The Raw Profile of an Insta-Famous Pooch

Influencer marketing has become a rising trend. If you’re not familiar with the term, influencers are opinion leaders who are effective among their niche – people who are looked up to by their peers and therefore capable of influencing someone’s opinion about a particular object. Talking from personal opinion, I have become highly sceptical of products recommended by these so-called ‘online personalities’. I mean, where do you start from when determining whether their reviews of products are genuine suggestions or a shameless promotion?

Personally, my image library is a poor excuse for an attempt at photography. Regardless of how many shots I seem to take of my steaming rack of ribs – all I’m left with at the end of the session is dark, shoddy pictures and a cold plate of mush. So I wonder, are the beautifully coordinated images on an influencer’s feed a case of pure talent or a flagrant set-up? I caught up with Melissa Manthos (yes, like the mints) to get an insight of life as an influencer.

Melissa is head of the social media sector at Switch Digital & Brand if there’s anyone who knows what’s it like to build an organic following – it’s her. While Melissa leads a reasonably interesting life, being a travel nomad with a widely diverse genetic pool, her Instagram lead labels her as Simba The Lab Pointer’s Human. That’s right. In the morning Melissa manages her clients’ social media pages – by night, she handles her dog’s Instagram page.

Simba is a beautiful Lab-Pointer who enjoys food, naps and belly rubs – essentially he’s the perfect companion and the love of Melissa’s life. Simba’s page was launched in 2016, when Simba was just 5 months old, and since then has won over the hearts of around 8,000 people. Melissa is very transparent with regards to Simba’s page, in fact Simba’s lead invites companies and brands to contact him (or rather, his human) for collaboration offers. Seeing this, I decided to ask Melissa what goes behind maintaining a dog’s image on social media in the 21st Century.

Q1 – How did Simba’s profile come about?

Melissa first met Simba when she agreed to foster an orphan puppy. Melissa and Daniel, her boyfriend, mutually decided this would be a short-term thing, “just until he finds a home,” they said…Needless to say, the couple fell in love with the pup – they don’t call them puppy eyes for nothing!  Melissa recalls always wishing for a dog when Christmas came about as a kid. This had always been her dream and she was determined not to miss a moment! As Melissa’s maternal instincts kicked in, so did the influx of pictures being sent to her family and friends. “The first few photos of him as a puppy were a hit, but that soon died out…at some point, all my loved ones started complaining about the constant spam on my end. But if there’s one thing I know is: puppies grow up fast, and photos just help you freeze the moment for a while longer. But I guess I can’t blame them – 15 photos a day were a bit much…” Melissa figured she’d create an Instagram page for Simba – as a means of documentation. The page primarily had to serve as a digital album but deep down, Melissa knew cute pets were a hit on social media.

Q2 – How did you grow your page to almost 8k followers?

Melissa said at first she didn’t believe the page would grow to such an extent, in fact, she didn’t dedicate much time to it. Every time she’d log in to upload a new picture, she’d notice her page had increased by a substantial amount of followers. At some point, she noticed she had built a following of loyal users – this led her to discover the potential of the page. Melissa admits to dedicating 2 hours daily to working on the Instagram page. Apart from using trending hashtags, which she knew would reach the animal-loving community, she’d mainly focus on engaging with other users. “Any dog pictures I’d see, I’d like and comment on. I knew that would notify the page owner and make them notice me. I couldn’t expect people to find Simba’s page out of nowhere…” 6 months of consistent engagement would earn her around 50-100 followers a day. She also used to follow a consistent posting schedule in order to keep her posting regular. Of course, she realised this process is easier said than done but Melissa works on social media on a daily basis. “I eat, drink and bathe in, social media. Simba’s profile allowed me to test out curiosities I had about the online audience”.

Q3 – So would you say you maintain Simba’s page for personal gain or does Simba get something out of it?

“Any money I get from his page goes to his ‘piggy bank’” Melissa reassured me. The money Simba’s profile brings in, helps Melissa buy him the best quality food and toys.  Melissa also says Simba’s Instagram page has brought about recognition from the Maltese community. “His page actually got featured on Lovin’ Malta a few months ago. Nowadays, we’d be on a walk in Sliema, and people would stop me to ask if he’s the dog from Instagram. It gets him quite a few belly rubs.”

Q4 – I’ve noticed you’ve featured New York’s Best, Ben and Jerry’s as well as Fat Louie’s before. Would you consider yourself an influencer now that you’ve hit the 8k milestone?

