Influencer Lifestyle: How Helen Owen and Zack Kalter have found love and revolutionized consumer marketing
Just 20 years ago, if you wanted to advertise your product or brand, you either created a television commercial, printed a billboard, or called your local paper to take out a paid ad in the Sunday edition. If you haven’t been paying attention to trends, those mediums still exist, but they are certainly not the most effective way to advertise for a brand or product. Why? Well it’s not that those mediums don’t exist, because they do and still certainly have some place in our culture. However, in today’s culture, even when we are watching television, we find ourselves mostly consuming television through our phone. That’s not to say that people don’t watch television because consumers and the masses still watch television. However, as soon as that sporting event or television show goes to commercial, the majority of us go directly to our phone. Brands are still spending millions of dollars on television commercials while their target consumer is scrolling through their Instagram feed and not actually consuming that commercial. Brands can either embrace this change or continue to fight it, but things are not changing anytime soon. Smart brands have already embraced this change and have leveraged consumers attention by advertising their products with influencers on platforms like Instagram.
While consumers are scrolling through their feed, it’s very likely that they would come across the pages of Helen Owen and Zack Kalter. Who are they? Well if you aren’t familiar, Helen and Zack were emerging stars before the social media boom, and have become the blueprint power couple for influencer marketing. What is influencer marketing? Remember when Michael Jordan would hold up McDonalds french fries in the 90’s and people would flock to McDonalds? Remember when Marilyn Monroe smoked Lucky Cigarettes and everyone wanted Lucky Cigarettes? Today’s mediums have changed but the message has remained the same. An influencer is anyone that can promote an image, brand, message or product to a large group of people who will consume and then take action on that message either through engagement or purchasing of that product. The biggest difference between Helen and Zack, compared to the celebrities of 20 years ago, is that their influence is not on television, it’s on social media. The couple has a combined 1.5 Million followers on Instagram alone and their reach is further than that. When you consider that on average, a popular television show like ESPN’s Sportscenter gets under 700,000 unique viewers, one could argue that a single post or recommendation from Helen and Zack would be more valuable than a 30-second advertisement on Sportscenter. We recently had the opportunity to interview Helen and Zack to learn more about how they met, when they realized that Instagram was becoming a real business and how their lives have changed forever.
This story starts well before Instagram as both had began gaining influence before the social media boom. Helen had recently graduated from UCLA with a design degree when she said she stumbled into what she now calls her career. “So much of where I find myself at today happened because of the perfect timing of things back then, from the beginning of me sharing my life on Tumblr which then transitioned itself into my initial following on Instagram right when it became popular,” Said Owen. Meanwhile, Zack had come from a much more business-based background. He was self-employed with amazing ongoing business projects he’d been creating and managing for years after leaving his dream of playing major league baseball (not before getting drafted to the Blue Jays organization though). “In a sense he perhaps had a little more foresight into the value of social media and where it was headed than I did,” she continued.
So how did the two meet?
“We crossed paths somewhere in the middle of all this, and it was right when Instagram began booming. I was beginning to intentionally develop my social platforms into something more than just a private space, and he was kind of doing the same. That’s not to say we were even thinking about business when we first met, or even during those first few months of what was basically our extended honeymoon phase. In a sense, we were already on similar paths within the social media sphere and I think that’s what made that part of our relationship so easy and seamless from the moment we met,” said Owen.
It certainly appears that way as the two are constantly traveling together and seem as genuinely happy as any couple in the world. Helen and Zack are seemingly inseparable and can be seen traveling together everywhere from exotic Greek resorts, to an afternoon San Francisco Giants game. From the outside, it may just appear that the two have it made and that very little “work” is involved. However, we came to learn that not everything is so simple and a lot of hard work goes into what they do, while having to deal with the scrutiny of the opinionated internet.
