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Popular Pays turns Instagram followers into social currency

  • (L-R) Megan and Dave Miller and Michael Ciapciak, at the Bang Bang Pie Shop on the northwest side of Chicago. (Alex Garcia/ Chicago Tribune)
(L-R) Megan and Dave Miller and Michael Ciapciak, at the Bang Bang Pie Shop… (Alex Garcia / Chicago Tribune )
June 10, 2013|By JoVona Taylor | RedEye

Popularity on social networks, like Instagram, can get you more than a few “likes” and internet fame.

With the creation of social currency platform Popular Pays, digital-saavy Chicagoans can now leverage their volume of followers for goods and services at a variety of local businesses including Bang Bang Pie Shop, Antique Taco, Skydive Chicago and more.

“We believe in the power of influence and the fact that everyone is their own media channel,” said Allan Holmes, co-founder of Popular Pays.

The social currency of Popular Pays involves Instagram users with 500 or more followers and local businesses looking for a new and exciting way to engage with customers and promote their brand.

Users can cash in on their social value through what Holmes refers to as "swaps," which are items or services offered by local businesses to influencers based on their number of followers on Instagram. Examples range from a horchata milkshake at Antique Taco for users with 500 followers or more to a skydive jump at Skydive Chicago for users with 40,000 followers or more. 

After using a swap, users are encouraged, but not required, to post a photo on their Instagram page informing followers about their swap experience, which acts as word-of-month advertising for the businesses involved, Holmes said.

“We’re bringing barter back; anyone with a phone can earn something for being good at what they do,” said Holmes, 26, of Wicker Park. “A lot of people put a lot of work into their Instagram, and they should be rewarded for their work.”

Currently, Popular Pays swaps can only be accessed through its Instagram page and website by users with 500 followers or more, but Holmes said that will soon change with the introduction of the first version of the Popular Pays app, which will launch in early July.

Holmes also said that by incorporating a Popular Pays app, the swapping process will be more organized and eventually users will be able to earn social currency, based on their interaction and influence on Instagram after using a swap, which can be used at any Popular Pays-affiliated business. The app will also allow Popular Pays to target other social networks such as Vine, Twitter and Tumbler to be a part of the social currency world. 

Dave Miller, co-owner of Bang Bang Pie Shop, said the Popular Pays app will fix the only problem he noticed while helping pilot the social currency platform; businesses have no way of tracking how many times someone has redeemed a swap.

“Overall I think [Popular Pays] is a brilliant idea,” Miller said. “It is more than just marketing; we are creating potential long-term customers, and that is something that small businesses value.”

Miller also said the idea for a social media marketing strategy such as Popular Pays is interesting because it is something both big and small businesses desire and can afford.

“Outsiders come into emerging platforms and don’t understand the community and how to engage with it,” said Jason Peterson, a 42-year-old Wicker Park resident and Popular Pays user with 79,000 Instagram followers. “Popular Pays understands the [Instagram] community, and that’s their strength.”

Peterson, who is also a chief executive officer at Havas Worldwide, a global advertising company, said a problem many big business have when moving into social media is engaging with users. Popular Pays allows businesses to be a part of the social media world and market their product without interfering in the structure of the community.

Cyrus Rab, owner of Indie Burger, said an aspect he enjoys about working with Popular Pays is that it allows him to advertise his product in a way that is natural for social media users and synonymous with the identity and brand of his restaurant.

“I can’t afford to buy advertising, so most of my customers come from word-of-mouth. Popular Pays is the same sort of thing,” said Rab, a 39-year-old River West resident. “[Users] come here, try the food and if they like the food, they can post a picture [on Instagram]. If you like someone’s Instagram page and the type of stuff that they post, you might be more inclined to try it.”

A possible negative aspect of the program Rab noted is the possibility of an influencer having a bad experience and posting an unflattering picture and review of the business, but he added issues like this can not be controlled by Popular Pays and are uncommon.

Although there is a chance of influencers not having positive feedback, Holmes said Popular Pays will offer only high-quality products for swaps.

Yewon Kim, a 22-year-old Lincoln Park photographer and Popular Pays user with 7740 Instagram followers, said she recommends Popular Pays to other Instagram users because it is a fun and unique way to look at social media and social currency.

“Through Popular Pays, I have visited Heritage Bicycles for coffee before work, Floriole Bakery for a dessert with my brunch, and Bang Bang Pie [Shop] for an after-work treat,” she said. “I always take pictures of things I get through participating places via Popular Pays and mention them to thank [them for] what they do to provide such services to their followers, especially to Chicagoans.”

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