Her first images were “terrible” but a former chef has turned a hobby into a thriving marketing business through the Instagram photo-sharing site
Radio shock jocks and newspaper columnists reigned supreme before the digital age turned everything on its head.
Millions were swayed by their brash views, bestowing them with the power to make or break governments, social causes and personal reputations. But rivals are popping up in the form of social media influencers.
These exalted newbies capture hoards of followers on platforms such as YouTube, Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. What they blog, snap or clip leads massive global audiences to buy, buy, buy.
Lauren Bath is one of Australia’s pioneer influencers, amassing 461,000 followers on Instagram. Her travel posts feature dazzling sunsets, cool beaches, frozen fjords, wildlife from remote reaches of the world and engaging dialogues about her work.
If her snaps can’t entice you to book a safari or summer getaway, then no one can. Tourism authorities eagerly pay for her endorsements.
“In 2015, while I was making good money – way more than I thought was possible – I began to consider whether I could maintain that success forever,” says Bath.
“After 150-plus campaigns in three years, burnout is a very real problem. By the time 2016 was over, I had done 135 commercial flights, not counting scenic ones and the helicopters. I am trying not to accept so many trips this year. I need to sit back and put the work into other things.”
Having said that, the day after our interview Bath was off to Cape Town. Then what? Downtime with her partner, Emmanuel, in Zimbabwe.
On the bucket list for 2017 are Scotland, Croatia, Greenland, Egypt and Turkey.
She is living the dream.
Bath is billed as this country’s first professional Instagrammer, and a magnet for those wanting such a role model. Since ditching a successful career as a chef less than four years ago, she is now way beyond simply posting glamorous travel shots online. She is turning her hand to helping would-be influencers.
Specifically, she is managing social media campaigns for clients by sending other influencers on travel jaunts while she stays behind. There are also conferences, dubbed travel boot camps, which reveal the secrets of being a successful influencer. Recently she has also been signed by a German company to create an online education course.
Bath doesn’t put it this way but her name is fast becoming a brand.
She was born and raised on the Gold Coast and hankered to be a chef when she left school. Her teachers and mother nudged her towards university, so she signed on for a bachelor of science in food and nutrition. But studies were soon suspended to pursue another passion, cooking.
Aged 20, she moved to Daintree in far north Queensland for her first full-time job in a kitchen.
Three years on she was chefing in Cairns, earning a reputation at several respected local restaurants. Back on the Gold Coast some time later, Bath met her current partner and postponed an urge to travel to work again as a chef.
“I had a lot of time for hobbies. My big one turned out to be Instagram. I didn’t really have a bent for photography. When I was young I had a camera but I never knew how to use it.
“It was just to take pictures of my friends in auto mode. When I first downloaded Instagram, I didn’t know it was a photography program. I started taking pictures with my phone, and that’s where it started.”
What were they like?
“Terrible. Terrible. There is still a lot of them (online) if anyone can be bothered scrolling back 4000-plus images!”
They were taken around Main Beach, and often showed seagulls and sunsets. A desire to experiment and improve the quality led to the purchase of her first advanced camera.
Before long, Bath had 5000 followers. Many were keen photographers, and her posts often had conversations about how certain shots were taken. What depth of field was used? How do you blur the water to give an impression of movement? Bath was free with her advice and followers offered tips of their own.
Then Instagram took off.
Initially it was available only on iPhones but the app was released on Android phones, making it available to millions more. Then, in a stunning $US1 billion takeover, Instagram was gobbled up by Facebook becoming part of the world’s largest social media group.
“People were joining in droves,” says Bath.
“I had about 10,000 followers, good photography and was one of few using a serious camera. My content stood out. My account started growing by 1000 followers a day. That continued until I got close to 200,000. There I was, a chef working at the minimum wage in an Italian restaurant.”
Few were making money from it, however, but marketers were showing interest. Bath’s first job was an offer of 10 free pairs of sunglasses in return for posts.
She was invited to Hamilton Island for a so-called Insta-meet, along with a clutch of media celebrities. A PR company invited her to cover the Australian tennis open.
Torn between the kitchen and the shutter, Bath followed her instincts and quit her job.
She had yet to make her first dollar as an influencer but fate was kind. Within hours, three offers arrived by email – one from Tourism Australia, another from Kia Motors and the last from a local surf shop.
Each wanted to pay her. Other tourism gigs from Western Australia, Christmas Island and Canberra followed.
This brought the challenge of establishing a business structure and learning the discipline to sustain a new career.
“I needed to charge for my time but I didn’t know how much, so I was guided by people who were contacting me. They didn’t take advantage. I first asked $1000 for a whole trip, and got it. That was enough to make it sustainable.”
As a pioneering social media influencer, there were few rules to follow. Bath was keen to give her clients value for money and sought their feedback.
She also helped them to understand more about how social media worked, and how they could benefit further from it. Everyone was experimenting. Also there was a concern to distinguish what she did from coverage that journalists provided – important because she often shared trips with them.
“I wanted to carve a niche for myself. I didn’t want to take the place of a journalist and I didn’t want to take the budget that would otherwise go to them. Clients had no separate budget for social media back then.”
Dedication, hard work and honesty paid off. Two years into her new life, Bath was earning enough to form her own proprietary company.
“I keep most of the money in the company. I pay myself a salary and the rest I can invest in the business. If I have to do a production for the online course, I can afford that. If I want to relaunch my website, I can afford to do something great. I can take more risks now, because I have the money.”
One example is that she is able to bankroll trips that she organises for other influencers by paying their costs before invoicing the client.
She saves a fair bit of her salary. With her mum, Bath is saving to buy a house.
“We have talked about investing in property, and I have been living with mum and her partner with me and my partner for four years. So I am saving for a deposit.”
She is also contributing to superannuation, which she had overlooked. Hiring an accountant helped.
“I have learned everything the hard way. I was charging GST when I started, and I was not registered for GST.
“As soon as I got an accountant, everything was sorted out. She lets me know what I can and can’t expense. Unfortunately, I can’t expense getting my hair straightened at the hairdresser, even if it’s for a conference. It has been a steep learning curve.”
The relationship with her accountant is handled online. At the outset, she emailed piles of paperwork and received dozens of questions in response. Within a month, her finances were straightened out. She now pays a monthly fee to cover monthly profit and loss reports, quarterly GST payments, wages, PAYG tax, superannuation and annual company taxes.
“The best piece of advice didn’t actually come from my accountant. It was to start a company and emerge from being a small business.
“I did this quite early on, and it’s saving me a lot in taxes now. I also like that the company profits are separate, so I still have to live within a budget each week as the company grows richer. I am hoping to invest a fair bit of money into online education next year. A passive income is my next goal.”
Follow @laurenepbath on Instagram.