How Indie Beauty Brand Founders Cultivate Influencer Relationships

In this edition of Beauty Independent’s ongoing series posing questions to beauty entrepreneurs, we ask 29 founders and executives: What have your experiences working with influencers been like?

Mary-Andrée Ardouin-Guerrier Founder and CEO, Loving Culture

One key thing that I have learned from working with influencers is that you want to have clear collaboration goals and expectations. Some have been really useful and some not so much. The micro-influencers are much more organic and have yielded better results. 

The best partnerships were with two different mommy podcast brands: @goodmoms_badchoices happened through a family member's friendship with them, and we did giveaway and gift bag items for their live event in Atlanta. @controliveforever reached out to me via email, and we decided to do an ad during one of their podcast episodes. They also interviewed me for one of their episodes, and they have my product listed on their Amazon favorites store. Both collaborations were extremely amazing experiences.

Gwyn Marie Johnson Founder, Rarity Natural Beauty

We found a talented makeup artist on Instagram that really inspired us. We loved how he created natural looks that seemed to effortlessly illuminate the models’ natural beauty. We were also in love with his use of color and approach to skin texture. His name is John Guanlao, and he works mainly in New York City fashion. 

After working with John, we observed his belief that the makeup artist industry needs to change by using products that are nontoxic and healthy for your skin. One of the ways he is leading change is by supporting clean beauty products and brands he loves. He used our products at fashion week three seasons in a row and, for a young brand starting out, this has helped us get noticed.  

The most remarkable artists we come across are not spending a ton of time perfecting an Instagram feed. They are working, creating and perfecting their craft. For us, working with influencers is not about followers or engagement, it's about finding your tribe and creating with them. 

Ray Shealy CEO, HaloSmile

We have worked with multiple influencers over the years. We started off working with more macro-influencers with hundreds of thousands of followers that we were matched with by our then PR agency. We quickly found that this route was highly expensive and was not as effective as we had hoped for conversions. 

We switched our mindset to something that was more cost-effective for our brand with creating our own influencer program. With our program, we work with more niche micro-influencers who truly love our brand, which allows us to have a continuing partnership with them. We reach out to influencers we’ve vetted ourselves whom we believe embody the values of our company. 

We exchange free product monthly and commissions on sales driven for a determined amount of post interaction each month. This way, our influencer community sees that the influencer truly has a love for our product and isn’t just posting because they were paid thousands of dollars. We also are able to grow a community within our influencers that instills confidence and networking with other like-minded people. We are currently working mainly with Kellie Hall, whom we found when she was local to our area.

JEANNIE JARNOT Founder, Beauty Heroes

Beauty Heroes has been working with our influencer community since before they were known as influencers. We reached out directly to micro-influencers (aka bloggers/vloggers) years ago and have cultivated a long-lasting relationship with them built on trust and authenticity. We didn’t have any guidelines about who they could work with/not work with, and I think I would consider putting some limitations on that if I could go back in time. 

We are currently reviewing our influencer/brand ambassador program, and taking steps to add more structure and incentives to it to make it more engaging and motivating. Some of our influencers include Arjun @JustAskArjunJana @SmallBitsofLoveliness and Lisa @ThisOrganicGirl

Sheila Patel Founder and CEO, Graffiti Collective

Influencers are a big part of our digital marketing strategy to share our brand story and products with their followers. Many of our best influencer collaborations are with people that have been with us since the beginning, supporting us by sharing their love of our product. We spend a lot of time identifying the right ambassadors, but we don’t necessarily look at the size of their following. 

Our first filter is whether they would like our brand/products based on their skincare needs and content in their feed. Sometimes we find them on Instagram ourselves and DM them to introduce ourselves. Other times, they’ve discovered us, often at an event. We do a lot of experiential events to drive product trial and purchase. This has helped us create some really great organic and authentic relationships. I would take their authentic posts any day. 

We also like our collaborations to go beyond stories and posts. We use them in our photo shoots, regram their content and tutorials, and are always looking for disruptive ways to work with them. One piece of advice, though. Influencers for early startups are greater opportunities to build brand awareness than drive sales. Sometimes, the right partnership can yield sales, too, but my advice would be not to go into the relationship looking for immediate sales. If you do, you may be disappointed in the outcome.

