As an aspiring brand ambassador or influencer, you probably want to know how to become Instagram famous, become an Instagram model, or just get more followers on Instagram. The founder of NOTICE Agency, Nick Kinports, explores Instagram as a legitimate career in a series of BTS (Behind the Scenes) interviews with top Instagram personalities. Read on, and discover how Waikei Tong, also known as @waikeezy on Instagram, pursued a dream of working with her favorite brands in fashion, cosmetics, and more, growing from a micro influencer to a lifestyle star.
How to become Instagram famous: The first year
Nick: Let’s start at the beginning. I know from working with you it’s probably been a year and a half or two years since you decided to become an Instagram influencer in the fashion and lifestyle world. Was there a defining moment when you looked at yourself in the mirror and said, “I’m going to figure out how to become Instagram famous.”
Waikei: When I was younger – I think when I was in high school – YouTube became a really big thing, but that was not something that I thought was for me. Then Instagram came along and it was just something that I liked doing for fun by myself. But I was in my junior year of college and I was kind of in a rut and I started dating this new guy who was a photographer and he was creative. I thought it was fun because I’ve never been the creative type. I valued education my whole life. I lived in the academic world. When I was young I really liked painting and the arts but that was never an option I got to explore.
I grew up in a pretty rigid Asian family so they really wanted me to pursue academics, so that’s what I did my entire life. But when I started dating my boyfriend, a photographer and videographer by trade, he started taking all these photos of me and I was like, “Oh, this is fun. Let’s post them on Instagram and see what happens.” Part of my desire to share came from the fact that I never had any really good photos of myself before!
I’ve always really liked fashion. When we were taking photos in the early days, I made it a point to put together really cute outfits that matched my personality. The goal wasn’t to become an Instagram model, but just have some fun. That approach paid off, because I started to get more followers on Instagram. That was not something I expected to happen right away! Around December of 2016 I decided to just go for it. At the time I had maybe 3,000, 4,000 followers. I was continuing to gain followers organically, so I made the commitment to put more effort into the content and take my new Instagram hobby to the next level.
Nick: How often did you post on Instagram when you were starting out?
Waikei: At this time I was still in school, so I would post to Instagram two to three times a week. It wasn’t very frequent. Towards the middle to end of my senior year I decided that I didn’t want to go to med school, and to really just put my full effort into figuring out how to work with my favorite fashion brands on Instagram. If I’m honest, I think I needed a new career path to look forward to post-graduation.
It all seemed like an opportunity to show a company or an influencer agency that I could build my own brand or that I understood social media a little bit better than the average person, and to hone in my skills and beef up my resume. When I graduated, I took an e-commerce job in New York. The first problem I faced with freelancing in tech was being stuck in the office all day. New Yorkers have long office hours, and after six months I was not happy with where I had ended up. At the same time, I started to get emails and DMs on Instagram from fashion brands that I love. They were finding my pictures and reaching out to me, even though I only had 15,000 followers or so.
Nick: Why do you think these fashion brands chose to reach out to you?
Waikei: I have to give some credit to my boyfriend here. He took so many great pictures of me that I think brands immediately noticed a difference in quality. We carefully staged shots, outfits, and sets to take advantage of all the great scenery around New York which helped me become an Instagram model, or at least gave me the look!
At the same time, I was hesitant to take on Instagram assignments from brands. I wasn’t confident that I would have the time to do a good job. I hadn’t even pursued how to become Instagram famous, but it seemed like brands were super hungry for fresh faces on Instagram. As the money from Instagram started to trickle in, I became more comfortable thinking about it as an opportunity to to make a steady living.
Nick: Do you remember the first brand that ever reached out to you for a serious, paid collaboration?
Waikei: The first brand that was a serious collaboration for me was the cosmetics company Almay.
That paid Instagram collaboration started in September of 2017. It was actually really crazy to me because before that I had been posting Instagram pictures for products or very minor collaborations here and there. I never dreamed I would get paid a living wage to post on Instagram or become an Instagram model. So when I got my first offer I was speechless. They sent this ridiculously long contract, which was something that I had never seen before. It had exclusivity agreements and that kind of … it’s just stuff I wasn’t familiar with. In truth, it was a little scary to think that a company was actually going to pay me money for posting on Instagram.
