Behind the scenes of their perfectly curated social feeds, Instagram influencers are flipping traditional advertising on its head and revolutionizing the way brands large and small reach consumers and convert sales. And love it or hate it, some of them are making a killing doing it — charging anywhere from $125 to $5,000 for a single post.
Vestique, a regional women’s boutique with eight brick and mortar stores in the Carolinas and Georgia (including two in Charlotte), invests heavily in influencer marketing to drive nationwide e-commerce sales. The most they’ve paid a Charlotte influencer for a single post is $1,000, according to Adair Kennedy, the company’s eCommerce + Brand Director.
But she says accounts of comparable size could command upwards of $5,000 for a single post from bigger global brands. She calls them “super influencers,” those with authentic audiences in excess of 350,000 followers, and everyone wants to get in front of them.
“Every business big and small is kind of fighting to get that digital real estate time with these influencers and get their product shown,” said Kennedy. “The ones that are going to generate hundreds and hundreds of orders for us are the same ones that every brand is after right now — you know, brands from Express to Victoria’s Secret. As a small business, we have to keep up with that.”
Heading into the cutthroat retail holiday season this past year, Kennedy and her team shifted all of their social marketing and paid advertising budget directly into influencer marketing. After 10 years in business, influencer marketing now accounts for 90 percent of Vestique’s total marketing spend. The reason? It works.
“We know if we invest two to three thousand dollars for one post, we’re going to get back maybe seven times that,” Kennedy said, “and that’s worth it for us.”
Super influencers are rare in Charlotte, but smaller accounts with loyal followings can offer valuable local reach at more accessible rates. Enter the micro influencer.
Vestique works with five to ten super influencers across the country, a couple of which are in Charlotte, along with countless smaller accounts known as “micro influencers,” those with hyper-local audiences of 20,000 to 50,000 followers.
Vestique doesn’t engage in direct paid micro influencer partnerships in Charlotte (although they’re testing the concept in some other markets) but they’re a member of LikeToKnowIt, the industry’s dominant revenue share platform that allows influencers to earn commission on sales they convert for linked products.
“Any influencer that’s just shopping online at our company or in one of our stores can post a picture and they don’t need approval from us or anything,” said Kennedy. “They can automatically link their outfit [with LikeToKnowIt] and if they convert one of their followers and they make a sale then they get 10% commission on that.”
Kennedy says Vestique is tagged daily, about 50 times a month on average, on LikeToKnowIt.
“We kind of use micros as our army to generate content and then our supers as our army to generate sales,” said Kennedy, “and I think between the two we’re able to do a really good job of building brand awareness.”
That they are. Vestique’s main Instagram account has more than 100,000 followers, making it influential in its own right.
Some successful micro influencers in Charlotte have carved out paid niches in food, fashion and lifestyle, charging on average $300 to $900 for sponsored Instagram posts promoting everything from events to restaurants to beauty products and clothing — but that doesn’t necessarily translate to a lucrative, full-time living wage for everyone.
That’s according to a review of media kits from four local influencers with audiences of 25,000 to 50,000 followers who shared rates on condition of anonymity.
Influencers that offer sponsored blog posts in addition to Instagram posts charge more for the placement, anywhere from $500 to $3,000.
Vidya Gopalan runs Queen City Trends, a fashion and lifestyle blog and Instagram account with just under 30,000 followers. She launched her brand less than a year ago as a stay at home mom and has gained a lot of traction.
“I’ve only been doing this for 10 months but I’ve been pleased to see a lot of growth already,” she said.
Gopalan uses Fohr, a popular influencer marketing platform, to set her pricing and verify her following. “Through the platform I am able to compile my stats, engagement and growth information all in one place and that is used to determine the rate,” she said.
Fohr is perhaps best known for its ability to comb an influencer’s follower list, weeding out bots and fake accounts to verify only authentic followings. (Queen City Trends is in fact Fohr verified.)
