This is a great story from the Atlantic. Aspiring Instagram influencers are posting product placement style photos, typically in the fashion and lifestyle space. But without any payment from a client. 

Why? The simple answer is that you've got to start somewhere. And by borrowing a product and a recognised logo you're hitching a ride on the reputation and reach of Nike, Tesla or Balenciaga for example. So begins your journey up the ladder of influencerdom.

At first hearing it sounds pretty desperate. And the common response is to knock influencers (and Instagram) for their shallow world view. Think about it again, however, and there is a massive opportunity for brands, especially small and medium-sized ones.

In my current role, when we had a small Instagram following, getting our social-ambassador program up and running was hard work. We wanted real customers to supply photos and captions that were authentic, and that we could publish in our feed (not just to stories where the quality threshold for content is lower).

But in 12 months, we grew our audience from 600 to 20,000. And once we tipped over the magic 10k mark, we suddenly started getting more and more inbound requests from customers who wanted to star in our feed.

Picture quality? Most were good. Really good. We gave them guidelines and tips on lighting and composition. But today's aspiring Instagram star is camera-savvy to the point where it's getting hard, at least on a mobile, to tell the difference between a professional portrait and high quality selfie. 

And the customer demographic? Most are young, photogenic and stylish. What else would you expect? Not all of them had a huge audience, but most could tell a unique tale about how learning a language had changed their life. For some it was getting the job of their dreams, others found friends and even partners by speaking German, French, English or Spanish. 

Surprise, surprise, these were some of our most engaging posts with existing customers and prospects alike. We saw corresponding spikes in social and organic traffic to our website as well. All warm and fuzzy thanks to our Instagram stars.

In six months, or a year, maybe we'll be talking to some of them via an agent, rather than their private gmail account. But until then we're happy to give them a lift up those first few rungs, and share their stories. We've both got much to gain. Take a look at your audience in Instagram. Maybe you should do the same?