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Published September 23, 2019
Published September 23, 2019
You X Ventures

Storytelling has been the backbone of beauty since inception. Word-of-mouth endorsements and product education all rely on great stories. This storytelling isn’t always done through words alone; at retail, stories are primarily visual. When a consumer combs the aisles at retail, design in the form of colors, shapes, symbols, and other visual imagery beckon from across the room. Words and the written story are important, but often only after a consumer picks a product up.

Online, however, words are first—every search on Google, every Facebook group or hashtag, every YouTube video discovered by consumers is first powered by words, an inquiry, an idea. Here, storytelling has seen a reemergence. Today’s omni-channel consumer is more informed and empowered than ever. They are doing their research. 58% of beauty category shoppers begin their purchase journey online and 73% use their phones for research while in store. When Steve Jobs put a multitasking minicomputer into the palm of your hand in the form of an iPhone, the world changed. Today, smartphone technology has become an integrated part of our lives and consumers are shopping online from brick-and-mortar stores, on the soccer field, in the carpool lane, on social media—everywhere.

Recently, Make Up In New York asked me to curate a discussion panel exploring how three leading platforms in beauty technology are helping both brands and consumers discover all the stories they want to hear, all the information they want to know, and ultimately, the product right for them.


Kelly Kovack – Founder, BeautyMatter: BeautyMatter is an independent industry publication dedicated to finance, mergers, acquisitions, tech, careers, and trends in beauty. BeautyMatter’s aim is to fill the void, connect the dots, and provide an informed, analytical, and compelling point of view. They offer highly curated news and original content by thought leaders and beauty insiders.

Kelly, you represent both the traditional media channel and have worked with influencer marketing. Can you please elaborate what levers a brand should pull and when? What is the determining factor when choosing one media over another? Can you also talk about when they collaborate together?

KK: Unfortunately, there is not a one-size-fits-all answer. First and foremost, it is contingent upon the brand’s business model. For example, a DTC brand is going to have a different marketing mix than one with a more traditional brick-and-mortar distribution strategy. As a rule, the decision should be made based on the objective and budget of the initiative. Today, brands have a plethora of marketing tools at their disposal—the key to success is knowing how and when to deploy them and in what combination.

Regarding collaboration, in many ways they have already merged from a functional standpoint. PR firms have had to become fluent in the world of influencer marketing to remain competitive and very often influencer outreach is more heavily weighted than traditional media. Honestly, large influencers are behaving more and more like traditional press because it’s become a business. Something that is important to remember is that every market is different. I think the US and China probably have the most evolved influencer marketing eco-systems, but when you launch in the UK traditional press is still really powerful and has to be a part of a brand’s strategy.

How important is it to guide the influencer in their review? Is a general overview of the brand/product enough for the content to feel organic?

KK: The best content is always the most organic, but you want the information to be factually correct. Scripting influencers is a definite no-no, but you do want them to have all the information necessary to properly tag the posts, understand your brand values, and have product knowledge. Don’t do a cut and paste of your training manual or swipe the info off your website. Take the time to understand the influencer’s POV and present your information through that lens so it is relevant to the content they create and their audience. It should be approached from the mindset of building a relationship, not executing a transaction.

You talk a lot about brands creating thought leadership pieces. How do you see qualitative techniques such as storytelling and design thinking affect marketing in upcoming years?

KK: Storytelling has been and will remain the most powerful conduit for connecting with and marketing to consumers. Storytelling has been around since the beginning of man—we’re hard-wired to receive information this way. What has evolved and what will continue to evolve are the methods for disseminating the narrative. Design in general has become an integral part to building a narrative because so much of the communication that happens online is first and foremost visual.

Thought leadership has been one of my soapbox topics for a while because it has the potential of amplifying marketing efforts while also establishing credibility and differentiation for a brand beyond the product or service. However, it only works if you’ve a founder that is truly an expert, has commitment to a set of values, or is willing to opine on trending topics. Thought leadership opens up more marketing opportunities but it also creates more work because to do it well requires a strategy, a commitment from the founder, and an investment of time and effort.

There are moments when followers might complain about their go-to influencers posting too many sponsored or #ad posts, thus questioning the credibility/ legitimacy of their reviews. Do you think this will affect the way consumers research through influencers to make purchase decisions?

KK: Perhaps, I think this is why we’ve seen engagement rates from nano- and micro-influencers surpass many of the big influencers. That being said, if the content is good I’m not sure consumers care if it’s sponsored. I think influencers will still be a stop on consumers’ path-to-purchase, sponsored or not.

You recently wrote about “Influencer Engagement Nearing All-Time Lows.” If influencer marketing is declining, is it still more or less effective than more “traditional” digital marketing?

