When it comes to Instagram engagement, it’s a dog-eat-dog world
It’s 10AM on a dreary Saturday in a convention center so far on the west side of Manhattan it’s practically in the Hudson River. Twister, a dachshund, and Bender, a small white mutt, have already gotten into it. Bender is running around like someone’s paying him to live up to his name, tripping people with his leash, and knocking over promotional banners for a dog anxiety jacket called Calmz. Twister’s ego is bigger than his body, which means he’s hiding behind his owner’s legs and barking as hard as his chicken-wing-sized lungs will let him.
This is the first PetCon, a celebration of the dogs (and cats and pigs) who have found fame online. It’s a weekend of panels, meet-and-greets, and free Swiffer dusters, organized by The Dog Agency, a marketing and talent agency that only represents pets. The main convention hall is a big empty space with a dog run in the middle of the room, and a doggie red carpet off to the side. There are shih tzus in baby carriages, dachshunds wearing bedazzled sweaters, golden retrievers trying to maintain their composure, and pitbulls trying to get some alone time. There is a cat wearing bespoke sequined sunglasses (@sunglasscat), who flew in from LA this morning, and a two-month-old pig named Hamlet (@hamlet_the_piggy), whose owner recently quit her full-time job to focus on her pet’s career.
Ticket prices for PetCon ranged from $75 for a single-day general admission pass to $300 for a weekend VIP pass. VIP-ers got a separate entrance with early admission, a welcome breakfast, a gift bag, and a designated lounge area. Each day featured four panel discussions with several hours blocked off for “can’t-miss meet-and-greets with your favorite celebrity pets.” The panels landed in two camps: social media hacks (“Building an Instagram Community”), or PSAs about pet ownership (“Special Needs Pets” and “Why Rescue Matters”). Generally, the theme is, you have to know how to love your pets before you can monetize them.
Everyone I meet at PetCon is what you, an amateur, might call a “pet person.” To the attendees, the convention is more like a group of reunited friends, or strangers who will become friends. They’ve traveled here, dogs in tow, from upstate New York, Rhode Island, Georgia, California, and Canada, to improve their own pets’ Instagram game, to pet celeb dogs in the flesh (or fur), and to meet other people like them — people who also saw the PetCon Eventbrite page and immediately bought tickets.
Rochelle Baross, a blogger who runs the financial website The Broke Dog, wasn’t able to bring her terrier mix Henry to PetCon, so she’s carrying around a stuffed version of him in a tote bag. When I ask if she’s here to meet the celebrity dogs, she tells me, “I’m more here to meet dog people.” She isn’t alone: I watch one woman march around the room with photos of her dachshund displayed on her iPhone, ready to show them to anyone who will pay attention. Most people will. She stops to coo over another dachshund in the room (there are about 67 dachshunds here), and then tells his owner she thinks his dog could stand to lose some weight.
The first panel of the event is called “How to Create Content Like the Experts,” featuring Brittni Vega, the human force behind the very popular Harlow and Sage Instagram account (1.2 million followers); Ryan Beauchesne, who runs Crusoe the Celebrity Dachshund’s Instagram (494,000 followers); Elias Weiss Friedman, aka the dog photographer The Dogist (2.8 million followers); and Loni Edwards, founder of The Dog Agency. As a few hundred people and their dogs shuffle into the room, it feels like we’re about to meet the world’s most popular boy band.
“We love you, Loni!” someone yells as the panelists file onstage. The air is electric.
I find a seat, and a Yorkie sitting on the lap of the woman in front of me pops up over her shoulder. “He’s very excited, he wants to meet you,” she says, shoving him into my hands. The dog settles in, content to be anywhere, as long as it’s on a lap. The woman pulls a sticker out of her jacket pocket with her dog’s face on it, and a handle: @yorkieinnewyorkie. “Because he’s a Yorkie and he lives in New York,” she says.
This is the kind of event where you can put your dog in a stranger’s lap and let your attention wander. It’s assumed that if you’re at PetCon, you love animals — they’re the main attraction. So when a few rowdy dogs in the back of the room bark throughout the panel, no one expresses any annoyance. They laugh, and shake their heads: that is so like dogs.
Onstage, Vega, Beauchesene, and Friedman talk about how lucky they are to spend time with dogs that can make more money than a lot of humans (“super lucky”), and give the audience some tips on becoming Instagram-famous. (Beauchesene: “For us, it was trying to translate Crusoe’s actual personality to online.”) Then they move on to the dreaded Instagram algorithm, the first mention of which prompts a wave of nods and grim murmurs. Now that the platform’s feed is no longer chronological, and the algorithm is instead based on some secret sauce of speed and volume of engagement, getting that vaunted “organic reach” is harder than ever. Instagram engagement is a dog-eat-dog world, even if no one at PetCon would ever dare use that phrase.
