Brianna Madia Instagram orange van
Image courtesy: Abbi Hearne

So You Want to Be an Influencer: The Realities of Being Insta-Famous

Top image courtesy Abbi Hearne

‘Instagram doesn’t really have a retirement plan.’ — Brianna Madia

Somewhere in the Utah desert, there’s a big orange van rumbling over hardpan ferrying a husband, wife, and two of the cutest damn dogs you’ve ever seen. They’re the Madias: high school sweethearts Brianna and Keith, and their pups Dagwood and Bucket.

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It’s an unorthodox family, to be sure, but one that’s captured the admiration, aspiration, and (most importantly) attention of some 245,000 Instagram faithful. That’s right, with their 1990 Ford E-350 van — retrofitted for adventure and daily living — and a backdrop of slot canyons and dusty backroads, the Madias have achieved that coveted and mysterious title of Instagram Influencer (for the record, “ambassador” is preferred).

But according to Bri, Insta fame — like most things — is a double-edged sword. It’s a job, one with great rewards and more than its fair share of headaches. In January, I spent a week in Mexico with assembled media and influencer/ambassadors — including Bri. Full disclosure: As an avid follower, I was a smidge starstruck.

But during the trip and over email in the ensuing weeks, I asked her about the realities of her family’s Instagram life. Is it as beautiful as it looks? Are you rich? How did you get this job?!

An effusive extrovert with an uncanny knack for mixing brutal honesty, sarcasm, and curse words, Madia obliged all my fanboy questions.

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Brianna Madia: The Life of an Influencer Ambassador

GearJunkie: How the literal heck did you wind up with a quarter-million followers?!

Brianna Madia: Excellent question, I have no f***ing idea. Haha! But it was absolutely no overnight thing. I definitely had a few huge jumps in numbers that were pretty significant.

REI shared a photo of Bertha with their 1 million followers, and I think people just thought, “That’s a sick van!” So overnight we went from maybe 7,000 to 15,000 [followers]. And I remember thinking that was positively bonkers.

Then I think it was REI again (thanks, guys) who shared a photo of me and Bucket in the Colorado River, and for some reason, people really enjoyed that. And that pushed us over 100,000.

Then, of course, there was The Dodo video of Bucket and Dagwood that went super viral. They just emailed us out of the blue and were like, “Hey we think you have a cool story. Can we interview you?” And from that, we got probably 50,000 new followers over the course of a few days. So, there’s a bit of a traceable line, but it still doesn’t seem to have any rhyme or reason to me. I guess people just like the color orange.

What was your trade or interest before you became an “influencer”?

I’ve always been a writer. I have a degree in Writing and Rhetoric, and I took all sorts of classes that prepared me for a wide array of paths with that. Directly before I decided to do Instagram full-time, I was a technical writer for a software company, so I was writing their instruction manuals and deciphering software engineer language for the laypeople.

And even now, I still use my degree. Everything you see written out in the world around you, someone was paid to write that. Your shampoo bottle, the back of your cereal box, the email from your local politician’s office — these are all types of writing that I took classes on in college.

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When you and Keith bought this big orange van, did you intend to leverage it as a tool for Instagram? Did you see the potential for what it has become?

At that time, no one had ever heard of an “influencer.” We had maybe 6,000 followers when we bought Bertha. I think we knew she was a very unique van. I mean, that’s why we loved her, and I remember thinking other people might like that about her — especially in a world full of white sprinter vans, my goodness.

No offense, guys, I’m totally envious of everyone who can stand up in those nice-ass vans. But I think when we started showing Bertha off around town, it was like, “Okay, there’s room out here for something besides Sprinters and VWs.”

I kind of liked the idea of showing a more bare-bones aspect of the whole van thing. And I will say that I think we just happened to jump on Instagram at the right time. We caught that van life wave pretty perfectly, despite the unintentional nature of it all. Nowadays it’s like, “You live in a van? Cool, who the f*** doesn’t?” But when we bought Bertha, it was still this rising movement.

What is the actual job of an “influencer”?

I mean, it’s just modern day marketing and advertising.

And for the record, I know I speak on behalf of possibly every single one of us when I say that we all hate the word “influencer.” I prefer “ambassador,” because to me, that holds a higher sense of responsibility that seems more accurate to what I do.

