Brands are looking beyond the reach of big-name influencers, and tapping micro-influencers who have a smaller but more personal connection with their followers and often a greater ability to drive higher engagement.

When it comes to influencers, more followers are not always better. Macro-influencers – those with millions of followers that are wooed with big marketing budgets – have become celebrities in the social media landscape, meaning they have become mostly unaffordable for all but the biggest of brands. Naturally, an increasing number of smaller brands are turning to micro-influencers, typically with 10,000 followers or less, to help drive brand loyalty and growth.

“Macro-influencers are usually very brand saturated. Their audience is varied and diluted, and the risk is that audiences will switch off, in the same way that radio ads became less effective because people tuned out,” said Chelsea Matthews, founder of Matte Black, a culture marketing firm in Los Angeles whose clients include Dermalogica, OPI and Glamsquad. “Micro-influencers are unexpected and less saturated. It’s about who is engaging with content.”

As an influencer’s follower total rises, the rate of engagement (likes and comments) with followers decreases, according to a 2016 study by Markerly, an influencer technology platform that specializes in influencer identification and tracking. The sweet spot, they discovered, lies in the 10K–100K follower range, offering the best combination of engagement and broad reach.

“Micro-influencers have always been a part of our strategy, though back when we started they weren’t called micro-influencers,” said Laura Nelson, Founder and President of Seed Beauty, referring to the ColourPOP brand she launched in 2014. “The landscape has shifted drastically. The number of influencers has grown, but the shift is on how brands are interacting with them. Many brands are leveraging larger influencers, but you can’t measure influence based on size. You’re not looking at the whole picture. If you only look at reach, it’s like only looking at the square footage of a house. You need to look at the best fit between brand, product and influencer.”

For ColourPOP, that meant connecting to micro-influencers one at a time. “Influencers were all we had in the beginning, and it was about developing organic relationships,” said Laura. “It has never been transactional for us. It’s about trying to find influencers, beauty lovers and junkies that we connect with and who love our products, and working together supportively.”

ColourPOP entered the marketplace with just one product – Super Shock Shadow – and reached out to people it saw on social media. “It wasn’t by size or beauty reports. It was a very natural thing to reach out to beauty lovers… It’s about shared values.”

How do brands identify the right micro-influencers? “We use Tribe Dynamics, but we are also a team of beauty enthusiasts who love to scroll through Instagram or go on YouTube to find new people to follow and love. We are constantly direct messaging people!” said Rea Ann Silva, Founder of Beautyblender.

It’s this focus on authentic fit between brand and influencer that leads to greater engagement (calculated as total amount of ‘likes’ and ‘comments’ divided by number of followers). “Just because an influencer has an audience, doesn’t mean it’s the right audience because their audience might not convert [to paying customers],” said Chelsea of Matte Black, who has been creating influencer programs for client brands for six years.

“We want reach and engagement to be high, but we will take higher engagement over a larger following any day,” said Rea Ann. “If engagement is low, then the influencer is not influencing their followers, and the content is not inspiring people to react.”

Some brands are compensating for reduced reach by working with many micro-influencers to achieve scale.

“Sleek MakeUP’s influencer program consists of a large number of influencers in the hundreds, sometimes over a thousand, and a target list that is constantly changing and adapting. That’s just how the influencer media spectrum is at the moment,” said Katie Dobson, PR and Partnerships Manager at London-based Sleek MakeUP, which is sold in 50 countries worldwide. “We ensure that influencers receive product sneak peaks and testers before they go to market, just like press, and we engage with them across our social channels through pushing user-generated content as we think it’s equally important to boost their profiling too.”

“It can’t be a one-hit conversion,” said Chelsea. “Brands are focusing on how they can integrate influencers into their marketing strategy on a long-term basis.”

“Consumers are getting more savvy to influencers being paid to promote products, the way celebs are, and that’s why micro-influencers are more trustworthy,” said Rea Ann. “Meaningful relationships will be more important than ever. One-off campaigns don’t really work, and I think everyone is starting to see that.”

Collaborating with influencers helps create deeper buy-in, according to Chelsea. “We brought micro-influencers with the right look to a Dermalogica photo shoot, and they shared the behind-the-scenes on Instagram Stories,” she said. “To be featured on set with a brand like Dermalogica, and show up in their feed or repurposed content, leads to influencers becoming more invested in content.”

Micro-influencers are always looking to cross-pollinate their audiences with other micro-influencers, added Chelsea. She cited a recent ‘influencer bomb’ campaign for Goldfaden MD’s Facial Detox (a purifying mask). “We engaged a high quantity of influencers who all posted at the same time, and it’s a nice way to see a strong conversion.”

Embracing a large number of micro-influencers has the added benefit of creating diversity of conversation for a brand. “It’s about bringing different perspectives on beauty. We are here to facilitate that,” said Laura at ColourPOP.

“We pride ourselves in working with a wide range of bloggers that best reflect our brand and consumers,” said Katie at Sleek MakeUP. “Ensuring that our consumers relate to influencers is always our main aim, and sometimes that means reaching out to bloggers with fewer followers, but stronger integrity and authenticity.”