Some of the influencers that have been with us since the beginning include @tarrarized, @shades_of_glow, @terrelbritton, @colormecourtney_, @polishedposy, @oslaywemua and @giz_zy.

There are so many, it’s hard to edit the list. Most of them are like friends now because their support in the beginning was so critical to being discovered on Instagram. We still rely on them so much honestly.

JENNIE FRESA Founder and Owner, Copal Clean Beauty

We recently worked with a local to Madison, Conn., lifestyle influencer, Lauren McBride, who has a following of 210,000. She actually reached out to us a while back and made a proposal for a paid collaboration. At the time, it wasn’t in our budget, so I turned down the offer. Several months had passed and, since she’s local, she ended up coming to our store for one of our services. She shared her positive experience with her audience the following day, and the results were powerful.  

We gained about 100 new followers, and her post converted into about $500 in sales. I would be more likely to do another paid partnership with this person now that I know the impact of her reach. In fact, we decided to draw back on traditional advertising expenses and put our money toward more influencer marketing. You just need to make sure you research who you’re partnering with because it doesn’t make any sense if their audience isn’t going to connect with what you do.

Shayda Torabi Co-Founder, Restart CBD

We've worked with influencers loveofallthings, onechelofanadventure and claire_siegel. Influencer marketing is a huge avenue for us. Since we're a cannabis-related business, we can't traditionally advertise on the Instagram or Facebook platforms, so turning to influencers has proven to be successful for us. We just had to do our research. 

People reach out asking for product all the time in exchange for promotion. While we wish we could work with everyone who asks, we have a specific process for reviewing who we ultimately collaborate with. We're looking for their audience count, but, more importantly, their engagement. I want to see someone who is getting a conversation going with their followers because that's ultimately what we want as a brand, to have people talking about us. 

Another quality sign is, if we don't see them promoting similar like-minded products, it probably isn't a fit. If someone clearly doesn't prioritize fitness, but asks to promote our recovery balm, it's not that they couldn't benefit from it, it's just not a fit for that particular partnership. A great place to start is to look at who is already authentically interacting with your brand and see if anyone resonates from there to pursue a partnership with.

Ada Polla CEO, Alchimie Forever

We work with influencers regularly and have hosted influencer dinners in key cities, including Seattle and Houston. This is a wonderful way to meet influencers IRL in markets that are key to our brand. Some have reached out to us, and some we have reached out to. However the relationship starts, it usually involves conversations about skin type, skincare habits and preferences, and a send-out of products. Benefits include mentions in IG feeds, IG Stories (most often), and sometimes even blog posts. 

One of my best experiences was in Houston, when I connected with Jillian Goltzman, aka @cupofcharisma, who loves our brand. She suggested we host an influencer dinner together, which we did last May. (See here for Jillian’s take on the event). A dozen Houston influencers attended, including Alley Leto, Chiara Casiraghi, Sarah Adam Hafez and Rochelle Deiso

We spent the evening at Emmaline, a fabulous Houston restaurant, chatting skincare and more and, of course, everyone left with a goodie bag. It was an incredible group of women and a wonderful evening that yielded IG posts and stories with a reach of over 500,000. Jillian has genuine relationships with everyone who attended the dinner, so it felt like girlfriends getting together rather than a sales pitch with strangers. I would definitely do this again.

The most successful partnerships have been with micro-influencers as our brand is niche and not on the radar for the mega-influencers. With a number of them, we have been able to form a longer-term relationship that goes beyond a single post, and extends to having Alchimie become an integral part of their skincare rituals. I love it when that happens! 

Alison Mooradian Director of Marketing, Busy Beauty

We work often with influencers and really appreciate their help in spreading awareness and helping educate consumers on our products. I've used tools such as NinjaOutreach to find influencers that are a good fit, and I've also started partnerships with influencers who have reached out to me via email or direct message on Instagram.

CHRISTINAH NICOLAISEN Co-Founder, Eleni & Chris

Influencer marketing is an important part of our marketing strategy. We’ve collaborated with hundreds of influencers such as Katie Hughes, Nathalie Munoz, Lara Eurdolian, Hedda Skoug and Carolina Gynning.

