How ‘link in bio’ created a high-stakes startup race

It's some of the internet's most important real estate. And there's a land grab going on.

How ‘link in bio’ created a high-stakes startup race

Everyone sees link-in-bio tools as a huge opportunity, and one they don't want to miss.

Illustration: Christopher T. Fong/Protocol

As far as internet real estate goes, Justin Bieber's Instagram profile is a dream home. With 200 million followers, he's the 10th most-followed creator on the platform. But it turns out that even when you're Justin Bieber, you only get one link in your Instagram profile: the "link in bio" that shows up in video captions, voiceovers and calls to action across social platforms everywhere.

Bieber's link in bio doesn't go to a personal website or his YouTube channel. It goes to his Linkfire, a service that collects a number of links to all things Bieberworld: his latest album, "Justice" on Apple Music and Spotify and Amazon Music and more, along with tour dates and merch and a ticketing page for a huge party he just threw in Vegas. Bieber does have a website — justinbiebermusic.com — but even it acts mostly as a funnel to Linkfire.

About 400,000 people visit Bieber's Linkfire page every month, according to Similarweb's data, and more than half that traffic comes directly from his Instagram page. (Another 35% comes from YouTube, where the link features prominently on Bieber's channel.) In all, Linkfire — which is focused on the music industry and works with most major labels — said pages like Biebers's had about 767 million visits in the first half of 2021.

Links in bio work. As creators have embraced more platforms, they're looking for more ways to bring their brand and content together and help connect audiences across those platforms. For a generation of stars, that meant building a personal website and hoping to build traffic there. Now, it means using tools like Linkfire that bring your stuff to your audience and your audience to your stuff, no matter where it is. "There's more consumption happening, there's more creators coming out, that means more content out there," said Linkfire CEO Lars Ettrup. "At the same time, our attention span is going down. So if we can provide you with the simplest path to entertainment consumption, within milliseconds of you clicking something? That's what we want to do. We want to provide relevance at scale."

Justin Bieber's Linkfire page Musicians were early to adopt tools like Linktree and Linkfire, because it's such a cross-platform industry.Image: Linkfire/Justin Bieber

That has created a high-stakes, fast-moving race among link-in-bio tools. Some see it as the future of websites, simpler and more cross-platform. Others see it more like the next operating system, a launcher for a creator's many tools and platforms. All see a huge opportunity, and one they don't want to miss.

Life's a URL

Linktree is the giant of the link-in-bio space. The company estimates it has about 88% market share, including A-list names like Selena Gomez, Charli D'Amelio, Metallica and Katy Perry. The company says it has more than 18 million users, and that those users' Linktrees collectively get more than 900 million visits a month. On average, every visitor clicks about two links.

And it was all more or less built in a day. Back in 2014, Alex Zaccaria, Linktree's co-founder and CEO, was building a company called Bolster doing digital strategy for the music business. (The music industry is a theme here for a reason: To be an artist is to be constantly torn between streaming services, ticketing platforms, fan meetups, social networks and much more. Priorities change constantly, and everyone in the ecosystem has an angle. It's chaos.)

One thing the Bolster team learned was how valuable links in bio could be, but also how finicky. "This was around the time Instagram had changed from a chronological feed to an algorithmic feed," Zaccaria said. "So you would see a post three or four days later, but the link would no longer be relevant." It was also just a hassle to change that link for every post on every platform. The obvious solution was to build a personal website and link to that everywhere, but that's expensive and complicated and often requires even more maintenance.

So Zaccaria decided to build a quick landing page for artists' links. Nothing complicated, nothing surprising, just a link that led to more links that led to whatever an artist or creator had going on. He went to Mike Bywaters, a developer on his team, and gave him the prompt. "I said, 'Hey man, maybe if we just have a place where you can create a link that you put more links on, and you put that link in your Instagram link in bio, you never have to change it again.'" Bywaters disappeared for a few hours and came back with a prototype that looked remarkably like Linktree does today.

