Clique Bait: Inside Instagram’s Close Friends and Patreon

Some brands and influencers are giving their most dedicated followers a chance to get insider content—for a small fee

Instagram was once the most serene of the social platforms. All arty photos and spare captions, it felt like a true respite from Facebook’s aggressive linking and busy interfaces. But the network grew—it now has more than a billion users—and lately, it’s become a sponsor-cluttered space powered by pitiless pay-to-play algorithms. 

Insta’s current hyper-­commercialized state has some social movers and shakers looking for ways to connect with followers in more meaningful ways while also creating new revenue streams.

Avenues to do just that have been cropping up both on the ’Gram—most notably, Instagram’s Close Friends feature—and off it, on Patreon, a versatile platform for communicating directly with smaller groups of fans, sans ads. Here’s how brands are using both.

Instagram’s Close Friends

The network debuted Close Friends in 2017 as a way for users to self-select a smaller audience for certain pieces of content. Close Friends content is hidden from a feed’s wider audience. 

Influencers have always relied on paid partnerships to monetize their content. But several, including Instagram personality Caroline Calloway (@carolinecalloway), are now charging fans a small fee for placement on their Close Friends list. Brands will likely soon follow suit, dangling discounts, giveaways, and other motivators as incentive to join an inner circle.

For companies, the model is worth exploring. For fees starting at $3 per month, they can offer Close Friends—a concentrated pool of highly motivated clients—discount codes, bonus content, and access to new products, and expect a high degree of engagement in return.


Patreon debuted in 2013 but really started picking up steam last year as a place for thought leaders, makers, ­retailers, and influencers to corral fans willing to “patronize” their brands in exchange for exclusive offerings.

Patreon users typically set up tiers of monthly memberships, with subscriptions as low as $1 a month. One example: Reverie Jewelry, a small brand based in Washington, N.C., has three membership tiers: $1, $5, and $10. For $1, you get behind-the-scenes photos, updates, and news; $5 gets you all that plus a monthly $5 coupon code. The $10 tier delivers news and behind-the-scenes info plus a $10 discount code.

Liz Kantner, owner of the Stay Gold e-commerce shop, set up a Patreon last year to monetize her work for ­jewelry brands. “I love helping emerging designers, but most of them can’t afford my consulting,” she says. Currently, she has 55 designers in her Patreon community who pay $40 a month to join in on weekly Zoom chats, which include interviews with industry experts once a month. She also shares updates and quick tips with members on a private Instagram page. “Designers have been seeking community,” Kantner says.

(Violeta Stoimenova/E+/Getty)

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