Our key learning is that, in order to achieve great results, it is essential that there is a good match between our brand, the influencer’s profile and his or her audience, and that we find the content is mutually beneficial for both the end customer and our brand. It’s important for us to have authentic conversations that drive engagement.

Solange Astudillo Founder, Millennial Beauté

We collaborated with trippy.treez and xobarbz, and the synergy was amazing! They shot for my sheet mask campaign called "Make Your Ex Wanna Get it Back," and they supported our launch via social media. I reached out to Trippy and told her about my long-term plan for the brand to make sure the collaboration was the right alignment for both of us. 

Xo.Barbz is actually my sister. So, when I told her I was launching a CBD sheet mask, she was excited to support it. We have found that building real connections is key. Anyone can buy a paid post, but an organic integration is priceless.

Alicia Scott Founder and CEO, Range Beauty

I have not worked with any influencer in a pay-for-content partnership so far, but may in the near future. I've gifted several influencers, and most have posted out of their own choice to do so, which is great for my audience because it adds to the authenticity. Some of the influencers who I've gifted and have posted include CocoaSwatches, DarkSkinnedMakeupDaily, Khat Brim, Ohemaa Bonsu, Ndeye Peinda and Alyssa Marie

Samantha Lim Co-Founder and Chief Creative Officer, HipDot

We launched our first influencer collaboration with queer artist Hey Rooney for Pride month. I wanted to design a palette in support of Pride, and pressed glitter is one of our core products, so I already knew what the physical good was going to be. So, when it came time to design it, we were excited about the opportunity to provide a platform for a queer artist to share their work. Hey Rooney was doing so many cool projects at the time and came recommended by several friends. 

The process was an absolute dream. We connected over DM on Instagram, and talked on the phone once. From there, it was an exchange of mood boards, long rants about our ideas and inspiration, and emails back and forth with designs. I would send inspo, he would design. I would give him some constraints like, "the palette is only seven inches wide" or "holographic foil won't print thin lines," and he would come back with different concepts and styles and eventually we came out with Legendary, our rainbow pressed glitter palette. 

If we wanted to make the deadline for Pride, we had to turn things around quick. I think it was the fastest collaboration of all time. We executed design, copy, shade names, colors, formulation, packaging, in eight day. This process usually takes months. Three months later, we have our top-selling palette on Hipdot.com. There were definitely some drawbacks and some risks we just had to take. The time crunch meant we didn't have time to sample. We had to go off of videos from our suppliers and being as precise as we could with artwork. 

We also couldn't physically feel the final product. We had pieces of it—the glitter formulas, the printed papers, and the physical packaging—but nothing fully put together. Any sense of fear we had about a detail being wrong, we just had to breathe deeply and accept that the mission of getting the product out to people in time to celebrate Pride was more important than a tiny detail about what shade of white the background was. Ideally, next time, we’ll have way more time to plan, but sometimes magic can happen when put under the pressure of time.

DELANE MAZAHERI Co-Founder and CEO, Stare Cosmetics

Speaking from experience, we work regularly with influencers, and it can be tricky, especially when you have no prior experience doing so. In the beginning, we learned by trial and error. There is not one single universal formula that can be applied. They all have their own wonderful styles, flair and rules of engagement. 

It became very clear that we needed to set boundaries and expectations from the onset via a clearly outlined agreement. Several key points and expectations such as deliverables, timeframe, frequency, cost and theme need to be discussed and, then, customized to each influencer’s personality [and] agreed to in writing. This is done in advance of supplying payment, product and content. 

Following this process has made a world of difference. Communication in the form of a short, concise agreement yielded better results, less confusion and mutual respect of our professionalism. All parties involved are happier when everyone gets what is expected.

Loryn Powell was one such success story. Her creativity and candor was epic. Her audience is very engaged and active. They take her directives and are loyalists to her. The other beautiful influencer we love to work with and we have a continuing partnership with is Christine Kong. Again, she is super relatable and has a wonderful essence that people love.  

There are more I could mention, but I also look at these partnerships from the lens of business, and these two women provided excellent support, planning, execution, deliverables on time and follow-up. This, in our opinion, is the best outcome and worthy of moving forward with future partnerships. Others have fallen short in the full process of engagement as an influencer.

