Caitlin Covington looks every inch the model as she orders coffee at Seventh Street Market this weekday morning, hair and makeup perfect, lithe figure wrapped in an H&M jacquard sweater atop a white Loft tank and Hudson skinny jeans. Gold Chanel logo earrings dangle from her earlobes.
But when she’s finished her latte, she must go home and change – because 362,000 people may have already seen her in these clothes, and they’re counting on seeing her in something completely new, and inspiring, later today.
Covington, 25, has a soft voice but is a booming presence on social media. She has 371,000 followers on Instagram, where she is @cmcoving (her followers have increased by 9,000 since that mid-February coffee). And she has a popular blog, Southern Curls & Pearls.
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Visit either, and you’ll quickly get the gist. Her Southern-sweet, fashion-magazine looks and the cheery writings of a stylish best friend have become something marketers dream of: the power to influence women to buy.
Social-media-analytics firm Ground Signal lists Covington as Charlotte’s most-followed Instagrammer outside of the city’s national-scale celebrities, like Panthers quarterback Cam Newton and TV bachelorette Emily Maynard. And her blog is bookmarked in computers from New York to New Delhi.
The result? An upper-six-figure annual income, she says.
People like Covington are a driving force in retail fashion, with followers lusting after every shade of lipstick, every handbag and skinny jean they put on. And retailers work hard to forge relationships – offering them a percentage of sales, paying them to attend events and sending them cartloads of freebies – because they know a single post can translate into thousands in sales.
Top names in blogging earn $1 million to $3 million, Women’s Wear Daily reported in January, through endorsements, promotions and sales links – and a single Instagram post of theirs can fetch $5,000 to $25,000. The “reigning queen,” says WWD, is Chiara Ferragni, with 5 million-plus Instagram followers and a site, The Blonde Salad, that raked in $2.5 million last year (plus a retail spinoff that made $10 million).
Covington says she’s been approached by fans in the London airport and at Lake Tahoe. Among cities where she has the most followers, New York is No. 1; Charlotte is fifth.
“Sometimes I’m just kind of shocked. It doesn’t feel real,” she says, sipping a latte whose lotus-looking patterned foam looks designer itself (so much so that she’s posted identical ones on Instagram, carefully arranged with roses in three shades and Celine sunglasses).
“I wore something from Nordstrom over the summer. A black lace romper. It sold out on Nordstrom’s website within a day and I’m like, ‘I can’t believe this actually happened.’
“And then they restocked, so I posted on Instagram: ‘Hey guys, it’s back,’ and it sold out again. I’m like, this is Nordstrom. That is so unbelievable to me. I’m watching it all happen. And I can see I sold 200 of the rompers. It’s definitely out of stock because of my post.” (Nordstrom refused comment.)
But despite how breezy her life appears on the small screen, Covington says the workload is anything but.
From freebies to big fees
She works upwards of 80 hours most weeks, she says, and “when I go on vacation, that’s when I’m working the hardest.”
She spends hours every week buying clothing, shoes, accessories and jewelry, online and in stores. (What doesn’t make the cut gets returned.) And though companies often send freebies (she estimates she gets a package every day), she says most of her posts are items she bought herself.
She says she can close her eyes and picture how an outfit should appear. “I just get this vision in my head of what would look good: ‘This chambray shirt would look so cute with white pants and pink heels.’ ”
But photo editing is tedious and time-consuming. A simple mirror selfie that followers might assume she snapped on her way out the door actually takes hours to produce, she says: It’s not uncommon for her to take 100 pictures, analyze them to choose the best one, then edit it with VSCO or Instagram tools before hitting Send.
“The goal is to make people think, ‘She just snapped a photo.’ ”
Before she posts anything, she checks retailers’ websites: She wants all items in stock online in every size, to maximize sales and not frustrate followers. If they’re not in stock, she scraps the post or saves it and checks later.
Blog posts in which she models clothes sap even more time, with her mom shooting 300 photos for most outfits (close-ups, whole-body and product shots included), then retouching them before posting.
Responding to emails, Instagram, Twitter and blog messages from followers – some seeking her shampoo or skincare regimen – takes time, too. “I try to respond to all of them, but I know I have 26,000 unread emails.”
Then there are public appearances, where she’s paid to show up, snap photos and post. Earlier this month, she was given an all-expenses-paid trip to post from the Hilton Head Island Wine & Food Festival and was also one of two bloggers sent by Belk to Charleston Fashion Week.
She’s been hired by cruise lines and luxury resorts from West Virginia to the Caribbean, though she says she pays for most trips so she can blog what she wants. Her posts read like a jet-setting vacationer’s, but she says she often needs an appropriate climate for the upcoming season’s clothes.
Last month, she went to Palm Springs, Calif., with fellow blogger and frequent traveling companion Emily Gemma (www.thesweetestthingblog.com). On such trips, they get up at 6 a.m. Then it’s shower/hair/makeup/prep, for photos at sunrise to catch that good early light. They eat breakfast, then change completely and do a second photo shoot (each) before lunch – and do it all again at least once more, later in the day.
“It’s our goal to make it look effortless and fun and fabulous, but really we’re working so hard behind the scenes,” Covington says. She might sneak in a few days of not actually taking photos, but only if she’s done extra in advance, to post on the off-days.
When your business lives or dies on followers checking every day, “if you take a week off, people think, ‘Maybe she quit.’ ”
How it works
Here’s how she makes most of her money:
You read a Covington post and click on one of her links. That sends you through a third-party tool (in her case, LiketoKnow.it on Instagram and ShopStyle on the blog) that tells the retailer Covington referred you. If you buy that item – or any item – during that online “shopping trip,” Covington makes a cut of your sale, typically about 10 percent, she says.
