Influencer marketing has generally been reserved for big brands with deep pockets — and celebrities with millions of followers. Companies can expect to pay close to $200,000 for a mention in a YouTube video from an influencer with 3 million to 7 million followers, for example, and influencers with bigger audiences can demand even more.
Kim Kardashian reportedly earns up to $500,000 by endorsing a product on Instagram, for instance, and it’s also estimated that Beyoncé can demand up to $1 million for a single sponsored Instagram post.
But the industry has shifted toward the mirco-influencer market — smaller-scale influencers who aim to produce a more genuine experience for their followers.
Despite this, small businesses tend to shy away from influencer marketing in general, partly because of the still-hefty price tag and partly because it’s not even on their marketing radar. What if small business owners had another solution among an oft-underutilized demographic still learning to embrace its organized influence — such as college students or women?
Heartbeat has embraced the fact that everyday people have true influence over their circles, and it connects these people with brands to fall in love with. It was while marketing his products that Brian Freeman, CEO and founder of Heartbeat, realized that college women were incredibly influential and effective at marketing to their networks.
Heartbeat launched its ambassador program in 2016 with a mission to create the perfect fit for small businesses with limited budgets and to empower everyday women to embrace the influence they didn’t know they had. This has subsequently generated an opportunity for people looking to invest in a unique twist on influencer marketing at scale.
Here’s what Brian had to say about the impact of the Heartbeat ambassadors and the growth of his company:
As an entrepreneur, you’ve adapted your value proposition to meet the needs of the market. What is it about this niche marketing opportunity to empower everyday college students to be ambassadors that’s so appealing?
Our users are really, by and large, everyday American women. Through Heartbeat University, we teach people how to become better impactors through a natural ability they don’t know they already have. This is so interesting for businesses because the more followers an influencer has, the more expensive it becomes and the lower the engagement and impressions are in proportion to the number of influencers following. The majority of the impact happens at the low-followers level because those are real humans as opposed to someone actively trying to obtain followers.
We’ve made it really simple and inexpensive for business owners. Influencer marketing has generally been reserved for major brands with huge budgets, but we made something small business clients can join themselves. By tapping into a base of female college students, a highly sought-after demographic, we give businesses the opportunity to pick the type of audience they want to target and the type of campaign they want to create.
We decided: “Let’s pick the things we know small businesses care about, build solutions specifically around that, and get really good at getting real people to genuinely post and care about these things.” That’s really what’s at Heartbeat’s core.
We charge 10 percent of what agencies charge for this type of content creation. I’ve spent a lot of time with other agencies, looking at how they price everything out, and we priced ourselves so small business clients could try this type of marketing out without breaking their budget. If clients come to me with a desire to truly see what we can do, we’re willing to work with almost any budget. We’re that excited about this.
What have been the barriers you are helping small business owners overcome so they can take advantage of this type of marketing?
Education is a key barrier to success. Small businesses don’t even know this is an option. Even when we get them on board, we still need to educate them. Clients will sometimes run a campaign, then say afterward, “I don’t know what happened.” That’s when we step in to help. We remind them that they need to look at the posts our ambassadors are making and interact with them.
With social marketing, you have to be social. You can’t just sit there and watch your Facebook ad, expecting magic to happen. If you embrace this community of ambassadors rooting for you, along with their followers, you’ll get committed brand ambassadors for life. That’s huge for small businesses.
Like I said before, we wanted to make something small business clients could join themselves. We will integrate with the analytics platform of our clients to help them see these results. If they’re using anything from Mixpanel to Google Analytics to Shopify, we want to get in there and help them make connections between the campaign and their sales.
We want to help them notice that, for example, if our ambassadors made several posts between 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. and the clients saw a traffic spike around the same time, our ambassadors were the likely cause of that spike. Clients are missing out on opportunities if they’re not looking for those patterns.
Price has been another barrier that we’ve been knocking down. One of Heartbeat’s strongest value propositions is that we guarantee a floor for the engagement that you’re going to get on campaigns that’s three times higher than what clients would get from working with the expensive influencers the big brands are paying.
The companies we’re approaching don’t understand that the reason they’ve never had access to this before is because it usually costs $200,000, and nobody wants to talk to them about it. Our platform is so tech-focused that we’re able to scale in such a way that allows small business owners to pay a fraction of that cost for a much greater percentage of engagement.
As much as you’re providing a service to businesses, you’ve embraced American women as key stakeholders in this as well. How do you encourage the Heartbeat user base to engage with your clients’ brands?
Genuine engagement is critical for these types of campaigns, and we’re able to accomplish that for our clients. We have 125,000 users now. Ninety percent of them have filled out 300 or more survey questions to help us ensure we’re making this experience as targeted for them as possible, and that allows businesses to hypertarget their audiences as well. The other key metric to our success with ambassadors is that we’ve only lost 3 percent of the people who’ve signed up for Heartbeat since we started the business, and 50 percent of them come back to their profile every month to look for a new campaign.
