While the Cambridge Dictionary defines an influencer as “someone who affects or changes the way that other people behave”, the term has taken on new meaning with the rise of social media.
Today, social media influencers operate across a range of platforms, broadcasting content to their followers that is often framed around a particular topic, theme, or idea. This can be anything from sports or politics to cooking, mixology, and film.
Correspondingly, in the coffee sector, we have coffee influencers: baristas, roasters, competition winners, and other professionals who are followed by thousands for the content they post.
For many, becoming an influencer is an attractive proposition. It is a flexible job that can be highly lucrative if you are successful. Brands started partnering with influencers with the rise of platforms like Instagram in the early 2010s; Forbes now expects the influencer marketing industry to be worth around US $15 billion by 2022.
For those who are passionate about coffee, it’s easy to see why becoming an influencer is so appealing. But how do you do it? What does it take? Where do you get started? To answer these questions and more, I spoke to three coffee influencers. Read on to find out what they told me.
You might also like our article on the history of the AeroPress.
For many, coffee is inherently “Instagrammable”. Four years ago, global consumer trends agency Foresight Factory claimed that the number of “photogenic” posts of coffee on Instagram had risen by a staggering 4,500% between 2015 and 2017, covering everything from latte art to distinctive-looking coffee cups.
Wendelien van Bunnik was the 2019 Dutch Barista and World Aeropress Champion. She has worked in the coffee sector since 2012, and has recently started an Instagram account with the aim of making specialty coffee more accessible.
She has found that the most important thing is to produce visually striking content, and notes that specialty coffee can be very compatible with that aim.
“Even though you try to make content that is valuable, people will judge it first by the picture,” she says. “If you’re scrolling through your feed, it’s the picture that catches your eye. I feel like you should take pictures really well, with nice equipment, [to really benefit].”
However, once you make that initial connection, she says that it then becomes about adding further value to build your identity as an influencer. This aligns well with third wave coffee culture, a key part of which is learning more about the people and the processes behind each cup.
Similarly, Wendelien says that sharing her own experience and educating others is what she has built her career around. She plans to use the same technique to build on her existing Instagram following.
Finally, she notes that it’s good to “stick to what you know” when trying to add more value as an influencer.
“I’m just a person who likes talking about coffee,” she says. “Really, that’s it. And I think that helps a lot.”
Building your following & adding value
So, once you know that you do want to become a coffee influencer – how do you grow your following?
Alvin Cheng is a manual brewing influencer based on Hong Kong. He explains that he built his following by connecting with other coffee brewers.
Today, his content has a strong technical focus, including posting brew recipes and supporting others to experiment with their brewing techniques.
“I began my specialty coffee journey around late 2008,” Alvin says. “I opened my Instagram account around mid-2014, mainly as a platform where I could share my experiences with other like-minded coffee enthusiasts.
“At the start, there was barely any interaction. It wasn’t until I reached a couple of hundred followers that more interactions and conversations began. I think my community of friends and followers love the knowledge that I bring into my posts… about brewing, coffee equipment, new roasters, and coffees.”
Over almost seven years, Alvin has grown a steady following by engaging with technical topics, responding to comments, and viewing his followers as a community.
He also notes that it has been helpful to focus on a range of brewing methods to appeal to more people, and to let each method take “centre stage” when necessary.
“I treat each brewing device as a part of the ‘team’ that I’m posting about, which also includes a kettle and coffee,” he says. “All these parts [work together] to convey a different message.
“For example, the AeroPress is a fun way to brew coffee. My custom AeroPress is probably the most fun-looking and identifiable in the world.”
Developing your content & educating your followers
Building a following is only the beginning of the challenge for influencers, however. Once you have it, you need to keep your audience engaged and make sure they stay interested in what you’re posting.
In the coffee sector, this is sometimes achieved through a focus on education. Coffee brands and influencers alike have shifted in recent years to add more value and utility to the content they post.
For example, during the Covid-19 pandemic, we have seen roasters and coffee shops alike start providing instructional content to respond to the huge rise in at-home brewing.
LaNisa Williams is based on Los Angeles. She has worked in the sector for almost ten years as a barista and trainer, and is now looking to open her own coffee shop. She says that interest continues to grow, and that across her website and social media accounts, she offers audiences the chance to learn about something new.
“My whole thing is education,” LaNisa says. “I want to help inform people. I just want to give out information, [and tell people] how to brew the best coffee at home.”
As a part of this, LaNisa says she has been not just informing and educating people, but also giving recommendations, responding to questions, and just helping out wherever she can.
In June 2020, LaNisa also launched the #BlackinBrew Instagram campaign, which highlights the work of Black coffee professionals by featuring them in a series of posts. Just a few weeks in, her work was picked up by the LA Times.
“Launching #BlackinBrew definitely springboarded me into another part of the coffee community,” LaNisa explains. “I’ve met so, so many great people, and I don’t feel like I would have met them if I hadn’t created this the platform for them to be able to be seen.”
LaNisa also adds that as coffee shops have closed, she’s spent more time recommending different brewers and products to her followers. “I met up with a nurse who reached out to me on Instagram and asked for a brewer she could put at her desk that doesn’t get in the way,” LaNisa says.
“I suggested the AeroPress for her; after she said she was unsure of what to order, I helped out and said I could drop it off. She’s watched my videos and said that as soon as she gets it, she wants to take one of my classes,” she adds.
While going the extra mile at this kind of scale isn’t always feasible, there’s clear overlap between how LaNisa and Alvin engage with their followers. Both are genuinely passionate about responding to their audience, and want to do what they can to inform and support people throughout their coffee journey.
In the coffee sector’s there are one or two other things can also lead to more traction on social media: participating in (or winning) coffee competitions.
Barista, brewing, and even roasting competitions often come with a big social media buzz around them, and can be a great opportunity for aspiring influencers to kickstart their brand.
Alongside the coverage of the event itself, things like posting “competition winning” recipes and techniques can also attract more attention on social media.
As well as being named Dutch Barista Champion in 2019, Wendelien also won the World AeroPress Championship (WAC) in the same year. She says that winning the WAC in particular drove a surge in her social media followers.
“Those first two weeks after the WAC, I felt like I was on a stage,” she says. “I [suddenly gained] around 2,000 followers back then. It was crazy!”
Wendelien adds that she felt the WAC’s inclusivity and accessibility helped with this burst in followers, and that she always recommends it for people starting out in coffee competitions.
“I think the coffee industry needs a laid back competition,” she explains. “The way the communication about the WAC is set up… the whole thing feels very inclusive.”
Wendelien adds that even after her competition wins helped her gain more followers, her less polished and more “down to earth” social media posts have continued to be effective.
However, she notes that managing social media channels and responding to followers alongside a full-time job, parenting, and general downtime can be difficult.
There’s no clear route to becoming a social media influencer in any sector, let alone coffee. However, it seems that competition wins, a focus on striking imagery, and earnestly responding to followers where possible have helped LaNisa, Alvin, and Wendelien all build their respective followings.
For any aspiring influencers, it’s clear that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to becoming successful. However, being passionate about what you post about, taking great photos, and responding to people when they reach out are all certainly good places to start.
Enjoyed this? Then try our article on the inverted AeroPress brew method.
Photo credits: Alvin Cheng, LaNisa Williams, Wendelien van Bunnik
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