Instagram Influence Marketing: What Two College Student Projects Taught Us

Instagram Influence Marketing: What Two College Student Projects Taught Us

September 2016


The smorgasbord of socializing options is plentiful in the digital cafe, but when I talk to college students these days, nothing gets gobbled up quite like Instagram. Yes, it can be a cruel place, shallowselfie-centered and a worrisome mixed bag for body image. But few apps can engage and inspire, and thus, entice influencer marketing like Instagram.

Influencer marketing, which leverages the social networks of popular users, is becoming increasingly important on apps like Instagram. Because brands themselves cannot be guaranteed that their own accounts can sustain engagement and few brands can create the kind of loyalty that a popular Instagrammer organically built through their photos and videos.

Some of my savvier students are doing more than just scrolling through the app. They are looking at Instagram influencers as signifiers for their professional futures. Maybe not as influencers themselves (though that’s a possibility), many students believe learning Instagram influence can give them a strategic advantage.

The even savvier students have questions, such as: How does Instagram influence start and what is the social cost of allowing brands into an otherwise organic feed?

This past semester, two students asked those very questions. You can read their thoughts below, but the upshot was pretty clear: Influence marketing works, because unlike most traditional advertising, the audience is not so much captive as they are caring. (One ethics note: I am not paid by the university for working with students on these independent projects.)

Sady Swanson wanted to start an Instagram account from scratch, and had an interesting twist on how to build a new voice around an established brand:

“I created an Instagram account for a stuffed ram, the Colorado State University mascot,” Sady says. “My intention was to learn how to manage a professional social media account and take on a voice and character outside my own, similar to how a brand has it’s own online voice.” (You can read her reflection here.)

Lucas Hyce has earned an Instagram following of 15,000+ and had a very different question: What is the price of bringing brands into your feed? He researched the question by posting an informal survey before and after introducing a brand into his feed (Another ethics note: He was not compensated by the brand).

“Truly successful social media performers latch onto a theme in their life: Some choose a color in a landscape — other, a particular window lighting and room,” Luke says. “These consistencies in their narratives drive their stories beyond the dime a dozen photo that get’s scrolled past. Harnessing that visual proficiency in a way that makes your world recognizable is also crucial for branding. In this way, I think Instagram used a marketing platform can be extremely successful.” (You can read his reflection here.)

Sady Swanson’s “Sammie the Rammie” Project:

Screen Shot 2016-06-03 at 9.48.36 AM

The ram, named Sammie, took on the role of a new CSU student living in Fort Collins, and he did everything a CSU student would do. While this was really fun and my friends thought I was crazy, I actually learned a lot about brand voice and Instagram specifically.

1. Instagram has a powerful influencer network

About halfway through the semester, after tagging #colostate and anything related in all of my posts, the official CSU Instagram page reposted one of my photos and tagged me in it. I saw an influx of likes and, especially, followers. When a bigger brand mentions a smaller brand somewhere, that usually just gets one video more views or one post more engagement, but this was completely different. My follower count tripled and so did the average amount of likes per photo. This works for Instagram because of how people use the app. On Facebook, people only follow their friends. On YouTube, people are only going to subscribe to things they love because they are going to get emails whenever the videos come out. Instagram is more laid back. It’s easier to scroll through photos and completely ignore anything that doesn’t engage you, so it’s less commitment to follow on Insta than it is to friend on Facebook.

2. Outdoorsy photos worked SO WELL

It was a little weird how much better photos taken outside did. They were consistently the most liked photos. But why? Two reasons. Number one, people like to look at things they want to do. Rafting trip? That looks fun, “like.” Oh, a hike in Rocky Mountain National Park? I’ve been there, “like.” Second, people like things they recognize. In Fort Collins, the ram symbol is well-known and well-loved. People have a lot of Ram Pride in Fort Collins. Throw the ram into a photo at Horsetooth, everyone is going to recognize that. People are going to “like” photos of things they like, and in Fort Collins that means outdoorsy things and rams.

