How The Weird World Of Instagram Pets Became A $500 Million Industry

Instagram Dog
Big name brands from Jimmy Choo to Dyson to Petsmart are now marketing their products on Instagram via animal influencers.

The bride wore a custom-designed Marchesa veil and tulle gown and a $130,000 diamond necklace from London Jewelers. The groom was in a top hat and tux. Because it was a celebrity wedding, the lobby of the High Line Hotel in Chelsea was packed with reporters, photographers and even two Real Housewives of New York.

The officiant, New York Post gossip columnist Cindy Adams, made sure the vows would be meaningful to this special couple.

“Finn,” she said, “will you have Toast as your wife and cherish every piece of cheese, steak and treat with your beloved?”

“Toast, will you forever promise to share the couch with Finn when reruns of “Lassie” are on?

“Before I make the final announcement,” said Adams, who was wearing a red sweater embroidered with Dalmatians, “I want you to bark now or forever hold your pee.”

The happy couple wagged their tails, an appropriate response to the wedding of two of New York’s most popular dogs on Instagram. The bride, Toast (@toastmeetsworld), and the groom, Finn (@friendsoffinn), collectively boast more than 365,000 followers. They’re part of an emerging group of digital influencers — social media figures with large followings — changing the way companies market to consumers. About three-quarters of brands had plans to work with influencers in their campaigns last year, according to a report by Augure, a software company specializing in influencer marketing. And the trend shows no signs of slowing down in 2016.

More brands are shifting from traditional advertising models and looking for alternatives to catch the interest of potential customers. For the online gift registry Zola, sponsoring Toast and Finn’s wedding was the answer.

While animals of all kinds have become a growing force in the influencer-marketing world, dogs lead the pack. Maru Taro (@marutaro) from Japan, Jiff (@jiffpom) from California and Marnie (@marniethedog) from New York are some of the top dogs. They each have over two million Instagram followers and reportedly make more than $10,000 per sponsored post. Lesser-known dogs may not make that much, but industry experts estimate the market for animal influencers to be at least half a billion dollars annually.

New York, the media capital, is the hottest market for dog influencers. Meet and greets, photo shoots and red carpet events organized by brands from Petsmart to Jimmy Choo take place weekly in New York — which has drawn dog-owning lawyers, photographers and even philanthropists into the city’s celebrity canine scene.

The rise of social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat has made influencer marketing both a possibility and an imperative for companies. To compensate for the growing use of ad-blocking software and the decline of consumers’ attention spans, brands have had to get creative to reach buyers. They’re relying less on TV, print and radio ads and looking to people — and dogs — whom consumers trust.

In the past, advertising was a “one to many” phenomenon, where you’d have a commercial or a billboard — one space reaching many people with no conversation, said Gerald Kane, an associate professor of information systems at The Carroll School of Management at Boston College. Now, with social media, advertising has become a “many to many” relationship with companies not only advertising to communities, but also participating in them, he said.

Instagram Dog
Insta-Famous pets Toast (right) and Finn (left) at their brand-sponsored celebrity dog wedding at the High Line Hotel. (Ariana Igneri / January 2016)

Zola reached out to Sturino about working with Toast last year. The company’s marketing team, headed by Laura Holliday, had heard of Toast and had considered doing a dog wedding for a while. “We thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to take this fun idea that we already had and pitch it to Toast to see what she — or actually what her mom — thinks?” Holliday said.

Sturino, who recently married the Instagram comedian Josh Ostrovsky (@thefatjewish), agreed. “The world is a pretty serious place,” she said. “That’s why a dog wedding was such a welcome escape.” She said she couldn’t believe everything Zola was planning. “This whole thing is crazy,” she said.

“I got married about a year and a half ago, and I wasn’t going to get a Carolina Herrera dress for myself, so it’s just funny that Toast’s wedding is going to be more elaborate than mine.”