To me, that’s the result of a combination of a couple of things. First, we’re low-impact with our ambassadors. We’re using email and SMS, not sending them push notifications all the time. We don’t bother them with things that aren’t relevant to them. If an ambassador gets an offer to promote a beauty product, for example, it’s because she’s into beauty products. We’re not sending fitness stuff to people who are only into food products, etc.
We’ve also built a brand that’s super cooperative. We listen to what our ambassadors want and implement the changes they want to see. We promote our ambassadors on our blog and social channels every day. We’ll make posts like “This is @JessicaBoxley97. She’s amazing; you guys have got to check her out. She’s taking over our Snapchat for the day.” We want our ambassadors to feel like they own Heartbeat, not like we own them.
Lastly, we’re highly committed to taking people who might not know how to be a brand ambassador online. Heartbeat University exists to make it easy for them to engage with brands through the use of courses. The courses we’re rolling out answer questions like “How do I make my picture look amazing? Why is lighting so important? Why shouldn’t I take bathroom selfies?” There are so many people out there who could be amazing at driving real results for companies -— promoting businesses they don’t know about yet or their favorite shoe brand. They just don’t know it. That’s what Heartbeat is all about — showing ambassadors what other people are doing, giving constructive feedback, and building millions of amazing authentic content creators.
From an investment standpoint, you’ve been able to produce something at scale for a relatively minimal cost. How were you able to do that?
I think that’s the biggest question most investors we’ve talked to in the past have struggled with — have we really figured out how to scale? What our investors have really responded to is how many pieces of content we are creating each week. The incumbent players are so far behind where we are in terms of what we are generating on a weekly basis for our customers. A great way to think about this is to imagine yourself organizing 100 people posting at once, then a thousand, and then to do it in one week. We’re pros at that, and every other agency out there struggles working at a tenth of that scale. We’re looking at 1,500 posts per week right now. This is a core metric the company is focused on that we see continuing to improve over time.
We’re able to scale so competitively because this is a highly technical product. It’s not just people organizing it. If it was strictly based on people, we’d be an agency charging $200,000 for the same thing, just to back out a 20 percent profit margin. We’re making a very solid profit margin because we’re enabling technology and because we’re product technologists. We’ve brought that scaling perspective to our business, and we’re at it every single day. We are always asking, “What does this look like two years from now, and how do we have thousands of companies using this every day?”
We’re not interested in $100,000 budgets. We’re constantly driving to find ways to make this less and less expensive. My personal dream is that any business in the country can try Heartbeat for less than $1,000. We want to reach businesses with a $100 budget, and we want to make this something everybody can use. We’re not elitists at Heartbeat who only want to work with the Fortune 500. We’re small business owners ourselves, and we know how hard this sh*t is. We’re building tools for you, America, and we’re doing everything we can to make it inexpensive.
As a nontechnical founder, like me, bringing on an experienced CTO was a game changer for you. Tell me more about that.
I’ve been a product designer my whole life. I’ve been able to translate those skills into getting Heartbeat in a good place — and it’s kind of a passion of mine. Meeting a CTO who could help realize that vision has just been a life-changing experience.
We were introduced to John Hall, our current CTO, through a friend of the business, and the magic and the vision were instantaneous between us. We saw eye to eye right away. He’s the former co-founder and CTO of Tradesy.com and the former head of technology at Cars.com, so it was pretty cool for us — as a company that was just getting on the scene — to nab such a high-value team member. He really brought a lot of gravity and a ton of leadership to the company. He immediately went to work on building an infrastructure that could handle millions of data points and hundreds of thousands of highly active users.
We now have a full development team, which has been a huge change for us. Our CTO, John, was really rolling solo for a lot of that time, but our new funding helped us get a great team in place, and I feel really good about the team’s future. Now, we are openly looking for someone who can take over some of that product design and help take the product to the next level.
Speaking of new funding, you’ve recently been selected for Techstars — congrats! Where do you see this taking the next stage of Heartbeat?
We see ourselves as a company that’s going to bring in a lot of capital over time, and that capital is going to pay off with a huge customer base. Our goal with this is to make launching a brand ambassador campaign as easy as publishing a Squarespace page.
We’re also looking to implement multiple integrations for dashboard-style analytics from Shopify, Google Analytics, and Squarespace to make it easier for business owners to see ROI. We want to roll out a fully self-service model for clients to fire up and manage campaigns with almost complete autonomy. Our goal is to give clients the ability to go from concept to content generation — by real consumers — in less than an hour.
Overall, I’m so excited for the future of our company. We love our ambassadors, and they love us. They generate quality content so quickly, and we can’t wait to bring them more projects.