Under the Influencer

Imagine living in a world where top fashion houses dressed you, footed the bill at stylish restaurants, and sent you on all-expenses paid trips around the globe. Better yet, imagine if these companies then sustained your livelihood in exchange for a few well-placed Instagrams to flatter their brands.

For a select group of top tier digital “style influencers,” this fantasy-sounding world is reality. Legions of twenty-something women are flocking to social media, and particularly Instagram, to tout their trend recommendations and share their “expertise” with like minded style-seekers. And unlike fashion icons of the past who relied upon elite magazines to grant them editorial coverage, today’s “It Girls” are able to leverage their own renown by growing their social media followings.

In contrast to celebrities who can seem unattainable and whose partnerships with certain brands are often perspicuously artificial (see Adriana Lima’s work with Kia or Scarlett Johansson’s endorsement of SodaStream), influencers, by nature of their fledgling trade, are viewed as tastemakers. In turn, they are increasingly viewed as the harbingers of the modern word of mouth as they disseminate seemingly authentic advice to their “peers” via social media.

Consequently, brands have been quick to tap influencers as an avenue through which to organically advertise product. As a direct reaction to coveted millennials’ increased ad-wariness, “influencer marketing” has grown into full-blown industry. Not only is every former contestant on the Bachelor trying to start a lifestyle blog in the hopes that Fab Fit Fun beauty boxes or Sugar Bear hair supplements will pay them for their endorsement, but also from a legitimate marketing perspective, a series of well-established businesses has arisen to cater to influencers’ line of work.

Companies like TapInfluence, a tech startup that identifies’ brands stake in the “influence economy” and provides metrics to measure influencers’ potential returns; SocialRank, which enables businesses to sort through influencers’ social followings to target specific demographics, and Digital Brand Architects, a talent management firm that works almost exclusively with social influencers, are all growing to address different facets of the market.

James Nord, CEO of Fohr Card, an agency that connects fashion brands with influencers, told Marie Claire, “Celebrities have a big following because people are interested in their lives. Bloggers and influencers have a big following because people are interested in what they wear.” He explains how, typically, brands will come to him with a budget for a social campaign and then his team will cross-reference that budget with a database of influencers against over 30 data points (i.e. following, frequency, engagement rates).

And although Fohr Card is responsible for reaching out to an influencer with a specific offer that denotes pricing for every name credit and hash tag, the company does not negotiate. After all, in an economy where followings increase by the second, Nord suggests that compromise is rarely necessary because there’s almost always another influencer who is willing to grow his or her audience and comply with the brand’s requests.

This negotiation strategy, or lack thereof, alludes to the increasingly stratified hierarchy of style influencers who are using their robust followings to entice millennial-targeting brands. Instagram’s top tier includes Chiara Ferragni (The Blonde Salad, 6.2M followers), Aimee Song (Song of Style, 4.1M), Leandra Medine (Man Repeller, 1.6M), Danielle Bernstein (We Wore What, 1.5M), and Arielle Charnas (Something Navy, 925K).

On average, an influencer with over 1M followers can demand $15K for a single Instagram, along with $1,000 for every link and $500 for every additional hash tag included in the post. Influencers with 25-100K followers can reportedly command $2,000 per post.

Harvard Business School conducted a case study that examined Ferragni’s catapult to success as she transitioned from selling banner ads on her website to native posts on Instagram. She now charges up to $50,000 for events, has a highly successful shoe line, and in 2014, was hired by YSL to promote their Black Opium perfume, made $7M in revenue, and had grown to employ a staff of 14.

In June 2016, Charnas posted about the Peter Thomas Roth Rose Stem Cell Bio-Repair Gel mask on her Snapchat story. Within the 24 hours for which her story was live, she sold 502 masks, or $17,565 worth of product. That’s equal to $123,000 in sales for a week, $527,000 in a month, and almost $6.4 M in a year.

These staggering statistics demonstrate why brands have been so quick to jump on the influencer bandwagon: although the concept of a self-made “influencer” may sound absurd, these women are rapidly producing sell-through rates that businesses can’t argue with. And in addition to pushing product, influencers can be harnessed as critical tools for pushing a brand image. Estée Lauder, a heritage beauty brand that typically targets women aged 40 and above, hired the then 19-year-old Kendall Jenner to be the face of their newest line. With her 62 M Instagram followers, much of Kendall’s obligation as a beauty ambassador includes exposing her generation to Estée Lauder’s product and messaging through social media.

Jane Hudis, Group President at Estée Lauder, notes, “The decision about Kendall was very significant and fundamental in terms of the evolution of the brand from traditional media to new media… The mission is to be in close contact with and posting and connecting with an ever-growing base of consumers in the digital and social media world.”

This “connection” that Hudis refers to is what really sets influencers apart; unlike their blogger predecessors, modern influencers offer a fully integrated cross-platform communication plan to which most of their loyal fans subscribe. Likewise, the advent of “dark social,” or the move from public sites like Facebook to private apps like Snapchat, has granted influencers even more digital clout as their followers have access to increased personal offerings. Followers can easily send in messages, comment their opinions, and request certain features on each of these platforms, and the influencers can offer what appears to be authentic advice.

And while often people doubt the authenticity of brands’ relationships with influencers, on her site “The Man Repeller,” Leandra Medine posted an article titled “How Man Repeller Makes Money” in order to explain her relationships with different advertisers to her followers. In the article, Medine explains how Man Repeller never partners with a brand that she wouldn’t otherwise promote on her own, and how most of her native advertising comes from inbound requests of brands that she has already promoted without any compensation.

This concept of seemingly unadulterated access to the world’s newest wave of tastemakers suggests that influencers may be pioneers of their “disruptor” generation. The fashion and beauty industry, which has been notoriously elitist and unapproachable, has been given new life through influencers’ social media channels; these young women have made the world their runway, and instead of needing Anna Wintour’s stamp of approval, rely upon the “likes” of the young people who endorse their posts. This unique ability to authentically communicate brands’ messaging to social media followings has empowered influencers like Medine with million-person platforms on which they can sustain a living by bringing style to the masses.