Southeastern Connecticut under influence of social media

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When local restaurant owner Tai Au opened her newest Mystic establishment last summer, she knew she wanted to hire a social media influencer to help promote the business. She had seen the tactic used on Instagram and, with a new restaurant, it was the perfect time to try.

The premise was simple: Jean Michael Coronado, a handsome weight-loss coach and up-and-coming local influencer with 8,700 Instagram followers under the user name @jmichael1106, would post a photo promoting the restaurant, Samurai Noodle Bar & Grill.

Wearing tight jeans and a “Lilo & Stitch” T-shirt, Coronado playfully posed in front of the restaurant's red façade with noodles hanging from his mouth. Below the photo he wrote in all caps: “GIVEAWAY TIME!”

“I have partnered with @samurainoodlemystic ... so you can enjoy the hottest ramen noodle restaurant in town,” he continued, before describing the rules: follow Samurai's Instagram page and like the post in order to win.

It was a quick and easy marketing win for Au: With more than 1,650 likes and over 100 comments, Samurai’s Instagram page instantly gained hundreds of new followers.

In the context of southeastern Connecticut, Au is just one of several local business owners — and one local city — working with social media influencers to help promote themselves on Instagram, a national trend starting to pick up steam throughout the region.

Au, who hired Coronado six months after Samurai opened, said that for more than a decade she has relied heavily on radio advertising to promote her other restaurants, such as Mystic’s Pink Basil and Niantic’s Spice Club.

But now, she said she is saving about $5,000 per month after canceling those advertising contracts — suddenly unnecessary expenditures, given her growing social media following.

With 450 followers on her Samurai Instagram page, Au said that, instead of the mass radio ads, she can directly post to her clientele, updating them about the restaurant’s meals and specials, as well as upcoming happy hour and theme nights.

Social media marketing is “the way of the future,” Au said, “and because of it, business has been more steady.”

For businesses looking for a new way to market themselves, social media marketers “are a very progressive and forward-thinking idea to consider,” said Nicole Daversa, head of marketing at Daversa Partners, a tech head hunting firm with a branch in Waterford.

An Instagram user with a large following can instantly expose a business, place, clothing brand or product to thousands of people at once, Daversa said. Pay the right influencer, and a business can tap into a specific demographic interested in makeup, food or fitness.

For several local businesses, that desired demographic largely comes down to younger millennials and Generation Z-ers who are hard to reach through traditional forms of advertising like print and radio.

But that’s where people like Coronado come in.

A 28-year-old former model from Spain and Peru, Coronado moved to the Whaling City in 2011 to attend Connecticut College and is one of a few up-and-coming paid influencers living in the region.

Others here include Samer Delgado, @fitnessblazt on Instagram, who has nearly 59,000 followers after having competed on “American Ninja Warrior” television show in 2017, and Pedro Lopez, @dro.lopez on Instagram, a new androgynous fashion influencer just starting out. Separate from Delgado and Lopez, however, Coronado focuses on promoting local businesses as well as big-name brands.

Of his eclectic client list, Coronado has been paid $200 to $500 per post to promote Vineyard Vines on his page, as well as the dating app Scruff. Locally, he’s partnered with Mystic Aquarium and Island Pursuit in Mystic and Spark Makerspace in New London. Soon, he’ll sign a three-month contract with Norwich’s Community Development Corporation to promote the city, its restaurants and festivals through dozens of posts.

Working as a director and weight-loss coach for the Incredible Weight Loss Center of New London, Coronado first gained an Instagram following promoting fitness and health. But he also dreamt of starting his own fashion brand.

Officially branding himself as Jean Michael, Coronado registered his influencer business with the City of New London last March.

Besides his eye-catching, colorful and often silly Instagram posts promoting “living life to the fullest” and “having fun,” Coronado also holds the keys to that valuable demographic businesses are looking to reach. Of his followers, Coronado said the majority are 18- to 25-year-olds living in the region.

Not just kids glued to phones

Keeping a close eye on those sorts of social media trends is Mystic Aquarium’s social media manager, Adam Cilley, who recently worked with Coronado on an Instagram post promoting National Penguin Awareness Day.

Cilley said that though the aquarium has a strong following of mothers in their late 20s and early 30s, the aquarium also recently has been “trying to expand our demographics more,” considering social media influencers as one of many options to do so.

As one example, Cilley said the aquarium invited Amy Bruni of TLC’s “Kindred Spirit” to take over the aquarium’s Instagram account, which boasts over 21,000 followers, for a day last fall.

“I wouldn’t say Coronado is popular in our niche, but he is in the niche of southeastern Connecticut,” Cilley said. “So we looked at his content and the type of following he has, and we liked what we saw.”

That post, which features Coronado holding a stethoscope to a penguin, attracted more than 1,500 likes and gained the aquarium a “slightly-higher-than-average” new follower count for that day, Cilley said.

“Influencers have been something on the top of our mind with us for a while now. It is a national trend and it is something we are going to keep looking into going into 2019,” Cilley said.

According to recent data from Nielsen, an American information, data and measurement company, influencer marketing is "more effective than traditional advertising" and ever growing.

Nielsen cited two contributing factors to that trend: 1) influencer marketing “truly” engages individuals and 2) individuals are more likely to trust what’s being endorsed to them by an influencer, rather than a typical advertisement flashed to them while internet browsing.

“And it’s not just the kids who are glued to their phones anymore," Daversa said, explaining the breadth of demographics that can be reached through influencers. "All the generations, from Gen. X to Gen. Z, are now on social media and Instagram.”

Instagram, more than other social media platforms, works especially well for influencers, Daversa said. Besides its visual appeal, the platform is great for promoting experiences to be had, rather than money to be spent.

“When you bring in an influencer that is able to highlight a really cool, interactive experience in an area, it will obviously drive traffic to that page or area,” Daversa said. “And that’s why I’d imagine Coronado is so appealing to these local businesses. He is fun and promotes that idea for them.”

"Pump up the volume and make it fun"

Latching on to that is Jill Fritzsche, vice president of Norwich’s Community Development Corporation, a quasi-public economic development group working for the city. Of the corporation’s many goals, the NCDC is tasked with promoting downtown Norwich and developing incoming businesses, while attracting future generations to support business in town.

“That’s an important part of our larger plan, and that’s where Jean Michael will come in,” Fritzsche said, explaining that Norwich “is an international city, and a fun, safe place to go out.”

“We want people to know that we exist, too, that they can come out here for a good time,” Fritzsche said.

She said NCDC will sign a three-month contract with Coronado in coming weeks to promote the city. Whether it’s a restaurant, a festival, or going out for a drink at night, Coronado will post about various establishments or events that define Norwich, Fritzsche said.

“He is going to be able to directly reach that Generation Z demographic that we are looking to bring into the city,” Fritzsche continued. “And he will highlight Norwich through his posts, through his eyes and through his generation’s eyes.”

Fritzsche could not disclose how much Coronado is being paid but funding will come from NCDC and not from the City of Norwich, she said. There will also be a possibility to extend Coronado’s contract, should the first three months go well.

Aside from Coronado’s obvious local and young following, Fritzsche thinks Coronado also will easily pique the interest of nonfollowers, or those simply browsing social media, especially young people visiting nearby casinos, through various tags and hashtags.

“We have to introduce the fun factor in Norwich. You won’t get young people or millennials to come into a community if they don’t think a place is fun,” Fritzsche said. “This is about creating the fun and that’s what influencers do. They take normal experiences and pump up the volume and make it fun.”

m.biekert@theday.com

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