A decade ago, if you brought up the subject of "influencers" to someone in beauty marketing, they'd have probably have responded with a blank stare at best. Of course beauty bloggers and vloggers existed then — and some of them even had massive followings — but nobody yet was really leveraging or courting them to pimp out their products. And the idea of paying one of these bloggers to promote something would have been considered even more absurd. After all, that's what celebrities are for, right?
The rise of influencers, both as a concept and as a commodity, has been meteoric, thanks in part to the increasing proliferation of social media into every facet of our lives, but also because major brands have started buying into them. And they've seen returns as a result.
"When we started talking about the business five years ago, there really were the top hundred bloggers who were getting deals with brands, but beyond that nobody was getting any deals," says James Nord, co-founder of Fohr Card, a service that helps match up brands and influencers. It made sense, after all, for brands to court the social celebs who everybody was watching. Profitable, too, for the influencers, some of whom reportedly picked up six- and even seven-figure paydays for a few posts on their social media. But, as is the case with so many cottage industries, issues quickly began to arise. A small group of influencers were attracting all of the brands, and as feeds became saturated with promoted activations, followers also became more savvy about picking out and ignoring sponsored posts. Social platforms themselves also started cracking down on undeclared sponsorship, and questions about ROI started cropping up when mega-followers didn't always translate to mega-sales.
That's why some beauty brands have begun transferring their ad dollars to a new subset of tastemakers: "microinfluencers." Less renowned than their flashy influencer counterparts, microinfluencers are thought to have higher engagement and more authentic connections with followers. Though there's no official standardized number of followers that differentiates a microinfluencer from a full-fledged influencer, some estimates suggest as few as 1,500 followers can nab you the title. Nord places it at as many as 50,000 ("bigger than any baseball stadium in the country,"), but other experts say that any follower count below the 100,000 mark qualifies. The key attractions of a microinfluencer are more concrete: a highly engaged fanbase, a lower price point, ease of marketing and that all-important aforementioned authenticity.
Marketing via microinfluencer has caught on in a big way in the beauty industry over the last year alone. Origins, of using-charcoal-before-it-was-cool fame, announced last month that it would be partnering with nine microinfluencers to launch a new set of skin-care products aimed at women between the ages of 24 and 35. Estée Lauder (which owns Origins, as well as Clinique) has struggled to find success among millennial women in the skin category, so this new effort is no doubt an attempt to change that. Elf's microinfluencer initiative — Beautyscape, which brings microinfluencers together in a kind of mini-conference to play with the brand's products, learn techniques and mingle with each other — has been around for a few years now, but it's receiving renewed attention.
"In just two years, Beautyscape events have become the destination for our influencers to come together to learn, connect, be inspired and inspire others. Content generated from this initiative has a combined reach of more than 250 million across digital platforms," says Mara McCune, Elf's vice president of brand. She highlights that reach, as well as engagement, in discussing the success behind partnering with microinfluencers.
Nord agrees, emphasizing that microinfluencers are often bringing macro engagement in the form of likes, comments and other signs that their audience is genuinely paying attention to what they have to say. "Often the smaller followings do have better engagement rates, and they haven’t gotten big enough yet where there are people who follow them just because they have a big following. If you look at our data, naturally as a following grows engagement percentage falls, so the average engagement for somebody with 50,000 followers is about twice the size as somebody with a million followers." Given that kind of payoff, it makes far more sense, from a brand's perspective, to recruit a handful of microinfluencers who are reaching different audiences than to shell out for one big name who may not drive sales.
Of course, it's not all about numbers, it's also about trust. Especially with a category like beauty, which can be so personal, that's not to be underestimated. "Microinfluencers tend to have a much more genuine following. They have built their audience by delivering trusted content that their audience values and a move in a less authentic direction would impact their ability to grow," says McCune. "So when these influencers talk about Elf or review one of our products, their followers really listen." Particularly for the millennial-and-younger crowd, a group notoriously resistant to traditional marketing — 64 percent of millennials use an ad blocker on their computer, phone or both, according to Emarketer — the feeling that they're able to trust an influencer's opinion has proven to be very effective.
That trust isn't necessarily misplaced, either. A hair-care expert from Saskatchewan, for example, may not have the celebrity clients a big name in the LA does, but their years of experience hardly make them less qualified to give advice. "There's been a democratization of expertise," says Nord. "I think the word 'influencer' gets beat up a little bit, but these are really just experts in their fields." He also points out that unlike celebs, whose images are carefully maintained and codified, microinfluencers and their fans often share a close connection, opening up discussions around products and techniques as well as details about their personal lives, their pets, as well as issues of diversity often overlooked by mainstream beauty marketing like race, size and identity. That sense that an audience "knows" them is a huge factor in what allows influencers to gain their followers trust and, in turn, their cash-money when it comes to buying products or services they recommend.
How authentic that opinion is, of course, varies by brand and by microinfluencer, but Nord has a generally optimistic opinion of how much honesty really goes into a partnership. "The amount of influencers we have who come in and turn down $10,000 from us because the product doesn’t make sense for their audience is really encouraging for me. The fact that we have people turn down $30,000 deals because they feel like they couldn't authentically speak on behalf of that product makes me feel really good."
For Elf, McCune notes that openness and honesty is built into the way the brand addresses microinfluencers, which is to let them create their own branded content. "We ask them to be truthful – to share their candid thoughts on our products, tell us what else they want to see from Elf and tell us what we could be doing better," she says. "We have found that they understand who we are and are able to help tell our story without needing to provide specific guidelines."
Of course, no one could have predicted that influencer marketing would take off the way it has — mainly because no one could have predicted the rise of social media itself and the twists and turns it has thrown us — so it's entirely possible that by the time you're reading this, the internet will have collapsed, social media will be a thing of the past and we'll all be regretting making fun of doomsday preppers. Barring a technopocalypse, though, it's certainly looking like microinfluencers are set to keep growing — especially within the beauty realm. What that means for the future of commerce, and e-commerce in particular, has yet to be seen. Nord is betting on a move away from part-time influencing to full-time pros. "I think that what were going to see over the next few years is a trend generally towards professionalism. I think that the influencers who will continue to be successful are the ones who are running these things like businesses," he says. That ought to give you just enough time to pick up those few thousand followers you're missing.