Big brands are noticing the power of Instagram influencers — in this case, moms with large followings — the same way they did when the first wave of “mommy blogs” hit more than a decade ago. Wiles, 41, who lives in New York City, says she has been approached by everyone from McDonald’s and Allstate to more niche companies, such as the Land of Nod, for sponsored content. And while she doesn’t work with just anyone (she turned down McDonald’s), there’s no mistaking this is a business, not a hobby. In fact, her @mommyshorts Instagram is just a piece of a larger puzzle — Wiles runs a humorous parenting blog of the same name with about 800,000 unique visitors a month, as well as three other Instagram accounts (@insta2yearold, @averageparentproblems, and @pinkinnyc) for a combined 504,000 followers.
“I definitely did [Instagram] on the later side,” says Wiles, who began posting in 2013. “I didn’t understand why you would post pictures.” Then she attended an event for lifestyle bloggers sponsored by Method soap, and everyone was talking about Instagram. “I remember this one person had 14,000 followers, and that blew my mind.” Wiles went home and posted an image of Method soap, and so it began.
They both love that they get a lot of stuff. I try to actually curb that... I don’t want them to feel like they just get presents whenever.
Not all deals involve a fee, however. It’s not uncommon for influencers to accept clothes, toys, even family vacations in exchange for Instagram posts. Karla Quiz, owner of the maternity clothing line James Fox Co. (named after her two daughters, France Fox, 4, and Fair James, 2), says she has charged up to $500 for an image on her Instagram account, but she’ll also accept swag in exchange for taking a photo and posting to her roughly 40,000 followers. (She also has a separate account for her clothing business.) “If it’s me contacting [a company], I don’t charge them,” she says. “If it’s a large company that I know has the funding, I ask them to pay on top of the product.”
As her following grew, Quiz decided to use her background in marketing to expand what had been a hobby into an actual business. Now, she considers herself the founder of two companies: one, a line of caftan-inspired medical gowns (meant to be worn post-labor); the second, a social marketing company that works with companies like Whole Foods, Orbit Baby, and smaller, European brands, such as Eli, a Spanish shoe company.
Frame and Wiles both have creative backgrounds as well. Frame is a writer, stylist, and fashion editor. Wiles worked in advertising for 15 years, rising the ranks to creative director before moving into the blog space.
“I think because I have an ad background, I like coming up with creative ways to promote things that won’t put off my readers,” says Wiles. “It’s a skill set I had baked in.” All three women stress the importance of choosing the right brands and partners to work with — tag too many products, or come off as overly promotional, and readers will be turned off. Part of getting that authentic feeling, however, is having their kids in the images — a request that’s sometimes a specific ask from brands.
“There’s definitely a huge market for that more organic feeling in the photograph,” says Frame. “If it’s something [Small Fry’s founders] are willing to do and it’s worth our time, we’ll talk to our kids about it. If they are into it, great. If not, we have a lot of models, and their parents will bring them to the shoot. We are never short on models.” Small Fry doesn't use an agency; the “models” are children volunteered by their parents, and Frame says they are compensated according to the type of sponsorship.
Frame’s unapologetic about taking payment for photos. “It takes time. It takes talent. Maybe that’s one of the unfair qualities of being a woman who works — people assume you should do it out of the goodness of your heart. Nobody would expect a man to do that. There are companies that think you should just want a T-shirt, and that’s all you need to do a two-hour photo shoot and edit the photos and edit the content and push it on your social media.”
That’s one of the unfair qualities of being a woman who works — people assume you should do it out of the goodness of your heart.
Her daughters might not fully understand what their mom does for a living, but they do like the perks. “They both love that they get a lot of stuff,” says Wiles. “I try to actually curb that kind of stuff. I don’t want them to feel like they just get presents whenever. There was one site that wanted me to review a whole bunch of dollhouses with the kids. They were going to send us five dollhouses. I was like, ‘No, I can’t do that. I can’t give my daughter five dollhouses.’”