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Nick: How did you deal with that contract? Did you have a lawyer review it or did you just sign it on the spot and hope for the best?
Waikei: I reviewed it for a very long time. I was reading line-by-line just making sure that there wasn’t anything that I didn’t truly understand. I feel contracts are pretty straightforward and if there’s anything that you don’t really understand, I just Googled it, but yeah it was a long contract and I just really made sure I wasn’t signing my life away.
How to become Instagram famous: Hobby to career
Nick: I’m sure that was a tense moment for you to make sure everything was above board but not push back on this deal or potentially kill the deal. After the Almay collaboration, did the flood gates open?
Waikei: It was a definite turning point. There was just one problem: I was still stuck in the office all day, which meant missing all the good daylight hours. The final step happened in November of 2017 when I decided to quit my office job and focus on Instagram brand collaborations full time. Once brands started to notice I was taking partnership seriously and delivering content, then started reaching out. I’d never actually thought about it like that before. I had started to post my pictures because I enjoyed taking them, but this was a whole new level of financial freedom.
Nick: So, it seems like the first year of focus on Instagram was all about organic growth based on posting and occasional brand collaboration. But that dynamic may not be possible any longer. In the last six months, we’ve heard feedback that Instagram is giving a lot of influencers and brand ambassadors trouble by reducing amount of organic reach that you can achieve. Now, because of the Facebook privacy scandal more changes are coming. How do you deal with constant algorithm changes?
Waikei: I feel really lucky because I don’t think I have experience many issues here. My reach has been about the same if not better in recent months, and I’m still growing my Instagram followers organically. I think my growth rate has slowed down a little bit but I don’t feel it’s because of Instagram or algorithm changes at all.
Nick: How often do you check your Instagram analytics? Do you see any trends from your follower growth or engagement?
Waikei: I check analytics all the time. Most of my followers are based in New York and Los Angeles, and I have a lot of followers from other places in California too. I like to focus on trends, and watch which types of content do better than others. It’s not always cut and dry though. For example I know my videos on Instagram don’t get as many likes as my photos, but I also know they tell a more engaging story. Everything has a trade off!
Nick: At the agency it’s common for us to see Instagrammers collaborate with each other. Sometimes it’s about creating a support system, or pod, to stay on top of the Instagram algorithm. Do you belong to any Instagrammer groups?
Waikei: My boyfriend and I are a pretty good team, and we do most things on our own. He’s got a job too so when we’re together and focused it’s all about getting the shots and creating the best content. I know there are ways to work with others and raise the profile of your content on Instagram, but I would rather focus on doing a great job of creating and hope the rest works itself out!
Nick: I understand you have some big news coming up very soon that you want to share…
Waikei: Yes! We’re moving to LA in just a few weeks.
Nick: Things seem like they are going really well for you in New York. What prompted a coast to coast move?
Waikei: I’ve never stayed for an extended amount of time in California. I grew up in Las Vegas from age 10 on. At that age my family moved from China, and as I got older my mom was pushing me towards USC for college. At the time I really didn’t want to go. My goal, my dream, was to be in New York, though I had no idea I would become an Instagram model. Now, I’m realizing there are so many amazing things on the West Coast that I’ve never experienced, and I’ve never been a part of. With my current job as an Instagram content creator, I have a lot of freedom. I want to experience the West Coast for at least a year and see what’s that’s like. We’ve got plans to travel in California, and we also want to make it out to Hawaii this year.
As a bonus, I know like the weather in LA will be so much better for photography and videography. It’s going to give us a chance to explore new types of content.
Nick: Do you feel your journey has been influenced, positively or negatively, by being an immigrant?
Waikei: There are a lot of positives! I feel like I have a very strong work ethic. That’s always been my driving force. I’ve never done anything I consider creative before Instagram. One thing that really excited me was an opportunity to finally do something that wasn’t driven by the traditional Asian definition of success, like going into medicine or law. It drives me to prove that the younger Asian generations can change our cultural ideal for success.