FEISAL QURESHI Founder, Raincry

We fortunately have been featured by a number of influencers and celebrities. Originally, it started with celebrity hairstylists and sampling them directly as artists. That is where our products originated from, and they subsequently shared their experiences with their audiences and clients. 

Now, our PR firm manages our influencer outreach with a focus on beauty influencers rather than a high follower count. Some of the influencers and celebrities include Justine Marjan, Cesar Ramirez, Gregory Paterson, Cash Lawless, Kim Kardashian and Kris Jenner.

VALERIE OBAZE Founder and CEO, R&R Luxury

We love to support and partner with other female-owned brands. For Mother’s Day in 2019, we decided to collaborate with contemporary abstract artist Mina Evans to create a limited-edition gift set. After visiting an art exhibition featuring Mina’s work, I knew that I loved her pieces and thought it would be great to do something together.

At first, I thought she could create some artwork for our newly opened store. However, a few weeks later, her agent reached out with the idea for Mina to design labels and a gift box for a special collaboration. We sat down for a meeting, discussed options and pressed forward right away. As Mother’s Day in the U.K. and Nigeria was on the horizon, we decided to make the collection a Mother’s Day gift and introduced an exclusive new scented candle especially for the collaboration.  

Working with other brands, influencers, artists and outlets is always a great pleasure as it allows you to share creative ideas with the other party and develop something that is fresh and new. And, because of the partnership, your brand gets awareness with a whole new audience as well. We recently co-hosted a Q&A meet-and-greet session with beauty influencer Jackie Aina, where she spoke about her inspirations and mentioned three of our products that she loves using. We had a selection of our products available for purchase at the event and having that seal of approval from Jackie helped to drive sales on the day, and I’m sure it will have a similar impact when we share that clip on our social media platforms. 

We’ve also worked with a number of macro- and micro-influencers by gifting them our hero products to try out and received great content—and a host of new followers—in return. My background is in PR, and I really do value the power of influencer engagement and the positive affect it can have on my brand.

Yoel Vaisberg Founder and CEO, Haielle

The power of influencers in the social media era should not be overlooked. But, as is always the case in situations involving power and influence, it should be managed carefully and consciously in order to avoid undesired results. The internal guidelines that we’ve been implementing to collaborate with influencers are: We don’t hire agencies to deal as intermediaries with the influencers. All contacts are done directly by me or someone from the team. Without intermediaries, the founder can connect better with the influencer and share his/her vision.

Like dating, not all influencers are a good match for every brand. I try to look for influencers that are aligned with my approach. I ask them to first try the products before posting any content about them. I believe the audience can perceive the difference between something that is clearly an ad as opposed to a genuine sharing of a positive experience. I try to give away products in exchange for promotion. Since we have a tight budget for marketing, I’ve been avoiding paying influencers for the promotion.

We’ve developed great relationships with many influencers that are in love with our project and products, and we keep in touch on a regular basis. Our best partnership is with Michelle Badillo. She is a TV host, yoga instructor and health coach from Venezuela now based in Miami.

Our brand and products have also been mentioned by tanyazuckerbrot, camilacanaballapasqualottorequenacnncleaneatzdiaryrosalindaserfatyjosettevidalrandreaminskiandreachediakromitaleal and mimundorebelde.

MARY WARE Founder, Minimo Skin Essentials

We have worked with several influencers in the past, but it’s very hard to find influencers who are serious about their craft. When we find those people, we hold on tight. We only work with influencers through a third-party system that verifies that their following is legitimate and holds funds in escrow until the task is complete. We’ve had lots of instances where we work with influencers, and they don’t complete the task in a timely manner or as requested, so working through a third-party system is very helpful. 

We also only work with influencers who have high engagement percentages with their following. The engagement needs to also be where the audience finds value with the influencer, not thousands of comments about how beautiful they are. We work with influencers with a definite purpose in mind, such as tutorial/demo videos or photos for new product releases that we will use for marketing purposes on our end. 

We never hire influencers with the intent of them sharing our product with their audience. Instagram’s algorithm is constantly changing and, although an influencer may have a substantial following, there’s no way to tell how much of that following is attentively engaging with that influencer. All these parameters are in place because of the many issues we’ve had with influencers over the past three years. Our best content has actually come to us for free from our customers, not influencers. 