The hardest part about life as an influencing couple? “It’s true that it’s not the perfect, flawless life of luxurious traveling and living easy that it looks like, especially not the living easy part. Of course, people are quick to share their opinions of us, that’s something we’re as detached from as we can be in order to stay sane and happy. When I try and step out of my shoes for a moment I totally see how our lives can look like a never-ending dream, certainly not something that most would equate with “hard work,” Helen began. “For starters, neither of us have any sort of management or agency working for us, we do all that ourselves. If that alone isn’t enough work, we’re juggling all of the back-end of our businesses with the part that you might see people on the internet label as “goals” – namely, the content and the creative process that goes into it.”
What goes into that creative process?
“Zack and I share a similar love for being creative and we find satisfaction in expressing ourselves creatively across a variety of mediums. For example, where most people might hire a photographer, or an editor for photos and videos, or even someone to give creative guidance whether that be styling, choreographing, storyboarding, creative ideas — we do it all ourselves… and it comes as a welcomed challenge. Learning how to create narratives with our lifestyle, how to integrate other brands and products organically without stepping outside of our personal style, image and values, and how to take everything we do and call it a business.”
That they certainly have! Years ago product placement began as an effective marketing tool, if you had an audience, simply posting a picture of a product would constitute as product promotion. As with many things, consumers have become immune to simple product placement, thus making the creative process that much more important. If the post doesn’t look natural and native to what the audience is used to seeing, they won’t respond to the post. Helen and Zack have been tasked with that difficult task of integrating products, without belittling their audience.
You certainly shouldn’t feel bad for Helen and Zack, they welcome that pressure and all of the good that comes with it. After talking about the creative and difficult aspects, we were dying to hear about some of the exciting, fun aspects of being an influencer. “Almost everyday something comes up that I can’t believe is actually an opportunity for us. For example, just the other day I found myself sitting in the nicest seats possible at a Giants v Cubs game after being a diehard SF Giants fan since 3rd grade and never EVER coming close to an experience like that, all because a ticketing company I’ve built a relationship with wanted some footage for a Snapchat ad.” Helen said that was her “pinch me” moment.
The two constantly travel the world and are extremely well accommodated, however they are extremely quick to express that even with the financial benefits, they are most grateful for the experiences. “To this day by far the most amazing and valuable opportunity that has come from what we do is the opportunity to travel and see the world. We notice that we’re happiest when we’re out exploring, and on a personal level travel keeps us growing and learning as a couple, both about the crazy world and life and each other.” She continued to tell us about a recent trip they had been on. “We once spent an entire month in Thailand: a spontaneous trip that all began when we decided to grab one-way flights 2 nights in advance and only had our first 7 nights covered with one accommodation company, nothing else beyond that. We ended up jumping around all over Thailand for 30-something days, working with various hotels, villas and other accommodation options as we went. We’ve had similar extended travel in Greece and the south of France, and it never fails to make for an amazing (and productive) experience which leads to spectacular content and social media narratives.”
At this point, we don’t need to sell anyone on the lifestyle that comes with being an influencer. If you ask any younger person these days, they want to become an influencer in some shape or way, whether that’s on Instagram, You Tube or various other channels. We wanted to find out what advice Helen and Zack would give to any person wanting to start a lifestyle business. “My best advice would be to start with what feels natural to you. If you’re excited to share something with the world, that will shine through, especially if you’re able to think outside of the box a bit and maybe focus on a different medium or a different perspective than what everyone else is doing. One thing I’ve learned is that the second you step outside of your own realm of honesty and push the boundaries on what you’re promoting too far into the ad side of things, people will smell it out and you’ll lose their trust. I learned this early on when I was first approached to promote for brands I hadn’t heard of and didn’t quite have a firm belief in. My rule for this tends to be that I’ll only agree to team up with a brand on something that I’d actually spend my own money on.”
So what’s next for Helen and Zack?
They are currently focusing on challenging themselves creatively and putting more time into the creative process and less time into the backend headaches. If you were wondering, yes that means they are hiring! “We’re looking to build out more of a team so we can really go after our dreams without being held back by the behind the scenes work.”
I know we are all looking forward to seeing whats next for Helen and Zack. Follow their journey @helenowen and @zackkalter.