Arielle Charnas'Cartier' Panthere Studio, Indochine, New York, USA - 19 May 2017

Superinfluencers. Brand builders. Converters.

These were some of the most popular buzzwords thrown around this year, as the use of influencers went from a fun add-on to mandatory for any brand wanting to maintain relevancy — even the most traditional of retail businesses. Partnering with content creators is no longer optional for fashion and beauty firms, which enlist this group to amplify launches, ad campaigns, events and more.

The breakdown of marketing budgets also continued to shift, with e-commerce ventures born online to behemoths like L’Oréal allotting larger percentages of their spend for influencer activations and the hefty individual fees content creators now command.

But a key learning emerged industrywide: Not all influencers with one million-plus followers are equal. This means that two New York City-based, fashion-based content creators with identical follower counts could do two entirely different things for a brand. One might have a “buying audience” with followers who actively purchase products that are linked to in posts — a “converter” — and the other might link up with brands like Chanel or Louis Vuitton to do more aspirational content that increases brand awareness but does little in the way of driving a sale.

The latter is a “brand builder,” and beauty giants like Benefit Cosmetics, for instance, consider developing long-term relationships with top influencers — an exercise in building brand awareness. For them, the association with these content creators to spread their message is paramount, and while a nice bonus, sales that result from these partnerships are secondary.

For those seeking “converters,” looking at follower counts and engagement doesn’t always equate to selling power. A content creator might receive a lot of likes or comments and still not have high conversion rates. Quite often working with an influencer who has 700,000 followers on Instagram could result in higher conversion than someone with a fan base twice as large. But the one with a fan base of 1.4 million might do more in the way of creating brand awareness, resulting in a halo effect that otherwise would never have occurred.

It all depends on how you define return on investment.

If a firm’s objective is a lift in sales, then the former would be considered a win; if the goal is to boost brand awareness, then the latter would be considered a win. And it’s this distinction — that influencers fall into two equal camps — that crystallized this year. Being able to identify a potential influencer partner as either a “converter” or a “brand builder” became critical information for the chief marketing officers and communications executives brokering these deals.

Once brands realized that some of the largest influencers — the ones brands routinely throw six figures at for collaborations and ambassadorships — hardly moved the needle at all when it comes to driving conversion, some were forced to rethink their approach. But for others, this was OK because driving sales was never the end goal and the reason they decided to work with this influencer was to raise awareness.

Jennifer Powell, president and founder of Jennifer Powell Inc., a firm that does branding and strategy for influencers, said the realization that follower count doesn’t equate to conversion was a shock.

“Sometimes I’ll be like, ‘This person has so many followers, why don’t they convert?’ It’s a surprise to me,” Powell told WWD earlier this year. “When I would sell somebody who was maybe the biggest influencer, and then…they weren’t converting, it was a surprise.

“There aren’t that many in this space that can do both,” she added.

Claire Collins Maysh, general manager of U.S. operations at digital talent management agency Gleam Futures, agreed. She believes that many influencers produce “incredible content,” but this doesn’t necessarily result in conversion or engagement from their audience.

“The most they get might be ‘likes,’ but not really comments because their content doesn’t really require a response. Yes, you can appreciate it, but it doesn’t make someone want to shop it,” Collins Maysh said. “In the same way that I’m not fully convinced that a big-time celebrity would convert — this person has the beauty and is on brand the way that maybe [a celebrity] might be — even if that doesn’t convert to sales it doesn’t matter. It might just be about getting attention for the campaigns.”

Perhaps one of the most powerful converters to surface this year was Arielle Charnas, who started her blog, Something Navy, in 2009.

On Sept. 25, the Something Navy x Treasure & Bond line she codesigned was said to have done over $1 million in sales in less than 24 hours on, where the collection is carried exclusively. Earlier this month, Charnas informed her followers via Instagram Stories that the retailer would be doing a restock of select pieces from the original collection of 30 ready-to-wear and accessories styles.

“As an influencer, my platform has given me the resources to real-life data and feedback by listening to my followers and seeing what they got excited about on my Instagram. We felt an obligation to use this incredible knowledge to give my followers what they wanted….We are hoping to build upon this formula for success and continue to listen closely to my amazing audience,” Charnas said during an interview in September.

Her selling power was no secret, though. A year-and-a-half ago, Charnas was responsible for selling $17,565 worth of a Peter Thomas Roth Rose Stem Cell Bio-Repair Gel Mask in the 24 hours following a Snapchat story mention. In July, she posted a photo of herself wearing a Petersyn top and skirt, and within two days, Shopbop sold $40,500 of tops and skirts combined. Charnas saw similar success with lines she cocreated for Koral and Monrow that were sold exclusively at activewear retailer Bandier.

Another statistic that shows the growing power of influencers: a collaboration between Anastasia Beverly Hills and Makeup by Mario’s Mario Dedivanovic reportedly generated four times the revenue of Gwen Stefani’s Urban Decay x Gwen Stefani Eyeshadow Palette.

According to Tribe Dynamics, 80 percent of the top 15 beauty brand collaborations for the first half of 2017 were coventures with influencers. Only three, or 20 percent, were collaborations with celebrities: Jessie J’s Make Up For Ever partnership, which saw $6.1 million in earned media value; Chrissy Teigen’s Becca palette with $10.7 million in EMV, and Kim Kardashian’s KKW by Kylie Cosmetics lipstick with $5.9 million in EMV.

A partnership between Anastasia Beverly Hills and Nicole Guerriero ranked number one on Tribe Dynamics’ list with $25 million in earned media value. Jaclyn Hill and Manny Gutierrez each appeared twice, including Hill’s Morphe and Becca partnerships that came in second and fifth place with $12.2 million and $10.7 million in EMVs, respectively. Gutierrez’s collaborations with Jeffree Star Cosmetics and Ofra ranked third and 15th, with $12 million and $4 million in EMVs, respectively. Rounding out the top five was Shay Mitchell for Smashbox with $11.5 million in EMV.

“People are putting their jobs on the line when they’re advocating for these really large celebrity partnerships. They cost a lot of money and I think the reality is that they haven’t worked out as well as hoped, particularly the past couple of years. It’s a sensitive issue,” said Conor Begley, cofounder of Tribe Dynamics.

Consumers usually follow a celebrity on Snapchat or Instagram to have insider access or a behind-the-scenes look that social media facilitates. This leads to tens of millions of followers, but most likely, very little conversion.

“Celebrities have huge audiences and you certainly want them to be a fan of your brand, but for the most part people follow them to know more about their lives and their general lifestyles. When they’re following someone they perceive as an expert in that field, be it fashion or beauty, they’re following them because they are intensely interested in that topic and they will more than likely have a disproportionate impact offline to their friends,” Begley explained.