This week, we look into the original social media shopping platform, RewardStyle, and Ulta Beauty’s rejiggered loyalty program.

Beyond newly needing to wear a mask and social distance, Covid-19 has permanently shifted many behaviors including how we shop. Overall consumption has declined by 15%. But with such disruption, companies are getting used to innovating on a moment’s notice. 

In beauty, that has largely come in the form of digital strategies and forays onto platforms like TikTok, Triller, and Instagram. This will no doubt hold true this year as TikTok and Instagram ramp up their e-commerce capabilities. But before social shopping became commonplace, there was RewardStyle.

The Dallas-based technology platform was founded in 2011 and is the parent of the LikeToKnowIt shopping app, which debuted in 2017. In many ways, RewardStyle was responsible for the original micro-influencer and allowed them to earn an income on their lifestyles, regardless of whether they resided outside of New York City and Los Angeles. RewardStyle essentially acted as the middleman between creators and retailers, and said creators earned commissions on products they recommend by using affiliate links.

While fashion pics had fueled RewardStyle’s livelihood pre-Covid, that has shifted considerably in the last year. According to the company, it saw 250% growth year-over-year in beauty influencers joining RewardStyle in 2020. Skin-care brands have also invested more on the platform, with skin-care influencer collaborations on the platform growing more than 100% year-over-year. The company counts 5,000 brand partners including Sephora, Ulta and Supergoop. And like other pandemic-proof categories like home and cozy apparel, beauty has seen an over 188% spike in retail sales driven through the platform in the last year.

Amber Venz Box, founder of RewardStyle and LikeToKnowIt, said part of the company and app’s appeal is that it is a less “congested” place to talk about shopping. “Sometimes it can be distasteful to be posting shoppable content on third-party platforms,” she said. “Like on Instagram, there are other conversations happening there, and with us, there isn’t a place for political or social dialogue or even cancel culture. So for our influencers, it’s become a safe place for them to share that content with their audiences. Their audiences expect shopping content, and want it when they show up there.”

Influencer Brittany Puerto agreed. “There is a time and place to sell products, and for a bit, Instagram was not that. I stopped promoting any products on Instagram and focused on what was happening around us. Now, it’s a balance of having important conversations and running a business,” she said. For Puerto, Amazon, Target and Walmart have been key LikeToKnowIt partners throughout the pandemic, and top performing categories, based on engagement, have been DIY beauty (makeup, beauty and hair tips), affordable fashion and outdoor furniture.

Previously, RewardStyle acted as a solve to shopping on Instagram prior to its own tagging and shopping functionalities. Although lifestyle platforms like RewardStyle, Etsy and Instagram came under fire in 2020 for promoting influencers who fueled conspiracy theories, like QAnon and the “Plandemic,” a spokesperson for RewardStyle and LTK said “influencers can no longer find QAnon products to publish, nor can shoppers discover merchandise through search,” as of October.

Venz Box said the typical RewardStyle and LikeToKnowIt influencer falls into one of two camps: “the older sister or best friend,” who has all the inside intel on the best deals and where to find them, and the “hero,” who travels to far-flung destinations and has the perfect outfit. Regardless of these archetypes, Venz Box said 62% of its influencers now identify beauty as their top-selling category, and their peak selling time was May to June 2020. RewardStyle’s platform drove $2.5 billion in retail sales for its brand and retailer partners in 2020, $1 billion of which came via the LTK app. Beauty retailers saw traffic from the platform increase by nearly 47% for the year.

With in-store behavior still upended, Venz Box describes the influencer as an even more crucial partner for brands and retailers, especially with states abiding by different social distancing measures. “Many retailers today are not able to operate their store, or at least not so much in a full capacity.  Think about how you used to walk into a store, and someone would help you find a shirt to go with those jeans or a great lipstick. That doesn’t exist anymore,” she said. “Influencers instead are actively driving sales; they are a brand’s or retailer’s new distributed salesforce. There is a nuance to selling now, and it’s definitely by city or region.”

Permele Doyle, president and founder of creative agency Billion Dollar Boy, took that idea one step further to include all social selling platforms. “Digital consumption of images has now shifted into physical consumption of products,” she said. “Not so long ago, social media platforms were known to advertise a certain lifestyle through desirable images and, perhaps, sneak a product or two in there, hoping consumers would make the connection. Now, not only are we fed branded content with products at the center of the image, but we’re also able to directly purchase each item through Instagram and Tiktok seamlessly. We’ve gone from IG feed to image to purchase, in less than 30 seconds.”

Steph Taylor Jackson, an influencer partner of RewardStyle for nearly five years, has seen Nordstrom, Asos and Walmart emerge as strong brand partners throughout much of last year, given their price positioning and relatability to the greater public. “I’ve also been trying to focus on a lot of affordable items because I want to be cognizant of the fact that, while people are shopping, we’re still in a pandemic and unemployment rates are higher,” she said. Taylor Jackson is based in Dallas.

While skin care has been an overall growth category for RewardStyle and LTK, Taylor Jackson is proving that makeup has power on the platform, too. “I don’t know if everybody does this, but I put makeup on at home after the kids have gone to bed and do ‘dinnertime glam.’ I think people enjoy watching it and putting on a face to just feel normal again,” said Taylor Jackson. She reported an up to 2.5% conversion rate on these beauty posts and her “getting ready with me” series, where she does five-minute makeup with various products.

“I think beauty and home are working well right, now because it feels relatable to my audience. I try to be aspirational, but it has to make sense,” she said. “I’m [home], I’m with my kids. I try to be honest as possible, and that’s what seems to work.” –Priya Rao, executive editor

Ulta Beauty gives back

Following a rough 2020 for all, Ulta Beauty is finding new ways to thank its shoppers. On January 1, the retailer is allowing its “Platinum” and “Diamond” Ultamate Rewards members to keep their loyalty level into the new year; previously, customers had to reach an annual spending threshold ($500 for Platinum and $1,200 for Diamond) to carry status into the following year. Ulta has 32 million active members, who receive points, gifts and services through the program.

“Our guests are the heart of everything we do, and throughout 2020, we felt the need to be a source of light during uncertain times. To continue taking care of each other, we felt compelled to do something a bit more special to deliver more joy and, of course, more beauty,” said Shelley Haus, Ulta Beauty CMO.

Ulta will host a Members Appreciation Weekend from January 8-10, and all members can expect to earn more points throughout the period (double for Members, triple for Platinum and quadruple for Diamond). Haus said Ulta will be planning more shopping and savings moments like this throughout the year. –Priya Rao

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