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Influencer marketing programs come in all stripes, with bells and whistles galore. That’s why it can be challenging to cut through the clutter to decide which programs are best for your brand. The Paris-based global beauty brand Sephora’s approach to influencer marketing is an excellent example of thinking outside the box. It found ample success in an industry that’s flooded with influencers who post tips for makeup, hair and skincare and reviews of beauty products.

Sephora has long been a digital marketing pioneer dedicated to personalized experiences. It developed innovations like the Sephora Virtual Artist AR makeup app that enables consumers to try on different cosmetic products via their smartphones. It partners with beauty influencers on social media platforms like YouTube and Instagram to create beauty how-to videos. The brand’s Snapchat takeovers have generated buzz, engagement, shares and sales.

Following up on these groundbreaking promotions, Sephora introduced its innovative #SephoraSquad influencer marketing program in 2019. And it’s an influencer marketing program that savvy brands can learn a lot from.

How Sephora’s Influencer Marketing Program Is Different

Sephora’s #SephoraSquad influencer marketing program is different from others. That’s because it puts the program’s decision making partially into the hands of the influencers’ loyal followers. These are Sephora’s current or potential customers instead of only Sephora marketers.

Initially, Sephora wanted to find 24 influencers to work with as members of its #SephoraSquad. The beauty brand held a contest that drew 16,000 applicants for the positions. Most importantly, Sephora also asked for testimonials from the applicants’ social media followers. The brand received 250,000 of them from the applicants’ passionate audiences in an innovative twist on crowdsourcing.

The #SephoraSquad approach is also different from other types of influencer marketing. Through the program, Sephora asks influencers and followers what’s important to them when it comes to the idea of beauty. The brand wants to know what kinds of discussions influencers and followers are having about beauty-related topics. It also asks fans which influencers best represent their own particular beauty identities.

Sephora created a website to recruit influencers to be ambassadors for the #SephoraSquad. There, the brand described what it was looking for and what makes this particular beauty influencer program different from others: “We celebrate the most authentic and inspiring voices in the digital beauty space. We value unique, unfiltered, sorry-not-sorry storytellers, no matter the number of followers they have.”

The #SephoraSquad personalizes the brand as a diverse group of influencers that a variety of different groups of consumers can identify with. The #SephoraSquad influencers represent different gender identities, ages, ethnicities, backgrounds and sexual orientations. They also have a wide spectrum of hair textures and skin tones to be more inclusive.

Sephora inked yearlong contracts with the influencers with payment for participation. But, in addition to long-term partnerships, the brand also offers coaching to the winners. The selected influencers also receive early access to Sephora products, valuable exposure and access to resources and beauty industry experts.

The #SephoraSquad program is also well-timed to coincide with the unveiling of 35 new stores in the U.S. In 2019, Sephora stores will open in major cities including Brooklyn; Washington, D.C.; Seattle and Palm Springs.

Benefits of Using This Influencer Marketing Approach

The benefits of this type of influencer marketing approach are both broad and niche. The program is more personalized with influencers and products that recognize and meet consumers’ individual needs, respectively. This way, Sephora creates a positive emotional reaction with consumers.

The reaction is a feeling of acceptance, acknowledgment and respect for the individual consumer. This results in increased brand awareness and loyalty, as well as engagement, web traffic, leads and sales. The program addresses the needs of so many different niche markets around the world. So, the Sephora influencer marketing approach is also broad because of the sheer numbers of consumers it targets.

Takeaway Tips for Brands

Other brands can take away helpful tips from Sephora’s influencer marketing strategy, including the following.

  • Don’t Forget the Followers. Don’t focus solely on influencers or rely on your in-house marketing team with your social media marketing strategy. Make involving, engaging with and listening to influencers’ followers a key part of your program.
  • Redefine the Ideas of Broad and Niche Markets. A broad influencer marketing approach doesn’t have to be homogenous, and it’s often more successful when it isn’t. Remember that one size doesn’t necessarily fit all. Think of the different categories of consumers included in your market. Consider their ranges of needs and the different types of influencers they’ll identify with and respond to. Celebrate customer diversity by addressing their differing needs in your influencer marketing program.
  • Mine the Data. Influencers’ followers can be excellent sources of consumer data when you engage them in a marketing program. These dedicated audiences can also generate ideas for new products and help identify underserved markets.
  • Establish Long-term Relationships with Influencers and Followers. Partnering with influencers over the long term rather than with one-off promotions can help establish your brand as a trusted expert in your industry. When influencers consistently present your brand to their followers over the long term, it increases brand awareness, loyalty and, ultimately, sales.
  • Focus on Your Customers’ Reality and Providing Solutions for the Challenges They Face. Sephora scored big by focusing on the real challenges its diverse groups of customers faced when looking for beauty products that met their needs. By sourcing ideas and opinions from real people, Sephora didn’t employ empty, superficial beauty marketing to gloss over their audience’s challenges. These included using prosthetic limbs and having acne. Instead, Sephora used consumer insights as valuable perspectives to help drive marketing strategies.
  • Consider Using Influencers with Smaller Followings. Don’t overestimate the importance of influencer numbers and fame. The numbers can be hard to verify, and younger consumers — especially those in Generation Z — aren’t easily influenced by celebrities. Although Sephora is an enormous multinational corporation, it didn’t exclusively partner with celebrities or other mega-influencers for the #SephoraSquad program. The company recognized the value of working with influencers whose voices were considered authentic by their audiences. And that was even though some had audiences of only a few thousand followers. The only requirement to apply was that they had active Instagram accounts. Remember, micro-influencers can be mighty when you give them exposure and use a number of them to cover different audiences.
  • Schedule Your Influencer Marketing Program to Align with Other Important Brand Events. As Sephora opens nearly three dozen U.S. stores in 2019, the #SephoraSquad influencer marketing program is perfectly timed. It can boost awareness of the brick-and-mortar shops and drive actual foot traffic to them from social media. Remember though, to keep a long-term approach to influencer marketing for your brand. Don’t solely use short-term partnerships geared to certain promotions and product launches.
  • Develop an Influencer Marketing Program That Reflects Your Brand’s Identity and Values. The #SephoraSquad program’s ethos syncs nicely with Sephora’s other marketing programs like the Beauty Insider loyalty program, which also focuses on customer personalization. The Beauty Insider program rewards members for their purchases with freebies like personalized gifts, custom makeovers and invitations to exclusive events.