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Social Media in the Beauty Landscape

It's a brave new world for beauty marketers, where fortune favors the bold, the bright and those plugged in enough to move at the speed of social media.

Talk about a meteoric rise. Two years ago, Katy DeGroot quit her job as an executive team leader at Target. Today, she’s recognized practically every time she steps into one of the retailer’s stores.

“Usually, the first thing people say is, ‘Oh my God, you’re so small’,” chuckles DeGroot, a 5-foot-3 tomboy version of Mariah Carey in her “Butterfly” phase who is better known by her social media handle LustreLux, “but it’s never really awkward. It’s like seeing one of your friends.”

DeGroot started LustreLux as a Web site with no grand ambitions to become a social media sensation. “I just wanted to create something that mixed my sarcasm and humor into writing and doing a few pictures,” she says. “It was very Millennial of me to not want to listen to anybody and do whatever I wanted to do.”

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The appeal of her approach soon became apparent. Two months after LustreLux started posting on Instagram and YouTube, DeGroot was picking up 10,000 subscribers a day. She crossed 500,000 subscribers in eight months and has now amassed more than 2.6 million followers. She’s partnered with brands including Make Up For Ever, Benefit, NARS and Philips to promote products, signed up as a stylist for Ipsy and recently settled in Los Angeles to pursue a full-time career as a social media makeup buff.

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DeGroot’s swift ascent from nobody to somebody parallels rapid changes in the beauty landscape caused by social media. “Social media is shaping consumer behavior,” says Shelley Haus, vice president of brand marketing at Ulta Beauty. “Scrolling through Instagram, the pictures and videos bring things to life in a way that’s superabsorbable. [Consumers] go to Instagram for beauty inspiration and to learn how to wear this or do that. They relate in a really visual way, and they are getting a sense of urgency.”

The sea change is creating a new generation of consumers, a swelling group of young women who devour beauty content, determinedly search for details about products they covet, itch to try new brands and crave great scores. Increasingly, brands are responding by unleashing newness at warp speed, solidifying relationships with social media stars, ambushing trends and quickening the pace of their marketing efforts. With social media inflaming desire for products, it’s a kill-or-be-killed environment in the beauty business, and the kills can be immediate and very, very big.

To wit: Kylie Jenner’s Lip Kit, $29, sold out in minutes when it launched online. Becca’s Champagne Pop highlighter, cocreated with YouTube personality Jaclyn Hill, generated an estimated $20 million in sales during the second half of 2015 and was the biggest single-day seller in’s history. Tarte’s Amazonian Clay Matte Palette doubled its sales expectations after the brand partnered with 12 influencers during the year, and the Too Faced Stardust palette, designed with Instagram influencer Vegas Nay, propelled the brand into being one of the strongest performers at Ulta.

Mary Beth Laughton, senior vice president of digital at Sephora, says Instagram can stoke unprecedented demand. “There is so much more content available to help clients over that decision-making threshold,” she says. “The rise of visual social media has powered not only the ability for a client to explore more, but also make more informed decisions by seeing more images of product on faces and how to use products.”

Survey results bear out the impact of Instagram on sales. In its 2015 study of the U.S. cosmetics industry, TABS Analytics found Instagram is very important in the purchasing decisions of 31 percent of Millennials who are heavy buyers of cosmetics, an 11 percent increase from 2014. “Instagram is becoming much more important to the women who are the drivers in the category,” says Kurt Jetta, ceo and founder of TABS, noting African-Americans and Hispanics are more than twice as likely to say Instagram is important in their decisions. Heavy buyers are 30 percent of the shoppers in the beauty category, but account for 60 percent of sales.

The power of social media to move the merch has given rise to a new breed of brands that live primarily online, such as ColourPop, Sigma Beauty, Dose of Colors and BH Cosmetics, all of which have greater Instagram followings than established brands including Revlon, Cover Girl and Wet ‘n’ Wild. And it has propelled existing brands who have mastered the medium—such as Anastasia Beverly Hills, Tarte and Too Faced—into exponential sales increases.

