York Magazine’s vertical The Cut publishes a recurring series called “I Like This Bitch’s Life,” which encapsulates the phenomenon: In each article, a writer begrudgingly admits to an infatuation with an influencer (the infuriatingly chic farmer Molly Yeh; L.A.’s reigning smoothie bowl queen Lee Tilghman). The way they explain it, lifestyle blogs are all about aspiration, which is code for making people envy you and inspiring them to shop accordingly. For a fashion blogger, this may mean looking off-camera and laughing at nothing while standing in her impeccably decorated home (the furniture in which likely came from brand partners). For us, it means impulse-buying her bar cart and the requisite accoutrements because we “need” them.
In the sponconomy, micro-influencers, or accounts with between 50,000 and 200,000 followers, can bring in as much as $1,500 per sponsored post. Mega-influencers, whose followers start in the low millions, can command tens of thousands for a single advertorial image. Multiply that by the number of partnerships an influencer has, and the money piles up as fast as the likes. Advertisers benefit in the form of clicks, site visits, video views, and purchases. Unlike TV spots, billboards, or other traditional tactics, Instagram marketing is targeted in such a way that it’s the only type of advertising to monetize the idea of social reach. And the career path is particularly suited for normal people with fascinating lives or interests. “Teens trust influencer opinions over traditional celebrities by a factor of two to one,” says Kim Getty, president of the Los Angeles arm of the advertising firm Deutsch. She estimates that companies have begun to devote at least 10 percent of their marketing budgets, if not more, to working with influencers. “They’re allowing brands to expand their relevance toward people,” Getty says. “Influencers, when used appropriately, are filling a vital role for brands when they look to connect.”
Some companies even choose to collaborate with animal celebrities despite being human-facing brands. The Ritz-Carlton has sent Tuna the Chiweenie (1.9 million followers) to its property in Puerto Rico in an effort to showcase the chain’s dog-friendliness. “Pets offer the traditional benefits of humans, only with higher engagement and a higher likelihood of going viral,” explains Loni Edwards, whose company, the Dog Agency, represents pet influencers. “The content is relatable across age, gender, and location. And a pet isn’t going to get drunk at a party and say something offensive or politically charged.”
It’s a little more complicated with humans, of course, but what both types of influencers have going for them is a sense of authenticity. Advertisers are particularly drawn to that quality, which social celebrities cultivate through transparent and conscientious posting. The result is a flock of followers who not only “like that bitch’s life” but who also become emotionally engaged with the content, almost as if the posts were coming from a dear friend or family member.
Suddenly influencers become trusted sources of information, which in turn makes their fans more likely to buy whatever it is they’re selling. “I did one brand, and it was for one of those skinny teas, and I got a pretty intense backlash because it wasn’t something I really used or felt comfortable promoting,” Tilley remembers. “I quickly realized that if I was going to do it and do it the right way, it had to be something I would use if I was going to try and get other people to use it or buy it.” Getty agrees. “You can look at that world and see some of these arranged marriages that feel pretty inauthentic to the brand and to the influencer,” she says, “and that’s not a win.”
Influencers must protect their own empires while promoting others’, and it’s a tricky dance. “Instagrammers turn down jobs pretty frequently,” says Brian DiFeo, cofounder of Instagram marketing and advertising agency the Mobile Media Lab, which acts as a middleman to introduce brands to influencers. “We’ve been shopping around this 12-month [endorsement] job for a lot of money, but influencers want to be true to their audience.”
As for where the sponconomy is headed, it’s hard to say at a time when disruption is the norm. Even mega-influencers like Tilley are dipping into other media to safeguard their empires should the adver-tides turn (she’s got a YouTube channel with travel vlogs, a Grey’s Anatomy-themed podcast, and a lifestyle blog dedicated to shopping and makeup tips). The only way influencers will be able to ride that sponcon horse into the sunset is by keeping their brands relevant in any way they can. “Instagram takes a combo of talent and realness,” says Anthony Danielle, Mobile Media Lab’s cofounder. “Anybody can be the flavor of the week, but I would not bank on that person’s career being a super-long one.”