Kim Knight meets the New Zealand mothers whose carefully curated online snaps are earning them legions of followers β€” and in some cases, big bucks.

On Instagram, nobody ices birthday cakes badly. Babies don't cry, or poo, or vomit. They wear pink and grey and cream and they smile for the cameras in houses festooned with flowers, quinoa candles and organic cotton bunting. Lots of bunting.

The motherlode of parental angst is just a touchscreen away, via the social media accounts of the country's InstaMums - women whose carefully curated family snaps earn anywhere from $150 to $15,000 per envy-inspiring post on the online photo-sharing service.

Life, lived picture-perfect. Because that's what the sponsors have paid for.

It started with a "mummy blog", says Melissa Jack, 36, who operates her site The Best Nest from West Auckland.


"I've been blogging eight years and I've been on Instagram five, so I was quite an early adopter. Instagram is definitely a standalone platform now. At first it was an additional tool. Now people have built their online reputations solely around Instagram, which is a very new phenomenon."

The appeal?

"I was just thinking this morning, as I made my smoothie, if you were bored and wanted a new smoothie recipe, you don't have to go to Google anymore. You just hashtag 'smoothie' on Instagram and you've got a picture right there. So it's a very immediate and condensed form of gratification.

"Also, the community and friends. I genuinely feel like the online relationships that I've built with women, and some men, in the digital community are awesome. You want to see how their Christmas was, and it's all right there."

But it's also a business. Courier packages arrive daily from companies who want InstaMums to dress their kids in free clothes, cook for them with free appliances and decorate their rooms with free home furnishings, in return for mentions on social media accounts that reach thousands of followers.

Vanessa Rehm with her three children Tahlia (6) Aston (5) and Beau (21mths). Photo / Greg Bowker
Vanessa Rehm with her three children Tahlia (6) Aston (5) and Beau (21mths). Photo / Greg Bowker

Consider this Summer-on-Waiheke post from one InstaMum: "Bringing the @nespresso Aeroccino on holiday means fluffy time is anytime. Lucky for the littles their Nana keeps a fully stocked jar of marshmallows at the beach house!" (Reader reply: "Works well with coconut milk too").

Strategically placed product endorsements are nothing new. But this is not All Black Dan Carter accidentally-on-purpose wearing an adidas hoodie at a book signing. These are women whose following is built solely on their social media efforts; whose saleable commodity is a cute kid and an ability to style a lunchbox.

Melissa Jack with her two sons Ethan (11) and Nixon (2). Photo / Greg Bowker
Melissa Jack with her two sons Ethan (11) and Nixon (2). Photo / Greg Bowker

The reward for their highly constructed - but artistically beautiful - visions of parenting goes beyond free product. A handful of Kiwi InstaMums are now considered influential enough to command cash for their posts.

"I'm a minnow," says Jack, who has around 3100 Instagram followers. "But I am represented by an agency. A model has an agent, and now mummy bloggers, or any kind of blogger, can have an agent. They're the intermediaries between brands and the PRs."

Party time with 🍩#donutparty Happy Birthday Connor xx

A post shared by βž• Melissa Jack βž• (@thebestnest) on

Jack signed with The Bloggers Club back in April. In the last financial year, the club, which develops digital strategies for brands alongside its talent management arm, paid 200 individuals for promoting content on social media platforms.

"Someone in my range would make, maybe $120 max for one picture," says Jack, who acknowledges it's not a fulltime wage - yet.

Because while "influencer marketing" may be in its infancy here, international trend forecasts are picking this year it will begin to overtake traditional PR campaigns.

Jack, whose children are 11 and 18 months, understands the pressure manicured posts might put on other parents.

"If you get into the trap of following the aspirational accounts, they are very contrived. But that's what they're trying to be. They're getting sent thousands of dollars of kids' clothes or interior products each year, you just have to realise that for what it's worth. But that's also where there should be some responsibility on the Instagram account holder, saying that these products are gifted."

Needed some Nixie thighs in my feed 😍

A post shared by βž• Melissa Jack βž• (@thebestnest) on

Her own account is a mix of the sponsored - and the unflinchingly unfiltered.

"I think being a mum can be quite isolating and lonely. Eighteen months ago, my son was in hospital having surgery for a very serious condition and he wouldn't sleep, and I had him in a sling and I was walking around.

