Fueled: What Companies Can Learn From Social Media Influencers

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Running popular social media accounts may seem like a career for the stereotypical lazy millennial, but it’s serious business for influencers.

Let’s get something out of the way. We’re not talking about celebrities who get paid to pose in crop-tops with that “skinny tea” on Instagram (here’s looking at you, Khloe Kardashian). Celebrity spokespeople are a marketing trend as old as marketing itself. Influencers are a different class of people who have developed a following solely due to their online presence.

Do the names Samantha Rothenberg or Rachel Brathen ring a bell to you? Maybe not right away. You most likely know them better by Instagram monikers Violet Clair and Yoga Girl — their accounts have 40k and 2.1 million followers respectively. Rothenberg rose up through the ranks by sharing her original, whimsical illustrations on Instagram, and Brathen is a professional yoga instructor and bestselling author. They both have created the golden standard for successful social media branding, and businesses of all kinds can learn a lot from them. The biggest challenge for companies is finding a way to connect with users, but these social media influencers hacked this problem long ago.

These days, competition for user attention is high. One of the problems is that many businesses still consider social media as simply a tool to blast promotions and advertisements with the click of a button. Influencers, on the other hand, understood better and earlier than corporations stuffed with MBAs the value of experience and connectivity that social media can provide.

So, we asked Rothenberg and Brathen about how they built their brands and how their expertise can be applied to the business world.

KEEPING IT REAL

Ok, I lied. We actually are going to talk about the Kardashians just a bit more. The combo platter of abs, ass(ets), and an A-list name may seem like requisites for any Instagram ad campaign these days. But frankly, this kind of promotion is as expensive as it is eye-rollingly inauthentic, and sometimes even deceiving. There’s no way to know if Kylie achieved her famous waistline by going on a #teatox. And don’t even get me started on the Fyre Festival — a prime example of celebrity Instagram endorsements gone very, very wrong.

Authenticity is what many companies lack in their social media marketing practices. Humanizing your business on social media is a surefire way to gain and maintain user attention. And this is where we can take a page out of the influencers’ handbook. Samantha Rothenberg (@violetclair), and Rachel Brathen (@yoga_girl) have the art of relatability down to a science.

Rothenberg taps into the the perils of being a modern woman through the original illustrations she makes for Instagram. The cartoons navigate themes like dating, being an “adult child,” drunk texting, and insecurities in general. The secret to her success? Yep, you guessed it: relatability.

This comes as worthwhile advice in the wake of the Fyre Festival disaster, which caused Instagram users to be more wary of scams, fakes, and general BS than ever. These days, a lot of people carefully consider not only who to follow, but who to trust on social media, and makes being genuine even more important. People gravitate towards social media influencers like Brathen and Rothenberg because they are regular people. Their non-movie star status helps them appear more relatable and trustworthy. In fact, 80% of teens think that YouTubers are more relatable than celebrities are.

Rachel Brathen holds many titles: yogi, bestselling author, new mom, nonprofit founder, and as of this year, the most important social media influencer for fitness as named by Forbes. While it is certainly not her primary occupation, posting on Instagram was the force that launched Brathen into the spotlight, and continues to spur her many successes. The secret behind her Insta-glory is also heavily tied to vulnerability.

Brathen lives in picturesque Aruba, and her Instagram account reads like a “dream life” Pinterest board. She shares pictures of sun-soaked beaches, her adorable baby girl, cotton-candy-blue seascapes, and of course, her impressive yoga skills. But Brathen isn’t just another one-dimensional Instagram-famous woman whose life is “#goals.” She regularly pulls back the curtain and shares her inner thoughts, emotions, and sometimes struggles, with her followers in Instagram posts and stories. “There were so many times in my life where I doubted if I was in the right place. And there were dark moments, heavy times where I lost faith in absolutely everything,” Brathen divulges in one post. She goes on to open up about coping with excruciating grief and how she found her way out of a dark place. “It still hurts like hell but without it… I wouldn’t be here. With my feet in the sand. Holding a love so big I don’t know how I ever lived without it,” referring to her daughter.

Reaching out from beyond the pretty photographs and giving her followers an intimate look into the realities of her world is the key feature of Brathen’s Instagram presence that makes her stand out as an influencer. Opening up and being honest, she insists, is the key to creating not merely a large social media following, but a wider sense of community and engagement. “You have to be vulnerable to connect to a place of truth and inspiration that people can resonate with from afar,” Brathen said. “Being vulnerable in a public space allows others to let their guard down and be vulnerable, too.”

