SAM SANDERS, HOST:
Marissa Grossman is an Instagram influencer. She has 178,000 followers. Her account on Insta (ph) is called @fashionambitionist. On the platform, Marissa plugs content and merchandise from clothing brands, and beauty brands, and a bunch of swimsuit companies. And she runs brand partnerships at Goop, Gwyneth Paltrow's women's lifestyle site. Grossman basically lives on Instagram - video and photo of her life every day shared with all of her followers - so it only made sense when her boyfriend, Gabriel Grossman, wanted to propose, he did it on Instagram.
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MARISSA GROSSMAN: Really freaking out, hysterical crying. It's Tuesday. And Gabe is doing an Instagram story proposing to me through Instagram.
SANDERS: Gabriel arranged a multiday wedding proposal scavenger hunt for Marissa.
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GABRIEL GROSSMAN: I have the most important question of my life to ask you. The problem is we're not really into traditional weddings. It's not really our style.
SANDERS: He flew her from New York City to Montauk, to Miami, to Paris. Along the way, extravagant and expensive gifts the whole time.
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GROSSMAN: But it would need to be an extraordinary adventure unlike any proposal ever seen, something to experience, enjoy, and, you know, capture for the 'gram (ph) so we know it happened.
SANDERS: At the end of this Insta journey, there was a wedding ceremony.
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GROSSMAN: We're married, guys. I have my grandmother's...
GROSSMAN: ...Ring on. Gabe, show your ring.
SANDERS: It all seemed like the most beautiful thing. But soon after this proposal Insta journey began, stories began to circulate that Gabriel Grossman and one of Marissa's friends had pitched the entire thing to a bunch of brands. This entire thing, it seemed, was all one big piece of sponsored content in which the product, the thing for sale, was this couple's actual relationship. How in the world did we get here?
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SANDERS: You're listening to IT'S BEEN A MINUTE from NPR. I am Sam Sanders. And today's show, it's all about influencers. If you don't know, influencer marketing is the biggest trend right now in corporate advertising and branding. You have seen it on Instagram, or Twitter, or wherever - celebrities or not even celebrities, just people with good social media followings, promoting products and brands in the middle of posts about their everyday lives. The industry is worth billions and growing.
I have so many questions about all of this. Does it work? How hard is it to actually be an influencer? And what does it mean to make our bodies, our homes, our relationships, every moment of our waking lives an ad? To attempt to find some answers, in this episode we are going to talk to a journalist who covers the influence of marketing industry. Yeah, those exist. Also we'll chat with an influencer herself, and we'll talk with someone who manages influencers. It will be an influential episode. Stay tuned. More after the break.
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SANDERS: We are back. You're listening to IT'S BEEN A MINUTE from NPR. I'm Sam Sanders. So I really wanted to know how exactly to define influencer.
CHAVIE LIEBER: Hi.
SANDERS: Hi, Chavie.
LIEBER: Thanks for having me on the show.
SANDERS: Chavie Lieber had the answer. She covers tech for The Business Of Fashion, a website devoted to breaking news about fashion and global brands. Chavie follows influencers for a living, and she gave me the lowdown on your typical influencer.
LIEBER: Influencers are just modern-day marketing products. It sounds - that's...
SANDERS: The people are the products.
LIEBER: Yeah, basically. You know, it used to be like brands would have to go through major agencies and go - you know, go through many rounds of campaigns and pick the different font, and the image, and the different paper. And now you fast-forward, and it's like everybody lives on their phones. Everybody's on social media. Who can push product the best? It's like these characters who live on the internet and have an incredible following and are able to push product better than any form of marketing we've previously seen before.
SANDERS: How big is the influencer industry? I've seen you throw some numbers out in your writing.
LIEBER: So I read one stat that in 2019, marketers will spend $8.5 billion on influencers this year.
SANDERS: Stop it.
LIEBER: And in 2020, they're going to spend 10 billion.
SANDERS: Stop it.
LIEBER: So it's - yeah, it's a huge industry. And that's everything from paying a big influencer to post something on Instagram, to paying her to come to your party, to paying her to post an adorable picture of her baby wearing your product at your party.
LIEBER: (Laughter) So there are many different ways that these influencers make money. Literally every single brand taps into the influencer industry. You know, you have from the high - actually, one of - a very interesting influencer campaign that I remember watching last year, Dior, which is a luxury brand - you know, you'd think they'd be above...
