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Retailers Look to Their Best Customers, Not Bloggers, As the New Influencers

What comes after the personal style blogger? For some brands, it's super customers, whose evangelizing ways make them an appealing asset on social media.

What comes after the personal style blogger? For some brands, it's super customers, whose evangelizing ways make them an appealing asset on social media.

Free People, for one, has spent the last year reaching out to these power customers through its user-generated community board , FP Me. The UGC platform -- which Free People built internally -- has allowed the company to reach a whole new audience. Not just a select group of bloggers who one social media expert deems worthy.

That's where the company found Madisyn Fecko, a 22-year-old undergrad from Pittsburgh, currently finishing up her communications degree in Raleigh, N.C. Fecko has always been interested in fashion, a love she inherited from her mother, whose bohemian style always stood out from the other parents. Her mom would wear velvet bell bottoms to a parent-teach conference while the rest of the moms would be wearing gray suits. "She inspired me," Fecko says.

When Free People opened up a store in Pittsburgh, Fecko and her mom began shopping there on the regular. Between their two closets, the duo built quite a collection. And when FP Me launched in February 2013, Fecko was one of the first to submit a photo of herself wearing Free People. Her following grew rapidly. In May, Fecko was invited to the Free People headquarters in Philadelphia to participate in a fashion show that featured other top customers and FP Me users. And earlier this month, she hosted a shopping party back home at the Pittsburgh store. (Fecko was not paid for her styling services. "I volunteered," she says. "It's helpful for me to learn, but it's also just fun for me.")

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Fecko isn't the only customer Free People has tapped since launching its FP Me program. Mary Ellen Arnold, a 26-year-old hairstylist based in Charlotte, N.C., was recently named FP Me Trendsetter of the Year. "To wear their clothes, you really have to know how to layer," she says. "This year, I got really into it. I love the Boho,'70s kind of vibe. I love their pants, and their dresses are awesome." Arnold says she realized she was making a mark when Free People re-pinned one of her photos on Pinterest. "It blew up my Pinterest -- I have like 5,000 followers now."

While user-generated content is becoming a thing among retailers -- brands including BaubleBar, New Balance and Gap have dabbled in UGC -- tapping customers as true ambassadors is relatively new on the fashion front. Companies like Pirate's Booty and Coco Cola have attempted it, but when it comes to fashion, you've got to be careful. Free People's customers are right for it because they look the part. Not every brand has customers who fit that mold -- who look as good as bloggers do. For brands aiming to maintain a certain image -- or create a new image -- it's an important factor.

Unsurprisingly, many of these super-customers eventually transform into traditional bloggers. "I launched my blog the day I left the Free People home office," says Fecko, whose site is called Madyson Avenue. "It was really the push that jump-started my life." Now other brands are starting to reach out to her. Same goes for Arnold, who started the blog Mary Ellen Skye quite a while ago but never really had the time to maintain it until now. "I'm kind of a quiet person, and it's been hard to figure out the balance," she says. "But people are definitely accepting it and encouraging me to do more."

The good news for Free People is that for every customer it makes into a star, there are hundreds FP Me users waiting for their moment.