How E.L.F. Cosmetics builds community and drives results with micro-influencers

An in-person event fostered community among 50 of the beauty brand's best social media fans while supporting its goals around reach, authenticity and branding.

When it comes to working with social media influencers, the common wisdom among marketers is the more followers, the better. E.L.F. Cosmetics decided to take a different approach by building a community around 50 micro-influencers, an expanding program that drove results including a 25% increase in Instagram followers.

The brand, whose name stands for Eyes, Lips, Face, was launched almost 15 years ago as one of the first digital cosmetics companies. While that was before social media arrived, customers have always been a big part of spreading the word online about the range of beauty products since, until recently, they couldn’t be found in stores.

With an existing digital community, it made sense for E.L.F. to jump at the growing opportunity to pay to work with beauty social media personalities who, by virtue of audiences of one million followers or more, have influence on online consumers’ buying decisions. However, when the company was looking to take its social community to the next level, it saw a chance to create a long-term program around micro-influencers who may have smaller audiences, but often see high engagement levels.

“We knew that we had this super engaged community that loved to share their looks, that loved to get tagged by us,” said Mara McCune, VP of Brand at E.L.F. Cosmetics, during a weekend session at the SXSW Conference and Festivals. “And with it all done digitally, we had this idea to bring 50 of our best consumers together.

“It wasn’t about going out and getting the name of the latest influencer,” she continued. “It was about connecting and building a relationship with our consumer. We thought a lot about how do we do that, how do we do something special for this group that we knew we could build a relationship with.”

Enthusiasm vs. influence

During the session, “Enthusiasm vs. Influence: The Power of Community,” Amy Cotteleer, founder of A2G, explained that her experiential agency pitched the micro-influencers program, called Beautyscape, to E.L.F. and won the business based on the insight that, if the brand could help its best customers celebrate their love of beauty — and not just give them free makeup — there was an opportunity to build a lasting two-way relationship.

Micro-influencers are worth a closer look by brands because of the enthusiasm they and their followers often bring to the equation, according to Cotteleer.

“If you have a thousand or less followers on Instagram, your engagement rate is 8%,” she said. “That drops to 1.7% on average when you grow your base to a million followers.”

Beautyscape kicked off last year with a contest on Instagram encouraging fans to post their best looks, an attempt to appeal to the passion for creativity that drives many beauty enthusiasts.

If you have a thousand or less followers on Instagram, your engagement rate is 8%. That drops to 1.7% on average when you grow your base to a million followers.

Amy Cotteleer

Founder of A2G

“Beauty is so artistic and it is such a visual medium,” said McCune. “It draws a lot of people who are interested in seeing the art, with the face as the canvas.”

E.L.F. then picked 50 winners from this group and invited them to a weekend in San Francisco. Over the course of the event, the winners had a chance to test products in development, learn from makeup artists and get to know the E.L.F. team.

The power of community

With trends in the beauty space changing quickly, part of E.L.F.’s goal for Beautyscape is to help the winners gain the knowledge and confidence to experiment more so they can continue to put out engaging content. The thinking is also that as the confidence of micro-influencers grows, this will encourage their followers to experiment more with makeup.

But when it came time for the rubber to meet the road, there was some concern over how such an event would play out.

By picking winners who love the E.L.F. brand and providing them with an event filled with surprise and delight, the marketing team had a certain level of confidence heading into the event. However, McCune also recognized that there are a lot of unknowns when you are bringing together 50 people who have never met before. One potential pitfall is how they will get along with one another.

“We have 50 women coming for a weekend and we don’t know what’s going to happen,” McCune said.

“When you think about beauty, there is a lot of negativity out there,” she added. “The majority of comments are positive, but people can be mean.”

Instead, what transpired over the course of the weekend was that the 50 winners quickly formed a connection. Even better, they stayed in touch once the event was over, resulting in the formation of an organic community that supports one another with advice and tips and cheers each other on.