France, Quiz’s oldest daughter, is also starting to understand the business side of all those pictures her mom is taking. “She’ll get shoes in the mail, and I’ll put them in her shoe bin, and she’ll go, ‘Mommy, these are new. Did you and Poppy buy them, or did somebody send them in the mail for a photo?’” she says.
Quiz adds that her husband, who works in the tech industry, is okay with her posting images of the girls online, in part because they get so many free things, including expensive European kids’ clothes. “I really like unique clothing and things for my kids, and I don’t think my husband would allow me to buy $100 or $150 shoes for my kids,” she says. “He’d be like, ‘Heck no, go to Target!’ [I’m happy] they get to dress the way they like to be dressed.”
“I do think as the kids are getting older, I’m becoming more protective and conscious about what it is I’m putting out there for them,” says Wiles. “It definitely gets harder. There are a lot of subjects I feel like I can’t write about. I don’t want them to be mad when they read about it later.”
For instance, in February, Wiles posted a photo of her younger daughter on a toilet with the caption, “Only a parent would think a holiday is the perfect opportunity for potty training...” The image is innocent enough, but it’s hard not to think that, down the road, the toddler in the image will wish it hadn’t been shared publicly.
In an interview with the Guardian, Armstrong described feeling increasingly dependent on advertisers, and less in control of her own content. “At the beginning it was, ‘We’re just gonna put the logo at the end of the post...’ And then it was, ‘Well, actually, we need you to show pictures of the product.’ And then it was, ‘We need your kids involved in the post,’” she said.
Armstrong hit her limit when her daughters didn’t want to go to a sponsored event, and she found herself begging them to play along. “I cannot be that person anymore,” she said.
The brutally honest and often messy version of mom blogs has transitioned into a prettier, polished version of life with kids, largely thanks to social media and a worldwide trend toward curating the perfect online life. The reality is that those bright, perfected images perform better on Instagram, for the most part. “People sometimes are like, ‘I want to see the real stuff,’” says Quiz. “And I’m like, ‘Really, you don’t want to see my kids’ boogers.’”
Many of the people commenting on Wiles’ posts are talking about how cute the girls look, asking where they can buy something in the image, or sharing stories from their own lives in a show of solidarity. But occasionally, certain topics become divisive — and when that happens, prepare for the nasty comments. “At one point, I was talking about sleep training, and I definitely got negativity there,” says Wiles. “That was mom judgment… But I felt strongly that that was the right thing for my kids. If you don’t like it, that’s fine.”
For now, Frame says the benefits of posting on Instagram and blogging far outweigh the few potential negatives. “It’s kind of a dream gig to be able to stay at home and get paid to do it,” she says. “I can be a stay-at-home mom, and I get to be creative.”
It’s kind of a dream gig to be able to stay at home and get paid to do it.
But not every Instagram-mom influencer is doing it for the stay-at-home perks; in some ways, the demands can be just as much as those of a full-time office job. Wiles, for one, is open about the fact that she had a full-time nanny when she was a creative director — and she still has one now. “There is a misconception [that] people who are really successful at this are just writing blog posts at nap time and juggling both really well,” says Wiles. “I could never have pulled off what I did if I was taking care of kids 24 hours of the day.”
That success doesn’t hinge on her daughters’ involvement, notes Wiles. “If [my daughter] doesn’t want me to post pictures or whatever, I think I can figure out a way to have a blog, and speak my mind, without it having as much to do with her.”
But she’s not expecting that day to come anytime soon (or ever), and the other Instagram moms agree. Generation Z will be the first to have their entire lives, from birth, documented on social media (if their parents choose to do so). This is true even for the majority of Instagram users — who don’t receive payments for posting images of their kids eating breakfast in their pajamas, or running around the local playground. What may seem potentially invasive now will likely continue to slide into "normal" and perhaps even feel passé by the time today’s toddlers are getting their driver’s licenses.
“I talk in a mom group with other influencers, and they are like, ‘We are the first generation to really do this,'” says Frame. “Our kids are going to be the guinea pigs. Like, what happens?”