Features, The Business of Beauty

Micro-Influencers: Can the Beauty Industry’s Obsession du Jour Actually Deliver Any Meaningful, Measurable ROI?

Dear Reader, can we be frank with each other and just admit that the only reviews that are 100-percent legit are those by individuals who have ponied-up their own hard-earned cash to actually buy the product they’re commenting or posting about?

You know, “real” people. Civilians.

I’m talking about Sally Sue from Sioux Falls, sitting in her home office and click-clacking away on her computer keyboard because she’s super-jazzed about some new miracle crème or pricey eyeshadow palette she just spent the better part of her last paycheck on.

Now that we’re in agreement about true “review legitimacy”— even if no one wants to publicly cop to it — I’d like to kick the tires of the beauty industry’s new darling: micro-influencers. Touted as paragons of credibility because they have several million fewer followers on Instagram, Snapchat or YouTube than, say, anyone with the last name Jenner, micro-influencers are in the crosshairs of virtually every forward-thinking brand on the planet.

Per the current wisdom, if you can get one these hyper-credible micro-influencers on board to sing your product’s praises, your brand is golden.

The Numbers Game

Not that there’s any hard-and-fast definition of what a micro-influencer even is, mind you.

Glossier founder and CEO Emily Weiss—who knows a thing or two about influence herself—defines micro-influencers as individuals with as few as 500 social media followers. And she recently tasked 150 of them, all already Glossier customers and members of its “community,” to get the word about the brand’s new skin serums. Other industry watchers widen those micro-influencer parameters to a range of 10,000 to 100,000 followers.

And on the far end of the scale, Entrepreneur magazine considers anyone whose follower count falls just short of 1 million to be a micro-influencer.

Remember the good old days, when bigger was better? When all brands had to concern themselves with was the pure number of followers a potential “brand ambassador” had? That was the clueless “eyeballs” era, a time when it was considered a major coup to merely have a celeb or red-carpet hairstylist, makeup artist or facialist name-check your brand in any way, shape or form.

Now that we’ve shifted from eyeballs to engagement, however, it’s a very different story.

Today, marketers want to see that a post or YouTube video has garnered, at the very least, a sizeable number of “likes.” Next in the hierarchy of quantifiable engagement comes shares and comments—the consumer has been so motivated by the celeb, brand ambassador or red-carpet expert’s post or video that she wants to pass it along or chime in with her own thoughts about the product.

Lastly, of course, is the ultimate holy grail—the elusive unicorn—of consumer engagement: conversion to purchase.

Now, Less Means More (And It’s Cheaper, Too)

Guess who comes up short on engagement? The influencers with the highest number of followers, now known as macro-influencers. Yes, as strange as it sounds, there’s an inverse relationship between followers and engagement.

According to a 2016 study by Washington, D.C.-based Markerly, an agency that facilitates relationships between brands and “real people” influencers, macros with follower counts of at least 10 million get “likes” on their posts a paltry 1.6 percent of time, while micros get likes 8 percent of the time.

When it comes to comments, says Markerly, there’s an even greater disparity; micros get 13 percent more than macros.

So why is that? Is it because the consuming public is onto what a racket the whole product-promotion game is? Has it finally dawned on them that their favorite macro is paid lavishly (as in the equivalent of their entire annual salary for a single post) to gush over some new detox tea or eyelash booster?

This isn’t news. Consumers have a long, documented history of not wanting to buy products shilled by celebrities. Remember that time Oprah Winfrey inadvertently sent a paid tweet about Surface—a Microsoft product—from her Apple iPad? Bye-bye credibility.

But if distrust is the default reaction to paid endorsements, why would enlisting a micro be any more credible than a macro? Micros are getting paid too. Not nearly as much as macros—not by a long shot—but money is most definitely changing hands. Even if it’s only a few hundred dollars, it becomes a transactional, rather than organic, relationship.

From a credibility standpoint, I’ve seen two definitions of micros recently that I feel made sense: regular consumers who are passionate about a product (aka the aforementioned Sally Sue from Sioux Falls), and individuals who work in a given market category or are somehow otherwise experts.

Here’s an example of the latter micro, the expert: Let’s say an athleisure manufacturer wants to get the word out about its new luxe track pants. Following the micro-influencer strategy, they hone in on a local Crossfit trainer, who has a rabid following of 1,000 fitness nuts, and just so happens to live in the same town in which the athleisure brand is based. That local trainer is in the trenches, interacting with and motivating clients, and living the fitness lifestyle. Her followers trust her judgment and hang on her every recommendation. Bingo! Engagement. And, fingers crossed, eventual product purchase.

Macro, Micro…In Terms of ROI, We’re Still Lost

In its new report, “Measuring ROI On Influencer Marketing,” London-based Fashion & Beauty Monitor points to the explosive fees some top-tier influencers are now garnering (up to $100,000 for a single post) and the mass confusion that surrounds determining whether that’s money just tossed down the drain.

The company, which bills itself as “the only digital resource that provides influencer, media, PR and brand contacts, news, events and industry intelligence in one convenient place,” hits the nail on the head in its eye-popping debrief: “Proving the impact of a campaign, or the degree to which an influencer has inspired an audience and precipitated action can also sometimes take place over a long period of time, which can be very difficult to determine through web analytics.”

At least in some part, this dearth of data stems from a lack of record keeping, or even interest, on the brand side. In its report, Fashion & Beauty Monitor cites a recent survey by the Internet Advertising Bureau of more than 100 agencies. A full half of those agencies admitted that they “make no attempt to measure the financial return” of paid-influencer social media activity. Even more shocking, another 33 percent of those same survey respondents say they don’t even believe tracking ROI was of value.

So if ROI isn’t important, what is? One respondent in the Fashion & Beauty Monitor waxed-on about the “positive sentiment” an influencer can generate for a brand.

Positive sentiment is great. But is it money in the bank? It’s 2017: maybe it’s time to stop measuring positive sentiment and move on to counting cold, hard cash.

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