Holliday pulled in more than a dozen companies for the wedding. The night of the event, there was a DJ playing in the balcony above the bar, which was stocked with Smirnoff and White Girl Rose — a wine brand created by Ostrovsky. Guests could dine on two tiered cakes: one baked by Butterfly Bake Shop and the other crowned with a cake topper of the bride and groom handmade by Darcy Miller, the editorial director of Martha Stewart Weddings. There were dog-friendly desserts in mason jars, courtesy of pet nutritionist Gabby Slome. Dyson even showed up with a vacuum cleaner to tidy pet-related messes.

Sturino said she made more than $5,000 from the campaign, which was one of the most lucrative sponsorships she and Toast have done to date.

In the last five years, companies have been increasingly partnering with influencers to gain and maintain consumer’s trust. A study from Nielson shows that 92 percent of consumers trust recommendations from others, even from people they don’t know personally, over content pushed by brands. Influencers, who could be actors, academics and — most recently — dogs, belong to communities. Tapping into those communities is key for marketers.

But to do that, a company’s efforts need to be authentic. Brands must partner with influencers who not only align with their values, but who also might be consumers of their products.

Toast’s owner, Sturino, said she refuses offers from brands that don’t reflect her principles. “I try to work with brands that I like or believe in,” she said. “I definitely turn down brands. You have to know your feed and what your people like.”

Instagram Dog
The guest list at Toast and Finn’s wedding included Barneys Creative Director Simon Doonan and even The Real Housewives of New York. (Ariana Igneri / January 2016)

Olia Saunders, the owner of Cookie (@ps.ny), a red poodle whose ecofriendly, lifestyle account has over 130,000 Instagram followers, also has strict guidelines about brand partnerships. She and Cookie have collaborated with Jimmy Choo, advertising a line of leather-free products, but they’ve said no to requests from brands like Barbie. “Why would I promote Barbie?” Saunders said. “How does that fit into my concept and philosophy?”

Saunders’s favorite campaign was a holiday project she did this winter with West Elm, a furniture store supporting local and international artisans. For the campaign, Cookie hosted a meet and greet at the store’s Chelsea location and even had an ornament made of him. A dollar from each sale benefitted the ASPCA. Saunders was pleased with the collaboration. “That’s a company that I’d continue to work with,” she said.

Marketing campaigns with influencers, like the West Elm-Cookie campaign, are arranged in one of three ways: a brand pitches an influencer, an influencer pitches a brand or an agent mediates a pitch between an influencer and a brand. In New York, where agencies representing animal influencers are now on the rise, most collaborations are handled directly by the pet owners and marketers.

Hilary Sloan — the owner of Ella Bean (@ellabeanthedog), a Chihuahua-Yorkie-Maltese mix, who was one of the bridesmaids in Toast’s wedding — landed her first paid gig unexpectedly last spring, when a PR representative from 1Hotels in Miami Beach saw a picture that Sloan and her husband had posted of Ella at the hotel while they were there on vacation. The representative asked Sloan if Ella could help them raise awareness that their hotel was pet friendly. Sloan accepted the offer, which didn’t include financial compensation, but did promise a spike in Ella’s popularity.

Sloan said the campaign helped establish Ella’s diva persona on Instagram and enabled her to build a lasting partnership with the company. “It was so organic,” Sloan said.

“And the best part was that when we checked in at the hotel, the room was reserved under Ella Bean.”

Dog influencers can make anywhere from zero to several thousand dollars per sponsored post, with pay generally depending on a post’s engagement, as measured by the ratio of likes to followers an influencer gets on Instagram. Cookie’s owner, Saunders, said that about 10 cents per like is the closest thing to an industry standard in the dog influencer world today. The well-established dog accounts, with millions of followers, could make big money for a post with 10,000 or more likes. “But they’re exceptions,” Saunders said. “They have managers and agencies and are on a whole different level.”

Smaller accounts with thousands rather than millions of followers have to climb their way up the pay scale by working for free or for product. Last May, the watch company Daniel Wellington asked Saunders if she and Cookie would advertise its brand on Instagram in return for one of its watches. Saunders agreed and posted a picture of Cookie, reclining in an armchair, wearing a white oxford and sipping a cocktail with a watch on his wrist. Saunders said the campaign was a success.

