To attract new students, MSU Denver turns to influencer marketing

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Paolo Zialcita/CPR News
Yesenia Chinchilla captures a tostada plate and alcoholic beverages for her Instagram and TikTok page DenverFoodScene.

A light rain was beginning to fall as Yesenia Chinchilla looked down at the bowl of piping hot pozole, stacked high with chicharrones, that had just arrived in front of her at La Diabla, a downtown Denver eatery. 

Instead of diving in with a spoon and gusto, she took out her phone and began snapping some photos. Those pics will end up on her massively popular social media venture, DenverFoodScene. She’s been using this account for eight years, but recently, it’s blown up — for reasons she can’t explain.

“I basically gained 400,000 followers in one year. It's insanity,” she said.

That’s allowed Chinchilla to turn her hobby into a business. Before, she used to make posts about places she visited with friends or family. These days, she’s more like a culinary power broker. Local restaurants across Denver ask her to visit and showcase their food on TikTok and Instagram, where combined she has over half a million followers. Her popularity has tangible effects on the restaurants she covers — some owners tell her business booms in the days following a post. 

DenverFoodScene primarily makes money through online marketing partnerships with restaurants and other businesses. It’s gotten so lucrative that her husband, Daniel, has joined the venture. 

Paolo Zialcita/CPR News
Husband and wife duo Daniel Perez and Yesenia Chinchilla, the creative team behind DenverFoodScene on Instagram and TikTok, take photos of tacos from La Diabla in downtown Denver.

“Quitting my job to do this full time with her in the social media world, where for me personally was never something that I was too invested in — that itself was kind of a scary adventure and chance,” he said.

The couple’s big break came when Metropolitan State University of Denver’s online learning program approached them with an advertising deal, which eventually turned into a $49,000 contract. The outcome is simple: Chinchilla’s posts note that she has partnered with MSU Online, and in particular the university’s Hospitality School, and her bio includes links to their pages and a code to waive the application fee.

Matt Griswold, MSU’s associate vice president for online learning, said traditional media just isn’t effective in bringing students to his program. 

“MSU Denver does a lot of those bus advertisements or advertising at the airport or other places, but for online learning, we're trying to really find that niche audience of virtual learners who want to engage with the institution without coming to campus,” Griswold said. 

Griswold said DenverFoodScene’s audience is perfect for MSU — the school primarily teaches first-generation or nontraditional students, and Chinchilla cultivated her following by profiling a lot of minority-owned businesses. 

“I really just like featuring diversity in my page,” Chinchilla said. “That's one thing that I really take pride in, is that I can help smaller restaurants that people probably wouldn't look at and show their delicious food.”

MSU says DenverFoodScene is the first of many partnerships in emerging platforms; they are also sponsoring a local sports talk podcast. And as more and more people turn away from billboards and towards their phones, the school doesn’t plan on stopping.