I’m not out here hocking some bullshit tummy tea product or trying to sell you “free” cruises to Mexico. I’m using my life and my stories and my family and our adventures to represent certain brands and their values.

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You take beautiful pictures, thousands of people like them, and brands give you money and free stuff — is that how it works?

Yeah, sure, and when you put it that way, I totally see why people hate me.

If you want to be a successful “influencer” (ugh, vomit), people need to believe what you’re saying. I’ve turned down more partnerships than I can even begin to tell you because they would never feel genuine, and I consciously couldn’t push that crap on people who’ve followed my family for years.

I tell people they should have Hydro Flasks because those things are f**king incredible and they drastically reduce single-use plastics. I tell people they should look into a Yakima roof box because we have thousands of dollars’ worth of climbing gear in our van that definitely could have been stolen by now if it weren’t for that box.

I tell people to buy Clif Bars because the company is an unbelievable steward to the Earth. It just started a new initiative that is donating millions to help rebuild after the Camp Fire in California, including $1.5 million for a new animal shelter. And [Clif Bar] is the single largest supporter of organic research outside of the government.

I tell people to buy Chaco sandals because Keith and I have had permanent Chaco tan lines on our feet long before we even had Instagram.

I tell people they should look into Ruffwear products for their dogs because I’m literally hanging off the side of a cliff with my dog in a Ruffwear harness. So, safe to say, I endorse those products.

This is stuff I’m actually using and actually proud of and actually enthusiastic about. And I hope that comes across in a world full of beautiful women selling yet another face cream.

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How do you get paid for Instagram work? Do companies mail you a check? How do you get mail in a van?

Pretty simple, really. I send invoices and fill out a billion W-9s. Sometimes I’ll opt for direct deposit whenever available, and other times I’ll have paper checks mailed to the P.O. box we have in a little desert town where Keith works.

How much money does an Insta influencer make?

Depends on about a million different factors. I’ve been told by multiple people that I don’t charge enough based on my engagement rates, but it’s just not my main focus at the moment. I’m so heavy into writing this book I’m working on, so influencer stuff keeps gas in the tank and fun things on the calendar.

If I wanted to, I could make a lot of money. If I wanted to say yes to every little thing I get asked to do, I’d be rich and miserable. I guess that’s why I get so pissed off when people think I’m some sort of a sellout. I’ve been asked to advertise metal-reinforced dog crates, salon-quality hair products, diet pills, diuretic tea, KFC, Coca Cola, Lays Potato Chips, makeup, hair removal cream, pink handguns, all-inclusive vacations, shock collars, and tasers.

And I was offered a hell of a lot of money for each. And on principle, I turn them down. So if you call me a sellout, I will tase you because I did actually end up accepting that offer.

Just kidding.

Do you like being an influencer?

Loaded question. I love the brands we get to work with. I really, really do. But I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t exhausting sometimes. I’ve been on the internet for a while now and frankly, I’m really tired of getting yelled at. I don’t have thick skin, and I think I’d be a terrible writer if I lost that about myself, so I don’t try and fight it anymore.

Influencers are everyone’s new favorite people to hate, and whenever I post an ad, it’s nerve-wracking because I just don’t feel like dealing with people’s negative reactions. It’s very trendy now to “complain about ads,” like they are some horrible injustice.

Just the other day, someone was like, “I’m unfollowing you because of ads!” And I asked, “So basically you would prefer to continue enjoying people’s photography, writing, music, artwork, poetry, and any other form of creativity for free on this app every single day. But you have no intention of supporting those people getting paid?”

I mean, if you actually think about that reaction, it’s bizarre. Like, do they never turn their TV on again because they saw a commercial one time? The fact that people think they can dictate when and how you dance like a monkey for the camera but have a fundamental problem with anyone giving you money? God, it’s a weird f**king world.

Has being an influencer changed the adventure you, Keith, Dagwood, and Bucket are on?

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In the beginning, it started to. And that’s why I cut back so drastically on the number of companies I was partnering with and the number of things I was agreeing to take on. It started to pervert the nature of the adventures we would take.

We had to make sure we got this shot, had to make sure we brought this snack, and so on. It started to bum us out. And that’s why I’m so selective now when it comes to what campaigns I take on. It has to feel like something that is going to fit seamlessly with the things we already do.

How long will this Insta-fame last?