Gopalan says about 90 percent of her brand collaborations are inbound and that she primarily works with national brands. Her influencer income is about 70 percent sponsored posts and 30 percent commission from affiliate links like LikeToKnowIt.
“I do feel that national brands are more aware and understand the power of influencers,” she said. “Their compensation packages are usually more appealing and many times local brands are not able to offer cash compensation, only product.”
Gopalan says one of the biggest misconceptions people have about being an influencer is that it’s easy. “Almost every Instagram post that goes up probably takes an average of 3 hours of my time before it’s live,” she said. “And then I interact with my followers on every post.”
For now, Gopalan’s husband generates their family’s main source of income (and he also serves as her free photographer) but she’s eager to see where it goes. “I’m primarily focused on doing something I love and being able to share that with others,” she said.
Melissa Cantey of Melissa Chanel, a lifestyle blog and Instagram account with more than 26,000 followers, has leveraged her personal brand into a full suite of revenue-generating services, including blog consulting and personal shopping.
Cantey launched her blog seven years ago before she knew blogging would be “a thing” and now generates revenue with sponsored posts on Instagram and her site. She says influencer income accounts for about 50 percent of her total income.
Cantey also hosts events and offers one-on-one consults on everything from monetizing your blog to buying the right sneakers.
When setting her rates, she takes into account her follower count, how many hours the work will take to complete and whether or not she has to hire a photographer. She also references Social Bluebook, a resource that offers platform valuations based on your engagement, reach, demographics and more.
Cantey says local brands are behind the curve when it comes to leveraging the power of influencers and that Nike is her dream brand partnership.
“It’s just like building any other business,” Cantey said. “It takes hard work to become successful and we’re not just sitting on Instagram all day! We set up meetings, pitch ideas to huge brands, negotiate deals and make sure we tell the brand’s story through photography and videography.”
Finding the right influencers to work with — especially in the face of fake followers, paid engagement and murky insights — can be daunting for small businesses.
At Vestique, Kennedy uses a combination of in-house tracking techniques, third-party software and good old fashioned industry experience to vet new influencers and validate return on investment from existing partnerships.
She says really following someone and getting to know how they engage with their audience will tell you a lot before you commit. Look for tell-tale signs of fake accounts like a dramatic disproportionate spike in engagement on a post (often a sign they’re using a paid service to generate likes) or low to no engagement at all (often a sign they’ve purchased fake followers).
But even Kennedy has been duped by fake influencers. They once paid an influencer $2,000 for one Instagram post and saw zero return in sales. When they asked for screenshots of engagement, she refused to share, which led them to believe her audience was fake.
“They’re literally stealing from businesses,” she said. “If we’re paying them and they’re posting it on their social media but they’re not doing their job as an influencer and generating a return and they’re lying about the results then they’re frauds.”
Still, Kennedy’s success in influencer marketing outweighs the scammer strikeouts.
She cites Fohr as a great resource for avoiding fake influencers. “Companies like that are trying to do their due diligence and offer verifications to influencers that have truly authentic engagement and followers,” she said.
At Vestique they’ve also shifted the focus of success metrics away from engagement (the sum of likes and comments on a post), which can easily be faked, to the bottom line: sales. And they track them with unique coupon codes and revenue share platforms like LikeToKnowIt.
But overall, technology still lags behind the industry, especially on the advertiser side.
“There’s a huge hole in the industry right now for business solutions,” Kennedy said. “The whole industry, the ball is in the influencer’s court, for sure. I really hope that there are more leaders in the tech industry that notice this and start developing solutions that can make this a little more transparent on both ends.”
As for what’s next in the wild west frontier of influencer marketing, Kennedy says the bubble won’t be bursting any time soon.
“Instagram may not always be the motherland, but influencers are not going anywhere,” she said.
“This industry is driven by consumers. They control this industry with their likes, their views and their wallet. Consumer behavior is the biggest change to the retail world — influencers are just a result of that change, and they profit by giving the people what they want.”