Arkansas ‘influencers’ getting in on the act
Social media has become not only a way to keep up with those around us, but also to influence others and even to make money.
As more people continue to use various social media platforms, many brands are increasingly reaching out to individuals on social who have a strong relationship with their followers and can either introduce or influence them to their message.
Scrolling through social media feeds without seeing someone promote a product or service is rare these days. This strategy, known as influencer marketing, has the potential to reach a larger audience and yield a higher return on investment (ROI) than traditional marketing for brands and companies. And it is becoming a booming industry.
According to a recent benchmark report on the state of this trend by the Influencer Marketing Hub, the industry is expected to grow from $6.5 billion in 2019 to $9.7 billion this year. Business Insider projects it will be worth up to $15 billion by 2022.
While it can represent a lucrative career path, Arkansas influencers tell Arkansas Money and Politics that influencer marketing entails a lot of behind-the-scenes work that can require hours of planning and engagement.
Bethany Stephens is founder and president of Soapbox Influence, a Bentonville agency that works with social media influencers. She said influencer marketing has its roots in simple person-to-person recommendations.
“The industry is an interesting space in terms of it almost being an outgrowth of word-of-mouth marketing,” she said. “As the world becomes more technologically advanced, the natural word-of-mouth has moved to the social media space.”
Stephens said she started using social media heavily in 2009 and became an early influencer. Over time, she started consulting other people and eventually founded Soapbox Influence. The firm works with 5,000 influencers in all 50 states.
“We are kind of like a matchmaking company for influencers and brands. Typically, what happens is a company or brand might hire us to run a national shopping market campaign,” Stephens said. “We will then hire 50 to 100 influencers across the country. They are determined based on where the stores are carrying the product, how many stores, and then we match zip codes to influencers. There is an application and vetting process as well.”
Usually, social influencers and firms like Soapbox are compensated for their time through a contracted flat fee.
Stephens’ agency has served big companies and brands like Walmart, the NBA, Tyson Foods, Shell, NBC Universal, Huggies, Burt’s Bees and more. It also has worked with local companies and organizations such as Arkansas Children’s, The Momentary, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art and Visit Bentonville.
“An influencer can receive a free product for a post or receive as little as $50. We try to pay at a fairly high threshold from $250 to $2,000 per post, depending on what is being asked,” Stephens said. “Five years ago, very few people could make a full-time living from this industry and did it on the side as a writer or content creator. Within the last few years, it has become a completely viable industry to make an income.”
The agency does not require a minimum number of followers for influencers who might have anywhere “between 250 to 2 million” followers. The average follower count for influencers hired by the agency is between 50,000 to 70,000.
“Authenticity is what matters the most. Influencers need to have genuine relationships and be intentional about what they promote,” Stephens said.
One social media influencer in Fayetteville, Sarah Fortune, went viral online almost five years ago with a CVS-themed birthday party for her daughter Iris, who was turning 4 at the time. She has been intentional with her social media accounts by focusing on her personal style and life as a working mom.
Fortune has a full-time job completely separate from social media, but she has been blogging and building her online presence as a side hustle ever since. She uses her platform to connect with others and share her creativity. On Instagram alone, she has nearly 21,000 followers.
“My follower growth has been very organic and maybe even a little slow, but I also am not able to devote my full time to it. For me, social media is just a way to have fun and see what happens,” Fortune said. “I also have gotten to experience different opportunities and earn some extra money.”
Fortune has promoted companies like Barbie and Coca-Cola as well as local travel destinations. She has also seen the transformation of influencer marketing firsthand on social media.
“When I first started doing sponsored posts, I received so many negative responses,” she said. “It is normalized now, and so it’s been interesting to see things change. Sometimes it still feels odd to do sponsored posts, but I do have a lot of people ask me about things they see in my posts all the time and genuinely want to know my opinion.”
Jennifer Maune, a social media influencer in Little Rock, said she receives a lot of comments and messages about specific content. Maune focuses on her family with six kids, as well as home design, entertainment, recipes and traveling.
“It is so important in the industry to really create a community by taking the time to respond to comments and messages. You also want to build their trust and be engaging,” she said. “For example, I had someone ask where I purchased a bed skirt shown in one of my photos. I actually made it, so I spent time explaining how I did it and sharing the tips I learned.”