Not long, I’m sure. And that’s why I’m not putting all my eggs in that basket. Instagram doesn’t really have a retirement plan.

I’ve said from the very beginning that I will probably just disappear one day. We’ll always be off living some adventure somewhere, but I don’t know how long I’ll be up for documenting it. I want to be remembered as an author, not an influencer.

And I’d also like to be remembered as that lady who loves orange.

Are you friends with other influencers?

I’ve only ever intentionally sought out and met up with two people from the internet, and they’re now two of my closest friends. But overall, I think we’re kinda loners.

We like being in the desert with our dogs. And frankly, I’d imagine that would be like hanging out with co-workers all the time. I don’t wanna talk about Instagram all day. I don’t want to talk about f**king hashtags and presets.

I have a group of friends here in Salt Lake City that have been my family for almost 10 years. They’ve known us and our dogs long before the internet did, and it’s nice to be around people who don’t think you’re inspirational or special all the time because we’re not. We’re just a couple of normal idiots.

What wisdom would you offer someone about to pursue a career through Instagram?

This might sound positively trite but, for God’s sake, be original. I mean we all see these emails and these bot accounts that offer 5,000 new followers for $200 or “click here to buy a blue Instagram verified badge,” and it’s just painfully transparent. If you need to purchase fake followers to make your account seem interesting, that’s a huge red flag that you’re not really bringing anything to the table that is keeping people’s attention.

 

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The analogy I often use is this: Imagine you move to a new town and you’re driving down Main Street and you pass about 30 bagel shops and you pull over and think to yourself, “Gosh, you know what this town needs? A bagel shop!”

That’s basically Instagram. People carbon copy what they’ve seen become popular without a shred of authenticity or creativity or genuine connection and then they think, “Well my bagel shop has a blue sign, so it’s totally unique!” And it’s like, no. If you’re going to open a bagel shop in a world full of bagel shops, you better make a damn good bagel.

What are your favorite Instagrams to follow?

My friends. And memes. God, so many memes. I just stare into my phone cackling like an idiot. I think that’s one of the best things about the internet, that we all think we’re so damn important and then we sit around staring past our double chins into a screen laughing at the stupidest stuff. Makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside.

Any sponsors you’d like to thank?

All of them, honestly. I think people can easily look at this new industry as this big old content-churning machine that is totally impersonal, but we have real relationships with these brands. I talk to these people on the phone, we meet up and have dinner when we’re in the same places, I text them my photo ideas, and we go back and forth and joke about captions or hashtags.

I mean, the week of Dagwood’s accident, I was doing an Instagram takeover with Yakima Racks, which I’ve worked with for so long, and I let them know what was going on. And they basically dedicated the entire company Instagram account to updating Dagwood’s progress for the next month straight.

Hydro Flask sent us gift certificates for food delivery places in the area of the hospital. We were supposed to be working on a campaign for Sierra Nevada, and they allowed us to postpone it for months until Dagwood was well enough to go out and adventure again because they wanted us to feel genuine about whatever photos or videos we took.

I think people are quick to hate on this whole world because they don’t understand it or they think it seems disingenuous. But you have to realize, advertisements have been a thing since the beginning of things. We’ve all grown up watching commercials and driving past billboards and seeing full-page ads in magazines and newspapers.

I mean, shit, people used to come knock down your front door trying to sell you vacuums! This concept isn’t new. The difference is that now instead of orchestrating highly staged photoshoots with models and actors and directors and scripts and sets, these companies are reaching out to actual people who use their products or who could benefit from their products. And they’re allocating advertising budgets to them, giving them the creative freedom. Protest all you want, but to me, that is far more genuine than the advertisements I grew up with.

So yeah, I’d like to thank all of them. Because they’re incredible to work with. And I’m not usually this cranky. I just haven’t had any coffee yet.


For more on the adventures of Bri, Keith, Dagwood, Bucket, Bertha, and a whole lotta’ orange, follow @briannamadia on Instagram.

Adam Ruggiero
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Adam Ruggiero is an all-sport activity junkie - from biking, running, and (not enough) surfing, to ball sports, camping, and cattle farming. If it's outside, it's worth doing. Adam graduated from the University of Minnesota with a BA in journalism. Likes: unique beer, dogs, stories. Like nots: neckties, escalators, manicured lawns.

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