"I was at the end of my rope. There was no one I could talk to and Instagram was there, and people were online and there was that community. There is a picture of me looking like hell, the lighting is terrible because everything's dimmed and I was just 'oh my God, this is the worst night of my life'."

Before she built that supportive Instagram community, she says, "You probably would have just been by yourself and sat there crying. At least you can cry and know there's someone around."

How do the offspring of InstaMums feel about becoming social media stars?

"There's so much negativity about social media and the sharing of your kids," says Jack. "But this is also a magic record of our lives. It's all right there. It was awesome recently scrolling back and seeing a picture of my eldest curled up on the lap of my dad who has now passed away. I'd forgotten about that photo."

Vanessa Rehm, 39, has three children aged 6, 5, and 22 months who feature in the mix of food and lifestyle photos on her Auckland-based account The Bubbalino Kitchen.

Her middle son was 4 when he told her he didn't want her to take a photo "for all the world to see". So she didn't. But she also had to explain the New World supermarket Little Kitchen toys he was about to play with had only been sent because of that photo op and her 4300 Instagram followers.

With my 3 little beauties + 1 French Apple Cake on our way to Nonna's. #thebubbalinokitchen #sundayfunday #familytime

A post shared by V A N E S S A πŸ’‹πŸŽπŸ“ (@vanessarehm) on

"It's a fine line. There is sometimes a bit of a struggle about how much you expose, how much do you put yourself out there, because there is the opportunity to make it into something and become your own brand.

"I follow a lot of people where it is just their children - but they're enjoying incredible benefits from that. Like they get all their clothes sent for free, and they're getting a lot of perks. I don't know. I don't judge them, if that's the decision they've made."

Products are nice, says Rehm. "But I would prefer to receive money for things that I would endorse authentically."

Because you can't eat lipstick. That's the mantra that drives Blogger's Club general manager Rochelle Shaw to negotiate payments on behalf of social media influencers. "Time and influence and experience with your product are worth something."

Shaw cites a survey conducted here last September that found 77 per cent of respondents had purchased a product because it had been endorsed by a social influencer.

When asked to list the platforms they were addicted to, respondents put Facebook at 72 per cent, Instagram at 57 per cent, Snapchat and blogs at 33 per cent each and Pinterest at 27 per cent. "I can say that in the last nine months, a couple of our influencers have earned close to a $100,000 salary."

High-profile posters can earn upwards of $15,000. But, insists Shaw, the new social media celebrities are not "product whores".

"They only engage with brands they want to work with ... I'd describe them as little mini creative agencies, or little mini publishers. Actually, some of them are bigger than the publishers!"

Shaw (who launched the online presence of her sister Kimberley Crossman - arguably the first Shortland Street actor whose real name is now more famous than her character's) says payments depend on the influencer's perceived worth, and the combination of platforms they can offer a potential advertiser. "It might be Facebook plus Instagram. And it can be any kind of product - you can go from life insurance to a makeup brand."

Instagram, bought by Facebook in 2012, introduced formal, paid advertising in 2013. The platform features "promoted" spots, but companies like Levis, McDonald's, Maybelline and Mercedes-Benz are among those who have reportedly gone beyond that to partner with strategic influencers to flog product in a more subtle way.

One oft-cited quote (from Clayton Wood, CEO of marketing agency Identity Labs) hits it home: "When was the last time anyone under 35 chose to give money away willingly without some sort of indication from someone they know?

"The opportunity to market directly to micro-social groups that have a high likelihood of purchasing is very exciting."

Arguably there are few demographic groups more susceptible to an immaculate influencer telling them the things they need to do and own to ensure The Best Possible Start To Life than new parents. But how far will an InstaMum go in the pursuit of perfection? Late last year, an account called the "Mummy Mafia TV" project popped up on Instagram, calling for volunteers for a new docu-style reality TV series.

"Four Australian mothers with one goal," read the synopsis.

"To have the most followers. Mummy Mafia exposes the cut-throat underbelly of mummy blogging; the lengths these mothers go to, to create the picture perfect family lifestyle and become 'instafamous' will send shockwaves through the social media community ...

"These mothers will stop at nothing to put others down to get their children ahead ... These mothers see social media as a career more than a hobby and go to incredible lengths to make their lives appear picture perfect. They will do anything from driving hours to get the perfect photos for Instagram to planning family vacations that are centred around creating content for their social media channels ..."

