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A True Foundation of Influencer Knowledge: Brittany Tomkiewicz, Birchbox

Updated: Dec 2, 2022

This is the Authentic Avenue podcast episode featuring Dana Marineau, Chief Marketing Officer of Rakuten, with host Adam Conner.

This is a link you can use to find Authentic Avenue, a marketing podcast hosted by Adam Conner, on Apple Podcasts. Remember to subscribe, rate, and review!

On today's Authentic Avenue podcast, Adam deep-dives into the world of influencers, and within a category which has arguably leveraged them the most: beauty.

Specifically we feature the Birchbox perspective today, specifically through Brittany Tomkiewicz. She's their Director of Brand Marketing, Partnerships, & PR -- and having been with the business since 2011, she has seen the evolution of the beauty influencer world. From free boxes to co-produced product, she weighs in on how thoughtful that world has gotten over time -- and what's next.

Enjoy! Full transcript below.


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FULL TRANSCRIPT BELOW: (powered by AI; accuracy not guaranteed; provided by Descript)

Adam Conner: [00:00:00] Brittany. Thanks so much for joining me. How are you doing?

Brittany Tomkiewicz: [00:00:03] Great. How are you?

Adam Conner: [00:00:04] Good. I'm good. I'm going to learn through this conversation today though. So I'm suspecting. I'll be better by the end, even though Birchbox and its core demographic. Isn't exactly me. Cause I'm not a big like beauty shop. I am intensely interested in the industry from the perspective of our focus today, which is the influencer world.

I've done it a little bit. I think I got close when I had a conversation with Dyson and really that's just because they have really good hairdryers, but with you, I want to learn as one of the OGs in this space, Birchbox has done a really nice job of growing its subscription base. And I want to learn more about how influencers and their use and their value has changed over time.

But before I do that and get into the weeds, I'd like to start for those who don't know what it is. Would you mind telling us just what Birchbox is? Help us level set.

Brittany Tomkiewicz: [00:00:54] Yes, absolutely. And you are very similar to a lot of people out there that don't have the kind of time or energy to shop for beauty and grooming stuff.

Uh, Birchbox is a subscription service that was created around this idea that the majority of humans don't want to spend a lot of time trying to find the right things for their routine and our service. Curates products for people based on their needs and their preferences and their profile to help them to find great products because there's tens of thousands.

If not, I mean, hundreds of thousands, millions of things out there, and it's nearly impossible to know what's going to work and you know, which products to gravitate towards. So our service helps you cut through all of that clutter.

Adam Conner: [00:01:38] In this world of helping you cut through the clutter and getting people who don't have the time to go out and do it to have this solution.

Um, at the very beginning, let's just go with the beginning of your tenure with the business, which also do eliminate. How long have you been, how long have you been with Birchbox?

Brittany Tomkiewicz: [00:01:54] I've been at the company for nine and a half years now. Crazy.

Adam Conner: [00:01:58] So then you have seen firsthand not only how the business of direct to consumer has blown up, but so to how the, how the beauty industry has taken great use and value from, um, creators who let's say nine and a half years ago, where were we?

We were at the beginning of 2012. Right. So, which means that, you know, we were five years into social. Big YouTubers really. I mean, I really didn't pay much attention. I mean, vibing vine had barely started. So you were read the very beginning of like the creator economy and because of that social commerce really hadn't quite yet come so strongly into play.

Can you tell me a little bit about, and unless you weren't involved with the first bits of influencer work, maybe that, you know, maybe you could tell me that, but the first few pieces of business that you did with the creators. To bring value to Birchbox. What was that like? How did you find those folks?

And then we'll talk about how that approach has changed over time, but I'd like to get some history here.

Brittany Tomkiewicz: [00:03:02] Yeah, sure. I was a big part of that in my initial days. A lot of my job was finding any and all ways to get Birchbox out there. And as a person who. You know, early in my career, I was an early adopter of social media and you know, of YouTube and Instagram and Facebook, you know, I was seeing that all of these people, um, a lot of these creators were, you know, doing these things that were kind of called hall videos at the time.

And, um, you know, we're searching for and looking for different kinds of content to create at the time, like you said, it was super new and people were, um, just figuring out. What their content strategy even was as a creator. And since we had these, you know, obviously still to this day, have these monthly boxes that we ship out, um, you know, myself and my team were like, well, there's definitely something here where we can just set up creators with.