“When I went into it, I knew it was going to be fun and exciting,” said Giana Lauren, whose is one of two winners who were on the SXSW panel and who has around 12,000 Instagram followers. “I didn’t expect what I go out of it. I learned so much, it was magical and fun. I made a lot of friends that I am still friends with.”

Only the micro-influencers’ first and middle names were used for the purposes of the panel.  

Ashley Vera, the other winner on the panel, has seen her Instagram audience double since attending Beautyscape, a boost she attributes the event and what came afterward.

“I gained 50 lifelong friends and we all like each and interact with each other and support each other,” Ashley Vera said. “And E.L.F. supports us.

“When I first entered, I only had 10,000 followers,” she continued. “And before then, I had 5,000 and E.L.F. was the first brand to repost my content. They gave me a little push.”

A lasting connection

The strength of the connection formed by the winners caught McCune and Cotteleer by surprise. Another unexpected outcome of the event was what E.L.F.’s team took away from it.  

“How great it is for a brand to have a weekend with its best consumers and to get inspired by them,” McCune said. “We came back feeling very inspired.”

The executive also reports that she gained valuable insight into what being a social media influencer entails.

“One of the biggest things I got out of this is how hard it is to be an influencer — you’re putting things out there and being vulnerable,” McCune said. “Coming up with ideas is really hard. I didn’t have as much of an appreciation for that before. So as a result of this, it became more about how can we support their creativity because it is hard.”

One of the biggest thing I got out of this it is how hard it to be an influencer — you’re putting things out there and being vulnerable.

Mara McCune

VP of Brand at E.L.F. Cosmetics

For example, Gianna Lauren and Ashley Vera both expressed how thrilled they are to still receive beauty supply packages from E.L.F. even after Beautyscape as they had expected to be forgotten by the company once the event was over.

“First thing when I got home [after Beautyscape], I made an E.L.F. video,” said Gianna Lauren. “Any time I am feeling a little low, wondering am I doing this right, every time that has happened, E.L.F. is there to repost me or with a box.”

Hearts and minds

With the effort deemed a success by the company, a second Beautyscape gathering was held in Austin over the days preceding this year's SXSW. The second round of winners was also offered an opportunity to experience the difficult-to-get-into event focused on innovation, with many of them in the audience of the session where E.L.F. discussed the success of the program.

In a testament to the budding community that E.L.F. has created, last year’s winners quickly embraced their new Beautyscape cohorts.

“When the winners from this year were announced they were liked by all of last year’s winners,” McCune said. “So suddenly it goes from here to here and there is this core that builds outwards. That feels very strong.”

For other brands looking at the influencer space and wondering how they can be part of it, one of the most important questions they face is how to balance the cost of working with big-name influencers with the need to keep the message authentic.

The micro-influencer has power that shouldn’t be ignored. They have very engaged followers.

Amy Cotteleer

Founder of A2G

“A lot of it today, is pay for play,” said Cotteleer. “If you don’’ have the ability to play in that space, you have to figure out a way to connect with their hearts and minds.”

Developing a relationship with micro-influencers is one approach that addresses reach and authenticity while also supporting the brand’s overall message of accessible beauty, per McCune.  

“For us it is really important that the relationship feels really authentic,” she said. “We spend a lot of time thinking about who do we want to engage with. [Micro-influencers] are looking up to the mega stars. By helping our micro influencers, it helps us connect with the mega stars.

“It’s not just an influencer strategy. How do we help set trends and be on trend? We are creating a community and building each other up. We are a brand that is open and we are democratizing beauty by making it accessible.”

One reason for the success of the program, according to Cotteleer, is that E.L.F. has made a commitment to the Beautyscape community over the long-term and wants to see it grow. As a result, the payback is far-reaching. For example, E.L.F. has evolved its messaging and launched new products based on what its micro-influencers are saying.

And, in addition to seeing a jump in the brand’s Instagram followers, it is also seeing an increase in engagement metrics, like the number of posts about the brand per average user.

“The micro-influencer has power that shouldn’t be ignored,” said Cotteleer. “They have very engaged followers.”

Filed Under: Social Media Trends Mobile
Top image credit: ELF Cosmetics