SANDERS: Above it, yeah.
LIEBER: ...The typical form of influencer marketing - they relaunched their iconic saddlebag last year. And in order to mark the - I guess, like, the distribution of the bag, they had 100 influencers posting products on Instagram on one day. So basically you're scrolling through Instagram, and you're just getting inundated with the Dior saddlebag.
SANDERS: It's not a cute bag. It looks like a kidney.
LIEBER: (Laughter) Well, I mean, it's iconic because, 15 years ago, the Dior saddlebag was known as the bag in "Sex And The City" that she jumps into the lake to go get.
LIEBER: And then, in 2019, it's like that's the bag that all of the influencers are pushing because, you know, Dior knows how powerful the influencer industry is. And then you have - I don't know - anyone from, like, Macy's and Target, they use influencers promote new product launches. And then even a company like Amazon, which seemingly...
SANDERS: Really? Yeah.
LIEBER: ...Doesn't need any help getting people to shop, they actually just launched a line called The Drop, and it has influencers creating products for Amazon.
SANDERS: Wow. Oh, my goodness.
LIEBER: And it only lives for 30 hours. So it's like, literally, wherever you go...
SANDERS: Ah (laughter).
LIEBER: Yeah. You can't escape this industry. It is literally wherever you go.
SANDERS: So a typical influencer, this is someone who has a big following on the place like Instagram. Dior reaches out to them. Is Dior saying, we're going to give you this purse for two weeks? Or, you get to just have this thing? Like, how does - like, explain to me, I guess...
SANDERS: ...The numbers of it through the Dior saddlebag as a possibility, maybe? (Laughter).
SANDERS: Or any products, yeah.
LIEBER: Yeah. So in the influencer industry, there are different levels of influencers.
LIEBER: So all the way at the bottom is the micro-influencer, and that is somebody that has 10,000 to 50,000 followers.
SANDERS: You're talking about Instagram, right? Like, that's the main platform?
LIEBER: Yeah. They'll be able to pick up a couple hundred dollars per post.
SANDERS: That ain't bad.
LIEBER: And without - yeah. And without question, they get product for free. I mean, you know...
SANDERS: They keep the saddlebag.
LIEBER: Tons of stuff. Yes, they got tons of free products, like beauty, clothing, I mean, free press trips - like, you name it.
LIEBER: Then the next category are nano-influencers.
LIEBER: Yeah, it basically comes down to numbers.
LIEBER: But then basically, like, if we're getting into bigger territory, like, somebody - an influencer that has a million followers or more, they can get paid up to $10,000 per post, depending on the platform.
SANDERS: Oh, my God.
LIEBER: If you're looking at a Instagram influencer who has more than a million followers, you can get paid $250,000 a post.
SANDERS: One post, you're - that one post...
SANDERS: ...Is several times most people's annual salary.
LIEBER: Yeah. Oh, especially if you're on YouTube. I mean, some of the influencers on YouTube that are, you know, reviewing product or doing ads, especially if you're in the gaming industry, you can easily make $250,000 a video.
SANDERS: I chose the wrong - we both chose the wrong profession (laughter).
LIEBER: I think, also, if I could just add, the industry does have a lot of fraud.
SANDERS: Yeah, let's talk about that.
LIEBER: There are people who try to, you know, game the system, buy followers, interact with bot farms who will either comment or like or, you know, sort of, like, try to game the algorithm to boost the posts up. And it's actually pretty common - like, way more common than you think. So that's why people think, like, some of the engagement, some of the numbers are a little sketchy.
SANDERS: Yeah. How does influencer fraud work? Is - I mean, so buying followers, I'm guessing, is one way to do it. But how else do they do it?
LIEBER: Buying followers. They also - there's (laughter) - there's another tactic called Instagram pods...
LIEBER: ...Which is basically, like, influencers get into groups. And they agree - you know, they'll either be in DM or text message with a group of influencers, and they will agree to, like, comment and like on each other's photos so that, you know, it'll push the algorithm up and be fed into more people's feeds.
SANDERS: How widespread do you think this kind of stuff is?
LIEBER: I read one survey that questioned 800 marketing agencies, and they found that two-thirds of the brands had worked with influencers with fake followers. So it's...