Our monthly subscription service comp them something, and it will give them the opportunity to have something to do and to talk it out every month. So really my pitch to these early YouTubers was, you know, Birchbox is a monthly subscription. I know you're, you know, looking for content to put out on a regular basis, you know, what better than, you know, doing this monthly haul video to talk about what you've discovered, what you like, what you dislike.

And a lot of our early growth was largely because of the fact that my team and I were able to. Boxes and subscriptions in the hands of a ton of different creators, particularly with a focus on YouTube where a lot of early creator content was, was really mostly active on that performance platform. And then of course expanded more so into Instagram, Facebook, and now Tik TOK.

But, um, you know, at the time we were very focused on YouTube and set up, um, you know, truly as many people as we could. Physically reach out to with free subscriptions for, you know, anywhere from three to six months and just, you know, ask them to cover what they were experiencing. Um, and we had a lot of success success with that early on, and people were really pumped and excited about it because the idea of subscription commerce was so new at the time too.

And, you know, we were able to get a lot of. A lot of our initial explosive growth really came out of the YouTube creator community. And the fact that people were doing these, uh, haul videos and these, you know, monthly recaps of the things that they were experiencing and product reviews. And then from there, I'm sure you, as a consumer of content, you know, had said, been tracking this all these years, you know, haul videos and on boxing videos or a whole genre of, of, of a kind of conduct that people do on a regular basis.

Adam Conner: [00:05:50] Oh for sure. I mean, it's had happens in pretty much every major category. Now. It's not just a hall for, I mean, it could be fashion, it could be any type of shopping, clothing, that type of thing. You see it with all the big new pieces of tech. I mean like MK MKBHD, or I might get that wrong and BK, whatever a big tech creators have done this, um, you know, weirdly enough, I'm starting to see it, even though they haven't quite found their feet.

Uh, in food and really you see it with basically a bunch of, I mean, like, let's be honest, a bunch of creators get together. Let's say. Let's go buy a hundred dollars worth of PF Chang's and come back here and have a muck bang and talk about our lives. So it's not quite like an unboxing of food, but like people are trying to figure out how to bring that culture to other categories.

And so to have done it first, or to be a pioneer here was special and ultimately transformative for the way that creators brought commerce to their audiences. So when you first got into this. And you brought those first few partners in where you said have a free subscription. Talk to us about what you like, what you don't like, share this with your audience.

What was that first one or two watershed moments where you saw what was happening, saw how it was affecting the business and said, this is here to stay?

Brittany Tomkiewicz: [00:07:03] Yeah. I mean, you know, I, it honestly happened very quickly, you know, once we were, once we were able to identify that this was something that, you know, at the very least was worst, you know, even just getting from the perspective of having content.

Turn around and post onto our own channels, which, you know, we were a very small business at the time. You know, when I first started, we had maybe less than 30 people, 35 people, obviously we were, you know, strapped for resources. So we were looking also for just general content generation, um, in general.

And so we were like, at the very least that can be something we turn around and repost onto our channels or use as ads or whatever. Um, and you know, so we were really excited about it from the get go. And then the second we started, you know, seeing month over month and these people, these different creators covering what they were receiving, you know, it all kind of happened very fast.

I mean, it just kind of exploded at a certain point where all of a sudden, you know, in addition to the outbound stuff that we were doing, we were getting so much inbound. Um, you know, from, from different creators that we're seeing other creators posting about their Birchboxes. Right. Exactly. And so there was all this whole kind of explosion of, you know, other creators seeing that.

And, you know, once we started getting, you know, more inbound inquiries, then, you know, we could physically handle ourselves. We were like, okay, there's something you're clearly right. Exciting to creators first and foremost. And then, you know, from, from there, you know, we were giving them custom links with UTM tags.

Um, custom promo codes started distributing kind of some, some level of specificity and, um, how we were getting people to drive over to our site. Started setting them up on affiliate in our affiliate programs. Um, and so we were able to track and really see just how much interest, you know, at the time that there was.

And, and I, you know, I think it similar to the way that you want to validate your purchase behaviors from, with your friends, with your family, you know, These creators started developing communities and connecting with people in that same capacity where they were really, you know, becoming like a friend, like, you know, um, influence type figure for these people in a way that was a bit deeper than kind of other channels and other kinds of marketing that people were doing at that time.

And, you know, we started seeing just such an explosion of traffic and conversions from, you know, based on the way we were looking at. Like I was saying these UTM links and the traffic we were seeing in our affiliate programs is just explosive. And so we just kept growing it from there and kept putting more and more resources towards getting more boxes and more hands and, um, you know, starting to develop even, even more thoughtful and specific collaborations in terms of content that we were creating from there.

