Keeping It Real with Fashion Influencers
Keeping It Real with Fashion Influencers

When authenticity is the top priority, both brands and influencers should be playing a long game.

Maggie is a 27-year-old fashion blogger wearing trendy cactus pajamas and sipping a latte from a personalized, light pink insulated mug. She scrolls on her phone (backed by an adorbs floral case).

On each of her shoulders, angel- and devil-style, a miniature Maggie appears. One wears a cute, lightweight ringer tee that reads “IRL Mags.” The other wears a sleek, tight black tee that reads “Mag$.”

Maggie: Okay, let’s see what’s happening in this portal. Hmmm, mail-order ground beef. Hard pass.

Mag$: It’s $500!

IRL Mag: It’s mail-order ground beef. We are a vegetarian.

Maggie: True story.

Mag$: Rent is due. Maybe we could find a disease only cured by red meat and say we are advocating for their sakes.

IRL Mag: Are you serious right now?

Maggie: It has to be a pass.

Mag$: Fine. Oooh, what about that new line at Annie James! Blog post, which is $500, and potential collab event at $200/hour with additional free product!

IRL Mag: That top is kind of cute, but it isn’t really us. Oh my, that dress is…interesting. Some of it is okay, I gue—

Mag$: For a potential 1k, I think we can make anything “us.”

Maggie: Maybe with the right shoes?

IRL Mag: You have followers to think about. What are they going to think if you suddenly start dressing like the Bonita Banana lady?

Mag$: Like you’re going on a sexy vacation to a tropical place.

Maggie: I could maybe wear that on a sexy vacation.

IRL Mag: You can’t afford a sexy vacation. You will never wear this dress.

Mag$: She is right. You will never afford a sexy vacation if you DON’T wear this dress.

Maggie: Good point. That dress is growing on me.

IRL Mag stares her down.

Maggie: Fine, I’ll tell them I need a different piece to feature.

An influencer’s personal brand is more important than any individual brand they work with. Their brand is a critical part of what they are offering, and if it can be simply bought, it is immediately compromised. Their past and current work and skillsets are all relevant, but not for the brand’s sake – for their own. Which means brands do not have the majority of the power in this relationship. Only some power. Maggie’s got to eat, after all.

So as fashion influencer marketing grows more powerful through networks such as rewardStyle and LIKEtoKNOWit, brands are scrambling to reach out to the right influencers effectively (or attract them to reach out on their ends). As an audience, fashion influencers are tightrope walkers balancing brand interests and paychecks on one end of the pole and brand/authenticity/audience on the other.

In other words, Maggie is playing a long game, and the brands who want her should do the same.

When did this power shift happen?

Once upon a time, way back in 2009, there were fashion bloggers, “tastemakers” and/or personal shoppers. These Past Maggies had limited influence in the marketplace, though they were very much needed by real, busy people who didn’t have time to sift through the fast-paced fashion world – which was accelerating as the Internet evolved. A few Past Maggies had found meager ways to monetize their sites, but many found that posting their expertise for exposure only devalued it.

Amber Venz Box, now the CEO of rewardStyle, said in an interview with Fashionista:

I had gotten my key customers and they were using me as a personal shopper because they had no time. It turns out the blog saved them even more time because they didn't have to book appointments; they could just go to my website and see my recommendations and purchase the things that I suggested. They thought they were being patrons of my new business, not understanding how all the economics work. So, it turned into a disaster because this was a side hustle trying to help me run my other business, but then it started costing me money.

Venz Box had loyal followers even then, but brands did not yet value her as the middleman. Thus rewardStyle, now one of the largest fashion influencer networks, began: with one woman recruiting brands one-by-one to pay her for recommending their products or sites.

And now, a decade later, according to Forbes:

RewardStyle and drive influencer sales for fashion and lifestyle retailers. Research recently showed that four out of every five of's mobile web visits coming from referral traffic are driven by an influencer and 79% of that came from rewardStyle and in 2017. RewardStyle’s influencers also fuel 34% of’s referral traffic, and at Net-a-porter, 30.83% of referral traffic comes from influencers on the network. At Amazon-owned and, 24% and 21.94% respectively, of referral traffic comes from RewardStyle putting them in an increasingly powerful space in the retail industry.



Simply speaking, now that fashion influencer marketing has reach and the infrastructure for monetization offered by giants like rewardStyle, Maggie’s stock has gone way up – because people will always choose a “friend” over a brand. As this article from GroupHigh notes:

Generally speaking, people have become more or less wary to traditional forms of brand messaging. In fact, a study conducted by Havas Media found that only 22% of people trust brands themselves.

Consumers are much quicker to trust a valued member of their community, as 49% of consumers rely on influencers when looking for product recommendations. Just as in personal lives, relationships are built on trust.