Although exposure was good fun for a while, Melissa admits that 2 hours got a bit much and stopped dedicating time to the page last summer. “Once I reached 7000 followers, I just kind of stopped. Now I’m back to the slow incline.” Melissa still regularly uploads images of Simba but it has gone back to serving as a documentation of Simba’s goofery rather than an influential page. “Whenever you see Simba’s page promoting a product, it’s usually a collaboration with another company. I don’t care much about monetary gain, though. I would never promote products that don’t suit my values or go against what I want for my own dog.” Simba’s followers don’t care much for these products, though; they just want to see cute dog photos. So Simba’s page might not be the most ideal platform for promoting such products. Melissa says her promoting of locations such as Jubilee and Pizza Hut is in no way sponsored content. “I’ve never been contacted by locations per se. My aim is to encourage dog friendly places. I understand why people might not want dogs in their restaurants, but I appreciate places that allow dogs in and I like to give them a shoutout for it.”

Q5 – Do you ever find yourself sacrificing a moment to shoot images of Simba? Have you ever sacrificed a raw emotion to capture the moment?

I asked Melissa this question because it’s not the first time I break the flow of the moment to take a photo. My boyfriend would be looking at me lovingly one second, and the next – he’d be met by my camera lense. Melissa found this relatable to some extent. “It’s not the first time I stop eating to take a photo of Simba squinting at the sun. But it’s not for Instagram and the followers. I would just want to record that moment.” In a way, this helps Melissa keep her content genuine as she captures the moment as it happens rather than trying to recreate it with dangling treats and shameless contraptions. “I’m not one to force Simba to strike a pose. I genuinely don’t believe you can make a dog look adorable. They just are. At most, I’ve hidden treats under a plate of pancakes to make Simba look at the food wide-eyed. Of course, it’s not the pancakes he cared for but the treats.”

Q6 – Do you receive criticism on Simba’s profile? Does it offend you or do you distance yourself seeing as they’re not about you specifically?

“Oh I get a lot of that – everyday,” Melissa confessed. Turns out, she has been accused numerous times of harming her dog. Regardless, she doesn’t hold a grudge against any of the sceptics. “I get it. They don’t know what’s behind the camera – how he’s wagging his tail between shots, they’re just looking out for him. But I know I love my dog so I don’t let their criticism get to me.” Melissa shared with me a particular occasion when she took a photo of Simba wearing a sweater. The photo received a fair amount of backlash and Melissa was accused of animal cruelty. Melissa confided that Simba has very short fur and therefore tends to feel very cold. Every winter, as soon as she brings out the sweater, Simba runs up to it to put it on. Apart from judgment, Melissa has also received insults based on the appearance of her dog. “Black dogs are subject to a lot of stigma. I’ve had people cross the road when they see Simba on his walk. I’ve had others call him ugly to my face. It’s not nice, he’s my baby, you know?”

Q7 – What is your ultimate goal with this page?

Ultimately, Melissa wants to conceive an increasingly dog-friendly island. She strongly believes aggressive dogs don’t exist but are made aggressive through ill treatment and poor training. While Melissa took the initiative to instruct herself in dog training, she understands that not everyone might have the time for it and offers to give dog training tips for free to anyone who contacts her over Simba’s page. Melissa would also love to see an increase in dog-friendly beaches. Whilst some already exist in Malta, they’re all rocky beaches which she noticed Simba finds intimidating. Melissa tries to achieve her objectives by fostering a humorous, light-hearted page in hopes of bringing happiness to Simba’s followers.

Q8 – Now, with 930 followers, you have dedicated time for #MelWrites on your own Instagram. What do you have in the works for your own page?

Melissa stresses that influencer marketing is taken for granted – she insisted that a lot of work goes behind it and that she doesn’t have the time for it. She referred to MelWrites as a content stream that’s very close to her heart. Melissa shared her love for journaling. In fact, she started keeping a diary at 6 years of age and has upkept her documentation since then. While she initially considered starting a blog, she knew it would be a lot of work and decided to test the idea on Instagram. Melissa boasted about the good feedback it has been getting. “Essentially, I went against Instagram’s purpose as an image platform. It was interesting to see how people received my entries.”

Seeing as Melissa was mentioning people’s feedback a lot, I followed up my question, asking if people’s opinions affected the content she shared. “No, not at all. I don’t care. If anyone doesn’t like my writing, they can choose not to read it. I just like to observe how people receive long captions on Instagram seeing as the platform was not created for words but for imagery.”

 If you’d like to follow a friendly pupper, you can find Simba on Instagram (@simbathelabpointer), or alternatively, you can follow Melissa’s account (@melissamanthos) to read raw accounts of Mel’s life. Regardless of the platform, Melissa encourages you to reach out to her should you wish for any help or advice for your pet dog.

– Lindsey