Wende Zomnir, founding partner and chief creative officer at Urban Decay, says the new breed of brands are effectively mining a distribution channel their larger rivals haven’t mastered—much as the first wave of Indie brands did during the Nineties when Sephora opened in the U.S. “It reminds me of when we started, and [bigger brands] would not go into Sephora. So, Sephora was our venue, and it created a new way of doing business,” she says. “I love watching all of these brands on Instagram. We can completely learn from them. Looking back at department store brands that eventually went to Sephora, you would be mistaken not to.”

Thus far, social media’s impact has been seen primarily with makeup, but as marketers look to apply their insights to other categories, the lessons about what works—and what doesn’t—are being applied across the board. Thus far, the mix includes initiating affiliate programs, linking with social media influencers on limited-edition products (palettes anyone?), peddling vibrant and inexpensive hero items, and celebrating user-generated content.

Visually, Instagram has evolved relatively rapidly. Photo albums rather than billboards garner the highest engagement. A case study by Curalate shows that the brand Sigma Beauty posts four to five user images per day on Instagram to push 24,000 clicks per month to its online product pages. Leveraging a Curalate service titled Fanreel, those pages contain user images pulled from Instagram exhibiting looks fashioned with the brand’s products. Consumers who check out those images spend 12 minutes and 25 seconds on Sigma Beauty’s site, compared to three minutes and 12 seconds when they don’t.

“Consumer behavior is driven by showing the product as it is being used in real life, not necessarily on a white background,” says Matthew Langie, chief marketing officer of Curalate.

Ricky’s NYC president Richard Parrott believes professional hair care will be the next category to take off on Instagram. “That’s a huge opportunity,” he says. “They have the content, but they are not using it so much on social media. They are using it in the professional world.”

On the skin-care front, Haus says, “[Instagram] has lent itself to products that are sexier and, obviously, color is sexy, sexy, sexy, but as people are getting more into skin care, even Millennials, a little bit of the sexy is being put into skin care.”

Masks, which can be displayed in a highly visual manner, are a case in point, with links to how-tos on the immediate horizon as well. Estée Lauder has high hopes for its metallic Advanced Night Repair PowerFoil Mask on social. “It is great to experiment on Instagram with a really visual skin-care product to gauge engagement versus [engagement from] an image of a serum or a cream,” says Geri Schachner, senior vice president of global communications at Estée Lauder.

For its part, later this year, Juice Beauty will launch a mask with a colored formula that contrasts with skin tones to make a skin-care statement on Instagram. To circumvent the issues skin-care posits, brands have honed in on featuring packaging—ingredients such as apples or roses, or symbols marketing like beakers or egg timers.

Because newness is a key driver on Instagram, companies are evolving their launch strategies accordingly. Some brands like Winky Lux introduce new products every three weeks to a month; others, like Urban Decay, introduce iterations of existing bestsellers, such as its Naked Smoky Palette. Taking a cue from Beyoncé’s surprise album, brands are also launching products on unexpected dates like Winky Lux’s product timed with the first snowfall in New York or ColourPop’s to celebrate a collaborator’s birthday.

New trends don’t occur as often as new products, but, when they do, they spur crazes on social media that savvy brands are cashing in on. “The brands that are going to win can capitalize quickly on a certain trend, whether it is through optimized content, a quick-thinking influencer mailing or repurposing products in their line to fit that trend,” says Julia Sloan, vice president of global communications and fashion relations at Nars.

