Why brands are turning away from big Instagram influencers to work with people who have small followings instead
- Brands are increasingly moving away from working with huge influencers to promote their products.
- Instead, they're choosing to collaborate with micro or nano-influencers, who can have as few as 100 followers.
- There are many reasons for this switch, but mainly it's because people with smaller followings are much more relatable and trustworthy, and their endorsements seem a lot more genuine and authentic.
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The life of an influencer can appear incredibly glamorous - who wouldn't want to spend their days posing for photos, receiving gifts from brands, and being paid to post about them on Instagram?
It's a lifestyle that appeals to many, so much so that "social media influencer" is the second most popular career aspiration amongst 11-to-16-year-olds today (second only to "doctor"), according to one study.
With certain influencers commanding followings into the millions, securing an endorsement from one can seem like an incredibly powerful move for a brand.
However, the tide is slowly turning, and increasingly brands are seeing the benefits of working with micro or nano-influencers - meaning it's actually possible work with your favourite brands even if you only have a few hundred followers.
What is a micro-influencer?
The term "micro-influencer" is bandied around a lot, but exactly what it describes is up for debate.
While some people would consider anyone with 1,000 to 10,000 followers a micro-influencer, and anyone with more than that to be an influencer, others break things down more thoroughly.
Gabby Wickham and Shirley Leigh-Wood Oakes are the co-founders of London-based brand influence agency Wickerwood, which plays the role of middle-man between brands and influencers.
They divide influencers into the following categories:
- Mega: 1 million +
- Macro: 200,000 - 900,000 followers
- Midi: 50,000 - 200,000 followers
- Micro: 10,000 - 50,000 followers
- Nano: 800 - 10,000 followers
Why do brands want to work with micro-influencers?
It might seem counterintuitive for a company wanting to boost sales and increase brand awareness to choose to work with influencers with small followings, but there's actually a whole host of reasons to do so.
For starters, people with a few thousand followers generally seem more trustworthy, authentic, and relatable than those with huge followings.
Working with smaller influencers can also mean a brand's message is spread in a more natural-feeling way.
"It's really trusted and curated content," Wickerwood's Gabby Wickham told INSIDER. "[Working with micro-influencers] is one of the strongest marketing platforms of the moment."
What's more, nano and micro-influencers often allow a brand to target specific audiences - if, say, you were opening a restaurant in north London, working with micro-influencers who post about their adventures in the area would likely increase your chances of reaching others who might spend time there.
"A lot of brands prefer to work with nano or micro-influencers because they're a lot more focused and more targeted to their followers and audience," cofounder Shirley Leigh-Wood Oakes added.
"It means the potential engagement is a lot stronger because those influencers will be much more aware and in tune with their immediate following because they've grown them, they're still small enough for them to be able to engage well with and also potentially know on some level.
25-year-old London-based food blogger Nina Ricafort, for example, has 10.6K followers on her Instagram account @feastlondon.
Her feed is dedicated to reviews of dishes and restaurants found in central London, and she always discloses when she was invited as a guest for a complimentary meal.
"They'll be much more London-centric and locally-focussed because of the work they've been doing," Leigh-Wood Oakes added.
Companies are seeking genuine brand fans
No matter the size of your following, and despite the inclusion of #ad, #gifted, or #spon in your caption, product endorsements on Instagram are a lot more powerful when the person doing so is a genuine fan of the brand.
This is something Amber Atherton, now the founder of a tool called Zyper, realized while running a jewellery e-commerce business.
"We learned our customers were our most relevant ambassadors," Atherton told INSIDER. "Tapping into fans of a brand is far more powerful than using an influencer."
This was the seed which led to her founding Zyper, which uses a secret algorithm to identify a brand's top 1% of fans and then bring the two together on projects.
"It's the idea that influencers are becoming less and less relevant and every consumer has the power to collaborate with a brand that they love," Atherton said. "We're like a hybrid loyalty programme, it's about rewarding genuine fans as opposed to just paying people to post."
She believes real fans are more important than influencers because you know they genuinely like the product.
Are big influencers losing their allure?
One of the problems with working with huge influencers is that you don't really know who you're reaching.
"With macro- and mega-influencers, it's like throwing sand at a wall," Wickham said. "It's a numbers game, rather than really curating."
What's more, the biggest influencers have become celebrities in their own rights, which makes them not seem like real people any more.
"Some of these much bigger ones with half a million or a million followers, they feel a little out of touch or seem to have propelled themselves into the celebrity space," Leigh-Wood Oakes said.
"So consumers and followers start to see the dollar signs behind that, they're turning into a business, probably being paid a hell of a lot."
Even though a micro- or nano-influencer might have received something for free, they certainly won't have been paid the huge amounts mega-influencers receive for their endorsements. The general public is also becoming more savvy to how sizeable these fees can be - and it's a turn-off.