But brands are paying Maggie. Isn’t that enough?

Imagine you are taking Maggie on a date. You talk about nothing important all evening – the weather, the food, the ambience. At the end of the date, you pay for her meal. Is that enough for a second date?

Only if Maggie is really desperate.

And if Maggie is really desperate, do you want the second date?

Especially now, Maggie’s reputation has been called into question. Brands are challenging influencers who purchase followers and likes, bots and identity thieves have been exposed on Instagram, and the New York Times and other publications continue to predict the downfall of social media influencers.

According to “The Rise and (Maybe) Fall of Influencers”:

Whether it is obviously an ad, whether a Federal Trade Commission-required hashtag admission goes with it or not (and the F.T.C. is increasingly cracking down on influencer posts, recently writing to 45 celebrities to warn them about necessary disclosures), there is, as Lucie Greene, the worldwide director of the Innovation Group at J. Walter Thompson, said, “an implied individual choice.”

And that means that those involved are perceived as having a personal — not merely professional — relationship with the thing they are selling. Which in turn means they bear some responsibility for it. There is a downside to the upside of being an influencer.

That downside is something Maggie thinks about every day. If that Bonita Banana dress becomes the most liked feature on her blog, and it falls apart in the washing machine for all of her customers, she has the most to lose. Brands are brands, sometimes they make bad products, people expect that of them…but Maggie recommended it.

Maggie is much more likely to risk a second date with your brand if she believes you have some substance. And a third date if the meal and conversation were just as good the second time around. If Maggie knows you “mesh well together,” she might even look for a relationship.

But wait. If we have a relationship, won’t people see Maggie as our proxy?

Maggie isn’t “Annie James,” selling her own clothes that were produced in a factory in some faraway land – she is not a supermodel posing in front of a professional photographer who was paid five figures for a single day’s work.

She is 20k followers’ “friend” who likes a dress she thinks YOU might like, too!

She looks at dresses all day, she KNOWS dresses, and she found this ONE for YOU!

She wore it to The Container Store. A place YOU go.

So if she is going to dress as the Bonita Banana lady, that’s because it’s HER. (Or it better be.)

And if all that is the case, no one cares if someone pays her $500 for wearing it. We all know that’s a far cry from a $1 million celebrity endorsement or photo spread.

Does it really make that much of a difference whether something appears to be authentic in that way? Well, according to this article in Fast Company about Red Dress Boutique:

Recruiting student models to wear outfits styled with accessories allows shoppers a way to see how something could be worn in real life, says Harbour [RDB founder], which is crucial to converting a browser into a buyer. “It’s all about engaging,” she adds.

Revenue has grown from $63,000 in 2010 to $7.1 million last year for Red Dress Boutique, with online sales making up 93% of that total. So yes, it makes that much of a difference.



So how do brands play the long game with fashion influencers?

In short, brands should mirror some of the strategies fashion influencers use with their audiences. They should build a reputation with the community as fair, easy to work with and worth the time investment these bloggers will make for them – essentially building trust over time:

  • Know Maggie’s value. If Maggie is building her following and is at the level of a nano-influencer, “in-kind” or free product exchanges for promotion might be appropriate. But if Maggie has 100k followers, has clearly built an organic environment with unpaid, unsponsored “brand-building” posts, uses quality photography equipment and stages each shoot flawlessly, don’t insult her with that kind of offer.
  • Tell Maggie about your brand, but let her promote it. Maggie needs to know enough about your product to trust it, to sell it and to field the questions her followers might have for her. Educating her is important, but that does not mean telling her exactly how you want to be promoted. Maggie has built the personal brand you are paying to be a part of – once she is educated, trust her expertise with her audience as much as possible.
  • Do face-to-face, experience and event collaborations with Maggie. The more Maggie gets to know your brand in a tangible, experience-driven way, the more comfortable she will feel with you and your products. Look at it as a team-building retreat.
  • Look for ways to personalize your interactions with Maggie. If Maggie posts regularly about being a vegetarian, maybe let her know your Sherpa-line coat is faux. Let her know you are paying attention to how your brands align. Take a little of the onus off of her to do all the legwork on that front.
  • Remember that Maggie is part of a loyal community. Whether or not you see the potential for a long-term relationship with Maggie herself, be mindful that Maggie’s bff could be the next date you go on.

Building this long-term relationship with Maggies who drive solid results for your brand provides the opportunity for both of you to expand the content beyond just a post or two and experiment with more storytelling-style content, which has greater long-term value for both brands. Moreover, having both you and Maggie be increasingly on the same page gives your audiences a sense of consistency – which is a solid foundation for the trust that drives this whole engine.

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