In the fashion and beauty industry, aspirational advertising is the oldest trick in the book. Brands work with commercial talent, models and popular social media personas who, at least theoretically, represent the types of people target audiences want to be.
Lately, that approach has been shifting. Victoria’s Secret, for instance, came under fire for promoting an “impossible ideal” in its brand imagery, which largely featured supermodels.
Perhaps that’s why, in a recent marketing campaign for Pink, the brand’s line for young women, Victoria’s Secret enlisted media agency Viral Nation to help connect the brand with some new “ambassadors,” also known as online influencers.
But not just any online influencers. Rather than partner with a handful of traditional influencers — with follower counts in the hundreds of thousands and highly curated feeds filled with product placements — Viral Nation recruited scores of micro-influencers for the job.
What is a micro-influencer?
A micro-influencer is someone with a social media following that’s larger than a normal person’s but smaller than a celebrity’s. They use that following to promote products — either for money or just because they like them.
“In a world where people are tired of advertising and celebrity endorsements, I think micro-influencers are really able to cut through the noise with the authenticity brands need,” Emma Ferrara, director of sales and business development at Viral Nation, told Built In.
“People are tired of advertising and celebrity endorsements.”
In conversations about influencer marketing, the word “authenticity” comes up a lot. And, in the world of micro-influencers, authenticity is currency — social media users develop it by building rapport with their audiences, and brands try to harness it.
In the case of Victoria’s Secret, that looked like identifying 175 college-age women with more than 5,000 Instagram followers each and paying them to post pictures featuring Pink merchandise.
Viral Nation winnowed the pool of potential “brand ambassadors” by using proprietary software to analyze the women’s social media presences and followings based on criteria like:
Aesthetics: What does this person’s Instagram profile look like, and what vibe does that create?
Diversity: What types of people follow this person? How will that follower make-up help Pink run a successful campaign?
Psychographics: Which accounts do those followers follow, and what does that indicate about them?
Connecting brands with the right ambassadors is a big part of what influencer marketing agencies offer — Viral Nation has an entire talent division that signs promising micro-influencers. That way, clients have access to rosters of ready-and-willing social media personas in different verticals.
What Are Companies Really Getting When They Work With Micro-Influencers?
If brands were paying only for reach, they probably wouldn’t work with micro-influencers. Posts from Viral Nation’s Pink ambassadors may command more attention than yours or mine, but they don’t command nearly as much as a celebrity profile or national TV campaign.
But micro-influencers have one metric on lock, Ferrara said, and that’s engagement, or the number of shares, likes and comments a piece of online content earns.
Micro-influencers may have more frequent and genuine interactions with their audiences because those followers are largely friends or acquaintances. Or maybe they all share a niche interest.
“People today really want a recommendation they can trust, and they want an unbiased opinion.”
What matters, Ferrara said, is that micro-influencers and their audiences have been “influencing” each other long before a brand enters the equation. Maybe someone shared that they visited a new breakfast cafe, or bought the latest iPhone. Those plugs feel authentic because they are authentic — at least by anyone’s best measure. Micro-influencers share their favorite products, looks, places or services of their own volition, so, when a paid partnership shows up, that brand benefits from the influencer’s perceived trustworthiness.
And micro-influencer campaigns have the engagement rates to prove it — 150 percent the rates of celebrity campaigns, Ferrara said.
When a celebrity shares a product, followers probably view the post as an advertisement. But when a micro-influencer shares, followers ideally view the post as a real endorsement and are more likely to ask questions or send the post to friends.
“People today really want a recommendation they can trust, and they want an unbiased opinion,” Ferrara said. “I think that’s part of the allure.”
A micro-influencer’s connection with their audience is valuable to brands, but so is the content they create.
The explosive success of platforms like TikTok has shown brands that low-fi, goofy, user-generated content has just as much — and probably more — impact on viewers than polished content styled and shot by professionals.
