KANSAS CITY — Social media users encounter an overwhelming amount of information each day as brands vie for their attention online, but most consumers aren’t logging on to peruse new product offerings. They use social media to connect and learn how like-minded people build their lifestyles.

Enter the influencer. These savvy social media users cultivate loyal audiences through a mix of expertise and relatability, offering opportunities for brands to cut through the noise and influence purchasing behavior.

Influencer marketing in the food industry incentivizes an engagement rate of around 7.5%, five times the level most brands pull off through conventional advertising, according to data from Tangoo, a Toronto-based marketing firm. Half of consumers who followed social media influencers in 2019 made a purchase based on an influencer’s recommendation.

“In many ways, influencer marketing is word-of-mouth marketing, which is the only kind of marketing or advertising that really works again and again,” said Laurie Buckle, founder and chief executive officer of Cookit Media, LLC, a Los Angeles-based food and beverage influencer marketing agency. “Whether it’s a tube of toothpaste or a food product, if someone you trust says to you, ‘I really like this product,’ your interest in trying and purchasing that product is going to increase significantly.”

Macro-influencers drive awareness

Finding influencers who align with a brand’s values and speak to its target consumer is key to a successful collaboration.

Mosaic Foods, a Brooklyn, NY-based frozen-food startup, has worked with influencers doing both gifted and paid programs. (Gifted partnerships typically are based on free product samples, with some brands offering payments or gift cards for high-performing posts). The brand resonates with busy consumers who want to outsource cooking, so the company is on the lookout for influencers with on-the-go lifestyles, said Sam McIntire, co-founder and chief revenue officer.

“You have to spend time on social media, figure out who is out there, look at the types of content they’re posting and think about how your brand can fit into that content naturally and organically, rather than trying to force yourself into partnerships that might not necessarily be the best fit,” Mr. McIntire said.

Clearly defined goals also are key to successful influencer partnerships. Brands developing awareness campaigns with the goal of getting in front of as many people as possible may look to high-profile social media influencers to promote their product.

Macro-influencers have between 100,000 and a million followers. Their broad reach and established reputation lend a brand credibility, but their services often come with a price tag.

“Sometimes those budgets are totally reasonable for the following that they have and the engagement they have; sometimes they’re out of our price range,” Mr. McIntire said. “Generally, if you’re paying an influencer, you’re reviewing briefs and deciding what you want things to look like before it goes out.”

Startups and emerging brands relying on in-house teams to execute their strategy may find it difficult to reach users with large audiences.

Erika Peterson is a former marketing executive and co-founder of Nerdy Nuts, a Rapid City, SD-based flavored peanut butter brand. She experimented with around 30 macro-influencers on Instagram but found their lengthy lists of stipulations weren’t a good fit for the young company.

“We’d message an Instagram influencer, and they’d say, ‘Here is my media kit, and you need to talk to my agent, and I charge $1,000 for one million impressions, but I don’t guarantee you any clicks, and I’m only going to do it once,’” she said. “There were a lot of regulations to even get through to an influencer.”

Micro-influencers generate trial

Brands don’t need to partner with social media stars to have a big impact. Smaller influencers with stronger connections to their followers also are becoming increasingly valuable.

Micro-influencers have anywhere from 1,000 to 100,000 followers. Seen as both niche experts and trusted friends, their opinions and recommendations may carry more weight with consumers than larger influencers with highly curated, product placement-filled feeds. Smaller influencers often focus on gifted rather than paid partnerships and typically offer a more targeted approach.

Instagram micro-influencer Coty Ryan regularly talks to her followers to better understand who they are and what kind of content they want to see.

“I don’t see it as a service; I think of it more like a friendship,” she said. “I talk to people and put polls out because I want to know what they’re interested in and what they follow me for.”

That engagement is reciprocal. Influencers with smaller followings can generate up to 60% higher engagement rates than larger ones, according to data from global communications firm Edelman. They also have higher conversion rates, driving 22% more sales conversions than larger influencers.

“For brands who want to speak to a very specific audience or want to speak to an incredibly engaged audience, even if it’s small, there’s great value there,” Ms. Buckle said. “There’s also value in the idea of going to a large number of micros and learning things from those engaged audiences. The downside is that to do that really successfully, it is a big scale play.”

