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How one boy grew a popular Instagram feed into a social media empire

Caitlin McGarry | Jan. 21, 2015
How to win followers and influence teenage girls...with the help of some star-making companies and their algorithms, of course.

"I was just having fun with it," he tells me. "I wanted followers. I didn't know the right hashtags, I just posted pictures of myself. I was getting my friends to take photos of me most of the time."

Zagarino was discovered by modeling agents--and girls--when he appeared in pop singer Alli Simpson's music video "Notice Me" in November 2013. It's a song (and a singer) that never made it big on the American charts, but the video now has more than 9 million views on YouTube. He signed with a modeling agency but left after realizing he could make more money online (though he has since signed on with Wilhelmina Models). He hired a manager, KM Creative's Santillo, and found a few ways to leverage his Instagram popularity. One is appearances. The other is ads.

Likes = $$$

Brands look for people who have a lot of followers, like Zagarino, but it's equally important for those followers to be invested. Influencers aren't exactly celebrities, but well-known in the way cool kids in high school with good taste tend to be. If their thousands of followers also like, heart, retweet, reply, or otherwise interact with them, brands are willing to shell out money for these influencers to promote their products on various social networks.

Zagarino linked up with a company called Speakr, which uses an algorithm to match brands with influencers for ad campaigns. He tends to work with fashion brands like Aeropostale and Old Navy that would appeal to his teen audience, but has also promoted a fitness app and other random products he likes.

"The brands don't say, Hey, I want Tanner,'" said Speakr CEO Marco Hansell. "They say, Hey, I want someone who is really influential with young teenage girls.' Tanner became part of this pool of people that technology identifies as having a large influence over the audience the advertisers are trying to grab. In Tanner's case, when he came in, he had a higher than average engagement rate, so he came in and ended up being one of the top picks for some of the demographics."

Zagarino has 1.12 times more female followers under 19 than the average Twitter user, according to Speakr, which is why entertainment and fashion brands are particularly interested in him--and also why he's been paid to promote Amy Poehler's new bookYes Please and the movie "Ouija."

That engagement rate and influence with teen girls also helped Zagarino land a deal with AwesomenessTV, a divison of DreamWorks Animation. The digital video network develops talent on YouTube and helps fledgling stars like Zagarino translate their popularity into YouTube subscribers--and ad dollars. Though Zagarino is just now building up his YouTube presence with weekly videos, AwesomenessTV partner manager Maxwell Peters told me the network is giving him a higher ad revenue split than is typical for a beginning YouTuber "because of the potential we saw."

 

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