LIEBER: Yeah. It's really...
SANDERS: Very widespread (laughter).
LIEBER: It's really, really widespread.
LIEBER: One professor from the University of Baltimore that put out a report earlier this summer that I wrote about, he believes that 50% of engagement levels on sponsored content is fake.
LIEBER: So it's pretty rampant.
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SANDERS: That was Business Of Fashion reporter Chavie Lieber. She covers this stuff. But I also wanted to talk with someone living that influencer life. We found someone who actually falls into the category of nano-influencer, like Chavie was talking about. This influencer has a little more than 59,000 followers on Instagram.
JANEA BROWN: My name is Janea Brown, and I am a lifestyle content creator and home interior design influencer.
SANDERS: What does that mean, like, in layman's terms?
BROWN: Yeah, in layman's terms, I essentially - well, I'm also a nanny in New York City. That's another thing. This is not my full-time job (laughter).
SANDERS: OK. OK.
BROWN: So I'm a nanny, but I spend most of my time creating content for mostly women and inspiring them to create the healthy and happy home and lifestyle that they're seeking. And by doing that, I essentially take pretty pictures to catch people's attention of my home. And then in the captions is where I used my content to connect with people and be relatable and just encourage more women to, like, do what they need to do to live the life that they want to live.
SANDERS: Janea Brown's Instagram handle is J-N-A-Y-D-A-I-L-Y - jnaydaily. There are almost a thousand posts. First thing I noticed were all the plants - the beautiful, beautiful house plants, the sunshine. Janea's work really picked up in January of this year after she got reposted by larger brands, and then brands got in touch with her to influence for them. We talked about her influencer journey, but I began by asking the most important question.
How many houseplants do you have in this apartment?
BROWN: Oh, gosh. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight - I should know off the top of my head.
BROWN: Eleven, 12 - I have 13 plants, which doesn't sound crazy. Oh, nope - 14 plants in my bedroom...
SANDERS: Oh, wow.
BROWN: ...Because we don't have windows in our kitchen or living room. So they're all in my room with me (laughter).
SANDERS: OK. Well, it's beautiful. And like, just seeing this apartment - I'm like, I have one fiddle fig or whatever you call it, and I'm scared I'm going to kill that thing every week. And it's just one.
BROWN: No, those are so hard.
SANDERS: I know. I know. I picked the wrong one.
BROWN: Is yours doing OK?
SANDERS: She's doing fine. I've named her Idris. She's been alive for, like, three or four months now. So we shall see, yeah. Anyway, like...
BROWN: All right. OK.
SANDERS: Yeah, so tell me what kind of brands and products you will endorse through your Instagram feed from time to time.
BROWN: Well, since most of my content is home and lifestyle with a little bit of wellness focused, I try to only work with brands that truly align with that type of messaging and that will actually be valuable to the people who follow me, which - most of my audience, they're looking at my page for home interior tips, plant tips and, like I said, wellness.
SANDERS: Can we talk through one of these influencer posts? I'm looking at one right now from...
SANDERS: ...July 31 of this year. You are - in all of these photos - perfectly lit. But you're in, like, a kind of picnic setting with a lot of fresh fruit and fresh flowers and fresh baguette. And you're just looking happy, and you're wearing these lovely tannish brown sandals. And it's a post for Clarks Shoes, right?
SANDERS: Can you walk me through, like, how that happened, like, from soup to nuts? 'Cause I think a lot of folks don't know, like, the process.
BROWN: So with that partnership and a lot of my partnerships now, they reach out to me to see if there was any interest in working with them. And for example, that one was an easy yes for me because I have Instagram posts from 2014 - the year I graduated from college - of me showing off my Clarks Shoes on my Instagram, when I had, like, 15 followers that were just friends. And I was just showing off my Clarks Shoes because they were my first, like, businesswoman shoes that I got when I got my first job out of school.
SANDERS: So there's real love there.
BROWN: Yeah, exactly. I love Clarks. I love comfort. So I was happy to do that one. And then once we decided that we did want to work together, that's when all of the logistical things happened, which has been the largest learning curve for me.
SANDERS: How so?
BROWN: When I say that, I mean the contract and negotiating and just making sure all parties are satisfied. So once that step happens, I have to then come up with what ideas I have and kind of pitch that to them, get it approved. And for that one, I actually had a friend - or I hired someone to photograph me. But usually, I photograph myself for all of my pictures with just a remote control.