Selena Gomez's Linktree page Selena Gomez is a Linktree user, as are a number of other A-list celebs.Image: Linktree/Selena Gomez

Zaccaria started sending out the prototype to a few of Bolster's clients, like a music festival in his native Australia. "They got it straight away," he said. The festival wanted a custom look and simple analytics, so Bolster built that in. The festival loved it, and almost immediately, Zaccaria said, this link tool began to spread. "It was 10, 20 signups a day almost immediately." Bywaters quickly rebuilt the prototype to scale better — though that didn't take very long, either — and Linktree was up and running. For a minute there it was almost called InstaBio, but Nick Humphreys, Linktree's other co-founder, talked Zaccaria into Linktree. Everyone seems to agree that was a good call.

The music industry took to Linktree first, but others quickly followed. One group of early adopters that surprised Zaccaria? Chefs. "It started spreading pretty quickly after Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsay and those kinds of folks showed up," he said. The use case made sense: Chefs have restaurants, they have blogs, they have cookbooks, they're on Instagram and YouTube, and they're perpetually trying to build their own brand across platforms. Same increasingly goes for athletes, influencers of all stripes, even big brands.

When you open someone's Linktree, the background and colors might be different, but it's always a single column of links right there in the middle of the page. Those links can go anywhere; that's the whole point. Zaccaria insists that simplicity will forever be a core part of the company's approach, but at the same time, both the vision and the product continue to expand. "We don't necessarily consider ourselves a link-in-bio tool anymore," he said. "It's really this platform-agnostic tool that helps you connect your entire digital ecosystem." He increasingly thinks of Linktree as an identity layer for creators.

What does that look like? Creators can now collect email addresses right through Linktree, or sell products or get tips thanks to integrations with Square and PayPal. A separate integration with Spring makes it possible to run a whole shop on your Linktree. You can embed videos in your Linktree, meaning people don't have to click out to see your latest YouTube jam. With more analytics, more of these rich links and more options of all kinds, Linktree's feature set looks more and more like the kind of website builders it set out to destroy.

To keep things simple, Linktree has focused increasingly on how to introduce those features to users at the right time, rather than dropping folks in the deep end the minute they sign up. "It's always to come back to those first steps that someone needs to take, and ensuring that we're not compromising any of that in making the decision to add new features and functionality," said Jess Box, the company's head of growth. The key, Linktree has found, is to get someone up and running to the point where they actually make their Linktree their link in bio. That's when they're hooked, and when they're ready to become a power user.

Linktree really has no choice but to keep adding more features, though, because that's what creators need. While Instagram is still the most powerful social platform, TikTok is catching up fast, and its creators are different. "They're wanting to monetize out of the gate," Box said, "whereas on Instagram it took a while to get to that point." Creators are coming to these platforms more sophisticated and business savvy than ever, and looking for commerce tools and membership systems from the outset. While every country and vertical is different, she said, the three goals tend to be the same: Creators want to "sell their products, connect their social following, share new content." Linktree, or anything else that wants space on social profiles, better help with all three.

Linktree's long-term bet is that everyone will be a creator, and will have this kind of cross-platform life they want to bring into one place to share with their audience. Zaccaria imagines people might put their Linktree on their business cards and resumes, companies might slap them on billboards, and friends might exchange Linktree URLs instead of Instagram handles or phone numbers. "Everyone has something to share about themselves," he said. "We're definitely building out ways to bring consumers along for the ride more."

Not everyone's convinced the opportunity is quite so large. And if it is, there won't be a single winner in the space. "Everyone will have one," said Linkfire's Ettrup. "And then the Facebooks and so on will wake up and say, 'Oh, you can just export a miniature version of your Facebook profile.'" Rather than try to build its own destination, Linkfire is focused mostly on building underlying infrastructure that will automatically update a song's location on Spotify, or serve concert tickets based on location and timing. "We are going to partner with companies like Linktree," he said, "and say, 'Look, everything that happens within music, let us automate that.'" It's just links all the way down.