KK: Let me start by saying influencer marketing is not a new concept. Brands have always leveraged influential people to help market their brands and products—social media turned it into an industry. For that reason, I don’t think influencer marketing will ever die, but it’s already begun to evolve. We’re beginning to see a push for more regulation especially with wellness products, brands are establishing process to vet influencers, and there are now metrics and KPIs to attribute the ROI of programs. I am not sure influencer marketing is more or less effective than more “traditional” digital marketing; I think they are an important part of the marketing ecosystem. Digital marketing isn’t a zero-sum game—there is a time and place for each which I don’t think will change. One very interesting evolution is influencers launching brands—not simply putting their name on some private-label product, building proper beauty brands and leveraging their communities to get traction. Just this quarter we’ve seen Marianna Hewitt and Lauren Gores’ Summer Fridays, Laney Crowell’s Saie, and Deepica Mutyala’s Live Tinted all receive funding for product brands.


Laura BrinkerSVP Marketing, Influenster: Influenster is like TripAdvisor or Yelp for brands, with beauty being one of the largest categories on the platform. With 38 million+ authentic product reviews, consumers can discover honest feedback from people like them. In addition, members–these beauty enthusiasts—have the opportunity to connect with brands and potentially try new products or gain access to special offers and promotions.

The fact is, reviews matter!

  • 55% say they start their beauty searches by reviewing online reviews (Stella)
  • 67% of women say they are inspired by online reviews to learn more about products (Stella)
  • 47% of consumers say that Positive reviews and consumer claims influenced their purchasing decisions (WWD)

How do you define the difference between your community of real-world users and other micro-influencer platforms?

LB: Many influencer platforms are created to help brands broker paid partnerships with individuals using their social platforms to promote branded content. Influenster is actually not an influencer network—it’s the leading product reviews community, with 38MM+ reviews, growing by 1MM each month, written by our 6MM members: everyday consumers who love sharing their feedback about the brands and products that make up their daily lives. These people are not paid to offer their feedback, and, in most cases, they haven’t even received a free sample. Ninety-eight percent of the content is non-solicited and non-incentivized, written after product purchase. As brands realize that engagement is equally important to reach and awareness, and it’s known that people with smaller social followings tend to drive significantly higher engagement, you could think of Influenster as a community of micro- or nano-influencers. But, at the end of the day, it’s all about peer-to-peer networking, and enabling brands to tap into the advocacy that already exists at scale.

What events do you feel led to the spotlight on real people as content creators vs. the larger influencers? Is there still a role for mega-influencers?

LB: People have always trusted real people more than branded claims. Word-of-mouth as a source of influence is not a new concept. Before the era of social media, and mass media before that, you likely relied on beauty advice from your mom, sister, friend, or hair stylist. Social media influencers rose in popularity because, with digital technology eliminating the barrier of geography or physical proximity, people could develop personal connections via platforms like Instagram, and those relationships felt authentic. But once these social influencers grew in reach, and started consistently being paid for their recommendations, suddenly what once felt authentic started to feel like advertising. That’s not to say that all mega-influencers are inauthentic. There is definitely a place for them in the marketing mix, but it’s more top-of-the-funnel, driving awareness or relevancy vs. conversion. Essentially the model for influence has flipped on its head. It used to be that a very small group of experts dictated trends that trickled down to the masses; now influence bubbles up from trending conversations amongst everyday people. A good analogy is the move from haute couture to street style.

How important is it for a brand to pick the “right” reviewer? How do you suggest brands define their audience?

LB: We at Influenster know our members extremely well. When you join—and it’s free to join—you opt in to link your social media accounts, and then you complete a profile about who you are; where you shop; your beauty habits, wants, and needs. And then, and this is where the real richness of information comes, you engage with us on the platform by writing reviews, posting photos, asking/answering questions, and social networking with other members. So when a brand comes to us interested in reaching a particular audience, we are able to hyper-target based on thousands of data points per member. If it’s a sampling program, one of many things Influenster offers, this means getting products in the hands of an already-qualified and highly motivated audience.

How much do you allow your brands to curate what and how users review? For example, if a product requires 4-6 weeks to see results? Or if a brand specifically wants feedback on how a product performs, vs. how it was packaged vs. the scent, etc.

LB: It’s important to note that we never tell our members what to say. Their opinions are their own, and all opinions are valid, whether someone has a positive or negative experience with a product. Three-star reviews are often invaluable, because they provide insights to marketers regarding potential product or communication improvements and clarifications. We do, however, have tools to both educate and inspire our members. Using the same example of a sampling program, we would include a postcard with the sample, explaining how the product works and coaching people what to expect at each week of use. We create branded content that lives within the Influenster app and on social media. And, we have built-in CRM plus gamification tools to facilitate a steady stream of follow-up communication and motivation. Finally, while sampling accounts for a very small percentage of reviews on Influenster (as I mentioned, 98% are non-incentivized), members who do receive samples must disclose that the product was provided complimentary for testing purposes.

