If you’re a cat person, the odds are that at some point you’ve tried—and failed—to take a cute picture of your pet doing something adorable. Cats are notoriously tough subjects: they’re finicky, active, and definitely have a mind of their own.
Now imagine if your paycheque that week depended on snagging that perfect shot.
“It’s not always easy. We often have to wait until they’re in the right mood to take photos,” says Shannon Ellis, whose Siamese/Tabby-cross cat Nala, who she shares with Nala’s other mommy, Varisiri Methachittiphan, is now one of the most famous cats on earth, thanks to Nala’s Instagram fame.
For Shannon, preparation is key. The concepts and photoshoot are staged in advance, and everything is prepared for when Nala is ready.
“Treats are very helpful in the photoshoot process,” she says.
Welcome to the life of a social media animal “influencer.” Nala is one of a growing number of four-legged trendsetters with a large social media presence who are being courted by big brands to harness that clout to share their message and sell products.
With an astounding 4.1 million followers, Nala Cat is one of the most famous—and powerful—influencers in the world right now. The camera loves the eight-year-old feline, as do the national and international brands who partner with Nala on campaigns to entice fellow pet owners to purchase their products.
Some of the other top influencers of the feline variety include Grumpy Cat (who passed away in May) with 2.3 million Instagram devotees, Lil Bub, with 2.2 million, Coffee aka Mr. White, with1.9 million followers, Hamilton the Hipster Cat, with 819,000 followers, Venus the Two Face Cat, with 1.8 million followers, and Cole and Marmalade, with 582,000 followers on Instagram—and 1.1 million subscribers to their YouTube channel.
The self-proclaimed “crazy cat dad” behind Cole and Marmalade is Chris Poole, whose influencer status was never intentional. After moving to Florida in 2008 to work at a big cat rescue as the videographer and social media guy, he adopted Cole in 2012 and started making small cat videos in his spare time. They were a hit
His motivation? “We were told that black cats are the least likely to be adopted and the most likely to be euthanized in shelters,” he told Modern Cat.
Chris uses his monster social media presence to help further the message of #adoptdontshop in hopes that more cats like Cole will be adopted.
Through his feline fame, he’s made Cole into a de-facto spokeskitty for black shelter cats and also turned a hobby of cat photos and videos into a full-time career with a focus on animal welfare and advocacy—all with his wife Jess by his side.
“We take the pics, we edit the videos, we write the blog posts, we reply to all the messages and comments,” he says. “People know it’s us and appreciate that it is and we’ve been doing this for seven years now and they’ve followed us from the start and through all our moves and other big life changes like health scares with Marmalade and Cole.”
Chris says as their social media presence grew, so did the offers from brands. They are regularly approached, though they are very choosy about who they work with and only partner with brands that align with their personal values. They’re currently working with the pet food brand Weruva. They met at a cat convention and liked the company’s mission and the quality of their food, so started a partnership.
Shannon prefers to partner with brands they use in their own home and have a personal guideline: “If we wouldn’t buy it for ourselves or someone we love we shouldn’t be promoting it.”
She typically works with nation-wide brands, but has also worked with family-owned firms, rescue groups, and also non-profits. Nala has worked with Lyft, Google, LG, Hallmark, ASPCA, PetSmart, PetCo, FreshStep, Universal Studios, and Sony. To name a few.
Yonella Marcu, head of ID Agency, a full-service influencer agency that unites creatives with leading brands, has seen the pet influencer space grow in leaps and bounds in the past five years. She says traditionally you would only see pet influencers promoting pet-related products, like food, pet care, beds, and toys. But as the industry grows, pets are promoting products like headphones for humans, mattress companies—even GoPro cameras.
“No one is going to be offended by a cute pup rolling around on a comfy looking mattress, but you’re more likely to remember that brand’s name the next time you’re in the market for a new mattress, over an unmemorable ad of a person lying on a bed that you’ve probably seen a variation of hundreds of times over,” says Yonella.
Just how big is the industry? Brittany Hennessy, the senior director of influence strategy and talent partnerships at Hearst Digital Media, estimates influencer marketing will be worth up to a staggering $10 billion by 2020.
Cat influencers are notoriously tight-lipped about how much they are paid for each post. Both Chris and Shannon declined to talk money, although Shannon does say the price changes based on the platform and what the brand is asking for. Video posts that require editing would justify a higher production rate, for example.
“Influencers can set their own rates; there is no minimum. Some celebrity accounts charge up to $15,000 a post,” says Yonella, adding that it depends on what the brand is willing to spend and whether the ROI, or return on investment, is there.
There are also industry standards that look at cost per engagement, or CPE, to measure what the influencer’s content is valued at. Multiply the influencer’s engagement by $0.35, and that’s what one photo should cost, says Yonella. So for example, if a cute Instagram photo of a cat posing with a new branded bandana gets 1,500 engagements, that’s a $525 post.
The bigger the influence, the bigger the paycheque, typically. A “micro-influencer” usually averages 500-1500 engagements per post, with 5,000 to 35,000 followers. When an influencer hits 4,000 likes on their posts that’s when they’re considered macro-influencers, with audiences just under 100,000. You hit celebrity influencer status when you have fans in the millions, like the late viral sensation Grumpy Cat, and the posts usually hit levels of six figures of engagement.
So how do influencers build that trust and authenticity with their audience? For Shannon and Chris, it’s through their daily rituals. Posting cute photos, interacting with their fans and followers, being choosy about who they promote—and always having fun.
After all, there’s not many jobs where you get to work with your best friend every day.
“Nala is cute, sweet, inspiring, and relatable. We keep our brand authentic by knowing who we are and never wavering,” says Shannon.
“The best advice I can give is to have fun, be creative, and authentic.”
His advice to anyone who wants to get started: Start an account, have lots of cameras and video cameras around the house (because you never know when your cat is going to do something cute), use lots of treats and rewards, and just enjoy the time with your feline companion.
The Instagram cat world is deceptively easy to get into—really, just as simple as starting an account. But with so much competition, it’s much harder to make money, let alone rack up thousands of followers and turn it into a career.
“It’s tough these days since so many people are trying to make their pets famous,” Chris says.
In other words, it takes more than a social media account and a camera. Influencers aren’t just lucky—their success is based on consistency and hard work.
“I always say create good content on a consistent basis and keep at it. There’s no magic pill to take for overnight success—at least, if there is, we were not made aware.”