ISTANBUL, Turkey — Imagine being paid to post photos on Instagram? That’s right. You hike a mountain wearing a particular clothing brand and get paid for it. Or you visit an island destination, take amazing photos and post them up for cash. Or you stay in a hotel and rate the experience for some extra income. This is fast becoming the norm for many Instagrammers and bloggers. And now brands are increasingly willing to pay big bucks for this kind of targeted exposure.
It’s called “social media influencer marketing”. Think of it as a kind of subtle marketing, where brands team up with influencers. It’s where an official endorsement and a clever mention of a product, company or location overlap in an organic fashion. There’s even a special term for it, Business to Influencers (B2I). And it has become increasingly popular in the last few years. A 2016 survey by US-based company Acorn found 84 percent of marketers plan on launching at least one campaign with social media influencers over the next 12 months.
The platform of choice for most marketers is Instagram. About 300 social media influencers agree, saying their main platform for paid influencer work is Instagram, according to a 2017 report from marketing site HashOff. In Turkey, Instagram usage is on the rise, which spells good news for local brands. As of April 2017, there were 27 million Instagram users, according to the Warsaw-based social media agency Napoleon Cat. Almost 90 percent of them are below 45, with the majority (31 percent) between 18-24. The second largest age group at 29 percent is between 25-34.
Despite a perception that bloggers enjoy nonstop holidays and travel perks, they’re in the business of content creation. Content creation is no easy task and can take anywhere between 30 minutes to three hours from ideation to publication. Global travel influencer Murad Osman, who has amassed over 4.6 million Instagram followers using the popular #FollowMeTo campaign, told a conference recently in Istanbul that he doesn’t offer merely pretty photos for clients, he offers “marketing solutions.”
So what’s life really like for social media influencers? TRT World’s Mohamed Taha and Saad Hasan met some of the biggest Instagrammers in Turkey. Many started off with a thirst for travel and a simple desire to share their experiences. Now their blogs have become a part-time source of income.
Onder Koca, 37, started his Instagram blog @onderkoca in 2011 by promoting his resort hometown of Antalya on Turkey's southern Mediterranean coast. His first photo managed to garner 50 “likes”. Now he is one of Turkey’s biggest social influencers, with a following of almost 600,000 people. He works full-time as a civil servant, but come weekends and during his annual leave, he blogs. He believes countries and companies need to start investing in amateur social media influencers, who have loyal followings, as opposed to big name celebrities and artists.
(The following interview was translated from Turkish to English).
How did your blog come about?
ONDER KOCA: I started it in 2011, after reading an interview in a magazine. In the interview, the founder of Instagram said the reason Instagram was founded was to show the sea and sun to people who can’t see them, because people who see them are happier. At the time, I was living in [the Turkish seaside resort town of] Antalya, which is very fitting. So I thought ‘why don’t I be beneficial to other people?’ I started by shooting the sea and sun with a two megapixel camera. With time, my platform became very popular and I got lots of followers. I established a significant online community there.
When did you start getting paid for your blog?
OK: I have been getting professional offers from companies since 2014. Mostly from Turkish companies. But also other countries invited me to promote them, and I started working for them as well, such as Sweden, Austria and Georgia. I received invitations from their tourism ministries.
Have you completed any certified photography courses?
OK: I have been taking photos for 15 years now. The ones I put on Instagram were the ones I shot with my iPhone. But after I realised that I was I was getting more attention and interest, I started to put my professional photos on my blog. I learned photography by practising it, and watching other people on the ground for 15 years.
Do you get tired of trying to come up with higher quality photos to compete in the market? Is it exhausting to travel and take photos?
OK: It’s really tiresome. Sometimes I have to climb up mountains and settle there in a tent in order to get a good shot for sunrise. I remember I was waiting for sunrise once. It was minus 20 degrees Celsius, I was freezing in a tent on Tahtali mountain, in Antalya. I’ve also been stuck in the snow while travelling with dogs in Sweden for a shoot. I got lost. Even though I take 200 to 300 photos a day on my trips, only two or three of them get to be put on my profile. Because the expectations are very high.
How many clients are you working for at the moment? What do you offer them?
OK: I don’t have a permanent main sponsor. But I work with ten companies in a year, on average, which are among Turkey's biggest companies. I also worked with companies from the United States and Europe. I only share my own photos on the blog. But sometimes, when certain hotels ask me to visit their place and promote it on Instagram professionally, I may run a campaign for them. To give away free hotel stays to some of my followers, for instance.
What is your advice to bloggers who want to make money?
OK: Don’t make money your focus, just work hard.
DUYGU SAR AND BILGEHAN CELIK
Couple Duygu Sar and Bilgehan Celik, both in their 30s, run a travel blog called Biz evde Yokuz in Turkish, or "Away From Home". Inspired by a Turkish Gipsy saying “Whoever stays at home dies an early death,” the two have a million visitors to their website every month. They have amassed a following of over 100,000 followers on Instagram, a combined 275,000 “Likes” on Facebook, and almost 3,500 followers on Twitter. Sar and Celik believe their blog site is permanent amongst the flux of the social media sector.
How did your blog first come about?
DUYGU SAR: We started three years ago. It wasn’t like we wanted to create business. We were travelling and were really into life-changing experiences. Even though we lived fulfilling lives but we thought we were missing out on something. We wanted to travel and make it sustainable. So we started Away From Home, our blog. It’s based off a Turkish Gipsy slogan: “Whoever stays at home dies an early death.”
