Your dog may never make it like the beagle Miss P, winner of the 2015 Westminster Kennel Club’s best in show award, but he or she may still have a shot at becoming a YouTube star or nabbing a modeling contract based on an Instagram photo.
It happened for Tuna, a Chiweenie mix of Chihuahua and dachshund. This unlikely Internet star, found as a stray at a California farmer’s market, has more than a million followers on Instagram because of his cartoonish overbite. A book, The Underdog with the Overbite, goes on sale in two weeks with a list price of $14.95.
At the pinnacle is a dog named Boo, a Pomeranian with 17 million fans on Facebook, multiple books and a line of toys. He even got a deal from Virgin America Inc to be its official “pet liaison.”
To bring in money, you need more than a random clip of your dog doing something funny. It takes an orchestrated campaign to gain enough popularity to merit offers from corporate sponsors, get product placement deals, and move merchandise.
“People who have over half a million followers are getting serious money,” says Katie Sturino, who owns Toast, a King Charles pup with no teeth and a tongue that hangs from her mouth. “The ones who have really broken out are getting a lot.”
Rescued from a puppy mill, Toast has 168,000 followers on Instagram. Sturino says she has been working with companies looking for product placement or endorsements.
What captivates a mass audience and goes viral usually is not a fluke, says Jonah Berger, a marketing professor at the Wharton School of Business and author of Contagious: Why Things Catch On. You need a good story to get started, and then you need a savvy strategy.
“We often look at these videos and think they must be luck or by chance,” Berger says. “Can you guarantee that something will go viral and get millions and millions of page views? No, but you can guarantee it will do better.”
Animal advocate and author Wendy Diamond says the biggest influencers are those who have a following and a personality.
“Your dog either has to have a deformity or a disability or a well-connected parent,” Diamond says.
Boo’s connection is clear. His owner, Irene Ahn, is an executive at Facebook Inc, although she has stayed out of the limelight during her dog’s climb.
But there are other routes to the top.
Jon Huang and his girlfriend, Amber Chavez, got Manny, a French bulldog who was the unwanted runt of the litter, at a half-price discount four years ago.
“Basically, I just started posting unique pictures,” says Huang, 37.
After photos of Manny sleeping in a sink went viral, the dog’s popularity started to swell. As the monetary potential became clear, Huang says they made charity a big part of the Manny craze. Team Manny has raised more than $100,000 in the past year.
Manny has deals with Evanger’s Dog Food and Zico Coconut Water, among others. With all the merchandising, fundraising, deals, appearances and travels (a 15-city tour that goes from coast-to-coast), Chavez now is working full-time with Manny.
“There would be no way to manage all the stuff without her quitting her job,” says Huang. “We didn’t expect any of this. It happened so fast.”