There was no response when Canvas requested an interview. It's possible the account is a spoof. But if the job of satire is to hold up human folly to ridicule and scorn, then, well, job well done.

In Whangarei, 22-year-old first time mum, graphic designer and interior stylist Hannah Whitehead operates Blonde & Bone - a suite of digital offerings including an Instagram account with a massive 60,000 followers (to put that figure in context, at the time of writing aforementioned Dan Carter and Kimberley Crossman had 548,000 and 52,600 followers, respectively).

To the uninitiated Blonde & Bone is a terrifying glimpse into just how curated these feeds can get.

Everything is Nordic neutral ("Scandi-style" is huge for InstaMums). Baby Frankie's skin is porcelain flawless. Her first birthday cake is a work of abstract-expressionist art. There is more gypsophila than a 1980s wedding. It's prime fodder for #instaenvy; for accusations of exploitation and implausible perfection. But, insists Whitehead, you would still find dirty dishes in the sink of her modest weatherboard and tile do-up.

"It is my life, but it's not my everyday life," says Whitehead. "At the end of the day, Instagram is just beautiful photos. I don't think it's meant to be depicted as real life."

Instagram, she says, "is the fun, pretty bits". And yes, there are fiscal rewards.

Check out the photo of baby Frankie, sitting on top of a dresser, a small doll of her own on her lap. It scored 1325 likes. The caption reads: "She may be almost one, but she will always be our baby."

So far, so family album. But scroll through the comments, and Whitehead has, in response to reader questions and comments, listed four product placements - from baby shoes to a mirror.

"It is, in a way, making a business out of our lives. But people enjoy looking at inspiring shots of homes, and inspiring shots of children's clothing."

Call it a natural, commercial evolution. Call it narcissism. Call it what you like, but social media is not going away, and parents - in a world where families are created far from whanau, where popping next door to chat to the neighbours is out of the question when the neighbours routinely work 15-hour days - are prime users.

Susan Burns has taught Plunket parenting education courses for over 10 years, and says the parents she meets are influenced by social media in different ways.

"Sometimes it can be helpful - parents who've gone online in the middle of the night and found a supportive Facebook page, and been reassured by finding other parents awake who are feeling the same way. But I've also seen how it can add more pressure, particularly for first-time parents who may get the impression that 'this is how it should be'. Whereas being a good parent isn't about being perfect - trying your best really is good enough ... if your child is loved and cared for, that's all they need.

"We're going to get some things wrong, but that's okay, that's how you learn. Like with other media, what's portrayed on social isn't always real - it's just an image."

With around 10,000 followers, former Auckland model Anna Reeve (nee Fitzpatrick) has, by New Zealand standards, a healthy Instagram audience. But she has gone to the next level with her InstaMumming.

Twin 22-month-old toddlers Oscar and Hunter have their very own "Reeve Nuggets" account. On a recent family trip south, they wear matching blue denim atop a Moeraki boulder; at Halloween they sport just-hatched-baby-dinosaur suits. The account is operated by their mother (Instagram has a legal age requirement of 13 years old) and its aesthetic is cute, but candid.

"I'm taking photos of our life, and our life doesn't exist in front of a white wall," says Reeve.

"We're out in the park, or at the zoo. It's not like I'm styling the photos - it's just my life, and my life doesn't look colour co-ordinated or pretty, because you're in different places doing different things."

That hasn't deterred sponsors. Reeve, 29, says she's accepted a few paid jobs for the twins, and has been very happy to receive free clothes ("it's handy when you're dressing twins!").

Safe to say the homemade ice blocks were a success!

A post shared by Anna Reeve (@annareeve_) on

The twins have been involved with a kids' clothing collaboration, the Reeve Nuggets range, from design company Little Flock of Horrors, with a percentage of sales going to the Neonatal Trust.

Endorsements and payments, says Reeve, are "a very normal thing that people with big social media followings do. It's not like we're making a living off it ... it's just an extra little thing, something I can put in a bank account for them and one day they might be able to have a bit of money to do whatever they want to with."

And, she says, it's "absolutely no different" to child modelling. "People find it strange, because it's new. It's a new medium. But you can have more control.

"When you're modelling, you don't have any control over what you're doing or where they're putting you. This is fully about you, and you have this vision, and can say yes or no."