Adam Conner: [00:09:51] Let me ask about being thoughtful and specific for a moment because it didn't take too long in the grand scheme of things for that first movers advantage to be flooded with a bunch of other competitors who wanted to do the same thing and not just in like a subscription box, not even just within beauty.

I mean, everybody started to do this and people got more skeptical and scrutinized more heavily. Those UTMs and the traffic that was coming in and specifically the value that was coming in on a transactional basis from partnerships with these folks, just the same, all of these creators built these stronger, deeper connections because they weren't just on their screen.

They were now in their box. Oh, I'm doing what my favorite creator is doing. That is cool. I can, it's tangible. I can touch it. I, it happens every month where. Feel this different thing than just clicking, like on the video. And that meant that over time brands needed to figure out how to continue to adapt.

Now I gave you all this preface because I know you have a specific. Idea, uh, on this, but we've also seen the rise of creators begin their own fashion brands begin their own beauty brands. Uh, we have seen the collaborations get bigger and bigger, more targeted, and also I think, lesser in number at that scale.

And I'd be curious to know from your perspective, With an eye to things other than just the bottom line or the bottom of the funnel, how do you see these sorts of creative collaborations today, nine and a half years on as opposed to that first gold rush of content and new business?

Brittany Tomkiewicz: [00:11:27] Yeah, for sure. And I, you know, this really dramatically changed for us about, you know, three to four years ago when, um, we started.

You're tapping into this new kind of customer that I know, you know, I've mentioned to you called the casual consumer and you know, this person who is, you know, busy, who doesn't necessarily have the interest or the energy to seek out beauty products and grooming products themselves, and wants a little bit more of a helping hand and a curated perspective on it.

And that's where kind of Burke's box of service comes in. You know, we started tapping into this casual customer who is not necessarily actively seeking out beauty boxes. Right. They're not raising their hand saying, saying like, yeah, I want a beauty subscription, or I want to engage in play in this category.

So it got a lot more interesting to reach this target customer for us about three to four years ago. And we started really pivoting towards this person because they're not looking for. So we started looking at influencer and thinking about influencers as an opportunity to cut through to that person because, um, it became even more important that we were really hand-selecting and being very specific about who it was that we were working with in relation to their relationship with beauty and grooming, um, you know, Earlier days, we were just like, whoever, whoever wants to cover Birchbox and work with us, we kind of had a more like let's work with everybody approach and capitalize on this trend we were seeing.

And then, you know, a few years ago we started. Thinking very seriously about the kinds of people we were aligning with and associating with, because it became super important to us that the influencers that we were collaborating with or able to authentically turn to their audience, who we also believed were this beauty, casual consumers.

And say, you know, talk about their relationship with beauty and why they use the Birchbox service in a way that was going to help us to reach this new kind of customer very intentionally, um, and not scare them off because you know, this seeing a visual of a beauty box or subscription, you know, at first glance, a beauty casual consumer who might kind of scroll on past, but if their favorite creator, you know, we're working with a couple of people right now that are in the comedy space.

They're comedians who are. Totally beauty casual. And they're not people who necessarily dabble in the beauty realm or within beauty sponsorships at all. Um, you know, and for them to turn around and say to their audience who follows them for a completely different reason than, than what brands that are using, they follow them for comedy, you know, for them to turn around and say, Hey, you know, in addition to like all this fun and funny stuff I'm doing, I also, you know, because I'm so busy, I use this service and I think you should use this service too, and authentically having this conversation.

Around beauty and what it means for them has been extremely powerful for us as a tool to cut through to this audience, that's a bit harder for us to reach. And so it became more important for us to focus less on the quantity and more on the quality of, you know, relationships that we were building. As of, you know, three, four years ago, we've been very, very specific about the way in which we work with creators.

And, um, you know, we go through a very, you know, lengthy back and forth conversation with them to determine whether it's a fit. And there's a lot of scenarios where it isn't and. And because they're not necessarily this beauty, casual person and that's okay. You know, but it's just not the target customer that we are seeking out.

And so we've, we've just gotten a lot more specific and have gotten a lot deeper with those partnerships, with people who were like, yes, there's clearly a deep connection here with the way that you use beauty. And we want to encourage people to use beauty and, and let's, you know, come together and create, uh, a very thoughtful collaboration.

That's been very effective for us.