Also, a lot of my Instagram audience is from an Asian background. I see a ton of support coming from Asian Americans who I feel might be trapped in that same, “I need to do this for my parents, I need to do this to make them happy” mentality. I wouldn’t advice dropping out of college to pursue becoming an Instagram influencer, but I want them to see that they can be passionate about a creative field, and create their own path.
How to become Instagram famous: What’s next?
Nick: Let’s jump back to video production. It’s a lot more complicated than still photography. Your recent work with Sephora is a good example of short, narrative storytelling with video. How has that been working out and what advice can you share about video versus photography as an Instagram influencer?
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Waikei: I honestly like videos a lot more just because it shows a little bit, it definitely shows a lot more personality than a photo would. Video helps your audience connect with you more than a photo can. People get to feel like they’re your best friends, and I like being able to offer that connection.
Nick: Working with clients on the brand side, we’ve seen video outperform other content types in Instagram and other channels by a huge margin. Are the brands you collaborate with more excited about video? Are they asking for it more?
Waikei: I think brands prefer video, but it’s not the single secret of how to become Instagram famous. It depends on what the brands need to get done. If you want to show a ton of likes and comments, video may not be the best option in Instagram. But if you want your audience to spend more time with your brand, and are OK with measuring success that way, video is the best. I don’t post videos every day, and so when I do it tends to be special and get more attention just because it’s different.
Nick: You’ve shared examples from cosmetics brands and fashion brands, are there any other categories that you’re seeing a lot of interest from?
Waikei: I am seeing more food and beverage lately, but it’s a little bit harder to incorporate into my Instagram feed. I’m hearing a lot of feedback saying 2018 is the year of starting a brand ambassador program for many brands. I do want to focus more on food when we’re in LA and we have more consistent weather and light. Food is one of my passions, so I’m really looking forward to finding ways to bring that content into my feed.
Nick: Many people reading this may be aspiring Instagram superstars. Do you have any advice for somebody who is starting where you were two years ago? Exactly how do you become Instagram famous?
Waikei: It’s really important to keep your own brand in mind. The image that you’re trying to portray or the brand that you’re trying to build. It was easier for me at the beginning because I wasn’t thinking about brand collaborations or making money. I wasn’t waking up every day and trying to figure out how to become Instagram famous. You do have to be picky and avoid things that won’t look right to you or your audience. Basically, I wouldn’t start an Instagram hobby just to make money. When you’re building an audience you’re also gaining their trust, and if you push out forced content or collaborations you’re eroding that trust bit by bit. It’s just not worth it!
I think the brands that you should be promoting are brands that you truly love and will stand behind.
Another tip is that when people ask you questions or make comments, answer! I feel like that’s kept me close to my audience, and it’s so simple. When people comment, “Nice picture.” I’ll say, “Thank you.” It’s not just a nice thing to do for your audience, it’s helping you continue to grow. After all, those are the people who are supporting you along the way.
Nick: So you figured out how to become Instagram famous, but fame can be fleeting! Do you have any thoughts about what might happen in the next phase of your career?
Waikei: It’s important to have your own blog or website where you can build your own platform that you own. For me, I think if Instagram was taken away, I might try to apply the knowledge that I gained from developing a strong social media presence to help a brand create better content and advertising that connects with a younger generation. I see a lot of opportunity! I could probably also get a job at a creative agency too!
Nick: I think you would be great in the agency world. And you’ve already started the process of developing your own website at www.withwaikei.com. What is the mission behind that effort?
Waikei: Right now, really it’s just a journal, or another way to connect with my audience. Though I can’t share the details every time I post on Instagram, those pictures and videos all have a story behind them. I know as time goes on I’ll develop the format and tell better stories through writing too.
Nick: Thanks for taking us behind the scenes and sharing tips on how to become Instagram famous Waikei! You can find Waikei on Instagram at @waikeezy.
Whether it’s working to become an Instagram model or figuring out a unique content formula that unlocks how to become Instagram famous, our interview series is here to help you take the next step. Be sure to read our other articles covering working in fashion, becoming a brand ambassador, or starting a brand ambassador program and launching your next big business idea on social media.
Did you enjoy reading our behind the scenes interview on how to become Instagram famous? Know an Instagram influencer with a great story that we should talk to? Let us know on Twitter @lonelybrand.