Viral Nation encourages brands to make the most of micro-influencers’ posts by taking those images and using them for paid ads, on websites and even in stores.
“It gives your brand a sense of — what’s the word here — ‘relatability,’ right?” Ferrara said. “It shows people that your brand isn’t just this vague, ominous thing. It’s humans. And humans are on the receiving end of [marketing content], so it feels like you’re speaking to yourself.”
Some clients that switched from branded content to influencer-generated content for paid ad campaigns saw a 100 percent increase in click through rate, Ferrara added.
Creative Routes to Target Audiences
Fashion and beauty companies have created a stomping ground on Instagram — but brands in other verticals leverage micro-influencer marketing as well.
Food and toy brands, for instance, have gone to Viral Nation to connect with micro-influencers on YouTube or other streaming platforms who create ASMR content, like this ultra-relaxing video. Or this one. Or, um, this one?
Tech is no exception. Chinese tech giant Tencent worked with Viral Nation to partner with a whopping 300 online gamers for its launch of the game PUBG Mobile. Rather than money, those ambassadors were incentivized to post feature reviews or screengrabs with in-game tokens and rewards.
For Tencent, the relationship between its micro-influencers and its target audience was pretty on the nose: Gamers follow other gamers, and gamers pay for games. For a food brand partnering with an ASMR micro-influencer, the connection is less clear, but still useful: Viewers watch ASMR content to feel happy and relaxed. If a particular food product shows up in that content, viewers might associate that product with pleasant feelings, and, in theory, become more likely to buy.
What Are We Really Saying When We Talk About ‘Influence?’
Got your mind wrapped about micro-influencers? Cool, let’s unravel it again.
Transactional micro-influencer marketing campaigns — in which brands compensate influencers for access to their audiences — offer all the benefits mentioned above. But, according to The Influencer Code author Amanda Russell, those campaigns can miss the point.
“Excitement about a brand can’t be a mandate. It cannot be like, ‘We’re going to pay you to do this as a one-off,’” she said. “That’s just advertising. I think companies are getting social media advertising confused with true influencer marketing.”
“Companies are getting social media advertising confused with true influencer marketing.”
In fact, according to Russell, who created the influencer marketing curricula at University of California–Los Angeles and University of Texas–Austin, influencer marketing was a thing long before social media even existed. Back then, we called it “word of mouth.”
That conflation of social media advertising and influencer marketing have led to other misunderstandings, Russell said.
Brands Use Vanity Metrics Like ‘Awareness’ to Measure the Success of Influencer Campaigns
The point of marketing is to increase market share and make more money, Russell said, so any influencer marketing campaign should start with setting goals that tie back to money and market share. In terms of helpful goals, “raise awareness” isn’t it, and even metrics like “engagement” can lead brands astray.
Instead, brands should shoot to boost market share by researching their target audiences and finding out who those people already turn to for information and recommendations. That brings us to the second big misunderstanding.
Brands Believe Influencer Marketing Is Something That Happens Exclusively Online
Sometimes, a brand’s target audience may turn to traditional online “influencers” for advice and recommendations, but, especially in B2B markets, the odds are far better that they turn to coworkers, industry thinkers and business leaders.
In those cases, social media may not even come into play.
Referrals, for example, are influencer marketing — people rely on trusted vendors, clients or coworkers to recommend helpful solutions. If B2B companies can identify those micro-influencers and get the right product in front of them at the right time, it’s influencer marketing done right.
Russell talked about a case study she’d read from Tractor Supply Co., a retail chain for farmers. At first glance, agriculture seems like a bad vertical for successful micro-influencer marketing. But Tractor Supply went for it anyway, starting by researching its target customers.
It found that the chicken farmers who bought feed at Tractor Supply also enjoyed a radio show called “Backyard Poultry With The Chicken Whisperer” hosted by Andy Schneider, also known as — that’s right — The Chicken Whisperer.
“Twenty thousand people tune in daily Monday through Friday to a guy talking about chicken farming,” Russell stressed.
