Kylie Jenner garnered attention last year when it was estimated the reality television star and entrepreneur made $1 million per sponsored post on Instagram. But each day, Jenner and other mega celebrities are sharing the social media platform with a growing number of “micro-influencers” — people like Samantha Bowers, a Harrisonville native and University of Missouri senior.
Industry definitions for micro-influencers vary, but some Instagram users are considered a personal brand with as few as 2,000 followers. These influencers connect and engage with audiences on a smaller scale. With no start-up costs, they can grow their online influence rapidly and gain traction with brands quickly.
Bowers has more than 21,000 Instagram followers after starting a fitness blog in March 2017 called The Fit Brunette. She began to share her blog content on Instagram, but she soon noticed that the posts were having more success on her Instagram page than on her blog.
“People have blogs to back up their Instagrams, but a lot of times people won’t leave Instagram itself to go visit a blog unless they have a real incentive to do so,” Bowers said. “Instagram has exploded as its own platform.”
Instagram now reports more than 1 billion monthly active users worldwide and more than 2 million monthly advertisers. The company says 80 percent of users follow some sort of business account. That includes influencers such as Bowers, who is able to access analytics about her audience for free by registering her account as a public figure.
Bowers has worked with brands like Nike, Fabletics and Garmin, but one of her most notable partnerships is with Lee’s Summit Volkswagen. The car dealership provides Bowers with a Volkswagen to drive in exchange for social media promotion through sponsored posts and Instagram stories.
“I might do an Instagram story and say ‘Oh my gosh, it’s 60 degrees out — look at this sunroof, which I can finally open,'” Bowers said. “I’m not trying to fool anyone here or straight up advertise to you. But I’m telling you: ‘I have this car, and I like this car. Here’s why you should, too.'”
Emily Rackers believes audience engagement is key to the success of micro-influencers. Rackers is a digital marketing strategist at Lift Division, a Columbia-based digital agency, and works with small businesses and nonprofits to ramp up their presence online.
“The bottom line is that people are connecting with other people,” Rackers said of the success of influencer marketing. “There is something I think so intriguing about seeing another authentic person talk about the things they like, or what they’re eating for dinner, or what they’re wearing, that is so much more fun than connecting with a brand.”
A sense of authenticity like Rackers described can be harder for celebrities to achieve on Instagram when promoting sponsored advertisements.
Bowers believes the key to micro-influencer success isn’t just authenticity, but also interaction.
“I get a lot of questions if I post about a product, so people feel like they can come talk to me on Instagram,” Bowers said. “They feel like I’m their friend.”
Shanna Hutcheson is another micro-influencer from the Kansas City area. After starting a career as a registered dietitian, Hutcheson turned to Instagram as a place to post recipes and photos of her food creations. What started as a hobby quickly grew into a part-time job, and Hutcheson has been able to partner with Kansas City-area brands such as Superfood Shot Co., a company that makes nutrient-rich two-ounce “shots.”
Though influencers rely on brand partnerships for revenue, Hutcheson said she turns a lot of companies down.
“I really do my best to partner with brands that I feel truly align with my vision and my mission for my brand,” Hutcheson said. “I don’t think people realize how many times bloggers such as myself turn down opportunities to work with brands.”
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In 2017, the Federal Trade Commission started cracking down on influencer marketing. The FTC requires influencers to disclose an endorsement with a business when a “material connection” — such as gifts or payment — is involved.
Influencers typically choose to disclose this information by using “#AD” in captions, indicating that the post is intended to serve as an advertisement for a company. However, simply including “#AD” isn’t always enough because regulations require disclosure to be easily noticed and understood. In the case of Instagram captions, the FTC has suggested ad disclosure should be done within the first two lines so that it is visible to all users.
Bowers said that some companies ask influencers to publish statements crafted by the companies.
“I don’t post like that; that doesn’t sound like me,” Bowers said. “And somebody following is going to be able to read that and go, ‘That’s not authentic.'”
And authenticity sells — perhaps even more so in smaller markets, away from mega influencers and million-dollar Instagram posts.
“It’s about following people that you would talk to in a grocery store, or that you could be friends with,” Rackers said. “I think Instagram influencers, especially from smaller areas, have this really unique opportunity to share their whole-hearted self. In a smaller, niche market, that’s the selling point.”