How do you measure engagement, purchases, and success for your brands?

LB: The original inspiration for Influenster was actually to find a new way to conduct market research. One of our founders previously worked at an events company that gave away a lot of product samples, but had no way to collect feedback from those who received the samples; and the other founder worked at a traditional research firm that, while effective, was bureaucratic and slow moving. They thought, what if we create fun online panels, put product directly in the hands of consumers, and inspire them to share their opinions with brands through a gamified system? Influenster was born. All that to say, having a founder with a research background means we provide very in-depth reporting. Depending on the nature of the program, this includes the number of reviews generated; social posts, impressions, and engagements; an earned media value calculation; and the results of a survey garnering participants’ purchase intent, responses to certain product attributes, and more. Recently, Influenster partnered with leading research provider IRI to conduct a matched market study measuring sales lift of an Influenster sampling program vs. traditional digital media in test and control markets. The results showed that the Influenster campaign delivered 44% higher sales lift on the sampled products, in this case mascara and eyeliner; and a 69% higher sales lift [both vs. traditional digital media] on the brand’s entire mascara and eyeliner lineup, an impressive halo effect. In sum—peer-to-peer marketing really works to build business!


Amanda Zajac, Vice President, Beauty, Stella Rising: Formerly Women’s Marketing, Stella Rising specializes in strategic media planning, buying, and activation across beauty, retail, food, and health. Amanda heads up the beauty division. Key areas of practice for her include digital and social marketing, Amazon strategy, as well as consumer intelligence though their proprietary community of over 20,000 grassroots influencers.

Amazon has experienced a 42% YOY growth in total beauty sales in the US alone. This is amazing but not surprising because 52% of consumers report starting their product search on Amazon. As a result, the total number of items for sale in the beauty category has quadrupled in the past few years.

It seems that the “research online, purchase offline” process is common in the consumer journey. How can a digitally native brand make up for their lack of an offline presence?

AZ: The above consumer journey still takes place; however, the path to purchase is evolving. There is no doubt the importance of brick-and-mortar presence to drive both awareness and sales for a new brand; however, you can be very successful as a digitally native brand. DTC brands are flipping the distribution funnel around—previously brands would first get retail distribution and then focus on their own ecommerce site. Now the exact opposite is happening. Brands are first focused on their own ecommerce and then move up the distribution funnel to retail shops such as specialty, mass, and pop-ups. There are two major reasons for this flip:

  • Product Margins – Your own ecommerce site will ALWAYS be your most profitable channel. Keep this in mind while looking at shipping and handling costs. It’s impossible to compete with massive distributors that have your product with zero S&H.
  • Consumer Data – You own your customer data, which is a marketer’s dream. At your fingertips you can tell who your customers are and what they are shopping on your site. This data is incredibly valuable to understand proper messaging, marketing channels, and the best way to scale your business reaching consumers that behave like your current customers.

Being at Stella Rising, we are lucky enough to have access and knowledge into the financial world. Private Equity looks at your digital footprint before even considering acquisition, and the number-one channel they look at is social—how you are messaging your audience, are they converting and are you scaling.

With the above said, having the right digital strategy is key to success, not to mention launching a new brand.

  • It’s critical that every new beauty brand is set up properly prior to officially launching to consumers.
  • More specifically, it’s essential to have a strong site with a solid user experience. Your website is your “retail store” that needs to be used to communicate your brand message, information about your products, and why people should buy. In addition, it needs to have a seamless path to purchase to limit drop-off.
  • You must have a content strategy in place. First for educating the consumers new to the brand (which essentially will be everyone you are marketing to), and second, to help drive organic search.
  • Invest in good PR to get the word out. Start developing a presence both in the trade community as well as building buzz around your brand to consumers. With no retail distribution, you need to rely heavily on educating consumers about your product, why it’s different than others in your category, and why people should care.
  • Have an Amazon strategy—know whether or not this is a channel you want to engage in at the life stage of your brand.

Lady Gaga’s new beauty brand, Haus Laboratories, is going to be distributed by Amazon. Does that change the beauty ecommerce landscape?