Maune took the leap to make social media her full-time career and now earns a six-figure income from her blog and social media accounts. She joined Instagram in April 2017 and decided to turn social media into a business that fall. By December, Maune had already earned her first paycheck.
“I really just started to share my passions and hobbies as well as to connect with other like-minded women. As I started sharing, using hashtags and meeting other influencers in the community, I began to grow organically and then a brand reached out to me.”
She currently has 122,000 followers on Instagram. Between all of her social media accounts including Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and her blog, Maune can gain 1 million impressions on a campaign.
“My business has several different income streams from affiliate links, advertising and brand partnerships. It can be a successful job if you treat it like one,” she said. “I also have a global audience with followers in places like Australia and Great Britain. My largest audience though is here in the South.”
As Maune’s business grew, she allocated more of her monthly budget to get help with management.
“I now have three assistants that help with different aspects, a photographer and sometimes a videographer when needed. I also have a search-engine optimization expert to get more eyes on my content and provide more value. It has grown into a full business for me, and I get to do everything that I have ever wanted with this. I’m amazed to see how far things have come and really just how my life has changed.”
Future plans include publishing several books as well as creating a home product line.
Like Stephens, Maune advises social influencers to be authentic and intentional, to “stay within what you are truly passionate about and within your niche.
“I will share the products and services I love. When you hear someone’s personal opinion about something, it creates the opportunity to guide the purchasing decision. I only promote products that I truly love or that I think my audience will love,” she said.
So far, she has partnered with 150 companies. Most influencers decline more offers than they accept, especially if those brands do not align with their own personal brand or values. But for the ones that do, Maune loves to see her partnerships result in growth for local businesses.
“I worked with a local business two years ago to completely remodel my kitchen. They received so much business and inquiries from the partnership and asked what we could do together next. It’s nice to have some growth attributed to the work of an influencer.”
Matthew Hartman, IT director of mergers and acquisitions at Walmart, joined Instagram four-and-a-half years ago. He uses the platform as a menswear brand ambassador and style consultant and has approximately 186,000 followers. Like other influencers, he enjoys helping other businesses grow.
“My favorite brands to work with are the ones that grow with you. It’s very rewarding to see the companies that you have supported from the beginning and have relationships with, grow and evolve,” he said. “What I specifically try to do is be authentic, show that I am a real person in real life. I want the conversation to be real and genuinely establish relationships.”
Hartman got started on social media in an unconventional way — overcoming the challenge of dressing more professionally for work.
“It started from a performance review. My boss at the time was a CIO of a company in Iowa and told me that I had a perception problem because I look very young for my age. Everyone thought I was a college kid,” Hartman said. “He told me one way I could change that is by dressing differently, more professional. I had no idea what that meant, but I needed to get nicer clothes to wear.”
With the help from his wife, he bought new shirts, suits and ties. But Hartman said the new wardrobe led to a new dilemma — how to coordinate everything. So, he turned to social media to find and share inspiration.
“I decided to share what I came up with to help someone else out and maybe inspire them to try something new,” Hartman said. “It really picked up after the first year with an insane amount of comments, questions, followers and brands reaching out.”
He was shocked when a bow tie company from the United Kingdom reached out to him to promote a new line of products.
“It was very surprising and unique. I had never worn a bow tie really before, but I have grown to push some of my style boundaries and have an open mind to new things.”
Hartman has grown significantly on social media and now has nearly 335 brand partnerships this year alone. He has no future plans to leave his day job at Walmart despite the fact that his “social influencing” can sometimes feel like its own full-time gig.
“It’s not as easy as you think it is,” Hartman said. “It can really be like a job. If you have one platform, then it might not be that much but, if you have five or six, then it can add up together. Experiment on the platforms that work for you because you’ll be better with some than others.
“You can be clever and leverage more than one social media platform and what each one is known for. You can cross-pollinate content, direct traffic to your personal website, have promotional advertisements on your website and gain revenue through those ads or sponsorships. It depends on what you are trying to go for, being smart and going with intent in what you want to achieve.”
While there may not be one secret to success in making money through social media, Arkansas influencers say authenticity, intentionality and building relationships through engagement with followers are key.