“Our videos don’t hit the numbers that they used to as quickly as they used to,” Beauchesene admits. To combat the problem, he recently started a Facebook group just for Crusoe superfans. The 2,000 members act like a volunteer army, dutifully sharing whatever Crusoe shares, which helps boost engagement quickly.
Friedman is optimistic, because “dogs are very emotional for people,” and he doesn’t think that feeling is going away anytime soon. “When you photograph animals or dogs, they don’t say, ‘Oh, my nose looks big,’ or ‘Can I see the picture?’” he says. The implication, repeated several times over the course of this day, is that dogs are better than us — both at social media, and in general.
When the panel ends, the line to meet Harlow’s dachshund brother Reese (Sage actually died four years ago, but his name is a non-negotiable part of the brand) is already snaking around the main convention hall. Dana Schweer, the woman standing at the front of the line, has been there for around an hour and a half. She’s confident the wait will be worth it.
PetCon isn’t just about meeting and greeting your heroes. Some people are here to network. Julie Vastola, whose teacup pomeranian Penny (@pompenny) has about 20,000 Instagram followers, is here in search of insider tips on how to increase that number.
“I was pushing Penny way too much on my own Instagram,” Vastola says. “So we started one for her, and she got all these followers. And then there was one day where someone came up to her on the street and said, ‘Is that Pompenny?’ and we were like, ‘Oh my God, we can do this for real.’” Vastola, who works in digital marketing at a record label, says Penny has gotten a few brand deals since then, but it’s nothing compared to what the big stars are making.
Arturo Rosales hands me a business card for his hairless Xoloitzcuintli, whose name is Xolo. (Which is like naming your pet pug Pug.) On the card, Rosales describes himself as Xolo’s “representative.” Xolo’s Instagram account only had 226 followers as of the convention, but Rosales is here to spread the word; he posted photos of Xolo at PetCon 15 times throughout the day.
All day, there are celebrity dogs barking and running around and tripping me, and I keep failing to show the appropriate amount of awe when I meet them. I run into Sparkles the Shih Tzu (@sparklesthediva), who I learn has more than 50,000 Instagram followers. (Her owner tells me she’s “kinda famous.”) Sparkles is sitting on a silk cushion inside a stroller, wearing a ballerina bun that appears to be made of fake hair. I also meet Englebert (@wolfgang2242), an extremely old and rickety-looking chihuahua with 719,000 Instagram followers on an account he shares with other “senior” dogs. Englebert keeps falling asleep while adoring fans are petting him, prompting his owner to repeat a kind of mantra: “Wake up, Englebert! Wake up, Englebert!” I meet Chase the pitbull, who has an alter-ego named Carl (@sometimesCarl), and King Bentley (@kingbentleythebulldog) who doesn’t seem to care at all that his meet-and-greet line is the shortest in the room.
When the day is over, I head outside into the rain, exhausted and covered in dog hair. PetCon is one of the most persistently joyful events I’ve ever been to, and that tone is reflected in these dogs’ well-curated internet personas. Online, millions of people know the smallest details about how these pets live, or think they do. And because pets don’t have political opinions, socially conditioned bad habits, or petty streaks, they’ll never disappoint their fans.
But the darker side of this fandom is that now, even other people’s pets can breed a low-simmering jealousy: their lives are smoother, silkier, and more comforting than our own. They’re cuter than us, too, and their cuteness can translate directly into hefty salaries, if leveraged correctly. And there’s another implication here: owners who fail to leverage their pets’ cuteness to a respectable follower count, or who don’t even attempt to leverage it at all, might be seen as lacking entrepreneurial spirit, or even sufficient adoration for their pets.
And parenting a celebrity pet comes with its own set of difficulties. At one panel, Ella Bean the Dog’s owner, Hilary Sloan, reminds the audience that “Ella’s jetset lifestyle,” in which she takes luxurious bubble baths and sips hot cocoa in bed, isn’t exactly what it seems like. “I make it appear like that’s what she’s doing on Instagram, but really, I’m in meetings all day,” she says. A famous pet gives fans an escape from the grind, but that escape might not always extend to their owners.
On the sidewalk outside the convention center, I take a deep breath of industrial 11th Avenue air and sidestep three adorable French bulldogs, genetically engineered for cuteness, taking a well-deserved pee break. It’s not a very Instagram-worthy moment. But at least here, just outside of PetCon, there’s proof that even the biggest animal influencers still get to live their normal lives behind the scenes.