  • Haus is the first major beauty brand to be released exclusively on Amazon; however, Amazon has already changed the beauty/ecommerce landscape, and this is another step in that direction
  • It is a risky brand decision by not moving forward with Sephora and/or Ulta. However, Amazon is a marketplace and puts the consumer first. Allowing Lady Gaga to position her brand as she chooses. Sephora and Ulta aren’t known to be as flexible.
  • Amazon can be a challenging place to launch a brand, as new brands have limited to no awareness in market. Lady Gaga has the advantage of being at celebrity status to help create awareness around the brand. With no brick-and-mortar distribution, that is a critical component to her success on the platform.
  • Although the brand launched with all “Amazon Best Practices”—a beautifully curated brand store, A+ content, great images—the launch has some areas of concern. The ASINs are on pre-sale until mid-Sept. and it looks like the brand did not forecast their inventory properly, because a majority of the ASINs went out of stock shortly after launch (9 out of 15 are currently OOS!!!!). Amazon is spending precious real estate and advertising dollars with banners and placements driving to ASINs that are out of stock, creating a poor customer experience. Lady Gaga herself even did a segment on Amazon Live (Amazon’s version of QVC), a new traffic driver to Amazon Beauty, where her makeup artist tried the products on her, and you can shop the products right from the video—however, once again they were all out of stock. This goes to show that advertising, PR, content, etc. is all nice, but a strong handle of inventory is the most important!
  • On the plus side—by launching on Amazon Beauty (specifically Luxury Beauty), she is further breaking the stigma and paving the path for other Lux brands who are hesitant to enter Amazon.

What are your top suggestions for brands looking to establish themselves on Amazon?

AZ: You must address the following during the launch phase:

  • Reviews are essential on Amazon. Not only will they move product, you shouldn’t even consider paid advertising until you’ve established at least 10-15 reviews on each product at minimum of 3.5 stars.
  • Invest in a brand store to help drive education and awareness. They are a way to curate your collection, stand out from the competition, create a better shopping experience, cross-sell, up-sell, drive brand awareness, and educate the consumer on your brand.
  • Understand your competition. Look at what they are doing on the platform and how they are set up.
  • Clean up any gray market distribution. Know how to win the buy box. Factors to win the BB include: availability, pricing, shipping speed, and seller rating.
  • Do not consider paid advertising until you are ready.
  • External traffic is just as important, if not more important. You can NOT build a brand on Amazon in a vacuum. You need outside efforts from PR, social, media, etc. (IMPORTANT!!!!!)

Most brands fall in one of two stages:

  1. Brands that are just launching
  • Understand the difference between Seller vs. Vendor. Most small brands should be Sellers, you have more control.
  • Brand protection. Understand who is selling your product. Just because you are not selling your brand on Amazon doesn’t mean someone else isn’t. Take control over your own brand. Understand the buy box.
  • Need to become “retail ready,” including optimized copy, build A+ content, build brand store, winning buy box.
  1. Brands that are ready to accelerate and start feeding the flywheel
  • Advertising! Set aside a budget, work your way (down the funnel)—awareness to purchase. Set brand goals and develop a strategy to achieve those goals. Whether it’s driving awareness through upper funnel tactics, or maxing out on performance media to drive as much revenue as possible (or a combination of both!). Set a strategy, understand how to measure success, and optimize to meet goals.
  • Amazon can be a challenging place to build awareness. Just because you have product on Amazon DOES NOT mean you will sell product. Consider using other marketing channels (e.g., social, video, etc.) to educate new consumers and drive them to purchase on Amazon. This will help generate much-needed awareness to help drive the conversions.
  • Amazon Promotions Strategy (coupons, deals, etc.).

We’ve been talking about the power of reviews. What are your suggestions for garnering reviews on Amazon?


  • Understand Amazon’s guidelines for generating reviews. The main guideline is that you cannot “incentivize a review.” This includes sending out samples, asking for reviews.
  • Ask for reviews – Send inserts out in your shipments asking for the review, follow up on purchases with an email asking for reviews. I would say the most successful way is to follow up with customers after their purchase (we use tools to do this through automated email generators—this is for sellers only).
  • If you are a vendor: Consider investing in Amazon’s vine program ($2,500/ASIN). If you are a seller, invest in the Early Reviewer Program ($60/ASIN, allows you to generate up to your first 5 reviews, by offering the consumer an incentive of a few dollars). This has worked very well for all clients!!
  • Respond to customers’ feedback, reviews, and/or questions—this is called “Manufactured Responses.” We have tools in place to track this to make sure we never miss anything. A poor response to a question leads to a negative customer review.
  • Some stats I will speak to:
  • 90% of consumers state that reviews influence their buying decision.
  • 15 is the minimum number of reviews to get ASIN “retail ready,” 21 is where you really see an acceleration point, 3.5 stars at the minimum.
  • 90% of customers wouldn’t purchase an item with less than three stars.

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