SANDERS: Wait, you have a remote control on your iPhone?
BROWN: So both, yeah. I have a remote control that was, like, $10 on Amazon. And I can take my photos on my phone of myself, or I can take self-portraits on my camera.
SANDERS: Wow. You're like a one-man band when you need to be, huh?
BROWN: Yeah, exactly. I don't have an Instagram boyfriend or anything. So that has been, like, best-case scenario. And I can't always afford a photographer, so that has been the best way to go, for sure.
SANDERS: OK. So then for this post, like, talk me through how many hours on the back end - the setting up to deal with Clarks, giving them your pitch, having them approve it and then give me the number of hours for the actual making of the image.
BROWN: Oh, gosh. So for that one, it was about two hours of shooting. I had to shop for the props, so that was probably another two hours, then maybe, like, a couple of hours of planning. So now we're at, like, six hours. And then there's editing and then posting the content. So I would say a good, you know, eight hours in total spread out throughout a week or so is how long it took to put all that together.
SANDERS: Yeah. So then - I'm not going to ask what your rate was for it. But if you wanted to tell me, I would be happy to know. But like, if you break that down, like, on an hourly rate for the hours you're putting in for the check they're giving you, do you feel like this is, at some point, a sustainable way to make your total living - not like this and being a, you know, nanny?
BROWN: Right. Yeah. So for that deal, I did sign something saying that I can't talk about details like that. But in general (laughter) - which I'm sure you understand - but to answer your question, though, yes. I think if someone was doing - well, for myself, personally, if I was doing this consistently, I could definitely see this being a full-time opportunity. And I kind of told myself, once I start making the same amount I make nannying, which, in New York City, nannying is a pretty lucrative job. And I do after-school nannying, so I have a lot of free time. So it just hasn't been worth it for me yet to stop that and do this full time. But yeah, influencing can definitely be a full-time job easily.
BROWN: I will say that.
SANDERS: Yeah. You told us that, like, it kind of really took off for you this year. What was the thing that, like, made it take off? Was there a moment, a post, a viral thing that, like, kind of skyrocketed you?
BROWN: So just a small combination of things.
BROWN: I will say that I had already had a small community of, like - well, this doesn't sound small. But I had 3,000 followers at the time, and those were people that I had kind of connected with on Instagram for a whole year just trying to build up my audience that way - and community online. And then, in January of 2019, Urban Outfitters did repost one of my photos, and that's when things got amped up very quickly (laughter).
SANDERS: Did they ask you to repost?
BROWN: No, they didn't ask me. So essentially, a lot of brands - if you tag them or use their brand hashtag, that's you giving them the rights to repost your photo on Instagram and probably on their other social media platforms. So do know that. People, protect yourselves.
BROWN: But at the time, it brought me a lot of traffic. So I was not - I didn't have a problem with that at all.
SANDERS: OK. Yeah. What is the hardest part of the job for you?
BROWN: The hardest part of the job for me is definitely, I think, managing it all because, I mean, I did not study business in school and didn't really have intentions of being an entrepreneur in any way, really. So like I said, kind of fell into this and then realized, like, oh, snap, like, I need to get organized and open up a business banking account and probably hire an accountant and probably get a manager at some point. And these weren't things I thought about immediately, but as more things started to pick up and I wasn't able to do it all by myself anymore, I've learned that I need to start kind of delegating certain things out. So that's been hard.
SANDERS: Yeah, yeah. One of the things that would just give me so much anxiety if I were trying to do what you were doing is knowing that, in many ways, you are at the mercy of some big company's algorithm. Like, if Instagram changes up their feed or changes up likes or how they post tomorrow, that could, like, affect your pocketbook drastically - the same for, like, TikTok if you move there.
BROWN: Yeah (laughter).
SANDERS: Like, how do you navigate having your own business but having to run it through someone else's business?
BROWN: Right. So a few things - I've made sure that I kind of - I mean, this annoying word - but diversify what platforms I'm using.
SANDERS: (Laughter) OK.
BROWN: That just, like, brings me back to accounting, so sorry (laughter). But anyway - but make sure that I put myself on my own website, which can be something that I actually own. But also, then, this is helping me kind of figure out what could I do that's my own baby. I realize people struggle with home decor. Does that mean I can do some consulting in an affordable way to help other women create their dream space?
