FREEPORT ‚ÄĒ How does a spunky Laborador retriever become a force in the emerging and slightly mysterious field of influencer marketing? By burrowing full speed into leaf piles, trying to squeeze herself into children‚Äôs furniture, biting trees and bathing in mud whenever possible.
At least that‚Äôs how Stella is doing it.
She gets some help from owner Jody Hartman, who first realized three years ago that people were drawn to Stella‚Äôs ‚Äúridiculousness‚ÄĚ on social media and had the vision to capitalize on it. He usually posts a couple videos of her each day and has built Stella‚Äôs following to more than 175,000 on Instagram, 62,000 on Facebook and 9,400 on her YouTube channel. He says he earns enough money from a few sponsors, producing Stella-related videos for companies and licensing his videos for others to use, that posting his pet‚Äôs antics is now his full-time job.
‚ÄúI just try to exaggerate the things she does,‚ÄĚ said Hartman, 34, who worked in marketing for years before Stella‚Äôs internet stardom. ‚ÄúShe‚Äôs such a Labby Lab. I try to capture that in the videos. ‚ÄĚ
Though her fame has been growing for the past few years, Stella‚Äôs Instagram following grew by about 40 percent this fall when a video of her exiting the family car and speeding into a leaf pile got national attention, including a mention on NBC‚Äôs ‚ÄúToday.‚ÄĚ As of Thursday, the video, posted Oct. 24, had more than 600,000 views, 62,800 likes and more than 3,700 comments. Among the comments were people calling it ‚Äúbrilliant,‚ÄĚ ‚Äúso cool to watch‚ÄĚ and ‚ÄúThe.Best.Thing.Ever.‚ÄĚ Several commenters told others they need to follow Stella and not miss anything she does.
Stella first gained internet fame about four years ago when Hartman made a video of her ‚Äď on a whim ‚Äď running around his Freeport yard and coming to a quick stop with her legs stretched out straight behind her, something the internet calls a ‚Äúsploot.‚ÄĚ That video, called ‚ÄúStella‚Äôs Dog Brakes,‚ÄĚ got more than 7 million views in a couple days and national media attention.
It also got Hartman‚Äôs attention, making him realize the marketing power of such a dog in a world of dog lovers. Since then, Hartman has been paying close attention to what his 5-year-old dog does, making videos of stuff she just happens to do on her own and sometimes prompting her a little, like throwing a ball into the biggest leaf pile he can assemble. To get the ball, Stella turns herself into a four-legged torpedo and bores into the pile until she disappears completely. Then leaves start to fly as she digs for her favorite tennis ball, then emerges from the pile. Her leaf pile adventures are among her most popular videos.
In recent weeks, Hartman has spent a lot of time curating the giant leaf pile in his yard, covering it with tarps and fluffing it daily to make sure it‚Äôs in true autumnal form for each Stella video.
And many of Stella‚Äôs adventures include the whole Hartman family ‚Äď Hartman, his wife, Juliet, as well as 5-year-old Lucas and 11/2-year-old Hannah. They can be seen on Instagram, Facebook or YouTube under the handle dognamedstella.
FETCH, ROLL OVER, INFLUENCE
Influencer marketing has become a potent tool for companies over the past couple of years and is expected to become a $5 billion-$10 billion business in the next decade, said Claire Wilson, global public relations director for Socialbakers, a social media marketing platform with clients around the world.
Companies pay people who create their own social media audiences ‚Äď on Instagram, Facebook or wherever ‚Äď for product mentions or placement. Most people just watch the video of a social influencer because it‚Äôs funny or eye-catching, and many have no idea there‚Äôs a commercial tie-in. The product mentions or placements are often very subtle.
In Stella‚Äôs case, it‚Äôs hard to see brand names or obvious product pitches in a quick scan of her videos. But if someone looks closely at her accounts and the text with each video, they‚Äôll see a mention for BestBullySticks, a brand of dog chews, and Happy Hempies, a health supplement for dogs.
Among pet influencers, Stella doesn‚Äôt have the reach of the field‚Äôs best-known representatives. Grumpy Cat is probably the queen of the field, with 2.4 million followers on various platforms.
But Socialbakers‚Äô data show that Stella‚Äôs recent influx of followers and interactions is comparable to one of the pet influencer stars, Tuna, a Chihuahua-Dachshund crossbreed from California with a pronounced overbite. Tuna‚Äôs owner started posting pictures of him just to share his silliness, but now the dog has 2 million followers and is often photographed in dog clothes or silly costumes. His Instagram account has a link to his website, tunameltsmyheart.com, where people can buy merchandise with his likeness.