Mariya Nurislamova CEO and Co-Founder, Scentbird

Scentbird has been working with influencers since the beginning, including Shaaanxo, Kelly Strack, BabsBeauty and Kim Thai. When we just launched, we sent free samples of our fragrance vials and immediately saw the growth in subscribers. Since then, we have an ongoing influencer campaign and built great relationships with some talent. There are different ways to work with influencers and various levels of the campaigns: free (post for product), paid, influencer events, trips, meet and greets, and more. 

We mostly work with YouTubers and some Instagrammers, including Cubaknow, DontBeASadPanda, Shelby Church, Carlos Roberto, Postgorgeous. Our in-house influencer marketing team reaches out to influencers directly via email or through some influencer platforms. The main benefit of working with influencers are brand exposure, trackable sales and, for Scentbird, new subscribers that we track through coupon codes and tracking links. The drawback is you never know if the video will convert for your brand or not. There's no guarantee. Even if everything looks perfect for you—demographics, following, engagement—there's still a chance that your product is not the right fit for the audience of that specific talent. 

We're always trying new things: new video concepts, new categories of influencers, new platforms. Overall, influencer marketing is a great tool for us to promote Scentbird, especially on YouTube. We give a lot of creative freedom to talent, and they like it the most. The key is for an influencer to genuinely like your product and make the review as organic as possible, even if it's a sponsored post. 

Andrea Lisbona Founder and CEO, Touchland

While we work with influencers all the time, we have never done a sponsored post. We want to keep all reviews as honest and real as possible. Our customers deserve to know the truth! When you’re fully confident in your product, you don’t need to pay anyone to say so in an Instagram post. Instead, we focus on providing a great product and solution, while empowering influencers to give their honest feedback.

We have partnered with cool beauty bloggers, makeup artists and hairstylists, and fashion and celeb influencers such as skincareandfashionlovernickdiramioglowygirlskindamselflavoredmakeupbyhanoodymichmillajamiemakeupmnmachadoandrewfitzsimonsgianlucavacchimiakhalifa and rosiehw.

Paula Pulvino Founder, Villa of the Mysteries Perfume

We’ve worked with a few influencers on IG, and it has been very positive for us. I met each of the influencers we worked with at Indie Beauty Expo, and the key to a fruitful partnership seems to be finding influencers that love your products. The ones we worked with didn’t need to be sold on our ethos or our products. They organically loved what we were trying to do, and our philosophy naturally aligned with who they were and what they represented on social media. 

In terms of benefits, we saw sales increase sharply when influencers posted about our products, and the visibility and awareness of the brand increased in an organic, authentic way, which brought us like-minded customers that we might not have been able to reach so easily. We didn’t really experience any drawbacks as we looked for influencers that were a great fit. 

I would advise brands that want to work with influencers to ensure that their aesthetic is aligned with those of your brand. We’ve had some influencers approach us, and we didn’t end up working with them for just that reason. I also think it’s helpful for brands to have a formal agreement with the influencers they work with. This helps to avoid misunderstandings, manages everyone’s expectations, and forges a fruitful, long-lasting partnership.

Julissa Prado Founder and CEO, Rizos Curls

We only work with influencers who have previously interacted with the brand organically. For us, that is very important because it is all about authenticity. With Rizos Curls, I always say it’s all about the three Cs: Curls, Community, Culture. It’s especially important that, no matter who we work with, it is about building community and that trust is there with the customer. That being said, it is important that the influencers we work with are authentic. Some of them are mzbiancareneecarla.alverio, and curly.bailey.

Harry Park Director, AKOCO

We had two launching dates. First back in April, which we called our soft launch, and our official launch in June. For this second one, we launched our website globally, hosted a brunch with media and influencers in New York City, and invited some of our favorite YouTubers on a trip to Jeju Island. This trip was our first big activation with influencers. We reached out to some of the girls we’ve been following for years—all of them based in Korea—and invited them to be a part of the kickoff of our brand. 

