Model Shenise Breslin  wearing a Tacoola bikini.
Model Shenise Breslin wearing a Tacoola bikini. Jerad Williams

Under the influence: social media boosting Aussie sales

WHEN newly-minted royal Meghan Markle stepped out in a pair of Outland Denim jeans during her first official tour, it literally broke the internet for the modest Mount Tamborine-based company that manufactures them.

Founder James Bartle says his operation is only just recovering now, nine months after the royal endorsement pushed the fast-forward button on the company's growth planning.

"I imagine she was wearing them through a stylist,” James says, still not entirely sure how his company's big break played out.

James and Erica Bartle at Outland Denim headquarters in Mt Tamborine. Meghan Markle wore their jeans on their Royal Tour to Australia, bringing a global focus to the brand and bringing more employment opportunities to meet demand.
James and Erica Bartle at Outland Denim headquarters in Mt Tamborine. Meghan Markle wore their jeans on their Royal Tour to Australia, bringing a global focus to the brand and bringing more employment opportunities to meet demand. Luke Marsden

"We sold out within the first 24 hours and the demand is still there.”

No doubt the socially aware Meghan was happy to lend her brand power for the greater good.

Outland Denim garments are manufactured through a social enterprise in Cambodia, providing jobs and training for vulnerable girls and young women in a country where trafficking for the sex industry is rife.

The company is committed to ethical and sustainable practices at every step in its production process, aims to keep its water-use and environmental impact to a minimum and even uses 100 per cent recycled packaging.

While it ticks more than a few boxes on the Duchess of Sussex's social justice agenda, the Outland Denim story is a case study in the power of so-called influencers in modern day marketing.

As a direct result of a one-off royal endorsement, the company now employs a further 46 seamstresses in Cambodia, doubling its workforce, and has overhauled its processes to cope with orders rolling in from around the globe.

Of course, Meghan Markle is that rare breed of influencer who operates high above the world of new-fashioned commerce where "influencing” is not only a job description but can generate a tidy income.

This year, the influencer industry is tipped to net $6.5 billion globally, a 180 per cent jump on last year. The figure is expected to rise to $10 billion next year.

"It's exponential growth,” client services director of social media agency Hello Social Sam Kelly says.

"There's a huge increase in paid influencer activity in Australia. It's definitely the future of brand marketing around the world.”

As with most emerging business models, it's still something of an inexact science.

Where once the industry rule of thumb set influencer endorsement rates at $100 per 10,000 followers, a new Australian study has found the game has got far more complex than that.

The 2019 Social Media Influencer Benchmarks Report crunched social media algorithms across three platforms - Facebook, Twitter and Instagram - and, somewhat counter-intuitively, found the greater number of followers someone has, the less effective their endorsements tended to be.

It claims the best bang for marketing bucks is with so-called "micro-influencers”, defined as those with followings between 1000 and 10,000. Even "nano-influencers”, those with 1000 followers or less, can be just as effective in converting endorsements to sales.

And, despite having far fewer users, Instagram has emerged as the undisputed star of influencer activity, far outperforming its cyber rivals for converting endorsements into sales.

According to the study, Instagram's top-tier influencers recorded engagement levels 100 times greater than Facebook's and 400 times greater than Twitter's.

It's something Queensland swimwear label Tacoola founder Jeni Patch has known instinctively. She has been working Instagram since her brand's early days.

It too was propelled into the global spotlight - after Instagram royalty Kylie Jenner, with her 138 million followers, posted a picture of herself in a Tacoola one-piece.

The photograph ended up on the front of the UK's Daily Mail, with the swimsuit selling out overnight and setting the company on a steeper boom trajectory than it was already on.

"I woke up one morning and saw the picture on Snapchat,” Jeni says. "It was pretty incredible. I thought, 'How did she get this'?”

That post was not a paid endorsement but came from a standard order that one of Jenner's personal shoppers had placed and paid for.

Tacoola brand founder Jeni Patch, with model Shenise Breslin at Palm Beach, Gold Coast.
Tacoola brand founder Jeni Patch, with model Shenise Breslin at Palm Beach, Gold Coast. Jerad Williams

"Kylie Jenner has her own swimwear brand - I was so complimented,” Jeni says. "We've just been growing at a rate of knots since then.

"The Mai Mai one-piece that Kylie was wearing is still one of our top sellers and one of our biggest markets is America.”

Jeni, a mother of three young boys, wasn't even on Instagram when she launched her vintage-style swimwear and denim label in 2015.

She had to learn how to use the platform and has always made a point of being "most generous” in giving away her products to people who'll put them on Instagram.

"At the beginning, I gave a lot away,” she says. "There seems to be a new influencer every day and maybe there were some who didn't do the right thing, who took the gift and that was the end of it, but it's paid huge dividends.

"I gave away swimwear to 16 and 17-year-old girls when they were just starting out and now they're top models for Vivien's.

"(Fitness influencer) Tammy Hembrow has worn our swimwear. We've never paid anyone to wear it. I think when your brand is loved and adored by a million people, you're not going to choose someone that you have to pay for.”

But while many influencers and aspiring influencers are happy to post for product, it doesn't pay the bills.

Sam Kelly from Hello Social says top influencers - he nominates someone the likes of US basketball star LeBron James - can charge up to half a million dollars or more to put their name to a brand.

"It's like any business,” he says. "Everyone prices it differently. They might have a rate card, but they might be willing to change those rates depending on the brand or the opportunity or the perception around that partnership. There are different rates for posting, tagging, clickable links to landing pages or a call to action for sales.

"These can be measured and businesses can generally see a good return on investment.

"Sometimes it can be harder to measure, for example influencers endorsing a cafe or restaurant. That's much more difficult to quantify.”

He says there are some key points he looks for in identifying effective influencers - and they don't necessarily have to do with their numbers of followers.

"Most importantly, there has to be authenticity,” he says. "That tends to come with influencers who've stuck around for a while, who've built their own brands.

"The influencer's values and beliefs should align with the brand's, so that's authentic too and it's important the influencer has really good storytelling.”

He says influencers should be known for something other than being reality TV stars, for example, who tend to find little long-term traction on social media if that's their only selling point.

Last year, one-time winner of The Bachelor Alex Nation announced she was going back to her day job after struggling to make a living from full-time influencing.

Sam says that while the vast majority find it hard to make a living from influencing alone, there are growing numbers in Australia who do.

"There are so many different spheres: there's the bikini clad, health and fitness identities, people in entertainment and, of course, sports stars,” Sam says.

Indeed, Portuguese football megastar Cristiano Ronaldo has the highest number of Instagram followers in the world.

He's in the big league with Kim Kardashian and Kylie Jenner, with US entertainers Ariana Grande, Selena Gomez, Beyonce, Justin Bieber, Taylor Swift and The Rock jostling in the global top 10.

In Australia, bigger name influencers might ask $10,000 for a one-off post while would-be influencers can be happy to do it for "a free meal or a free T-shirt”.

Sam says opportunities locally tend to be for people who have made their names in other pursuits, particularly sports, and are seen as credible and having achieved excellence in their fields, many before Instagram was even a thing.

He nominates the big growth area for influencers in Australia as women in sport, emerging identities from national soccer, cricket, AFL and rugby league competitions.

"We're seeing a huge interest in that area,” he says.

He agrees Instagram is where the action is but says that's not to discount other platforms such as Snapchat that has the attention of people aged 16-18, and Facebook, which is good for targeting older demographics.

It's a whole new minefield businesses need to be across if they're going to prosper in the modern marketplace.

Unless of course Meghan Markle somehow steps out wearing your jeans.