While COVID-19 caused damaging ripples across many industries, the waters of the influencer marketing industry remained comparatively calm. Disruptions to social routines caused Americans to spend more time on their devices digitally, socializing the good and the bad.

In fact, the influencer marketing industry is projected to grow to $13.8 billion in 2021 — an increase of more than 40 percent from 2020, according to Influencer Marketing Hub.

This growth tracks back to last August, a point at which brands previously cautious to spend marketing dollars in the early months of the pandemic ramped up their investment in influencer marketing, seemingly never to look back.

One part of the industry that has reached new heights has been the rise of the micro-influencer, digital creators commonly defined as social media influencers with fewer than 100,000 followers. The follow count varies slightly depending on whom you ask, but that metric is not all-telling.

Consider instead another metric: engagement rate, the percentage of an audience that is actively liking, commenting on, saving, and sharing content. As audience size increases, engagement rate on average decreases to 2 percent or below for accounts with more than 100,000 followers.

Part of the reasoning behind this is with a niched-down, smaller group of people, it is much easier to build a community. This is where micro-influencers excel.

Generally, they receive a more manageable number of direct messages (or DMs) and comments on their posts, which allows them to respond more regularly. Communication on their social accounts is like a two-way street on which conversations take place and connections thrive.

As such, a follow count can be deceiving. It merely shows the potential audience without considering how much of that audience is regularly receptive and responsive.

In addition, the relatability of micro-influencers is a desired quality for many businesses looking to partner. As opposed to celebrities, whose reality seems far off from our own, micro-influencers often share “relatable” lifestyles that resonate with their followers. This is key to nurturing online communities.

A brand that exemplifies this social media journey and influencer strategy is Rainier Watch. As a Tacoma-based apparel brand that built a following by encouraging Washingtonians to share photos when the mountain is out, the brand’s niche is very local. As such, its ambassador program is made up of creators (with a minimum of 2,000 followers) who not only share values and passion for the outdoors, but also location.

David Lindahl. Photo courtesy of the subject.

“I was specifically looking for folks who (were) definitely more local, have that smaller following count, but who are creating content, jumping through the hoops, and building their audience,” said Rainier Watch founder David Lindahl. “It was very intentional to focus on the smaller influencers because they are kind of more on the ground, less polished or high-level, and more authentic.

For a small business such as Rainier Watch, not spending ad dollars on high-budget productions is monumentally important. “I’m not like an REI or anything like that,” Lindahl said. “I’m just working out of my spare bedroom.”

The small but mighty group of six influencers that comprise Rainier Watch’s ambassador program have driven brand awareness and sales as well as created quality content for the brand to use on its socials, website, and ads.

Naturally, another appeal of working with micro-influencers is affordability.

When asked about the main pros and cons of working with macro versus micro-influencers, Olive Group president Jake Nyman said, “Often this comes down to cost. Many macro-influencers work through agencies that require a bit of red tape and very clear expectations and abilities. With micro-influencers, you’re typically dealing with the person directly, also negotiating rates directly.”

Jake Nyman. Photo courtesy of Devon Michelle Photography.

Olive Group is a Tacoma-based marketing firm serving the greater Seattle area that offers influencer marketing services. One of its services includes matching clients with micro-influencers who are as close to a perfect fit as possible.

“Businesses need to make sure they find influencers that meet the same target demographics as their own demographics,” Nyman said. “We feel that if the audiences aren’t similar, micro influencer marketing can be a swing and miss for businesses. And though unique, micro-influencers can bring attention to a brand that they sometimes just can’t get anywhere else.”

Beyond businesses, the Washington State Department of Health (DOH) utilized micro-influencer projects last fall to spread the word about COVID protective behaviors, followed by WA Notify — the state’s coronavirus exposure notification system — and most recently Vaccinate WA.

“It’s rare for government agencies to use an influencer strategy, that’s typically more of a consumer product tactic,” said DOH health promotion and education supervisor Kristen Haley.  “During the pandemic, it was important that we explored all avenues of communication as we worked hard to stop the spread of COVID-19. The influencer strategy allowed DOH to go beyond traditional media channels and reach people in a more authentic, relatable way.”

At the center of the highly successful WA Notify campaign were diverse voices from niches ranging from music and parenting to health care and lifestyle. Importantly, these creators were hand-selected because they were previously advocating for safe COVID-19 practices, like wearing a mask or socially distancing, and did so in a relatable way.

In total, the WA Notify Instagram content created by 16 micro-influencers generated more than 260,000 post impressions, more than 73,000 views on stories and reels, and effectively reached communities that have been underserved by health care.

As the rise of micro-influencer marketing continues, it is worth reflecting on how smaller creators are distinctly positioned to build highly engaged communities, how their relatability and authenticity fosters genuine connection, and how various entities like businesses and government agencies might benefit from tapping into their influence.