Influencers with smaller followings are catching the attention of big name retailers — and an influx of cash.

An influencer can be anyone with a phone and a message to share.

That’s the case with Khadijah Oliver. In March 2023, she posted a video on TikTok trying on plus-sized clothing in a Target fitting room, and the video went viral. She now has 53,000 followers viewing her content regularly.

Now, brands including Old Navy (owned by Gap Inc.), American Eagle Outfitters Inc., Abercrombie & Fitch Trading Co., Kohl’s Corp. and Amazon.com Inc. pay Oliver to promote their merchandise to her more than 50,000 followers.

Social media influencers like Oliver are everyday people who have accounts on social media platforms like Instagram, TikTok or YouTube.

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Unlike a professional athlete or artist, these influencers amass followers with just the content they post. Consumers follow a person they don’t know for various reasons, such as finding them entertaining or informative, liking the individual or trusting their judgement.

Micro-influencers gain traction with retailers and consumers

Some influencers have millions of followers. But increasingly, it’s micro-influencers, these non-celebrity influencers who have a few thousand followers, who are gaining traction with retailers and consumers.

Influencer agency Mavely, which connects brands with influencers to promote merchandise for a fee, reached out to Oliver. After joining, Oliver earned $1,200 in her first week by sharing plus-size clothing hauls with her followers. Since then, she earns about $6,500-$7,500 or more in commissions per month.

Retailers sometimes send merchandise for influencers to try. Jen White has been an influencer for nearly seven years. She’s on YouTube and TikTok, and she has about 98,000 followers on TikTok.

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White has worked with brands directly as well as through influencer agencies like Awin, which connected her with sporting goods and apparel brand Under Armour Inc. White also works with online bedding brand Brooklinen and Dick’s Sporting Goods Inc.

Brooklinen pays White a flat fee. She earns commissions from brands like Under Armour from referral links posted to her TikToks.

“The more engagement you get, the more commission dollars I can make off of it versus other deals I’ve done. With Dick’s Sporting Goods, it’s a fixed payment with no commission attached,” she says.

The importance of authenticity for influencers

White spends her own money on merchandise she likes, but she also accepts credits from retailers to spend on their websites or in store. She also receives free items to try before posting an honest review.

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“I like the blend of it,” she says. “Some brands send me products. But I don’t want to work with brands that don’t really fit, or I don’t like the product. I’d feel guilty posting about it.”

Under Armour sent athletic shoes to White, which she says was a good fit.

“I try to do what relates to me — and I think my audience appreciates [the honesty],” she says.

Oliver provides her followers with affiliate links to items she tries on in her videos.

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Compensation differs depending on the brand, Oliver says. She earns a percentage of sales she generates from posts linked to Old Navy and American Eagle — and it’s not always about the highest bidder. She doesn’t pick one brand over another because of how much commission she might make, she says.

“American Eagle didn’t offer the highest percentage commission, but I still link my picks because I like their jeans,” Oliver says.

If Oliver likes a brand, she posts about it, regardless of compensation, she says.

“I’m spending my own money on what I buy,” Oliver says.

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And like White, she sometimes also receives store credit to spend.

“Old Navy has offered me [credits] to buy from them,” Oliver says. “But they don’t tell me what specific items to buy.”

“The videos that have done really well are because I enjoyed buying those items,” Oliver adds.

How influencers and retailers connect

Agencies like Mavely and Awin offer a link between influencer and retailer.

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“It depends on what the brand is looking for, and we customize our research based on what the brands ask for — and recently there’s been a big shift to micro-creators [micro-influencers],” says Piper Donnelly, account director, Awin Global.

It’s a growing area for analytics and marketing agency Kroger Precision Marketing/84.51, which is owned by grocer The Kroger Co.

“Kroger shoppers make up half the U.S. household population,” says Brian Spencer, marketing director at Kroger Precision Marketing. “We want brands to be able to engage our shoppers … and we’re focusing on smaller influencers.

“We want to really curate our influencers,” he says.

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Kroger Precision Marketing has different tiers of content creators it vets “to ensure it’s a safe environment,” he says. They typically have a minimum of 10,000 followers and go as high as 30,000 to 50,000 followers, which the agency considers a “macro-influencer,” he says.

It’s one way online baby registry Babylist is reaching out to new consumers. Babylist devotes 20% to 30% of its digital marketing budget to social media, says Ashley Malone, vice president performance marketing. It works with Mavely to connect with influencers.

From April 2023 to June, Babylist launched campaigns with various influencers, without specifying how many, to drive registration sign ups, Malone says. After working with Mavely, the online registry experienced a 15% increase in registry sign ups.

Going forward, Babylist will continue to use “a steady stream of influencers or creatives not only on our affiliate platform, but also in our social apps,” Malone says.

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