For the gram: What it's really like to work as an Irish 'influencer'

Two of Ireland's top Instagram stars, Nicole O' Brien and Louise Cooney, chat about the realities of working as an online content creator
For the gram: What it's really like to work as an Irish 'influencer'

Louise Cooney has over 214k followers on Instagram.

With nearly 2m users nationwide, from President Higgins to Bono, it’s safe to say that Instagram has penetrated nearly every aspect of Irish life.

For some, the social media platform has even become a way of making a living, with brands doling out millions to popular users for promotion on their pages.

Earnings can be pretty high for homegrown beauties here in Ireland, with users like Suzanne Jackson and Rosie Connolly thought to make as much as €1000 per sponsored post.  

‘My life changed overnight'

At one stage, Cork native Nicole O'Brien was gaining 65k followers a day on Instagram.
At one stage, Cork native Nicole O'Brien was gaining 65k followers a day on Instagram.

Cork’s Nicole O’Brien, however, could put them all to shame, with one post to her 826k followers making her $4,000 this year.

“I think paid content is totally acceptable if influencers do it the right way. I only work with brands I like and trust. Everything I post I believe in,” the 25-year-old says. She skyrocketed to fame last year after appearing on Netflix's Too Hot to Handle, which was viewed by over 64 million households worldwide.

“My life changed completely overnight. It went from zero to 100 so quickly I couldn’t believe it. There was a point where I gained up to 65k followers a day,” she says.

The constant notifications made her nervous at first. The Innishannon native had been working as a sales executive in London before the show aired, having moved two years ago following her graduation from UCC. 

She quickly got used to the attention, however, and has tried to use it in a positive way, setting up a self-help platform called with a group of expert psychologists.

“It made me feel a lot of anxiety at first as so many eyes were on me and I didn’t know how to perceive myself on social media. I then decided to just be myself and share my ups and downs with everyone. I wanted to be totally transparent and people loved it,” she says.

“Instagram is essentially how I make most of my money now, it’s my source of income. I’ve been voted the top influencer in Ireland which has been mad. Looking back at just one year ago, I was working in an office.” 

Irish eyes

Travel is a huge perk of Nicole's job.
Travel is a huge perk of Nicole's job.

Nicole made headlines a few months ago when Zalando named her the highest-earning Irish influencer, estimating her earnings at €422k, which isn’t an accurate figure. She is very careful about the brands she works with, only ever promoting products she believes in.

“I first realised I could make Instagram a job just two days after the show aired. I had big brand deals coming in from the likes of Boohoo, Pretty Little Thing, and MissyEmpire,” she says. “Instagram has brought me amazing work opportunities. I’ve had my own clothing line edit with WearWhatSheWore. I’ve also been able to attend events and meet some amazing people.” 

Her main focus at the moment, however, is her music career and rebranding herself as an artist. She just launched her first single Irish Eyes under the name Kole, which hit number one on the iTunes charts.

“I’ve wanted to work in the industry since I was a teenager and I’m a firm believer that you can do anything you put your mind to. I always had it in my mind that I wanted to do TV and influencing and then gradually get into music from there,” she says. The hard part, however, is constantly being in the public eye.

“It can be a blessing and a curse. I love chatting to people from all over the world but with that, you also get opinions from a lot of people about certain things. It’s really important to have thick skin if you want to have a big profile on social media. I’m lucky that nothing phases me anymore but people have to be wary of that. There is a negative view of influencers online and I think it’s gotten worse.”

 ‘A constant hustle’ 

Louise Cooney tries to use her profile for good, such as acting as an ambassador for Pieta House. Picture: Sean Curtin, True Media.
Louise Cooney tries to use her profile for good, such as acting as an ambassador for Pieta House. Picture: Sean Curtin, True Media.

Since Louise Cooney first set up her website in 2015, her name has become synonymous with fashion blogging in Ireland. For her 214k Instagram followers, you just don't talk about Irish Instagram pages without mentioning Louise, who recently tracked her move back to Ireland from New York City for her followers.

Returning to the family home would be a shock to any 28-year-old's system, but especially for someone who left her job in 2017 to make a full-time living out of online content creation. The following eight months in her native Limerick was the longest time she had spent at home since leaving to study communications in DCU at 17.

"At the time I didn't really know what I was going to do or what avenue I was going to go down but being creative, writing, taking photos, putting ideas together; that's what I've always really loved and that's exactly what I do for my job,” Louise says over the phone from her new Dublin city apartment. 

She first moved to the big apple after receiving her MA degree to study as a graduate student with Tourism Ireland. 

Writing about fashion was a no-brainer for Louise, who spent her childhood ripping pages out of magazines. On top of running her blog, she also worked as a correspondent for Teen Vogue and studied a fashion course at Parsons School of Design.

"It was a constant hustle for years," she says. "The thing is though when it's something that you love, it doesn't feel like work. The opportunities it opened up for me were so worth it." After a year, however, the then 24-year-old was forced to make a tough choice.

"It just got to a point where I had to make a decision about [blogging] full-time or giving it up because I just couldn't keep doing both. So I said: Look I get to travel, I can get all these really cool opportunities, even if it only lasts a couple of years. Why not?" 

Louise saved up six months' worth of living expenses and gave up her job, a "calculated risk" as she calls it.  "I'm a little bit of a worrier. You just have to have a lot of faith in what you do though."

She's learned a lot since, from simple things like which months are busiest (December) to how to do her taxes (not so easy to figure out). She also had to learn to block out the many verbal bullets aimed at women online.

"When I started my blog, I was so nervous because I think when it's something you really love, you're more scared of the backlash. I was so scared of what those closest would say. And they did, you know, they said 'what are you doing?' because it's almost until you prove that you're taking it seriously that anybody else will," she says.

"Luckily, people get that now but it was really nerve-wracking. Doing what I do on a daily basis now would have been so difficult back then. The more you do it the easier it gets."

From URL to app

Louise has featured in many Irish campaigns since launching her blog in 2015.  Picture: Keith Wiseman
Louise has featured in many Irish campaigns since launching her blog in 2015.  Picture: Keith Wiseman

Unlike Nicole, Louise’s online fame didn’t happen overnight. In the years since she first started out, she and her fellow post-naughties bloggers have had to make the move from their websites and navigate through the worlds of Youtube, Snapchat, and now, Instagram, slowly gaining followers along the way.

"I used to go on to my website and there would be maybe eight pictures in a post and a big speel to go with it. It's totally changed now. Now it's about snappy 15-second videos and everything has to happen in real-time," she says.

"It's constantly changing. When video first became a thing three years ago, I was so bad at it and I hated it. But you have to move with the times."

A new word for Louise’s job has also emerged that she’s not a huge fan of: influencer. 

"I think it has a negative connotation with it and I think what we do is more than that. Yes, we influence purchases but you can influence people's decisions other than buying things as well, for example donating to a cause, like my work with Pieta House. 

"It shouldn't be considered a totally bad word because it depends on what people are influencing and a lot of Irish influencers do both. They influence for good too. I also share a lot of my life and that's essentially where it started from," Louise says, noting the consequences that can come with that.

“People can be quite harsh. I’ve read things about myself online that are just not very fair or true at times. That can be really hard because it plays on your insecurities, sometimes ones you didn't even know you had."  

When it comes to the crowded online landscape, Louise, who has also been cited as one of Ireland’s highest-earning content creators, says that there isn’t room for people who think of money first.

"There's no reason you should work with brands you don't love. I'd never work with a brand that I don't actually use or support because at the end of the day if your audience can’t trust you and if you're selling something that you can't really stand behind you just won't have longevity in the space. Trust is everything in what we do.”

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