So, Tractor Supply partnered with Schneider to do in-store chicken-care workshops.
“Every time he does one, he packs the house and sells, on average, 100 chickens. And not just the chickens, he sells all the feed and supplies and paraphernalia that go with them,” Russell said. “So now, my question to any brand — whether it’s B2B or B2C — is: Who is your chicken whisperer?”
Brands Wrongly Equate Popularity With Influence
Influence, Russell said, is an outcome, not a job title for marketers or social media personas.
In other words, a high follower count doesn’t equate to influence. (Which ties back to the differences between celebrity influencers and their less popular counterparts.) But neither does a meticulously crafted profile or high engagement from followers.
“Social media is a communication tool to amplify and distribute a message. Whether or not you have influence over that audience is an entirely different thing,” Russell said.
Influence is the power to change people’s behaviors, which could come from relevant expertise, community repute or personal relationships. Whatever the mechanics, measuring influence using reach or engagement — or separating influencers into categories like, micro, macro, mega or nano based on their follower counts — doesn’t truly make sense, Russell said.
“Is Warren Buffet really a ‘micro-influencer’ because he’s not on social media?” she asked.
Instead of launching a transactional micro-influencer campaign with guns blazing, Russell added, companies should work on building infrastructure that supports real influence.
What Could an Influence Infrastructure Look Like?
When Hailey Dezort joined boutique marketing agency Kaye Publicity to help promote books and authors, she was already familiar with how influence drives people to read new things. That’s because her personal Instagram account was almost entirely dedicated to books, and no one was paying her to do it.
“For a very long time, I just didn’t have a lot of friends who were avid readers,” she said. “I was on Instagram and discovered this little corner of the internet. It was a totally different community where we just discussed books that we were really passionate about.”
Through her own posts and conversations, Dezort got to know different players on what she calls “book Instagram.” Furthermore, she learned what types of people and content can make strangers want to pick up a book. Hint: It’s not fancy reviewers and journals.
“Authors always want to be in the New York Times, for instance, but there are a lot of people who don’t read that,” she said. “Those audiences are on social media and might really trust certain influencers and not care about what the New York Review of Books or something has to say.”
So, Dezort builds Kaye Publicity’s infrastructure of influence by doing what she’d like publicity firms to do for her: She sends them a bunch of books. If they read them and post about them, great. If they don’t, no problem. Real influence, when it happens, comes from a genuine love of the product.
“You end up down a Google rabbit hole, which is the whole point, right?”
To make this approach work, Dezort spends time studying the online presence of bloggers, Instagrammers and TikTok users to discern their tastes. Do they tend to enjoy romance, young adult fiction, memoirs, translations? Who follows them, and what do those people enjoy? Match the right person with the right book, and their enthusiasm ends up speaking for itself.
On “BookTok,” for example, creators throw themselves into summarizing and commenting on young adult novels, Dezort said.
“They’ll get really funny with it. They’ll talk about their favorite characters that they [want to see get together]. And you’re like: ‘Oh, who are those characters? What book is that from?’ And then you end up down a Google rabbit hole, which is the whole point, right?”
Other times, Dezort’s firm has sent books to influencers with an offer to meet the author if they enjoy the story. Sometimes, it goes over so well that the recipient starts a reading group with some followers to finish the book and chat with the writer together. As they post about the book club’s progress, more people often ask to join.
“Right there, something is working,” Dezort said. “And it didn’t take an unreal, inauthentic campaign.”
Dezort is a micro-influencer herself, and the friendships she’s formed online with other book enthusiasts haven’t stayed in the realm of social media — they’ve met in person, they’ve traveled together, they’ve sent letters during the pandemic. So when she sends a book to an influencer and they reply, “Thanks, my friends will love this,” she knows precisely what they mean.
“There’s a different kind of trust,” she said. “I have people who follow me whom I’ve become really close friends with, because we’re able to connect. They’re not, like, lost in the sea of some endless amount of followers.”