Almost 21 years old in human years. Soon legally allowed to #drinkkombucha 😛

A photo posted by the art of slow living (@ps.ny) on

Daniel Wellington contacted Saunders at the end of last year hoping to collaborate again. This time, however, Saunders refused to accept product as payment: “I said, ‘I’m sorry. I don’t want another watch. I don’t want to do it for free anymore.’” The company eventually wrote Saunders a check. Saunders said the payment was acceptable for an account the size of hers, but she couldn’t reveal the exact amount since she signed a non-disclosure agreement.

Daniel Wellington is just one of many companies that have developed brands through influencer sponsorships. Launched five years ago, Bark & Co. was one of the first companies to capitalize on the popularity of pets on social media. Bark & Co.’s main vertical, BarkBox, is a monthly subscription service that ships dog toys and treats to subscribers. BarkBox is advertised on a number of channels, but its largest sales force is a community of several hundred dog influencers. Toast, Ella and Cookie have all worked with BarkBox.

BarkBox also partners with Dogs of Instagram (@dogsofinstagram), an Instagram account that was started during the platform’s early days and now has nearly three million followers. Bark & Co. was the first company Dogs of Instagram ever worked with, said the account’s co-founder Ashley Paguyo, who lives in Minnesota. Paguyo and her husband have been running the account and their online dog accessory company, Lucy & Co., full-time for just over a year. She wouldn’t say how much she makes annually, but she said brands are paying accounts like hers about $2,500 per sponsored post.

Like Paguyo, Lonnie Edwards — a lawyer, an entrepreneur and the “momager” of Chloe (@chloetheminifrenchie), who was also a bridesmaid at Toast’s wedding — hopes to launch a business on the tail of her pet’s success. In the two years that Edwards has been managing Chloe, she’s noticed a lack of representation for dog influencers, which encouraged her to start The Dog Agency, the first talent management agency focusing on celebrity dogs. Edwards said the agency’s goal is to help Instagram dog owners find opportunities and negotiate rates, of which she said she’d take a cut. Edwards declined to disclose how much that cut would be, but said it was equivalent to a standard agency percentage, which is usually about 10 percent.

“I’m really excited about being able to work with so many of these amazing dogs,” Edwards said. “Having it be basically my full-time job moving forward is going to be really fun.”

Before The Dog Agency, there weren’t many canine-specific agencies helping dog influencers and their owners make sense of the growing influencer trend. The next best thing was a platform called Fur Card, created by James Nord. Fur Card, which was launched on April Fools Day in 2014, began as a joke. It was started as a response to the increasing number of animals Nord saw on social media and was meant to mimic his main business venture, Fohr Card, a platform that helps brands connect with human influencers.

Although Nord said he doesn’t take Fur Card too seriously, he said he does see dog influencers becoming profitable. Right now, Fur Card has over 500 animals on its site, which Nord hopes to fold into Fohr Card and legitimize as competition in the dog influencer realm rises.

“In the same way we have competitors on the human side, I’m sure somebody will see this, try to move in and monetize it,” Nord said.

According to Saunders, Cookie’s owner, there are some influencer accounts that resort to unfair tactics to jolt their followings and attract brands. The practice of buying followers has become more common, she said, making it difficult for companies to determine whether an influencer has sway among consumers, which is why engagement is so important to advertisers.

Engaging consumers on Instagram is easier to do than online, due to the increased use of ad-blockers, programs users can install to remove advertisements from their Web browsers. With ad-blocker usage spiking by nearly half last year, according to data released from Adobe and Page Fair, an anti-ad blocking startup, it’s little surprise that marketers are pumping money into digital influencer marketing. Consumers might block pop up advertisements online, but they’re less likely to ignore sponsored posts from dog accounts they willingly follow.

Instagram Dog
Lonnie Edwards and her dog Chloe at Toast’s Wedding. Edwards started the first talent management agency dedicated exclusively to dogs. (Ariana Igneri / January 2016)

Today’s advertisers aren’t only competing with ad-blockers, however — they’re also competing with declining attention spans, which, according to a Microsoft study, have dropped from 12 to about eight seconds in the last 15 years. More than ever, companies need to reach people quickly. For that, visual content is key. The appeal of dogs is an added bonus.