Adam Conner: [00:15:22] And that's progressed over the years in where we just stopped. There was maybe three, four years ago where things were getting very thoughtful, very specific, maybe less than number, but much higher in quality. I want to ask you about what's happening right now and what's yet to come before I close out by asking you about advice in this, a word that I like to pursue here, which is authenticity, but what I have noticed.

Right now and going forward is that businesses are not just collaborating with a few mega influencers in very thoughtful ways. They are integrating them directly into the product offering. I don't want to mention, you know, where else in the beauty space it's happening. I know it is happening, but let's just say.

With their own independent lines that bear their name. Heck let's go outside of beauty. I mentioned food a little while ago, and while people on YouTube are still making mukbangs, McDonald's is out there putting BTS in the bag. So where do you see this happening now? Within Birchbox or within beauty brands?

Do you think that the relationships are continuing to deepen through product integrations and even on the startup side, through things like equity. And then maybe after that, and I know this is a big question, where do you foresee this going? Because that can't continue in the same deepening way.

Something else will have to change. Otherwise you'd give up your whole company to a creator. So where do you see this going?

Brittany Tomkiewicz: [00:16:45] Yeah, I think, you know, for us right now, what we're finding is working well is, you know, going into collaboration with the mindset of let's work together for several months and let's try and convert as much of this person's community as possible into a customer.

And you know, that does take several months and there's not. You know, snap your fingers, turnkey, like, oh, you figured it out. You know, because you've picked the right person even in the first month, you know, it takes time to grow and for, you know, the relationship to be truly authentic, you know, it can't just be one of those one and done, um, right where you do one round of content, cross your fingers, hope it works.

You know, I believe that in order for there to be an effective truly, uh, you know, influence, influential situation happening. Persons or creators community, there has to be a multi-month or multi post, um, you know, collaboration there. So that's something that I think, um, you know, regardless of, of kind of how influencer, you know, grows or changes, you know, I think that having that perspective is something that we'll we'll I think.

Be necessary because, you know, regardless of how, uh, you know, influencers and celebrities choose to collaborate with brands in the future, you know, it has to be believable. There has to be a genuine connection there, and it can't just be this thing where it's like a one-off post, right. You know, you're done.

You're not going to see a ton of return on that. You know, you're, you're just not, it's just hard to convince someone in a single setting that this service is worth it. You've got to go check it out. You know, there has to be this multi, multi, uh, you know, month conversation that goes on that said, um, you know, I do think, you know, you bring up the, the, the McDonald's.

Example, um, which is so wacky and so interesting. Um, and I think that's like part of it's like either I think either the collaboratives that I see is working the best or either the ones that are super unexpected and kind of wacky, um, you know, I feel like Chipola and other kind of brands like Wendy's does a great job of this too, where they just have like super wacky and interesting collaborations that they do, or, you know, It's on the deeper side where you're building out a multi month program with somebody where the goal is to convert as much as their community as possible.

And you're building out a scope of work that yes you're, you're asking them to create content, to reach their community. But you know, we also really pull them into our world as well. And like you were saying, Um, you know, we, you know, work with them on content that makes appearances in our emails. We integrate them in to shop categories and we introduce them to our community as well.

And really like create this, this crossover and an overlap between our communities. You know, and we've found a lot of success in, in approaching it that way, because in addition to getting great access to a totally new customer and kind of person, we're also, you know, getting more out of these creative assets and these videos and photos that we're getting as well, because we're utilizing them across all of our channels.

And we have been seeing. Really great click-through rates within email and, and click through rates within paid media when we've been using these, these pieces of content as ads. Um, and so it's been working really well for us that we have these multi month multi asset, um, kind of packages that we've been pulling in.

And we've been using them across, um, you know, multiple, multiple channels and have been seeing that be successful that said, yeah, I do think that there is diminishing return over time. So yeah, you know, what we've been doing is either, you know, we find a new way with the existing crater. If we believe that this creator is someone we really want to continue a lining with, um, you know, an example of someone who we're working with right now, one of the comedians I mentioned, um, you know, she's been doing such an amazing job for us and has been driving a lot of traffic, a lot of excitement and interest, and we want to continue that momentum.

And now what we're doing. Pivoting her content and the conversations we're having around our shop business and pushing towards our kits and different other kinds of curations that people can purchase and deepening the story in a different way. Um, you know, so I think for brands that are. Working with creators.