Minneapolis-based muesli brand Seven Sundays LLC over the past year and a half shifted its approach from long-term paid contracts with mega-influencers to gifted partnerships with micro-influencers. It currently uses an in-house team to target around 100 micro-influencers each month.

Seven Sundays doesn’t pressure potential partners to post if they don’t connect with the brand, but the niche nature of micro-influencing means most people who are sent product end up promoting the brand on their channels, founder Hannah Barnstable said. As an example, the brand recently launched in Target with an exclusive larger family pack. It developed a campaign focused on young families, reaching out to micro-influencers who feature their children on their channel and who have talked about Target before.

“I really like the transition we made to this broader approach instead of going deep with mega-influencers,” Ms. Barnstable said. “We’re connecting with real people. It’s not just an advertisement. They’ll do hashtags to let people know a post is sponsored, but it doesn’t feel that way when you look at the content.”

Mosaic Foods has benefited from paid partnerships with macro-influencers when the goal is driving brand awareness but has found gifted collaborations with micro-influencers are more effective at generating trial, Mr. McIntire said.

“A disproportionate number of our successful influencer collaborations are inbound,” he said. “When we work with those folks, we generally find the content they post is really authentic. And while somebody who only has 5,000 followers may not have a huge audience, they do have some of the most passionate follower bases. Their followers really trust them and actually take product recommendations from them.”


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Picking a platform

Seven Sundays and Mosaic Foods both focus on Instagram influencers. It’s the most common platform for food and beverage brands, with 79% of brands citing it as the most important social channel for their influencer marketing campaigns, according to research from Influencer Marketing Hub. Opportunities also exist with other platforms.

“Different platforms serve different purposes, combined with the fact that different audiences exist on different platforms,” Ms. Buckle said.

Millennials and Gen Z are most likely to engage with influencers on Instagram, according to influencer marketing agency Get Hyped. Facebook has a large user base but may be a better fit for consumers in their thirties and older. YouTube has the widest range of demographics, from children and Gen Xers. TikTok has exploded in use in recent years and is particularly popular among younger consumers, but its demographics are expanding as the platform grows.

Nerdy Nuts found almost overnight success on TikTok this summer by partnering with popular content creators who had yet to embark on any sponsored partnerships. Ms. Peterson discovered one of the brand’s biggest influencers through a no-bake peanut butter pie tutorial that had more than 100,000 views.

“I reached out to her and told her I’d love to send her peanut butter to use in her next video,” she said. “That’s the type of people I’m looking for.”

The strategy was a hit, with Nerdy Nuts skyrocketing from around $10,000 in sales in July to more than $500,000 in sales in August. Demand was so high the company temporarily shut down its website and moved to a product drop-style launch, with new batches of product available every Sunday until inventory sells out.

Authenticity is key

Influencer marketing is more than advertising through influencers, and brands shouldn’t look to influencers to merely deliver their messages.

A common mistake brands make is overstepping boundaries and exerting too much control over content, Ms. Buckle said.

“Brands make that mistake when they don’t understand what the influencer’s job is,” she said. “They can make it impossible for an influencer to create content they know will perform. They don’t understand that the real value is in that creativity and in the relationship the influencer has with their audience.”

Because influencers are in tune with a brand’s target consumer, honoring their creativity often results in valuable feedback for business owners, Ms. Barnstable said. Seven Sundays’ influencer partners recently helped shape messaging around the brand’s new grain-free ready-to-eat cereal.

“When we sent the cereal out, almost everybody talked about the ingredients, so we immediately knew that is what is most powerful about the product,” she said. “We were moving into our second production run and made some packaging tweaks to highlight how few ingredients there are right on the front of the box.”

Mosaic Foods has found letting go of control over messaging allows for more genuine endorsements and a higher return on investment.

“Social media users these days are smart; they know a lot of posts are sponsored,” Mr. McIntire said. “There’s really no substitute for true, genuine passion that an influencer has for your product coming through in their posts. It’s something you just can’t fake.”