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, a gain 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 then ramped up their investment in influencer marketing — and seemingly never looked 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.

Courtesy of John Cahil via Pexels

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, these individuals receive a more manageable number of direct messages, or DMs, and comments on their posts, so they respond more regularly. Communication on their social accounts is 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.

Look at local business Ellenos Yogurt, for example. Its long-term influencer strategy is to create lasting partnerships with influencers who often already are enjoying and sharing its yogurt. Due to the time, energy, and care it invests in its influencer program, Ellenos has received lots of feedback from customers who tried the yogurt or limited-edition flavors directly as a result of seeing an inflencer talk about it.

A local content creator, known on Instagram and other social media as @emmamadison, uses her micro-influencer skills to market Ellenos Yogurt. Photo courtesy of @emmasedition and @madcrayy via Instagram

“There are a lot of great influencers out there, people who put a lot of effort into their craft and spend years cultivating amazing communities,” said Ellenos Vice President of Marketing Ben Garnero. “Our goal is to ultimately fi nd those people and work with them in a way that complements the rest of our marketing tactics. Influencer marketing is one of many tools, and just like everything else, you generally get out of it what you put into it.”

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

Jake Nyman, president of regional marketing firm Olive Group, said choosing to work with macro vs. micro-influencers often 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 (and) negotiating rates directly,” he said.

Among Olive Group’s services is matchmaking between clients and micro-influencers.

“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.

A screen capture from a WA Notify by writer, director, and performer Alyza Del-Pan Monley and other local LGBTQ influencers. Photo courtesy of Alyza Del-Pan Money via Washington State Department of Health

“It’s rare for government agencies to use an influencer strategy; that’s typically more of a consumer product tactic,” said Kristen Haley, the health promotion and education supervisor for the state health department. “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 often have been underserved by health care.