At SXSW 2018 in Austin, Nicolette Mason, a fashion blogger-turned-influencer and co-founder of plus-size brand Premme, along with Chicago-based attorney and digital influencer Blake Gifford and ShopStyle's Director of Business Development Hilary Sloan, participated in a panel discussion on "Resistance & Disruption Through Diversity & Data," which also explored the practice of activism among influencers. As these individuals continue to have growing lucrative platforms and partnerships with brands, social responsibility can't be ignored. And if all parties involved aim to practice inclusivity, everyone benefits.
"There is a lot of power as influencers. We sometimes give too much credit to brands and not enough to ourselves and the work that we do, the content that we create and the number of people we represent as individuals in this conversation," said Mason, who's been adopting Frances McDormand's famous two words from her Oscars acceptance speech — "inclusion rider" — into her own work.
"When we talk about using your privilege and the power that you have in order to say 'no,' there's so much power in saying 'I will do this if…'" said Mason. "And so for a lot of offers that I've gotten lately, I'll ask who else is casted in the program, or in the campaign, and if I am their only diverse person that doesn't really reflect very well on them in my opinion and the answer is 'no.'"
Gifford agreed as she mentioned her go-to mantra, "It's not enough to get through the door if you close it behind you." She also brought up the example of Revolve and its criticism for a very profitable — but not-so-inclusive — approach of affiliating itself with influencers through brand activations and far-flung vacations. The e-commerce site recently came under fire for its lack of diversity as the hashtag #RevolveSoWhite went viral among on Instagram.
"When [Revolve] came to me and said, 'We'd love to make you a brand ambassador,' my response back to them was, 'Okay, great, let's have a conversation,'" recalled Gifford, who was one of the many women of color with large followings calling out the retailer. "What's going to happen going forward, and how won't this happen again? That conversation was not welcome, but that was telling. That was an opportunity to say, 'If I want to walk through this door, what you're telling me is no one else can come in behind me and that's not okay with me.'"
While influencer marketing gains more consumer trust in comparison to celebrity endorsements, brands are increasingly backing it with massive budgets and, therefore, diversity and representation. Not simply because it's the right thing to do, but because it's smart and beneficial — it's 2018. The caveat, however, is that brands, and our society as a whole, are conditioned to one "aspirational" aesthetic: thin, white, cisgendered and able-bodied. Unfortunately, according to the panelists, this demographic performs best with likes and engagement on social media, and because brands want to put their money towards these more-promising stats, there's hesitation when it comes to moving away away from it.
Sloan believes that brands and marketers are missing out on a lot of dollars when they don't practice inclusivity. She conducted a recent study with ShopStyle on its diverse influencers across color, size and age, which showed that their conversions were exactly the same across its entire network. Plus-size influencers perform 43 percent better than ShopStyle's network as a whole, shared Sloan, and according to category-level metrics, shoes, handbags and especially beauty are converting even 100 percent higher. "There's so much benefit to be had for brands to let go of preconceived notions of who is actually going to drive sales for your brand," said Sloan.
Gifford recounted an experience with a brand campaign for which she was casted recently. "The only reason I was casted for this campaign was because I had a friend who had pretty high rankings in their social media department and pushed back on my behalf," she admitted. Originally, Gifford was told that she was not "on brand," which she described as an "all-American denim; casual, cool vibe." Once her content went live, however, Gifford claimed she outperformed at a 100 percent rate compared to everyone else on the campaign.
"When you think about, specifically, the buying power of Black women in this country, they're willing to leave what boils down to billions of dollars on the table because blonde, light-skinned, skinny girls do better on Instagram," added Gifford. "I think that says something about what you think is important for the life and longevity of your brand."
Indeed, a 2017 Nielsen Report titled "African-American Women: Our Science, Her Magic" found that African-American females, which make up 14 percent of all U.S. women and 52 percent of all African-Americans, have "a unique place of power within the intersection of culture, commerce and consciousness." In fact, the group's preferences and brand affinities are driving total Black spending power toward a record $1.5 trillion by 2021.
"Our diversity influencers convert sales, actual sales, at the same rate as any other influencer, so the argument that it's not on brand or it won't convert sales — maybe it won't happen as quickly because you're getting new customers in the door, but how much more valuable to you is the new customer than the existing customer?" said Sloan. "That really matters. The data shows that it works. There is much opportunity out there for brands to take risks and push back against what has been the norm."