“YOU HAVE TO BE VULNERABLE TO CONNECT TO A PLACE OF TRUTH AND INSPIRATION THAT PEOPLE CAN RESONATE WITH FROM AFAR.”

The comments sections on her posts are often inundated with supporters pouring out love to her and one another. Her openness and empathy on social media gives her fans a platform to share their own stories and feel a sense of human connection. This community Brathen has created comes as a direct result of being vulnerable. As a company, keeping your social media presence authentic, honest, and connected can help increase your brand’s appeal and accessibility.

FINDING YOUR SOCIAL MEDIA IDENTITY

“Violet Clair” is Rothenberg’s “rapper name, but for illustration,” and “Yoga Girl” is Brathen’s Instagram title (as well as the title of her book). But these alter-egos are more than just catchy handles, they give voice and charisma to each influencer’s respective brand. Like every good writer, every good social media account needs a dominant, guiding voice to give users a sense of personality. Finding your company’s niche identity on social platforms may be tricky, but here’s what we can learn from influencers.

Start by asking yourself, “who or what does our brand sound like?” If you envision your social presence as a specific figure, you can start building an online identity. Maybe your company’s voice is touching and inspirational like Brathen’s or playful and observational like Rothenberg’s. Being in-tune with how your company interacts with others and communicates is essential in creating an on-brand social media operation.

CONSISTENCY IS KEY

Once you have your company’s social personality nailed down, you can start putting forward a consistent stream of relevant content. This requires a thought-out plan about when to put out content. Posting once or twice daily is par for the course for social media influencers, but “regularly” tends to vary company to company. Engineering a plan to make sure social content is being routinely shared in a way that makes sense for your business is crucial to increase engagement.

“PEOPLE KNOW WHEN YOU ARE BEING REAL.”

Rothenberg and Brathen are wary of sacrificing consistency and authenticity for the sake of marketing. There is comfort in getting what you expect from a brand’s feed. For businesses about to dive into a new social strategy, there are often many different things you could do, but it is a good practice to start by limiting yourself to a few core types of posts such as user-generated content, photos featuring employees, or product-centric photos. Brathen agrees, urging that brand consistency is more important than selling out. “Don’t fake it,” she warns, “people know when you are being real.”

MASTERING THE ART OF SELF-AWARE SELF-PROMOTION

Let’s face it: monetizing an Instagram feed is no easy feat. Rothenberg and Brathen both try to limit sponsored posts in favor of staying true to their brands.

Having a clear call-to-action is a must when you’re promoting a specific offering — a sale, or special deal — but users aren’t going to follow your company if all you do is post coupons. Users quickly accommodate to loud sales calls, so you should take a leaf out of the influencers’ book and try to limit them. Social media is about building a relationship, and it can feel jarring when you put an ask on your followers. Although she can charge around $25,000 per Instagram post, Brathen said she avoids exploiting her followers by “staying genuine and not inundating the community with ads and marketing.”

But when you run your own brand like many influencers do, you are responsible for getting yourself noticed, and this can be an obstacle as well. Trying to get noticed on a public platform like Instagram requires some tact. As a business, you don’t want to spread self-promo posts too thick, lest you sacrifice the connectivity and authenticity required to maintain followers.

“…STAYING GENUINE AND NOT INUNDATING THE COMMUNITY WITH ADS AND MARKETING.”

So how does one promote themselves without sacrificing brand authenticity?

Creating organic buzz and engaging users on social media like Weiss did with Glossier is only possible if your company commits to authenticity, consistency, and connectivity. By putting out regular on-brand content and being accessible to followers, your chances of grabbing the attention of key markets are higher. For example, once Brathen started gaining a strong Instagram following as Yoga Girl, she said, “I realized I could sell out classes anywhere I was in the world just through Instagram.” Rothenberg also mentioned, “last year Lena Dunham shared one of my humorous illustrations and it got a massively positive reaction.”

INFLUENCERS AND THE FUTURE OF SOCIAL MEDIA MARKETING

In the socially-connected reality we find ourselves in, relationships are the most important catalyst of user attention. Rethinking social media as way to build relationships instead of simply making sales is the to key to influencers’ success. The future of branding and marketing lies in social media, and mastering these influencers’ techniques will keep your company relevant.