If you're wanting to continue momentum, like as long as there's something new and a different kind of direction to take the content and the conversation, I think that there is more to more revenue and more traffic to be, to be had and to drive out of those relationships. But I do think that there's like a time limit and diminishing returns at a certain point.

And so, you know, there, you know, I think, you know, six months, three to six months is usually a pretty good timeframe, um, to where you'll get a good amount. Content and assets out of it that you can turn around and utilize and get something out of and enough time for you to kind of gauge whether you want to continue the momentum or not.

And then, and the case of not wanting to continue, um, you know, which is the case it happened, um, you know, naturally, you know, we're, we're like constantly talking to other a new creators and rotating them into these kind of like partnership pipelines. If you will.

Adam Conner: [00:21:52] I need to, uh, close here by asking you about some advice, because like I said, I've pursued this influencer angle a little bit, whereas I normally ask folks to tell me about how to build an authentic brand, what I'd like to figure out from you today as, as somebody who has been there since the very beginning of this journey.

In the early days of finding a few creators via free subscriptions and building incredible audience experiences to these deeper, more thoughtful partnerships to now the beyond, I have to know through it all, there has been evolving criteria about what makes that type of partner truly authentic to a brand.

It's going to be different for everybody and for every business. But I do want to close and to learn from you and your perspective, how do you find that authentic? And maybe if that's not like a tactical enough of a question, what makes for an authentic creator to you personally?

Brittany Tomkiewicz: [00:22:47] Yeah, I think, um, I mean the way that I approach it is, well, first and foremost, you know, we always look at creators through the lens of our target customer.

So I think in order to have a very successful influencer campaign and, and this is for any brand, you need to be very, very clear. On who you are trying to reach and what defines your customer. If you don't have that in a very, if it's not very clear, not very succinct and you don't have a ton of research behind that.

Don't bother with info influencers, not going to help you. You know, it's just going to be a like moment in time and a marketing tool. That's kind of a blip on the radar. I think it's really important to very, to at the very outset of considering investing into influencers, to be very clear on who your customer is first and then from there, you know, I think it becomes a lot easier cause you're, you know, you have this research, you have clarity around who your customer is and who you're trying to reach.

And I think it becomes easier to start matching up people with that customer target. Um, you know, just from the get-go, but then, you know, separately, you know, I, myself and I asked everyone at Birchbox to do this, you know, to, to share with me who are you following and why, you know, what kind of people. Do you find influential?

Um, and, and, you know, I get a lot of recommendations just from, from our team. Um, and I, you know, just kind of naturally, you know, navigate and do a lot of research myself on Instagram to find different people, um, in different industries. I tend to myself because Birchbox is going, yeah. Casual customer.

We're not looking for a beauty, you know, obsessed person. I look towards the categories or the niche areas where, you know, there are less beauty, sponsorships and less beauty conversations happening, um, because like the comedy space or, you know, we're currently looking at and talking to some athletes, you know, we're looking at, you know, categories where beauty is kind of untapped, um, in a lot of ways and, and seeking people out because we believe that by doing.

So, and inserting ourselves into those spaces, that there'll be an opportunity to reach a totally new customer that would be harder to reach otherwise through just paid advertising and, and, you know, and through interest targeting. Um, and so, you know, that's kind of how we approach it in terms of how we seek people out.

Of course, there's also people who reach out to us and, you know, there's, there's those natural kind of organic conversations and relationships that develop too. And then in terms of just what, uh, how I decide or how I can determine, um, you know, whether someone is a fit or not is, is really through a dialogue.

And this is kind of, this is very manual, but, um, you know, we really do take the time to have the conversation with the creator creators around what their beauty. Uh, perspective is and what their relationship with beauty is, and really, you know, if they consider themselves and the way that they, um, consume and engage with beauty is beauty, casual.

Um, you know, we're like, great. That is what needs to be there at its core. Um, You know, and so, so we really base it on whether the person aligns to that, that beauty behavior and that beauty casual kind of psychographic. Um, first and foremost, and that's, that's a really huge aspect of the, of the dialogue that we have in the upfront with these creators.

Adam Conner: [00:26:13] Well, that's interesting to hear your, your deep dive today, especially with such storied knowledge of this business, uh, of this brand and of this practice. So I'm really glad to have taken it in here. Uh, listeners take, take a page out of their book. I mean, this is again, one of the original businesses that knew how to do influencer right.

And continues to do it right today. So for all of that, Brittany, thank you so much for joining me and I hope you guys keep on growing!

Brittany Tomkiewicz: [00:26:39] Of course, thank you so much for having me.


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