So, that $38 straw hat she posted on a February trip to St. Lucia? “It wouldn’t be atypical to make a thousand dollars off that hat, based on commission.”
Her audience loves to gaze at high-end goods (the priciest items get the most clicks, she says), but lower-priced items sell far better. So she almost always offers a more modestly priced alternative to an expensive item. In a March 8 post, for example, she included a $2,150 Chloé handbag – and linked to a similarly shaped $225 Rebecca Minkoff one.
She can log into an analytics website to see how many clicks a link got, and what sold as a result of any given post.
“My readers really love items that are less than $40. They love it if something’s on sale. If I mention ‘sale,’ they go crazy,” she says. “It takes a long time to learn your audience and their buying patterns.”
Covington says she has never solicited companies to mention; she just manages requests. When luxury rental car company Sixt wanted to collaborate, for example, she and Gemma arranged it on that trip to Palm Springs. In exchange for each posting a photo with the car and tagging Sixt, Covington says, they drove a Mercedes C300 for four days for free.
Some bloggers hire companies to manage contracts and find promotional partners, but Covington says she does all that work herself and has her dad look over her contracts.
Exactly how money and products change hands is rarely transparent to followers. Bloggers almost never post whether the items they’re wearing are freebies, and retailers tend to keep quiet about who they work with or what contracts contain.
Nordstrom executives, when asked about Covington’s influence (you’ll find a link to Nordstrom on almost all her posts), declined to talk about her at all, or give any specifics on how they work with bloggers, but offered a link on how to join the Nordstrom Affiliate Network. British fashion retailer and blogger favorite Topshop also refused to comment.
Covington’s blog mentions commissions in her “About” page, and some Instagram posts include #ad or mention partnering – though Federal Trade Commission guidelines prefer “clear and conspicuous” wording, per post, when a blogger is getting compensated.
Being clear about when a post is paid for, or when an item was free, or when a blogger is receiving commissions has been in recent news: Department store chain Lord & Taylor settled March 15 with the FTC, without financial penalty, over charges it gave 50 social media influencers a dress and paid them to post about it, but didn’t require them to disclose they were paid. Legally, that can be deemed “deceptive commercial speech,” according to the FTC's endorsement guide.
But the guide also says the FTC is “generally not” monitoring bloggers: “If law enforcement becomes necessary, our focus will usually be on advertisers or their ad agencies and public relations firms.” It does say pursuing an individual “might be appropriate in certain circumstances.”
The cozy relationship between bloggers and retailers and designers irks some who wish blogging was more of a critical art form and not just advertising: Did the blogger profess to love the coat simply because it was sent for free? Others take to GOMI (“Get Off My Internets”) forums to rip bloggers who post $675 Christian Louboutin shoes while claiming not to be affluent.
Covington says she’s careful.
“I try to stay really true to my brand. If a brand wants to do a collaboration and if they don’t represent my style, I just don’t work with them,” she says. “So when I post, it’s always 100 percent my style. I always pick out the items,” Covington said. “If I’m doing a collaboration with DSW shoes, they let me pick whatever shoes best represent my style. I make sure I’m never wearing anything I don’t actually like.”
And that may be the key to her success.
Her path to Insta-stardom
This was not the career she envisioned, she says, when she started her blog in 2011.
She was a junior at UNC Chapel Hill, a broadcast major too bashful to tell her own friends she was keeping this personal diary of mostly recipes and sorority functions. After graduating, a career in front of the (TV) cameras didn’t feel right, so she tried magazine writing. When that didn’t pan out, she took a job at a marketing/public relations firm in Greenville, S.C. – and kept blogging and Instagramming on the side.
One day in 2013, an Arkansas shop owner who had noticed her Instagram posts offered to send her a free dress if she promised to put it on and post a photo on Instagram.
She was delighted. Her following began to grow, and so did the offers of freebies in exchange for posts. Soon she was driving to her parents’ Mint Hill home every weekend with carloads of clothes so her mom could photograph her for posts.
Her Instagram following swelled to about 50,000 by August 2014 and, with one particular post, it hit her:
“This boutique had sent me a sweater to wear for free. The blog post was supposed to go up the next day, but I posted the sweater on Instagram that night and within an hour, the sweater had sold out at the boutique. I remember thinking, ‘I’m advertising for this company. I need to start charging a fee to wear their clothes.’ ”
So she started charging $50 for a combo blog post and Instagram photo. (She won’t say what she charges now, but it’s “many times” what she first charged.) Boutiques and retailers were calling daily, and by January 2014 she had quit her marketing job, moved back to Charlotte and turned to blogging and Instagramming full time.
Last summer, she began paying her mom to be her photographer and assistant. Carla Covington says her part-time job doing medical billing was moving to an office far from her home, so it was perfect timing. About 15 hours a week, she helps choose photo shoot locations, pick accessories for outfits and serves as a sounding board.
What does she believe is the secret to her daughter’s success?
“She is a very driven individual,” Carla Covington says. “With blogging, you just kind of have an ‘it’ factor. Her fashion appeals to women of all ages.”
So does her approach.
Blake Ruddock of the location-based analytics firm Ground Signal, says Covington’s posts are likely so appealing because they’re clearly managed by her – not a brand manager. “It doesn’t feel like you’re being marketed to,” he says.
Covington plans to ride the wave of Insta-fame as long as followers are willing.
“It’s crazy to me, because I wanted to work in a magazine so badly in New York and I didn’t get a job. I applied and tried really hard and didn’t get a job,” she says. “And it’s kind of like I created my own online magazine.
“It’s kind of cool how that worked out.”
A few more Charlotte-based posters
Charlotte is home to several fashion social media “influencers,” with followings of 20,000 or more on Instagram and frequently updated fashion blogs. Here are a few: