Browsing the Instagram account of Blue Apron, the New York City-based meal-delivery service, you'll see Bon Appetit-worthy images of ripe berries and glistening butter on pancakes, and the diverse and appealing textures of many a vegetable still-life. You'll also notice the startup, which is just two years old, is approaching 75,000 followers--a figure, per my own calculation, very likely greater than the number of Blue Apron subscribers.
Blue Apron had fewer than 5,000 followers just a few months ago, when it signed up to work with a new native-advertising company called Niche.
Niche connected Blue Apron to a handful of creative photographers, videographers, and animators, whose work had gained impressive followings on social networks including YouTube, Vine, and Instagram. With a little information about the company, they created tiny, personal marketing campaigns--a single image or short video about, or inspired by, Blue Apron--and posted to their own accounts.
These folks, the virality doctors, the screen names with cult followings, are sometimes called "micro-celebrities." Niche offers brands access to these new Internet stars--anyone from a Justin Bieber look-alike who posts photos to a renowned Claymation artist. And it offers the micro-celebrity a systematic way to take that following, and make some cold, hard cash out of it.
Call it the next wave of native advertising.
Left: Instagram image created by Scott Borrero for Lyft; right: Instagram image by Cree Jones for Paperless Post.
Brands that have used such a native ad model include both large, public companies such as General Electric and Gap, and scrappy startups, such as Oscar Health, Lyft, and BarkBox. It typically involves finding freelance creative producers online to make mini campaigns and post them to their huge social networks.
More than 75 brands and traditional agencies have worked with Niche to find their "Internet famous" partners. More than 2,500 have signed up so far to be part of Niche's platform.
It's not just the brands that win, by reaching wide audiences of rapt young viewers online, but Niche is also hoping to give the campaign "creators" a new means of making a living doing what they're passionate about. So far, Niche has paid out nearly $800,000 to designers, models, photographers, and animation artists to post their own images or videos for brands (which they usually are required to mention with an @-handle or username, and get brand-approval before posting). A single post can pay five figures.
"It's not a full-time job for all of them, but it certainly can be," said Niche's co-founder Rob Fishman. "It is a new economy."
Fishman, 28, co-founded Niche last year in New York City along with Darren Lachtman, 31. They've since grown the startup to 18 people, who are currently based in the SoHo neighborhood. With a fresh infusion of $2.5 million in venture-capital funding, for a total of $3.1 million, the company is moving to a larger office in the same neighborhood this summer. And it's growing financially: The company is on track to make $5 million this year.
The pair began working together in 2013, after Fishman, a former Huffington Post social-media staffer, sold another company he was working on to BuzzFeed. Lachtman's background is in digital marketing.
"We realized last year there wasn't an index for all the Vine and Instagram and YouTube creators," he said. "Many of them were cross-channel micro-celebrities--but they had no agents, nor TV stations to promote or advocate for them."
Left: Instagram image created by David Schwen for Blue Apron; right: Instagram image by Robby Ayala for Oscar Health.
So together they built a platform for online influencers to authenticate, monitor, and manage all of their social-media accounts. It includes a statistics dashboard, with free analytics (a slightly different, equally useful, dashboard has been built for brands and agencies to use to monitor growth and their various campaigns).
Although Fishman has said Niche has already pulled in $1.5 million this year and is running 30 campaigns a week, the trick to sustained growth will be making this new wave of native advertising a truly scalable system--something of a nimble, automated, native-advertising factory.
Competitors are popping up, including digital agencies who represent online talent, such as Grumpy Cat, and Instagram itself offers a native-advertising service that claims to produce images five times more memorable to a viewer than the traditional ad.
"I don't think we are going to be the only player in the space, but we are the only one building technology around it," Fishman says. "We are a software company, but we are also a revenue-generating company. I'm not worried."