Like a lot of singers, Piper Rockelle has a link at the top of her TikTok profile page where her over 8 million followers can check out her music. But instead of sending them to YouTube or Spotify, the link opens up an external landing page crammed with a little bit of everything. Splashed across a looping clip of Rockelle is a stack of hyperlinked blocks that direct fans to her merch store, her tour schedule, and her latest music video. You'll also find a "love jar" that lets her accept tips, an "Ask Me Anything" form, an app where you can pay to pitch a dare for Rockelle to complete, and a private social feed that fans can unlock by either sending money or correctly answering a trivia question.
All of that is contained within Rockelle's "link-in-bio"--one of the most coveted pieces of real estate on Instagram and TikTok. Both of the platforms are hyperlink deserts: Users can post only one or two external links anywhere on the sites, and the most important appears, yes, in the bio at the top of their profile. But why link to just one page if you don't really have to? For a few years now, start-ups have attempted to maximize the space, offering clean, simple landing pages that stack multiple links on top of one another.
They're not so simple anymore. An explosion of companies sporting names such as Shorby, Linkin.bio, Beacons, Tab Bio, and Koji--Rockelle's tool of choice--are giving the link-in-bio a glow-up. Instead of just housing links, link-in-bios now allow their users to, say, embed a Spotify song, paywall a newsletter, and display NFTs (non-fungible tokens). These upgrades are turning the humble link-in-bio into a sprawling interactive page that rivals the capabilities of full websites. Link-in-bios aren't maturing all on their own: Influencers are now leveraging their followings to build ever more sophisticated business juggernauts that include merch, brand sponsorships, and music releases. For these Instagram and TikTok stars, a stripped-down page of lists just doesn't cut it anymore.
If you know one link-in-bio company by name, it's probably Linktree. The company, which told me that it currently has more than 20 million users, popularized the link-in-bio and has become an unavoidable part of social media. Though Linktree is most common on Instagram and TikTok, its minimalist pages pop up everywhere and have come to define the look and feel of all other link-in-bios. Major influencers and news sites use Linktree, but so do more regular users promoting their artwork or their acting reels. In a study done for The Atlantic, the web-analytics firm Parse.ly estimated that Linktree links account for nearly half of all the link-in-bio traffic on Instagram.
And yet Linktree is now cramming those links with new features. Over the past year, Linktree has introduced tip jars that integrate with PayPal and Square, partnered with the merch brand Spring to allow influencers to sell swag directly from their link-in-bios, and acquired a music-links company that offers better analytics and song previewing than Linktree itself. It also partnered with Shopify, a company that builds e-commerce stores for websites, to let influencers and brands add their product catalog to their link-in-bio.
Even major corporations such as Qantas Airlines, Red Bull, and the Los Angeles Clippers have started putting a Linktree in their Instagram and TikTok bios, Anthony Zaccaria, Linktree's co-founder and chief commercial officer, told me. These companies all have expensive websites, but he said that link-in-bios have come to represent a space in between social media and websites: a regularly updated page where artists can plug their new music, airlines can promote their new flight routes, and even non-influencers can list out the TV shows they're currently watching. While a traditional website might remain relatively static over time--an airline like Qantas, for instance, is always going to want its flight-booking tool to be front and center--a link-in-bio is a sort of ever-shifting homepage, the ideal spot for brands and influencers to house updates or tout new products. Scrolling through one can feel like scanning the heavily curated highlights of someone's social feed.
A burst of competitors is now vying to challenge Linktree's dominance. "I think the companies essentially skated along offering a really functional, basic service to creators who needed to link to multiple places," Lia Haberman, an influencer-marketing professor at UCLA, told me. That changed once investors recognized that creators' growing business needs could turn these social-media stars into major moneymakers, Haberman said. In 2021, venture capitalists poured an estimated $5 billion into the creator economy, and link-in-bio start-ups have gotten caught up in that frenzy.
As influencers tap into even more ways to make money, link-in-bios are starting to do ... a little bit of everything. Koji, which was founded in 2016 and has 120,000 users, built an online store of 197 mini-apps that can live inside each link-in-bio, including NFT displays, paywalled photos, quizzes, premium content for subscribers, and a Cameo doppelg?nger called Shoutout. "The link-in-bio is like a shell; it's like a canvas onto which you can choose to add these tools," Dmitry Shapiro, a co-founder of Koji, told me. A rival called Snipfeed lets its influencers sell tickets to virtual meet and greets; Beacons, whose more than 1 million users include the singer Sia and the director Quentin Tarantino, offers a calendar where fans can pay to grab time with an influencer.
While companies such as Koji and Linktree are striving for mass appeal, others think they can stand out by going more niche--betting that as influencers focus on specific industries, they will need a more tailored set of features. Linkfire, which is targeting musicians such as Justin Bieber, has partnerships with Apple Music, Pandora, and YouTube Music to give its customers more detailed data about which audiences are streaming their music after visiting a Linkfire link. Meanwhile, TikTok's hyper-popular cooking videos can be hard to follow, so the start-up Provecho is building link-in-bios centered on displaying recipes. Brands can sponsor the ingredients in each recipe, giving influencers a way to earn money from their creations, Conrad DeMasi, Provecho's co-founder, told me.
By and large, these linking tools are making money through a swirl of paid-subscription programs and commissions on the transactions that happen inside the link-in-bio. Whether that is enough to sustain a profitable business isn't clear, but it's easy to envision a future in which link-in-bios become even more ubiquitous, something like the new personal website in the TikTok age. When you stumble across an influencer and want to know what their deal is, your first stop will be their link-in-bio.
Still, link-in-bio companies have built-in risks that can make the idea of them sticking around for the long term feel like a fantasy. They rely almost entirely on Instagram and TikTok for their traffic. If the two platforms wanted to, they could replicate many of the new tools that link-in-bio companies have rolled out. "Instagram's specialty is figuring out other third-party services that are building things on top of their platform and then duplicating those services themselves," Haberman said. For example, after Instagram users began posting affiliate links to Amazon and other e-commerce sites in order to earn a commission from the products they hype, the platform introduced its own affiliate tool that keeps users from leaving Instagram.
For now, link-in-bio companies have little choice but to keep evolving. Not long ago, the prototypical influencer was merely posting photos of themselves, but they've now grown to the point where they're a small business in their own right. TikTok and Instagram stars regularly land six-figure sponsorship deals--and there are simply so many of them. More than 50 million people globally now identify as creators, which means that influencer services are quickly becoming a substantial industry. A fintech start-up called Karat Financial aims to create a bank for influencers that gives out business loans in part based on follower counts. Another company, Pietra, connects influencers with manufacturers in order to help them launch their own product lines. "Every single platform, whether that's a social-media network, a retailer, a link-in-bio service--they are all fighting to be the destination that creators are going to be using to monetize their influence," Haberman said. "All of a sudden, I think the link-in-bio services have realized that what they were offering for so many years is no longer enough."