How did you score your first client?
DS: A trailer van company was our first sponsor. We moved out of our homes before we had anything. So we had the idea of finding a van. But we were small, unknown and there was no one to back us up. We literally knocked on the door of a trailer-van company and asked for help, about three years ago. We were so passionate about our idea. The company said ‘you are trying to sell this new way of marketing.’ The head of the company said ‘we so big and you are so small’ but he said ‘I see your passion.’ We plead that we’ll be promoting the brand and he said I already export to 50 countries, I don’t really need that. But he said he doesn’t want to be the one who crushes our dream so he lent us a small RV for four months. We hit the road, took pictures and started blogging.
How do you balance monetising your blog with finding clients and being genuine to your audience?
DS: We owe our success to things being real. If we overload ourselves with sponsors from head to toe, we would trading our loyal audience. We don’t want to do that. We are working with long-term sponsors and it’s very native. I don’t think it's authentic that I eat yoghurt from a certain company in the regional area but if I am travelling with certain branded luggage, it’s natural. If we’re travelling, we stay at a hotel, it’s organic. So we are not rushing for a thousand sponsors. It depends on what we are doing. For example, if we are climbing a mountain, we work with a technical company, an outdoor clothing brand, because it’s native. But I am not going to wear a dress from Istanbul just because they sponsored me.
How do you see use social media platforms in conjunction with your online blog?
DS: Social media is very [transitory]. Vine disappeared but other social applications are rising. But your blog is something you can control. You have 100 percent control. We use social media to bring viewers to our blog. For travel, it’s indispensable to exist in Google searches. We have to exist on social media and it has to be just as important as the blog. At the moment, that is how you make the money. But in the long run, we believe our blog is the [key] investment.
Is it easy to create content?
DS: I know it looks very easy to make money, but content creation takes a lot of effort. Before we started, I didn’t know how to shoot and edit videos. But now I love it. You should love to create content. When we are travelling, we are carrying camera equipment worth about $10,000, which is a huge burden. First of all, we don’t want to stay in a place you can’t lock up the equipment safely. Then it’s a physical burden and it makes you tired and when you crush it, you cry.
For us to travel in a city which will take a normal tourist one day to visit, it takes us three days because we are shooting. I am not just eating at a restaurant. For example, we were in Cuba and we stayed at a place which we didn’t really think was worth recommending. I literally visited twenty places in Havana so that we can find a place to recommend to people, because that is why people are reading us.
What’s the long-term goal with your blog?
DS: The next goal is to go global. In Turkey, people are a bit traditional in the way they choose marketing tools. It’s not given same attention as in other countries.
What’s your advice to people who want to monetise their blog?
DS: They have to find something really engaging. One of the most important thing is they start just to make money, they will probably fail. You have to do what you want. Focus on what you want to do and how you can tell it to your audience in a different way.
Beyza Gokalp is a 24-year-old budding travel blogger. She graduated from Bogazici University with a degree in sociology and is currently doing her Masters in Business Administration. But her real passion lies in her Instagram blog @lifewithbeyza. With almost 9,000 followers, it showcases her life and travels. Recently, she secured her first paid contract, with a hotel in Cappadocia. She is ambitious and her dream is to build her followers and monetise her blog to the point where it becomes her full-time gig.
When did you first start your blog and how did it come about?
BEYZA GOKALP: I first started my blog after my graduation in 2015. I realised that I have more free time. At the time, I was travelling a lot. So I said I should share all my photos and experiences on a platform, so people can hear about me. So I can share my ideas and my life. That’s why I opened my blog. Since then it’s growing.
What do you blog about?
BG: It’s a fun blog about my life. This is the main focus of my blog. When people follow me, they will be part of my life, they will be part of my travels, my journey. So they can be like me one day, if they want to be.
Are you getting paid at the moment for your blogs?
BG: For some posts I’m getting paid. I’m trying to reach out to brands, travel agencies and hotels. I’m trying to make alliances with them.
You recently signed your first contract with a hotel in Cappadocia. Tell us about it?
BG: It was my first alliance with a hotel. It’s great for me and great for them. It’s their first time as well, which is really cool. I promote the hotel. I tell stories and talk to the manager. I showed my followers the manager and his special deals and promotions. I promoted both the hotel in Cappadocia and the various sites across Cappadocia. This kind of marketing is mutually beneficial.
Did you have direct audience engagement and interest as a result of this arrangement with the hotel?
BG: Many people asked me how the experience was and what the prices were. I replied and said to contact the hotel and mention my name. I told them ‘say you saw the hotel through @lifewithbeyza so they’ll give you a promotion and a discount.’ It’s great for the hotel. They got really high engagement from this alliance. It’s great for hotels to do more of this marketing.
What’s the ultimate goal for your Instagram blog?
BG: It’s my dream for it to become my full-time work. For the short term, I want to reach 10,000 followers. I think after 10K, because people have this thing that when they see 10K, they will take me seriously. More than followers, I care about engagement. Some people buy followers in life, it’s not cool. Brands are knowledgeable about this and they sometimes connect with those people, and it gets lower engagement. I care more about engagement. Now we have statistics and insights on Instagram, so I care more about the quality.