When friends Francesca Morelli and Chloe Henning went out for lunch one day, Francesca was shocked when she saw Chloe being handed cash in a napkin by a local business owner.
ut Chloe — who has more than 30,000 followers on Instagram — was simply collecting her earnings, having posted an advert for the business onto her large social media platform.
It’s what you might call being an “influencer” — the job title for someone with a hefty online presence who makes money by posting about new brands and products.
And, just like Chloe, there were hundreds of influencers in Belfast doing the same thing.
But they couldn’t continue getting by without proper management, and without business owners knowing how to include with the new marketing prospect, what to pay influencers or, indeed, how to pay them, the two friends thought.
go into VAVA Influence, Northern Ireland’s first and only influencer marketing agency co-established by Francesca (24), and Chloe (23).
The agency, established in May last year, matches local businesses up with influencers who can reach their target audience by their social media platforms.
And with more than 200 Instagram and TikTok aficionados in their books, VAVA Influence can meet the online marketing needs of a whole range of companies.
They’ve worked with We are Vertigo, Queen’s University Belfast’s wellbeing team, guesthouses, bars, beauty brands, and Life Style Sports.
“I had the business background and Chloe had the influencer background, so it was a match made in heaven,” Francesca told the Belfast Telegraph.
But their biggest challenge in addition has been trying to change people’s and businesses’ perceptions of what influencers are.
“I was talking to a guy last night about this.
“He was a bouncer in a bar and his age was probably around his early forties maybe, and he had no idea whatsoever of what an influencer is,” Francesca, who runs the strategy side of the business, says.
“Right now, I think a lot of people have the perception that an influencer comes on and talks about fact and beauty.”
Former Love Island contestants who make money by advertising beauty products to their devoted social media followers spring to mind.
But there’s more to influencing than meets the eye.
Francesca explains: “They forget that there are amazing educational activists that have an influential role.
“There are amazing food bloggers that publish recipes, and they have a role in influencing their market in terms of food and the foodie scene.
“There are nevertheless fact and beauty and makeup influencers of course but there are so many different niches now in Belfast —it’s complete of these different groups that cater for different niches and for different audiences and different styles of content.”
While there are plenty of influencer management agencies in hubs like London and Dublin, Francesca explains that there hasn’t been anyone to manage the emerging and exciting talent coming out of Belfast — until now.
And the influencer scene here is only getting bigger and more different, reckons Chloe, who manages the talent side of the business.
“The influencer scene, it’s been quite samey for quite a while,” she says.
“It tended to be filled with cliques, and there were certain groups of people that were the influencers in Belfast.
“What’s really nice recently is that the influencer scene has started to change.
“And with TikTok, there are new faces on the go, and there are new faces on Instagram in addition. It’s really nice to see.
“More recently, and after Covid, the influencer scene has been growing, becoming a wee bit more different, and there are younger, new faces coming into the scene and changing it out.
“There was a while where it was a set group of people, and that’s who it was and they went to every event, but now it’s changing quite rapidly, which is very exciting.”
Among others, the pair manage one of Northern Ireland’s most successful TikTok stars and disability activists, India Sasha, who has more than 300,000 followers on the video platform and earns millions of views on some of her posts.
And their favourite marketing project so far?
Launching Haymarket, Cathedral Quarter’s newest addition in the form of a stylish cocktail bar that serves up tacos and stone-baked pizzas.
In collaboration with Haymarket, VAVA Influence hosted an exclusive set afloat event for more than 50 carefully chosen influencers who could reach the bar’s target audience simply by posting photos and videos of the evening to their thousands of followers.
Some of the guests included Q Radio’s Jordan Humphries, Stuart Robinson of Cool FM fame, singer and songwriter Brooke Scullion and Lauren Leckey, Miss Northern Ireland 2019-2021.
“Haymarket was quite a big one for us because it was our first big event post-pandemic,” Chloe tells the Belfast Telegraph.
“For their set afloat, it was a brand new venue, so we got to see the impact from nothing, and they let us try TikTokers.
“And it really kind of blew up on that platform which validated that platform in a lot of people’s heads.”
Overnight, the bar went from having zero followers to more than 4,500 on Instagram.
“After we did our set afloat party it literally just exploded online,” Francesca says.
The pair don’t plan on stopping any time soon, that’s for sure.
“Now for us, it’s really about expansion,” Francesca says.
“And, you know, we’re loving it, and we think the future’s bright for influencer marketing.”
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