Do you have lots of Instagram followers? Congrats! That means you are very good at taking retro-filtered pictures of your dog/kid/vacation/food/shoes/shirtless chest, and people are interested to see what you are going to post next! But assuming you are not a professional photographer or Internet celebrity actively engaged in building your "personal brand," have you ever stopped to wonder what, exactly, all those followers have done for you lately?
Allan Holmes did. "If there’s something you’re good at, you should be rewarded for it," he says. "If somebody has the ability to reach at least 500 people, that means their photos matter." So 14 weeks ago, he and cofounders Nathan Michael and Corbett Drummey launched Popular Pays, a platform that allows Chicago businesses to connect with local Instagram influencers to form a mutually beneficial bartering relationship.
How it works: The businesses offer a free product in exchange for a certain number of followers—500 is the minimum requirement—with the implied promise that Instagrammers who take advantage of the offer will share a creative and enthusiastic photo of the product with their followers before, during, and/or after consumption. "We’re not asking anybody to do anything new," Holmes says. "People are already doing this. We’re allowing small businesses to tap into that, and use it to sell their product." Think of it like a series of tiny endorsement deals, in which everybody has the potential to be their own media channel. "Our target isn’t celebrities," says Holmes. "Our target is to make our influencers their own mini-celebrities."
Those of us who grew up with rotary phones and the Walgreens photo processing counter may still cast a stalker-wary eye on Instagram and its ilk, but at just 26 years old, Holmes grew up with social media stitched into the fabric of his real-world relationships. "I first got Facebook in 2005," he says. "I was in college and I would run around and take lots of photos with my friends and upload them and get lots of likes. I wasn’t a cool kid in high school, but when I went back home for Christmas break, everybody was like, ‘Your life looks so entertaining!’ Uploading photos to Facebook literally made people think I had a cooler life than I did. That stuck with me."
Holmes studied at the Savannah College of Art and Design, started interning at a major advertising firm, and graduated into a job as an art director. "I was attracted to advertising because by telling stories and introducing products, you’re shaping culture," he says. "I also love the idea of digital DNA, and the fact that your online experience can change your real life." But it was his friendship with a photographer named Paul Octavious that provided the real spark for Popular Pays. "I followed him on Instagram 100 weeks ago," says Holmes. "He had 1,000 followers, and he was just Instagramming for fun. Cut to right now, he has 420,000 followers, and big brands are flying him out to take photos. He’s using his Instagram influence to make a profit. That’s great for him, but what about people with only 1,000 followers? Only 500? They should be able to do the same thing on a smaller scale." So Holmes quit his job and threw everything behind the Popular Pays concept, relying almost completely on his and Michael’s Instagram networks to get the ball rolling.
Right now, if you live in Chicago, 1,000 Instagram followers will get you a slice of cherry pie at the Bang Bang Pie shop. In return, Bang Bang Pie can be sure that 1,000 new people are about to discover their awesome cherry pie. It’s textbook word-of-mouth marketing—peer-to-peer endorsement delivered in an authentic way that transcends "promoted posts" and "sponsored stories"—built on top of a social platform that, up to this point, has been underexploited in terms of value. "Facebook is overcrowded with baby pictures and people you barely know from high school," Holmes says. "Instagram, you only follow people whose photos you like. It’s so simple and beautiful." Why not use Twitter? "If a picture’s worth a thousand words, why would you use 140 characters?" Holmes responds, without missing a beat.
Thus far, Popular Pays has logged over 100 transactions (other swaps currently available include a bike rental for 4,000 followers, and a skydiving trip for 40,000) and there’s been something pleasantly lo-fi about the barter experience—customers have simply walked up to the counter and shown the shopkeepers their Instagram account. A new app due this month will institute a more high-tech transaction interface, but ultimately the cornerstone of Popular Pays may turn out to be the most analog aspect of all: the honor system. After all, if people eat their free pie without snapping and sharing a photo, the whole thing sort of breaks down. "There are people who are like, ‘Why don’t you make them take a photo?’" Holmes admits. "We don’t believe in that. If you make them take a photo, that’s not word of mouth advertising, that’s spam."
On the plus side, according to Holmes’ tracking, there’s a 40% chance that Popular Pays users will buy something else when they redeem their barters, and most of them end up following the participating businesses on Instagram, too. "We don’t force anybody to do anything, but you’ll definitely follow Bang Bang Pie because you just got a free pie," Holmes explains. "This allows the business to start a conversation that’s more natural than just creating ads and telling people what to do." Similar to Google AdWords, the businesses pay Popular Pays per impression, based on influence. And while the platform is confined to Chicago for now, Holmes has plans to expand to other cities via an upcoming app called Popular Demand, which will allow influencers outside the Chicago area to suggest their local businesses via—what else?—submitting photos.
Holmes says the end goal, besides building a successful business, is "to completely democratize social currency, and put a dollar amount to your value." They’re working with a former Groupon developer to determine specific influence metrics, at which point the hope is to open the platform to everybody, whether they have five followers or 500,000. "Everybody influences somebody," Holmes says. "I grew up in a church environment, and I’ve always been really fascinated with a person standing in front of an audience and telling them something can change their lives. That’s exactly what advertising is doing every day: telling people that they can be happier. I want to take that power and give it to everybody, make the product king, so it’s not a brand talking about themselves anymore."
Oh, and also: "We want to send one of our influencers to the moon," Holmes says. He’s completely serious. "You know how Virgin Galactic is letting people buy tickets? We want one of our influencers to be able to use their social worth to hop on a jet and go to the moon. People take photos out of airplanes all the time. Imagine taking a photo out of a shuttle." Despite his cofounder’s concerns that space shuttles may not be wi-fi equipped, Holmes is determined the experience can still work. "They can take a picture and post it when they get back."