One link to rule them all

If you thought Linktree's vision was ambitious for what you could do with a page of links and a URL in your social media profile, buckle up: Dmitry Shapiro, the CEO of Koji, is pretty sure he can use that link as a wedge to build an app store, a massively popular and lucrative content and commerce ecosystem, and something roughly akin to the future of the internet.

Koji's plan has always been to build tools for embedding apps within social posts, creating an HTML universe inside every link everywhere. As the company has matured, so has Shapiro's pitch: He now refers to the company as "the app store for the creator economy." When you open a Koji link, it looks a lot like a Linktree page, which Shapiro said is deliberate. "We wanted people to instantly recognize it for what it is," he said. "That's why it looks like Linktree; they were the pioneer." But instead of using those links to send visitors to Cameo, OnlyFans, Mailchimp, Shopify or wherever else, Shapiro wants to build versions of all those services within Koji itself.

Randi Zuckerberg's Koji page. Koji's plan is to embed apps right inside a link in bio, competing with Cameo and others.Image: Koji/Randi Zuckerberg

"A link in bio is a launcher that we configure to face outward, right?" Shapiro said. "To show how people can digitally engage with us." What is Cameo, after all, but a way to pay someone to record a video for you? What is OnlyFans but password-protected videos and images? "That could be a product, or just a feature on a link in bio," Shapiro said. "In fact, it's clear that it's much better as a feature on a link in bio." Ditto for subscribing to a newsletter, buying digital products and so on and so forth. Koji is building some of these, developers are building others, and these link-in-bio pages are the perfect launcher for them. "For creators, it's a no-brainer," Shapiro said. "They get one platform, cross-network payments, cross-network analytics." It's also a web-friendly system that works anywhere, and undercuts the huge commissions most other platforms take.

Koji is still tiny compared to Linktree and others. Shapiro said the company has about 74,000 creators on the platform, and is adding between 500 and a few thousand every day. (TikTok star Loren Gray is probably the most popular person with a Koji link in their bio.) The company's roadmap is a mile long, covering everything from NFT marketplaces to social networks to communication tools.

Links on links on links

Shapiro echoed a sentiment that's something like a mantra in the link-in-bio space: The platform isn't the point. "We don't think we need to be a brand," he said. "The brand is the creator. We're just the infrastructure that facilitates the creator engaging and making money." Koji isn't trying to make people care about Koji the way Linktree isn't trying to make people care about Linktree; they're trying to become the kind of invisible infrastructure that often turns out to be far more lucrative in the long run, helping others make money and taking a cut along the way.

That approach invites competition. The link-in-bio industry is booming in part because building a page full of links isn't exactly a difficult technology problem, and because you don't need huge scale or marketing budgets to make a dent. These tools tend to grow organically — people click on a link in bio, see the service, make their own profile — which means if you can get a Bieber-level creator to put your link in their bio, you've just built yourself a marketing funnel. Among the most popular brands and creators, options abound: National Geographic links to Curalate, Snoop Dogg to feature.fm, Kevin Hart to found.ee, Britney Spears to SmartURL, and on and on the list goes. By far the most popular things for big-name accounts to link to, though, are a personal website or YouTube. One offers more control, the other more money, and they represent the real competition for the link-in-bio startups.

For now, links in bio occupy a crucial and growing role in the social ecosystem, though their place is a tenuous one. If Instagram and TikTok start allowing links in posts, or remove the links in bio, what then? Those platforms are also pushing more shopping features, using stickers and swipe-up gestures to add more links, and generally pushing to own even more of the social experience. "Link in bio" may not hold its importance forever.

But as long as the internet remains fragmented, and as long as creators live and work across platforms, folks like Zaccaria think they'll have a place. (And they don't seem particularly worried about the fundamental infrastructure of the social internet changing anytime soon.) "We are the unification platform," he said. "We don't exist to compete with the platforms we're linking to, we exist to enhance the experience of those platforms." It's a big internet out there, and creators and audiences need a way to make it feel a little smaller. One link (or a few of them) at a time.

Update: This story was updated with a more accurate list of high-profile Linktree users. This story was updated on Oct. 13, 2021.

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