3. Other people in the pictures DID NOT work

Originally, Mike and I thought putting other people in pictures would work really well and make the stuffed ram seem more like a real person (as crazy as that sounds). But, the more people in the picture, the less likes it got. After thinking it through, I think I know why. First, having people in the photos made it even more obvious that Sammie was just a stuffed animal. It made everything about the account less believable. Second, it made the photos less relatable to the audience. The strangers that follow the account don’t know these people, why would they care if Sammie is hanging out with them. They are following the account to see what Sammie is doing, not what his friends (or my friends) are doing. People are following the account because they think it’s funny that this stuffed ram is doing a bunch of different things (drinking coffee, studying, hiking, biking), not because he poses for pictures with people.

Luke Hyce’s Brand Integration Project:

Screen Shot 2016-06-03 at 9.46.25 AM

Marketing has evolved from selling a product into selling an experience, an enhanced participation, an insight. You can plaster your product on a white background all day and get little more than a fleeting glance — but in attaching it to a lifestyle or a following, you will grow more than just purchasers. You’ll give your product life.

When I’m creating an image, I’m imaging how the photograph will spark a moving playback in my memory. Will it remind me of the places smell? What sound track will I put to its motion? Cellos? Bird songs? Daniel Kahneman calls this anticipated memory.

Whether it’s a backpack, a pair of shoes, or a car — creating a narrative surrounding that product gives it movement and complexity. How will they incorporate your creation into their created vision for their future? Successful Instagram users can build brand recognition, breathe vitality into the inanimate and help forge a relationship between your goods and the ideological destiny of their audience.


I started using Instagram in 2012 as a form of social media. However, the platform evolved into a professional portfolio for my photography. The transition from posting my IHOP meals to using only DSLR quality images was relatively sudden. I can still scroll back to an exact point where I felt it was important to put my content through screening.

While growing as a photographer on Instagram, I noticed some top photographers teaming up with brand names that were familiar to me: Osprey Packs, Goal Zero, REI and Oru Kayaks. While many of them seamlessly integrated these products into their type of content, I couldn’t help but wonder what it was doing for them.

Obviously they were compensated. But mostly, I wondered if they were compromising their community ties, their creative freedom and their integrity as an artist or journalist.

Using my own account, I set out to find an answer. First, I chose a product that I felt I could support; blended well with my content and was small enough that I could measure a change in followers’ knowledge of the product. A company that produces food for athletes and outdoor enthusiasts fit the bill.

I started by surveying my followers, gathering information related to their impression of my account, the frequency of their Instagram interactions with me, and their knowledge of the company and its social media presence. Once the survey was complete, I began producing content with integrated advertisement of the company’s products. Utilizing Colorado’s mountains and trails, I photographed the products as explicitly as possible. My goal here was ensure product placement recognition.

Three months passed and the next survey was completed. As an aspiring commercial photographer and marketer, the results were encouraging. A significantly larger number of my followers felt they had learned about the company during the trial, and the impression of my personal brand remained intact.

A note:

Luke is right that his brand and its reputation stayed intact very well. In fact, we didn’t even really see an effect on the face. But when we dug into the numbers a little more, we did realize one interesting outcome: People who reported much higher recognition of the brand also reported a very slight dip in their overall impression in Luke’s feed. However, this was not a scientific study, it was journalistic research. So while we did see something interesting, it doesn’t prove it is the case for every influencer and even it is, the effect was so small (less an 10 percent) it would still probably be worth it for a creator.


This article was written by Michael Humphrey from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

BNY Mellon is the corporate brand of The Bank of New York Mellon Corporation and may be used as a generic term to reference the corporation as a whole and/or its various subsidiaries generally.  This material does not constitute a recommendation by BNY Mellon of any kind.  The information herein is not intended to provide tax, legal, investment, accounting, financial or other professional advice on any matter, and should not be used or relied upon as such.  The views expressed within this material are those of the contributors and not necessarily those of BNY Mellon.  BNY Mellon has not independently verified the information contained in this material and makes no representation as to the accuracy, completeness, timeliness, merchantability or fitness for a specific purpose of the information provided in this material.  BNY Mellon assumes no direct or consequential liability for any errors in or reliance upon this material.