SANDERS: Or other men. Come create my dream space. Your apartment looks great. Come do my apartment.
BROWN: Or guys, or dudes.
SANDERS: That's OK.
BROWN: I'm such a gal's gal. I literally forget about the bros. But yeah, or bros - anybody that needs help. And then also note for me - like, I think people get really caught up in the algorithm - like, creatives, businesses, everybody does. My mom might have. And it's just, like, we have no control over what Instagram is doing. And with that, just focusing on, like, the audience you already have and the people who are in your corner, like, what can you be doing that can benefit their lives with - through your work?
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SANDERS: Janea talked about the difficulties handling all the managerial stuff that comes with life as an influencer. But turns out there are people out there to help you deal with that. After the break, we will talk with an influencer manager. He tells us what he looks for in an influencer, how to break into this industry, and I ask him if he ever worries that all this stuff may go too far. BRB.
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SANDERS: You're listening to IT'S BEEN A MINUTE from NPR. I'm Sam Sanders. So this episode, it's all about influencers on social media, how the business works, what the industry is like, what a day in the life of an influencer looks like. No better way to understand all of that than by talking to someone who manages influencers for a living.
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JOE GAGLIESE: Hello?
SANDERS: Hi. Joe?
GAGLIESE: Hi there.
SANDERS: How are you?
GAGLIESE: Great. Yourself?
SANDERS: I'm good. I'm good. Give me your full name and your title.
GAGLIESE: My name is Joe Gagliese, and I'm the CEO and co-founder of Viral Nation.
SANDERS: Viral Nation. What - so what is Viral Nation?
GAGLIESE: Viral Nation is a company.
SANDERS: Yeah. Well, yeah. Obvi (ph).
GAGLIESE: I'm just playing with you.
SANDERS: I know, I know. It's all good. Joe runs this international marketing company called Viral Nation. It's been around since 2014. And this company, it runs marketing campaigns for places like match.com, and it manages tens of thousands of influencers to be part of these campaigns - posting content, plugging brands, big and small, on their personal social media feeds, incorporating the brands into what looks like their daily lives. Joe says the big influencers can make up to $10 to $20 million a year, while others just do it as a hobby. But they're still making, like, $10,000 to $20,000 a year, which is a lot of money. So to start, I asked Joe, what makes for a successful influencer?
GAGLIESE: There's influencers that we admire and follow, and there's ones that we look at, right? And there's a really big distinction there because that's what's going to make a great influencer, is you don't want to be an influencer that people just look at. You want to be someone who can give a recommendation to their audience, and they're interested in what your recommendation is and may act on that recommendation. And those are the people who really, truly are influencers, right? There's so many influencers who are, you know, call it aesthetically pleasing or, you know, create content that's just funny, but they don't really connect with their audience on a personal level.
SANDERS: When you think philosophically about the very art of being an influencer, you know, under the worst of you, the very idea of it can seem a little - fraudulent's too strong of a word, but, like, it blurs the line between real and fake, you know. Like, I'll be scrolling Instagram, and I'm seeing posts from my friends, you know, at the park, with their babies and their dogs. And then I see another post from an influencer that kind of looks the same way, but they're pushing me a product. And I don't know. Like, as just, like, a layperson, as a consumer, sometimes I, like, worry about the very premise.
Do you ever feel that concern? Like, it just blurs the line of what I expect to be purely social content, what I expect to be purely advertising content.
GAGLIESE: Right. You know, and the - here's the problem. It's that a lot of these influencers do it for the money, right? And they're not thoroughly vetting the products. They are doing the teeth whiteners and things they wouldn't actually use. And that's the area where I think I agree with you most.
You know, you need to have that level of decency when you're selecting the brands you want to work with and really do your work in terms of, is this something I actually support? Because at the end of the day, if I told you that that ad you saw that you were skeptical about, she vetted it and she loved that product, and you bought it and loved it, you know, that's a different situation than, I'm just trying to make an extra buck on Instagram, right? So I think there's just that kind of weird balance that we need to find.
SANDERS: Yeah. Do you think there's going to be an influencer bubble?
