Every day, Karen Lee must confront a tricky marketing dilemma for her year-old business, Just Because. She and her cofounder help (mostly) men plot romantic marriage proposals in an effort to “bridge the gender gap of expectations.” But their potential clients are understandably secretive about their intentions to propose, which make them an elusive target on social media. Rather than reach out to them directly, Lee instead lures them via a system of digital breadcrumbs.
Her process is simple: She opens up Instagram search and types in one of your standard marital hashtags — #bestproposalever, #hejustasked, #shesaidyes, or #isaidyes, for instance — and an endless stream of dudes on one knee pops up. Then she starts commenting from her business’s account.
“It’s usually just like ‘congrats’ or ‘gorgeous,’” Lee, who’s based in Vancouver, told me. “Something super generic that’s one word, that applies to a lot of content.”
A one-word comment is usually enough to spark curiosity. As Lee explains, the newly engaged couple’s friends might see the post and click through to the Just Because page, the beginning of what could be a three-hour trip down a wedding-themed rabbit hole. If they like what they see, Lee says they’ll @ their boyfriends to drop a hint.
“If she’s getting engaged, that means her friends are probably going to get engaged, too,” she said. “So it’s kind of a trickle-down effect.”
So far, her efforts have paid off. Her strategy has drawn almost 200 followers to her account within the span of three days, including more interactions on her posts. The results have been so promising that she soon plans to use a program called Instagress, a bot that comments, likes, and follows Instagram accounts based on specific hashtags, to automate the process.
Though the comment-as-advertisement (let’s call it the “comvertisement”) has long been a part of Instagram’s social fabric, it has recently emerged as a boon to the platform’s burgeoning network of wedding vendors, who range from dress designers to proposal planners like Lee. If Pinterest is a place for fastidious brides to curate mood boards in a bubble, Instagram has become its clandestine foil, a collection of image-based leads to tap through until a bride lands on her ideal photographer or baker. As a result, independent bridal businesses are now mining the network for customers via geotags, hashtags, and emoji, all in hopes of cashing in on a network of young, social-media-savvy lovers. In the free-for-all underground economy of Instagram, life’s most precious moments are fair game.
To understand how this market bloomed, it’s important to first know about a very specific Instagram genre — that of the romantic proposal story. They usually go like this: A woman posts a professionally taken photo of her standing awestruck before her boyfriend on one knee. Maybe their impossibly fit silhouettes are framed by the base of the Eiffel Tower, a baseball stadium, or a soft Hawaiian sunset. The image is accompanied by a breathless run-on sentence explaining the proposal, its incredible thoughtfulness, and the uncontainable glee of being able to marry a “best friend.” Maybe there’s a shout-out to the photographer at the end, with their handle. The post has, at minimum, a bajillion likes.
Though you’ve probably seen a breed of this post show up in your feed, Insta-proposals are popular enough that entire accounts are dedicated to crowdsourcing them. There’s the original @howheasked account (which has about 457,000 followers and is run by a website of the same name), @wedding.proposals (201,000 followers), @hisperfectproposal (12,700 followers), and a smattering of other bridal-themed accounts that trail off into specific genres. Stacy Tasman, the creator of the How He Asked website, began collecting and sharing proposals almost five years ago on her site, and eventually launched an Instagram account to widen her audience. The posts are appealing, she says, because they strike the same emotional chord that a cute baby photo might.
“There are just really romantic, amazing stories,” she told me. “They’re emotional. They’re inspiring, and a lot of times there are details that make them very unique.”
Tasman supports the costs of her website with advertisements from stationary companies, registries, and jewelers. But she also recognizes that an entirely separate ecosystem of customer and vendor interactions exists in the comment section of her Instagram posts. Chief among them is a new way for significant others to gently nudge their girlfriends or boyfriends into popping the question (and doing it the right way).
“Instagram is used for hint-dropping a lot simply because of the way that people are having these casual conversations,” she said. “Most of the comments are tagging someone else, and then 10 words of text. They don’t need anything more than the image to show, ‘Hey, this is what I want.’ The conversations that take place on social media help you hide from a more serious conversation.”
The information built into each post makes Instagram a hugely valuable platform to bridal photographers, designers, and planners, especially when it comes to finding newly engaged couples by location. They can easily search the platform based on an area by using hashtags like #californiawedding or #brooklynbride or geotags (Tasman always makes sure to tag a proposal location when she can). Vendors can even search Instagram based on emoji tags that are typically associated with proposal posts, the most popular of which, Tasman says, are the ring emoji, emoji couples, and the kissy face. (In fact, a caption with a ring emoji was all it took for a recently engaged friend of mine to be targeted by a local Brooklyn baker.)
“So if it was in Sonoma County and a vendor is based there, they might want to see who the bride is that we tagged, and direct-message the bride,” she said. “There’s tons of ways to reach out to people who view our designs, whether through geo-targeting or hashtags to a potential client.”
For Veronica Wong — a 27-year-old who started a new wedding-cake topper business with her sister a month ago, and has already begun lurking in proposal photo comments — this phenomenon is a progression of what has been a long tradition of the newly engaged humblebrag.
“It’s definitely been more widespread because of social media,” she told me. “But weddings have been featured in magazines for a number of years. This is sort of a way for brides to be more accessible to the wedding blogs and the wedding magazines. They could get a single feature versus an entire magazine spread.”
Whatever the reason, Wong is here for it, congratulating away in the comments.