It was still dark on a recent Tuesday morning when the photographers began gathering in the lobby of Sutton Tower, an Upper East Side skyscraper that was still under construction. By the time the sun had broken over the Manhattan skyline, 30 of them were snapping away in the penthouse, creating social media content for a combined following of nearly two million.
Marketers have for years chased trendsetters who can shape consumer behavior with their recommendations, and influencers have used that demand to trade targeted posts for perks.
That’s true in real estate, too, where celebrities have peddled hashtagged images of luxury condos in exchange for payouts and swag. Just a few years ago, brokers were hiring models to attend open-house parties and paying people like the actress Tavi Gevinson in exchange for highly filtered photos hawking their properties.
But the currency of these transactions is shifting. Today, the exchanges are more low-key, and cash rarely changes hands. Instead, developers simply offer niche influencers entry to their towers, and in return they get a direct line to a more targeted audience.
At high-rises across the country, photographers, musicians and others are increasingly aligning their Instagram and TikTok accounts with these developers. For some, especially those who once had to resort to high jinks just to gain access to Manhattan’s most exclusive buildings, it’s now enough to be let in the front door.
“You’re definitely giving free advertising,” said Gregory Berg, a freelance photographer who has nearly 60,000 followers on Instagram, where his photos regularly feature skyline views and unique angles. He was invited to Sutton Tower along with other photographers with modest social media followings, and was happy to accept the invitation, despite its early start time.
“I’ve been rooftopping and climbing buildings for years,” Mr. Berg said. “To not have to climb scaffolding and just be able to ride up in the elevator to enjoy the perspective is nice.”
Sutton Tower, a 121-residence condominium designed by the Danish architect Thomas Juul-Hansen, is the tallest residential building on the East River waterfront. When sales open formally this month, developers hope to sell the duplex penthouse for $70 million.
But the penthouse is not yet for sale, which was an exciting prospect for Joe Thomas, a photographer with nearly 150,000 Instagram followers. Mr. Thomas, whose recent work includes the December cover of Condé Nast Traveler, specializes in perspective-shifting images of New York architecture. He said the invitation to Sutton Tower had presented an opportunity rare enough to wake up early for.
“It’s about the access,” he said. “Once this building is completed, unless you own it or you’re friends with the person who owns it, you’re never going to see this view again.”
“Social media is really crucial to marketing luxury developments right now,” said Beth Fisher, who leads sales and marketing for Sutton Tower.Credit…Gabby Jones for The New York Times
“Social media is really crucial to marketing luxury developments right now,” particularly because the pool of potential buyers shrinks as prices increase, said Beth Fisher, who leads sales and marketing for Sutton Tower. “The reason we are specifically doing it here now is because we are just bringing this property to market.”
An endorsement from a trusted influencer can carry significantly more impact than traditional advertising. In a study from Matter Communications, 61 percent of respondents said they were more likely to be swayed by the recommendations of an influencer than by content created by a brand itself.
Aside from coffee and a modest spread of doughnuts, the photographers at Sutton Tower received no compensation for their time. They all understood that they were allowed to keep any images they shot, but they were expected to post at least a handful to their social media channels, with hashtags and geotags that identified the building.
Having no money exchange hands is the new standard in these arrangements, said Dan Tubb, sales director for the Towers of the Waldorf Astoria, a 375-unit residential development being built alongside New York’s Waldorf Astoria hotel, where homes are priced at $1.825 million to $18.5 million. While he waits for the property to open in 2024, Mr. Tubb is regularly working with influencers, he said, a strategy that has had a “quantifiable, major impact” on both inquiries and sales.
The Waldorf has been actively including influencers in its marketing strategy since November 2019. Since then, its Instagram followers have increased 32 percent, a spokeswoman said.
In May, the Waldorf brand invited Aysedeniz Gokcin, a Turkish pianist with 105,000 followers on Instagram, to come to New York and film herself playing Cole Porter’s historic original Steinway grand piano, which sits in the Waldorf’s sales gallery. She was joined by her fellow Turkish performer Kaan Sekban, who has more than 500,000 Instagram followers, and together the duo sang Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York.”
It was more than a fun stunt. Waldorf was carefully tracking traffic from the event, and it was pleased by the social media impressions — more than 1.5 million — that were generated.
Ms. Gokcin bristles at the term “influencer” — a classically trained pianist, she stayed at the Waldorf Astoria hotel at age 11 when she traveled from Turkey to audition at the Juilliard School, and she said the opportunity to collaborate with the brand was a personal thrill.
“It wasn’t transactional,” she said. “Touching a piano that is so legendary was magical.”
Influencer marketing, a $24 billion industry, has been spreading across TikTok, Instagram and Facebook for more than a decade, with beauty, fashion and sports brands some of its earliest and most eager adopters. Residential real estate, where traditional advertising channels of print marketing, billboards and word of mouth have long dominated, has been slower to warm to the idea.
But during the pandemic, the trend gained a foothold in Florida, which had a more laissez-faire approach to Covid-19 restrictions than other states and where an influx of new residents — nearly 1,000 every day in the pandemic’s early months, according to some estimates — was followed by a boom in luxury construction and sales. In 2021, the number of multifamily properties sold in South Florida totaled $11.4 billion, more than double the previous sales record, $5.5 billion, in 2016.
“We’re seeing this a ton in Miami, where new buildings will pop up and they get a ton of influencers to post content from parties inside an apartment that’s not even on the market yet,” said Austin Cohen, a co-founder of 456 Growth, a marketing consultancy. “For influencers, a key part of their business is being seen as always on the go and at the most desirable places. And for companies, this helps slash their marketing budgets.”
But it’s not always free. Some developers, particularly in neighborhoods where their luxury projects may drive up rents, are leaning on influencers from the local community, paying them consultancy fees in exchange for positive posts.
Domain Companies, the developer of Estela, a two-building luxury residential complex in the South Bronx, hired Amaurys Grullon, a local artist and entrepreneur whose Instagram account has 49,000 followers, to make real-world introductions to businesses in the neighborhood. The goal is to find businesses in the area to form a partnership with so that Estela is seen as building community, said Matthew Schwartz, a co-chief executive and co-founder of Domain, and Mr. Grullon’s targeted posts play a crucial role in that.
Mr. Grullon, who said he would be delighted to also earn a discount on a condo in Estela when it opened in 2023, is opposed to the term “gentrification,” and says that by teaming up with a developer, he is working to make sure locals can benefit from changes in the neighborhood.
“We deserve beautiful things in our neighborhoods,” he said. “We’ve seen how things have been done in the past, when developers come here and fail. So we’re changing the narrative now, and making sure it includes the community.”
Mr. Schwartz said the partnership was a no-brainer.
“We’re coming into the neighborhood, and here’s an influencer who has a small business that’s all about promoting the neighborhood,” he said. “We’re always looking to build good will.”