GAGLIESE: So I've been thinking a lot about that, Sam, for the last year or so. And obviously, with a lot of different interviews and stuff I've done, I get questioned that hard. Here's why I don't think it's a bubble, and I used to - here - I'll preface it with, I used to think it was a bubble, for sure.
GAGLIESE: About six to 12 months ago. Here's what changed my opinion. Viral Nation gets between - I want to say - 200 and 500 emails a week from influencers wanting to be a part of the agency, right? And of that group, 60%, 70% of them are people who are aspiring to be influencers. So they're not actually influencers yet. They're just kind of begging us to help them become influencers.
And I really started to dig into this, and I had some of my teams prepare some reports for me to read and stuff. And I think what's happened, Sam, is a cultural shift, where you're getting all of these young people, you know, as early as 5 years old, who now are saying, screw being a doctor, screw being an athlete - that's too hard, you know, etc. I want to be an influencer. I want to be a gamer. I want to be a game streamer. I want to be...
SANDERS: Just to stop you there - doesn't that make you sad? (Laughter).
GAGLIESE: I don't know what it makes me, but I'm not super happy about it. I haven't really fully processed what that means. But my thing is, we've created this cultural phenomenon which is like a tidal wave taking over the world. And this isn't just here, Sam. I think it's the lightest in the U.S. and Canada.
GAGLIESE: Like, you should see it in China. You should see it in places like Italy and the U.K. and Latin America, Brazil. We've created the new celebrity.
GAGLIESE: And I find it very hard, with that undertone, that influencers would go away. Now, can marketing with influencers be affected? One hundred percent. Could there be new social channels, and Instagram goes down one day? One hundred percent. Like, I think there's going to be huge disruption in the space from a marketing perspective, from a use perspective, from a platform perspective - all that stuff. But I think influencer is the new status symbol of humanity, in the craziest way.
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SANDERS: Influencer is the new status symbol of humanity. That is crazy to me, also kind of scary. I wanted to go back to Chavie Lieber and talk a bit more about this and ask her, what is the rise of the influencer doing to all of us?
On the one hand, influencer culture proves that, like, this version of capitalism that we live in can monetize even the body, even the individual, right? And two, the way in which it gets to us in all these subversive ways means that every moment of our consumption, every moment of our waking day, can be an advertising message.
LIEBER: Oh, I mean - but, I mean, I hope we already all know that.
LIEBER: Any sort of interaction that you are doing on the Web is being watched, you know - your text messages that you are saying over voice command that is getting typed into Facebook Messenger, like...
SANDERS: Somebody's watching that, yeah.
LIEBER: ...Somebody is listening to that. You know, Facebook admitted to that. So everything has been, you know, digitized to the point where, like, your seemingly most simplest interaction, like shopping on the Internet, is being used as a data point that will probably be used later to sell you.
SANDERS: Are you - hearing you say those things out loud, are you fearful or hopeful about our future in this world (laughter) with all of those print lines happening?
LIEBER: (Laughter) I guess I wouldn't say I'm fearful. There are certain things that I trust in. One of the things that makes me hopeful about this is the FTC looking into, you know, how big tech is affecting us. So I guess, like, that's one part that gives me hope. I guess the other part of it is, like, you know, you need to think about what you're paying for. So, you know, do people want to pay for Facebook or Instagram? Probably not, so, like, this is the way it is.
SANDERS: Yeah. Unless you're going to pay for it, you've got to deal with this.
LIEBER: Yeah. And then, you know, the other thing is, like, if you want to bring this back to, like, influencers and shopping, it's, like, pick your poison, right? It's either these influencers are making money off of Instagram campaigns, which you are digesting. But 10 years, you know, 20, 30 years ago, it was a magazine ad. It was a newspaper ad.
LIEBER: You know, so it's just about - it's really just about the way that people are digesting their media today.
SANDERS: Yeah. Hey, thank you so much for having such an influential conversation with me.
LIEBER: Oh, nice. I like what you did there.
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SANDERS: Thanks again to the folks who talked with me for this episode. Business of Fashion reporter Chavie Lieber, influencer Janea Brown and the CEO and co-founder of Viral Nation, Joe Gagliese. Janea and Joe both joined us via Skype. This episode was produced by Anjuli Sastry and edited by Alex McCall and Jordana Hochman. Listeners, come back here on Friday, as usual, for our Weekly Wrap episode. Till then, talk soon.
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