"People want authentic content and it becomes really disingenuous if you realise someone is paid £10,0000 ($13,000) to do it," said Wickham.
All of these factors have contributed to a general decline in trust of big influencers, and Atherton says the data backs this up.
"Advertising is not the way to appeal to millennials and Generation Z, and influencers are very much becoming just a new form of paid media," she said.
"That lack of trust is really where we're seeing a shift to going back to this peer-to-peer grassroots level. Because at the end of the day, the most effective form of advertising is peer-to-peer referral.
"I think the whole influencer space is a massive bubble which is going to burst."
How micro-influencers are selected
If the big influencer space has become overcrowded, there are of course even more potential micro- and nano-influencers on Instagram, so how do agencies and brands decide who to work with?
For WickerWood, it's a case of considering analytics but also a person's content creation - that means not only whether what you're posting has been thoughtfully created, but also whether it aligns with the brand's image.
From a personal point of view, you won't be doing yourself any favours by endorsing a product that doesn't fit seamlessly into your Instagram.
"Followers are so much more savvy than they were before, and if it doesn't look real and it doesn't look like it is part of your world and you would endorse it, there's no point in doing it," said Leigh-Wood Oakes.
"The influencer should want to work with brands that work with their lifestyle because otherwise their followers are just going to get turned off."
For Zyper, exactly how brand fans are identified is secret. However, Atherton says the algorithm is largely based around an analysis of a brand's customer data, someone's engagement with the brand, whether you're an existing customer, your aesthetic, and various other metrics.
"They have to have the right metrics to have 1% fan status," Atherton said. "That's how we confirm someone is a real brand advocate - it's obviously completely different to influencers which just comes down to brands choosing different people who'll promote tons of different brands if they're paid."
The size of a person's following doesn't actually come into it at all, and there's no minimum you have to have to become a brand fan: "It's a completely artificial way to determine if somebody is relevant to a brand or in any way influential within their peer group," Atherton explained.
"We generally don't look at that as a defining metric at all."
While Zyper tends to approach the top 1% of fans on social media after identifying them, they also get people applying, often enticed by the prospect of freebies.
Since launching a year and a half ago, Zyper has had 100,000s of applications from people who want to be brand fans, but the vast majority get turned down if they don't come up in the company's data deep-dive.
"So if you wanted to work with Topshop, we take a deep dive and then match that up with our inbound signup list and see if those people are actually coming up in the top 1%," Atherton said. "A lot of the time they're not."
What does being a micro-influencer actually entail?
Working with brands on a micro- or nano-influencer scale can mean various different things.
In order to maintain authenticity, it's important that you're not just doing a one-off post, but rather that you become an ambassador who is part of a campaign over months or years.
Zyper works with brands such as Magnum, L'Oréal, and Dior, but how it works with influencers varies.
Usually, once the top 1% of fans have been identified and they've agreed to be involved, they'll be given credit to spend on the brand in some capacity and be asked to feature it in posts a certain number of times per month (disclosing that the products were gifted).
Zyper's brand fans double-up as a focus group for the brands too, and they're often brought together to sample new products and provide feedback on what they'd like to see.
"I think that is becoming a huge part of the value we're bringing to brands," Atherton said. "It's a very lean feedback group for insights."
Zyper also then feeds data back to its brands: for example, if 50% of a beauty brand's fans have Instagrammed something matcha-related over the past three months, this might result in the brand considering bringing out a matcha line of products, or even just giving out matcha kits to fans as a reward.
How to make yourself more attractive to brands
So, you've got a small but engaged following on Instagram and want to get a slice of the micro-influencer action - how do you go about it?
Ultimately, you need to wait for a brand or agency to come to you, but there are certain ways you can increase your chances of this happening, as Leigh-Wood Oakes explained.
1. Understand yourself as a brand
Ask yourself: What's your ethos as a social media influencer? What do you want to tell your followers? What lifestyle are your trying to promote? Make sure this comes across strongly through your posts.
2. Be real
"A lot of brands are starting to work a lot less with influencers who Photoshop too much, use loads of filters, and give off this idea that life is perfect and wonderful and there's not a pimple or a dimple in sight - it's not real life," Leigh-Wood Oakes said.
"So I would definitely suggest an influencer make sure they are really showing real life. Yes it can be curated and tailored, but you have a responsibility and that's very key."
3. Put effort into your content
It helps to show enthusiasm for the brand and show that you care about what you're producing.
"We love it when we see an influencer get really involved, be enthusiastic, and have lots of ideas and creative input," Leigh-Wood Oakes said.
4. Know your audience
If you want your audience to engage with you, you need to engage with them, and this is how you'll get to know them.
"Really understanding and being OK with having a small audience following is crucial," Leigh-Wood Oakes said.
You just need to demonstrate you know how to engage that audience successfully.
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