A Journey Through 100 Influencer & Creator Startups — Part 3: The How

How influencers can help amplify your brand and grow your business

Though the concept of influencers has been around for many years, the influencer economy (as described in Part 1) is really just getting revved up. In the third installment of this series, I’ll talk about how companies can use influencers to help amplify their brands and reach new customers. (See the last section below for five actionable steps you can take.)

The first thing to keep in mind is that there are many different types of platforms for celebrities, influencers, and creators. For example, Goop* has a celebrity founder (Gwyneth Paltrow). Cameo* has influencers at its core (Snoop Dogg and 50K others). Substack enables influencers to reach and grow their audiences. BetterUp* has an influential person in a C-level role (Prince Harry as as ‘chief impact officer’). Calm* gets celebrities to create content (Stephen Fry, Lebron James, and others).

Celebrity co-founders

The category of influencer that probably gets the most attention is the celebrity founder — like Gwyneth Paltrow (Goop), Lady Gaga (HAUS LABS*), Jessica Alba (The Honest Company*), and others.

These startups benefit from the reflected glow of a founder’s fame. Their companies get more attention because the people who started them already have huge followings and an established media presence. But that alone is not enough to create a successful company. Ultimately, the brand has to stand on its own.

When Jessica Alba’s The Honest Company launched its IPO, CEO Nick Vlahos said:

“We are brand first, celebrity second.”

In other words, if Honest Co’s baby and beauty products weren’t genuinely high quality, the company would have died on the vine ten years ago.

The same can be said of Lady Gaga and HAUS or Rihanna and Fenty Beauty. When people talk about Casamigos tequila, you hear a lot about George Clooney. But if the tequila wasn’t a good product, it wouldn’t matter how glamorous its founder was.

Celebrity content

Other startups like Calm deploy celebrities like Matthew McConaughey and LeBron James as key contributors. But again, this involves more than just a paid endorsement or a superficial commitment. Matthew narrates sleep stories, while LeBron offers a series of talks on how to train your mind.

Calm embraces an influencer policy it calls I.C.E. It requires influencers and celebrities to:

  • I… Invest in the company;
  • C… Create content for the product; and
  • E… Engage authentically with the product.

As a result, Calm and the influencers it works with are very much aligned.

Most influencers aren’t quite as famous as Lady Gaga or King James. But they can still play an important role in a company’s marketing strategy. The key is authenticity.

Brand ambassadors as influencers

Other startups like to focus on influencers who represent their core customers. As influential creators, they are the closest to average consumers, and can have a disproportionately large impact on changes in consumer behavior.

In its early days, Glossier had a very successful influencer program with little to no payment involved. Just being linked to such a strong brand was enough. Young people who wanted to be associated with cool brands like Glossier were happy to promote the company in exchange for a title such as “Glossier Ambassador.”

The food and alcohol delivery service Gopuff is another example of a company that did this well, by specifically targeting students who could spread the word to others in their friendship circle on campus.

Working with nano celebrities and micro influencers

Perhaps the most popular option for companies growing through influencers has been working with micro-influencers and nano-influencers. These are people with fewer than 10,000 followers, but whose fans are highly engaged across TikTok, YouTube, Instagram or Snap*.

What’s the strategy here?

1. Pick the right influencers. The best approach here is simply to test, test, test. See which names resonate with your customers or, better still, choose five to ten influencers from Cameo to do shoutouts for your business. Then see which ones get the most eyeballs and love from your customers and recruit them to be the voice or face of your brand.

2. Reach out to your top choices. This can be done for free on Instagram DMs, for a small fee on Cameo direct messages, or for a larger fee by going through their manager or agent (most will have connections with Creative Artists Agency, United Talent Agency, or William Morris Endeavor). Of course, the best plan of attack is always through a warm intro, so see if your investors or other connections know these folks personally.

3. Figure out how to reward them. There are many options here, which I have ranked in order of preference. Option A is to give them an opportunity to invest in your company. This path aligns your shared incentives to help the company succeed. As part owners of the company, influencers will likely go above and beyond in promoting the brand, especially if it’s one they authentically like and use themselves. Option B is to invite them to invest in the company and then offer additional advisor shares on top. This makes influencers feel like they are being paid, which puts you in a better position to make specific requests in exchange for those advisory shares. Option C is to bring them on as an employee, executive, board member, or advisor. This offers the same incentives as Option A, but it takes longer, so save this for longer term plays with exceptional influencers. Option D is simply paying an influencer to endorse your product. It’s the most clear cut option but this can get expensive, and the influencers will likely do only what’s specified in their contract and nothing more.

4. Decide which platforms to focus on. Today there are so many platforms — like TikTok, Snap, YouTube, Meta, TV, radio, and Sirius XM, to name just a few — that you can’t possibly invest in them all. It helps to have a deep knowledge of who your customers are and where they spend most of their time (for example, Gen Z is always on Snap and TikTok). It’s also a good idea to test across different platforms. Of course, the right platform can vary by product, company, and type of customer, so the testing is the most important part.

5. Rinse and repeat! This is usually not a one-time process. Audiences change; the popularity of influencers will rise and fall over time. You’ll need to regularly revisit the effectiveness of the strategy and the people involved, and make changes as circumstances dictate.

The democratization of influence is only just beginning. Brands that don’t have a strategy for how to deal with this phenomenon risk becoming irrelevant.

If you’re building in this space, please email me at nq@lsvp.com or follow me on Twitter. We would love to share perspectives with you and see where we can help.

* Lightspeed portfolio companies

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Lightspeed is a multi-stage VC firm focused on accelerating disruptive innovations and trends in the consumer, enterprise, and health sectors. In the past two decades, Lightspeed has backed 400+ companies and currently manages $10.5B across the global Lightspeed platform.

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Nicole Quinn

Nicole Quinn

Investor at Lightspeed, Stanford alum, Former Consumer Analyst at Morgan Stanley and British 100m sprinter

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