It definitely helped spread the word about AKOCO, the way we always intended to by having others share their opinion about us instead of ourselves. It's very easy to be a brand and say you're the best out there, but our goal is for our audience to be the ones doing that job [with] feedback whether good or bad. Working with influencers gave us the chance to receive almost immediate feedback, which got the improvement process initiated soon after our launch. 

It was overall a great experience. If we had to do something differently next time, it would probably be in terms of how we can provide our influencers with even more detailed and curated tools. All influencers work differently and all of their audiences expect different things, so it would be great to be able to grant influencers with even more material and products focused on their particular needs, which at the end of the day turns into a win for both sides.

Sarah Marcus Founder, Eco+Amour

We have worked with influencers both big and small in terms of followers, and our experiences are really all over the place. We've seen better results in terms of customer referrals from smaller micro-influencers who have cultivated a relevant and engaged community that aligns with our interests. 

With so much noise in this space, and a constant stream of ads and paid partnerships, we generally don't work with bigger influencers or pay for mentions. In my opinion, the best partnerships happen organically.

Rochelle Jacobs Managing Director, Naturally Serious

I’ve gone on a weekend long trip with influencers and press, which was our first and most intimate exposure to influencer partnerships at this scale. The glamping weekend was filled with educational branding moments as well as fun and adventurous ones. The girls and I enjoyed a sightseeing hike. Then, we gathered around the fire making s’mores and enjoying the grounds of Cedar Lake. It was fun to watch all the girls taking selfies and posting them on social media.

Working with influencers for every event we put on is a very rewarding opportunity for me as I get the chance to understand how everyone started in their field and their passion to be a part of an industry that is constantly evolving. I’ve met so many amazing people by working with influencers. I’ve formed friendships and am considered a mentor in many cases. 

Once an event concludes, that is not the last time we see or hear from that influencer. My team and I actively try to involve them in as much as possible and have them be a part of our brand’s journey; I find that ongoing connection is what can keep our brand grounded and relatable.

Mandi Nyambi CEO, Baalm

We’ve worked with influencers on events and content for our newsletter. Thus far, our influencer partners have been incredible. Our team reaches out directly to influencers to initiate a relationship. We focus on people that not only like skincare, but whose values align with our mission. 

We are very transparent about our budget as a young brand, which means we don’t get to work with everyone, but we ultimately work with people who care so much about what we’re doing and are willing to go the extra mile for us. So, a cool side effect is that we develop close relationships with influencers who would genuinely be part of our community if they’d stumbled upon it themselves.

Melissa Reinking Chief Marketing Officer, BioClarity

We've worked with influencers of many sizes, from health and wellness bloggers like Jules Hunt, blogger and creator of Om & the City, to celebrities like professional surfer and author Bethany Hamilton.

Each partnership is a little different, but all of them start by both parties having some common ground on beliefs or lifestyles, and the types of things we like to share with our communities. As most of us see, ads are becoming more targeted and influencers are an additional way to break through the space, and can provide an added layer of authenticity for our consumers and fans to engage with when making skincare choices.  

If I could give a few tips to success: 1) Find people who can really stand behind your mission and have unique ways to share that story with their community. 2) Start small and see what works best for your brand before making big commitments. 3) Align on goals, but let creators do what they do best, which is create.

Ben Smith Founder, Disco

Influencers are an inevitable and necessary part of growing a brand. Upon launch, we organically gifted product to influencers and individuals of influence across different categories in an effort to build their relationship with Disco, while encouraging social sharing across their channels. 

In our rollout, we were very cognizant that while men are more active in curating their skincare routine, many still look to their significant other for guidance. As a result, we identified and sent product to females to tap a new audience.   

PAAYAL MAHAJAN Founder, Essential Body

I got some very sound advice around engaging influencers from Brandon Schwartz of Unwash. He told me in no uncertain terms that mine was not a brand that required me to pay influencers for posts. I should only engage with influencers who see and appreciate the value in what I create because it is couture, it is art and science, and of very high value. I appreciate that kind of forthright advice, and it has served me well so far. 

I have no interest in following the norms when it comes to building my brand. If I like someone’s energy or what they represent, I will find a way to work with them. Conversely, if I don’t, I am that businesswoman who will walk away from the table. I follow my gut and my intuition, that’s how I learn, it’s how I stand out, and it is serving me really well so far!

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