Tarte, for example, jumped on the baking trend with its existing Smooth Operator Clay Finishing Powder and Maracuja Creaseless Concealer, which resulted in a 48 percent bump in concealer sales. When Benefit’s marketing department saw strobing emerge, they packaged together four legacy products in Strobe Your Ego kits and sent them to influencers. The brand’s Watt’s Up Cream-to-Powder Highlighter, included in the package, sold out on “To have a product that’s been around for four years sell out was massive,” says Claudia Allwood, U.S. digital marketing director for Benefit. “That was a lesson. We have to have our finger on the pulse of what’s coming next.”

Both retailers and brands are working harder to get the earliest possible reads on trends. At a gathering of YouTubers, three attendees had colored eyebrows. A month later, Winky Lux released Rainbow Brow Palette, a consistent bestseller that allows users to colorfully brighten their brows.

Ulta scours influencer content daily to detect looks or products that are being repeated and generating their own vocabulary. “Once people attach a name and a how-to to it, that’s when it starts being a trend. We know there’s a groundswell when there is user-generated content around it,” says Haus. Ulta is also working with manufacturers to shorten the nine to 12 months it takes to go from product idea to execution. “We are continually thinking about how Instagram and other social channels have created an immediacy and how do we keep up with that,” says Haus.

Social media is like bam, bam, bam,” says DeGroot. “If you’re not doing it tomorrow, you’re late.”

As user-generated content explodes, brands are ceding control of the flow of information. For the launch of its spring collection, Tarte opted for social media influencers to unveil the products before doing so itself. That strategy netted 20 million Instagram impressions prior to the collection being available for sale, leading to a growth rate of 80 percent for Tarte on Instagram and a 38 percent boost in engagement on the brand’s Instagram account.

Marketers are also improving on identifying the right influencers rather than the most prominent ones. “A brand might have a location in Boston they really want to pay attention to, and they find an influencer who has an audience there,” says Daniel Saynt, founder and ceo of influencer casting and creative agency Socialyte. “They are looking for a demo and audience to hit.”

Long-term deals with DeGroot and other influencers—six-month to two-year contracts—are escalating and the compensation can be eye-popping. Fashion blogger Kristina Bazan, who has 2.2 million Instagram followers, set a new bar by nabbing a reported seven-figure contract with L’Oréal in October. “For the proven influencers, brands are going to try to create long-term relationships,” says Kenn Henman, ceo and founder of uFluencer Group. “Instead of a one-off palette they will create a collection around an influencer. For the smaller influencers, they are going to still be one-offs.”

Going forward, brands hope Instagram and other social media platforms will make images shoppable. Instagram inched toward commerciality last year with the launch of new ad formats but advancements haven’t yet made social media a formidable vehicle for direct sales. During the most recent holiday season, the analytics firm Custora found that social media channels were responsible for a mere 1.8 percent of online sales. “Social media works more [to push] in-store purchasing because it is almost entirely the people who are really into the category that are on social in high numbers,” says Jetta of TABS.

The other challenge is staying ahead of the game. Much as Instagram exploded over the last 24 months, other platforms are gaining speed exponentially, particularly Snapchat and Periscope. Bullish on Periscope, Tarte chief marketing officer Candace Craig Bulishak says it’s ideal for education and live product demonstrations like painting swatches on skin. “People aren’t looking for that highly edited content any more,” she says. “They want to see relatable, raw content. It’s a departure from the highly edited videos and polished photographs we created in the past. Because of this idea of conversational marketing, it makes sense that the future of social is all about live-streaming and connecting with consumers in real time.”

Snapchat captures spontaneity, says Allwood, underscoring Instagram content is becoming curated and intentional. “Snapchat is for those silly moment-to-moment experiences that are fun to share, but aren’t worth crafting a clever caption, filter and requiring an elevated creative effort,” she says, noting unboxing has moved to Snapchat.

DeGroot, who had 1.3 million followers on Instagram as of press time, is spending more and more time on Snapchat. “It’s basically like texting your viewers,” she says. “I’ll ask them about products and what kind of video they’d like to see next. It makes it a lot easier to connect with them. People see who you really are on Snapchat because it’s so unedited.”