Dogs are the most popular animal influencers. And while there is new research suggesting that oxytocin is the reason for the bond between humans and canines, most people involved in the dog influencer business don’t cite science as the basis for their pet’s success. Dogs make people happy, and happy people spend money, which makes advertisers happy. Chloe’s owner, Edwards, said, “It’s a match made in heaven.” But Nord, of Fohr Card, sees things differently: “I think people just really like dogs. I personally think cats are more interesting.”

Dogs, however, are easier to train than cats and other animals. Sloan said Ella automatically poses when she sees a camera. This winter, Ella posed with a stuffed penguin for a Barneys holiday initiative. Sloan asked to have the prop from the company a few days before the shoot to make Ella more comfortable. She said she landed the perfect shot on the first try, which, though exciting, wasn’t the only reason Sloan loved the collaboration. “It was super cool,” she said. “Barneys was definitely the one where I was like, ‘Oh my god, we’ve made it.’”

ladies who lunch. 💳 #bnychillinout

A photo posted by fashion style dogs • ella bean (@ellabeanthedog) on

Making it as a dog influencer is often about being in the right place, at the right time, with the right people. Toast’s owner, Sturino said her PR background helped. “I just did what I would do if Toast were a client,” she said. Toast gained exposure by posting photos with celebrities like Jonathan Adler, Jane Lynch and Katie Couric. She’s so big now she released a lifestyle book called “Toast Hamptons” this May.

The dog influencer scene is most concentrated in New York, where making contacts at brand sponsored events is crucial. But Sloan, who works in social media, said the dog community in New York is as much a product of its place as it is of its people: “You have this group of people that’s converged over this unlikely, niche category, who all have this organic sensibility about what works on social media.”

Instagram Dog
Ella Bean, an Insta-Famous dog who has worked with brands including Barneys, was one of the bridesmaids at Toast’s wedding. (Ariana Igneri / January 2016)

For most involved, New York’s Instagram dog scene is a tight-knit one.

“I had no idea about the world of dog Instagram at all when I started, but it’s an entire community,” Sturino said. “It’s very dance mommy.”

Most of the dog influencers in New York use their influence for more than making friends and money, though. Besides working with advertisers, many of these accounts also partner with canine related philanthropic organizations. Chloe recently had a third birthday bash to raise money for the Humane Society of New York, and a portion of the proceeds from Toast and Finn’s wedding went to National Dog Mill Rescue.

The fact that dog influencers partner with charities makes it easier to trust that the animals are being treated with respect, said Joel Bartlett, of PETA. Nevertheless, the public should remain vigilant, he said: “We should look at it all with a skeptical eye and keep the welfare of animals in the forefront of our minds.”

Although most dog influencers uphold positive values, Bartlett said people contact PETA daily concerned about something they’ve seen on social media. Even for Toast and Finn’s wedding, some Instagram users posted negative comments on photos Zola (@zolaregistry) published. On one picture, someone wrote, “these poor dogs with their lunatic humans” and on another, a different person commented, “The fat jew has lost his mind with what he is doing to this poor dog, I swear.” But Sturino doesn’t let the bad feedback get to her. “There’s always going to be a vocal minority that has a lot to say,” she said.

With their Instagram followings, sponsorships and charities, it’s hard to deny that these dogs have influence. Marnie has two books. Menswear Dog has been written about in The New York Times, and Jiff’s appeared in a Katy Perry music video. Saunders, however, doesn’t think that counts for much. “It’s an illusion that celebrity pets are celebrities that everyone knows,” she said. “It’s not like they’re Kim Kardashian.”

Toast might not be a Kardashian, but she certainly got married like one. Several days after the wedding, Zola posted a photo of the canine couple wearing Hawaiian leis around their necks. Two pieces of Swiss Army luggage appeared in the picture with Toast and Finn, who were propped on top of and next to the black and white suitcases. The post’s caption read: “The #newlyweds are finally making it on their #honeymoon! Mai Tai and #Maui ready. Where are you looking to escape this winter? #zolatoastsfinn”

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