August 27, 2019 By King
British makeup guru Katie Jane Hughes posts close-up photos of her face on Instagram almost daily for her 336,000 followers: shimmery gold eyelids; glossy pink lips that complement her auburn hair; eyebrows tinted with tiny brushstrokes of brown gel to fix her mistake in overplucking as a teenager.
And, in a video tutorial on YouTube, in which Hughes starts with a scrubbed-clean face (revealing some of the same splotchy spots many of us worry about), she demonstrates how she applies layer after layer of creams and cosmetics to achieve a glamorous look.
“This tingles a little bit when you put it on, but that’s normal because it’s got glycolic in it,” Hughes says, glancing between the camera and a mirror as she massages a moisturizer into her skin. “I don’t really quite understand how glycolic face creams work. All’s I can tell you is, my skin has been amazing ever since I started using this product.”
During the video’s 12-plus minutes of step-by-step instructions, Hughes holds up product after product close to the camera so viewers can get a good look at each brand name. Because, after all, Hughes isn’t merely sharing beauty tips. She’s also selling makeup.
While Hughes is not your typical celebrity cover girl, her social media posts compel thousands of customers to purchase the products she recommends.
New research shows that “influencers” like Hughes are changing the face of the beauty industry, attracting cult-like followings on social media, particularly Instagram and YouTube. In the competition for the consumer’s attention, influencers are winning with pretty packages of photos and videos, as consumers increasingly reject more traditional forms of marketing like TV commercials and magazine ads—even those with smiling celebrities pitching beauty products—as less credible and less trustworthy, according to research by recent Harvard Business School MBA graduate Alessia Vettese.
“People used to watch celebrities on the red carpet talking about what they were wearing, or they would flip through magazines and look at celebrities in makeup ads, but that has lost its traction, especially among younger consumers,” says Vettese, who surveyed consumers and interviewed Hughes for the research project. “Now, people want to go online and get an at-your-fingertips experience. They want to ask an influencer questions and get personal responses.”
This shift is challenging for many longtime players in the beauty market, prompting some legacy companies to trade vamping models for online tutorials featuring more “regular people” as they struggle to play catchup with cutting-edge brands that partnered with influencers much earlier in the game.
“These established brands are facing a loss of credibility as they are being disrupted by direct-to-consumer brands,” says Vettese, whose research project was guided by HBS professor Geoffrey Jones, Isidor Straus Professor of Business History.
“They can see the success of Glossier, a brand that was not around five years ago, but is now considered a billion-dollar company. So they’re now trying to seek partnerships with influencers who have clout, but they’re competing with newer brands that have done this well from the get-go.”
Global spending on influencer marketing has skyrocketed in recent years, rising from an estimated $2 billion in 2017 to about $8 billion in 2019. One forecast shows that spending is expected to jump to $15 billion by 2022. In fact, beauty giant Estée Lauderrevealed last week that the company is now spending 75 percent of its marketing budget on influencers.
Consumers listen to influencers, not company ads
To study just how much influence influencers have on consumers, Vettese surveyed 520 women, specifically targeting beauty enthusiasts on Facebook who use such keywords as “beauty,” “skincare,” and “makeup.” These women buy a whole lot of makeup. More than 40 percent said they purchase multiple products each month.
A whopping 62 percent of the women said they follow beauty influencers on social media. When asked where they seek information about beauty products prior to purchasing them, social media influencers ranked highest at nearly 67 percent, followed by third-party product reviews at 59 percent, and beauty professionals at 55 percent. Company advertisements ranked much lower at 44 percent, and public figures and celebrities garnered only 34 percent.
In evaluating beauty products, the women said they trust third-party product reviews most and company advertisements least. And they said influencer marketing sways their purchasing decisions most, while direct-mail marketing is the least effective way to reach them.
When asked which social media channels they visit most, Instagram was at the top, used daily by 82 percent of respondents; Facebook ranked second at 77 percent; and YouTube was third at 59 percent.
“Instagram is by far the best volume play,” Vettese says. “It’s very visual, and it’s simple to put a lot of photos and short videos out there to immediately reach your followers. Plus, you can directly respond to people’s comments, so there’s this easy communication back and forth.”
Many consumers also said they turn to YouTube for longer how-to videos, where they can watch influencers apply products and find inspiration. “YouTube tutorials will forever be my beauty engagement hotspot,” one consumer said in her survey response.
Trust in influencer reviews is critical
Brands often pay influencers to peddle products—and the women surveyed weren’t naïve to that fact. Still, they find the notion of hyping products for money off-putting. While 42 percent said they would purchase a product that a company paid an influencer to promote, another 43 percent said they were unsure, and 15 percent said they would not.
In fact, many of the respondents said they only follow influencers who openly disclose their endorsement deals. “Sometimes it’s hard to tell which beauty products are sponsored and which ones aren’t,” one consumer said. “I only trust influencers who are clear about whether they’re being paid!”
That’s important, Vettese says, because consumers actively seek out influencers who share the same skin tones and even skin sensitivities, and they want to trust that influencers actually believe in and use the products they talk about. Consumers are paying close attention, too, so the slightest slipup can jeopardize their sense of trust.
“Kim Kardashian promotes all kinds of products all the time that I’m skeptical she uses,” one consumer said. “She’ll post an Instagram holding a jar of Olay, for example, but then you’ll read an interview where she says she always uses a $1,000 Guerlain cream. A celebrity putting their name on something isn’t really enough to draw me in by itself.”
Many consumers look for influencers who are willing to give products negative reviews, since it’s considered a sign of legitimacy. “I appreciate honest reviews (and) feedback about everything,” one consumer said. “Nobody is going to just love every product. Therefore, an influencer builds a reputable reputation with me when they are able to say, ‘I didn’t like this product as much as …’ or ‘This product didn’t work as well for me because …’”
Consumers consider influencers friends
The women surveyed weren’t necessarily drawn to the influencers with the largest online followings. Many preferred to follow lesser-known folks, called “microinfluencers,” noting that people with a smaller fan base tend to respond more to their questions and comments on posts.
Some of the women surveyed talked about their influencers as though they were friends. Maybe that’s because influencers don’t post only about makeup; they often provide glimpses into their personal lives through photos of the clothes they wear, the food they eat, the places they travel, and even their spouses, kids, and friends.
“These consumers are building relationships, and they are bonding with these influencers,” Vettese says. “They have regular conversations back and forth, and they think of the influencers as being directly ingrained in their day-to-day lives.”
Some of the most popular beauty influencers the consumers mentioned include Jeffree Star, Tati Westbrook, James Charles, Jaclyn Hill, Laura Lee, Desi Perkins, Huda Kattan, Kylie Jenner, Nikkie de Jager, and Manny Mua.
Lessons for brands
The women surveyed said they want the makeup they purchase to suit their particular skin types—and some said they felt like they weren’t previously represented in traditional company ads because those ads weren’t inclusive enough. Beauty companies should create products and enlist influencers that reach people with a variety of ethnicities, skin tones, and skin sensitivities, Vettese says.
“When Kendall Jenner said she suffered from acne, people really responded to that because they could relate,” she says. “Consumers look for influencers who speak to them or look like them or have the same struggles they do.”
The lessons from Vettese’s research apply not just to beauty brands, but to other industries as well, she says: “Figure out which social media channels will attract your audience, be deliberate about how you showcase your products on different channels, and make sure the people who represent your company will be seen as authentic, trusted voices of the image you want to present.”