In the third week of October, Stella gained more than 26,000 Instagram followers while Tuna gained 3,000. For the period between July 30 and Oct. 28, the most interactions Tuna got on Instagram posts in any one week were 453,000, while that number was 418,000 for Stella. Interactions are what advertisers look at most closely when picking an influencer to spend money on, said Wilson.
She said that while human influencers make a lot more money than pet influencers ‚Äď gamer Dan Middleton is reportedly one of the highest paid, at about $16 million a year ‚Äď successful pet influencers can make ‚Äúquite a good living.‚ÄĚ
Hartman didn‚Äôt want to talk specifically about how much money Stella‚Äôs ‚Äúinfluence‚ÄĚ brings in, but did say that the payments differ from client to client. He‚Äôs gotten a monthly payment, though not a flat fee, from one, and he‚Äôs received one-time payments from others. He said of companies he‚Äôs worked with, he sought one out and others have sought him.
Though it might appear like Hartman is getting paid for just making funny videos of his dog, he said, like so many people do, he actually is working as hard as he ever has at any job. His days include handling the business connections and Stella‚Äôs social media accounts, setting up adventures to film and then heavily editing each video.
A GOOD DOG
Hartman and his wife both grew up in Brunswick, but lived in Boston for about seven years when he worked in marketing for the New England Patriots and she worked as a nurse. When they moved back to Maine, they really wanted a puppy, so they contacted a breeder and got Stella. A few months later, their son Lucas was born, and the two have grown up together.
While most of Hartman‚Äôs videos of Stella are goofy, he captured a more serious part of her story on video as well. Lucas was born with clubfoot, leaving both feet twisted, a condition that makes it very difficult for him to walk. He has worn leg braces for much of his life and had two serious operations. Stella can be seen in videos licking Lucas‚Äô face, sitting under him while he swings on a baby swing and trying to catch water in her mouth from a hose that Lucas is squirting. Later, when Stella had to have two knees replaced (from wear and tear, and not related to the funny way she can stretch her legs behind her) Lucas is seen on video comforting her.
‚ÄúShe‚Äôs a super dog and has every Lab characteristic you can think of,‚ÄĚ Hartman said. ‚ÄúSo she and Lucas were just always together, she never left his side.‚ÄĚ
When the family first moved back to Maine more than five years ago, Hartman worked for a marketing firm in Brunswick. But he first put a video of Stella online just because he thought her ‚Äúdog brakes‚ÄĚ ‚Äď the way she stops on a dime with her legs straight out behind her ‚Äď was funny. Once the video went viral and got more than 7.5 million views in just a few days, Hartman started thinking about all the other funny things Stella does. Trouble is, Hartman doesn‚Äôt particularly like cute dog videos. So he tries to add music or sound or weird camera angles, so that Stella‚Äôs adventures are edgy, but still very appealing to anyone who has, or loves, dogs.
Recently, he‚Äôs been putting butterfly wings on Stella and calling her Judith, her alter ego. In one video, Hartman dons butterfly gear too and jumps in a leaf pile with Stella, who nips at him, bowls him over and eventually rips off part of his costume.
In other videos, Stella is shown trying to get comfortable for a long time on a bean bag chair or trying to get a cookie off the arm of a chair, just out of her reach. Juliet Hartman, who helps with some of the videos, especially when Jody is in them, said she didn‚Äôt think at first that Stella‚Äôs videos would catch on the way they have.
But Hartman looks at Stella‚Äôs success through the eyes of a marketer and someone who has grown up with social media. And dogs.
‚ÄúPeople have no attention span anymore, so I try to make it move quickly, with no time to breathe,‚ÄĚ Hartman said. ‚ÄúPeople with dogs spend a lot of time talking about their dog‚Äôs ridiculousness, the funny things they do.‚ÄĚ
The Hartman family poses for a photograph with their dog Stella, who is an Instagram celebrity. From left are Juliet; Hannah, 1; Lucas, 5; and Jody Hartman. (Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Portlqand Press Herald)
Stella plays in a pile of leaves with Hannah, 1, and Lucas Hartman, 5. The Labrador retriever is pulling in followers on Instagram, Facebook and YouTube with videos of her antics. (Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Portland Press Herald