If you want to generate social media buzz, Corbett Drummey is your guy. He has assembled an army of people with big followings on Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Snap and other platforms who are willing to spread the word about you to their followers—for a price.
His company, Popular Pays, sprang from an idea he had five years ago when he was working at Leo Burnett. He and a colleague suggested a client invite potential customers to a bar for free drinks and swag. The only requirement was each attendee had to have at least 500 followers on social media, where they presumably would share their experience. The event never happened, but Drummey pursued it on his own with Allan Holmes and Nathan Michael. (Both have left the startup.)
Drummey wasn't a social media maven—even today the CEO has fewer than 650 followers on Twitter and 1,425 on Instagram—but Holmes, who now works for Facebook, was early on Instagram. "I was learning it from my friends," says Drummey, 27, who grew up in Johnstown, Pa., and came to Chicago after earning a marketing degree in 2012 from the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va. "I was at home with a spreadsheet."
Two years ago, Drummey took the idea to Y Combinator, a startup accelerator in Silicon Valley. After tinkering with the business model, he returned to Chicago, where Popular Pays now has about 30 employees.
The company occupies a niche at the intersection of social media and the gig economy. Its more than 40,000-member pool of social media influencers, on average, have more than 50,000 followers each. Brands post their needs on the Popular Pays' site, and these freelance "creators" bid on assignments. They might get paid $700 to $800 to reach a certain number of followers or as much as $10,000 if they're producing widely viewed video.
Companies "can pick people to post based on their individual reach or profile, or we can assemble them," Drummey says. Popular Pays collects a percentage of the amount spent on the campaign. Customers include Amazon, Nike, McDonald's and Banana Republic. The big names have helped the startup raise about $6 million. Drummey says the company broke even in the fourth quarter. He declines to disclose revenue.
Jason Peterson, Chicago-based chairman and chief creative officer of advertising agency Havas U.S., has 1 million Instagram followers. Still, he uses Popular Pays to boost his own staff's reach. "It gives us massive scale and more relevant content," he says. "When I look at our clients, I operate on the philosophy they have no time and no money. I can get a (proposal) from a client; I can put it out on Pop Pays and start getting ideas back immediately at a cost level that makes sense under the constraints of social media."
The best social media buzz is free. Popular Pays is a close second.