Do you know 1,000 people? How about 10,000?
Neither do these Baltimore influencers, but thousands of people know them. Not only that, they follow their lives closely, tuning in from their smartphones for a glimpse into their days.
As one of those curious followers, I was intrigued by what goes on behind these tiny screens. I met with some of Baltimore’s coolest voices, Shae Li, Markie Meghan, Ty Alexander and Micah Pringle, removing the glass between us for a peek inside their futuristic relationship with influencer marketing. Collectively, they have more than 110,000 followers. But if you asked any of them, they’d say that number doesn’t matter.
It’s all about engagement — and engaging they very much are. If you aren’t familiar with influencer marketing, here is the gist. Rather than spend money on traditional advertising, brands are turning to “influencers” or “bloggers” (if they write a blog in addition to their social media profiles).
These select people have cultivated an online audience built on trust that turns to them for product reviews, trends, entertainment and more. Generally, each influencer has his or her own unique niche that helps her or him stand out from the online abyss.
Instagram has become the main application for facilitating this influencer-to-consumer relationship. As of now, this form of marketing saves companies thousands of dollars while increasing revenue. This relatively new industry has continued to evolve at such a fast pace that people are playing catch-up not only to define, but also to understand it.
Style and Substance
Let’s start with Shae Li. A Maryland resident for most of her life, she recently decided to commit to Charm City. “Baltimore has potential and a lot to offer. If people like me keep leaving, then we can never reach that,” she says.
Li loves the bustle of the city, and she wears it well. She showcases events, restaurants and other Baltimore spots, such as B Side Karaoke and SEYA CrossFit & Wellness Center, with the goal of stopping her audience from swiping to more closely checking out her content. She is also known for her ability to piece together textures and prints in one look, her long, smooth hair flowing behind her. Rather than just show an outfit, she uses her blog to teach people how to build their own look.
“Once you understand the rules of fashion, you can learn where to bend and break them,” she says.
Recently, Li was diagnosed with diffuse large B-cell lymphoma at age 28. Followers were shocked by her announcement but have been inspired by her candor since then. She accessorizes her newly shaved head with glamour, using printed wraps, colorful turbans and statement earrings. Not only has her look evolved, but also her content. She posts about her struggles and accomplishments with chemo, such as managing her symptoms.
“Cancer is the best and worst thing that has happened to me,” Li says. “The worst is obvious.” The best is being able to share her journey and use her platform for good.
Markie Meghan Peterman, who goes by Markie, is Baltimore’s goth unicorn with tennis ball green hair, yellow plastic boots and jewels dripping from her meticulously painted eyes. She is anti-trend and buys what she likes without worrying how it will work into her wardrobe. For her followers, this is the coolest vibe. Makeup is her true area of success, and it goes beyond the traditional smoky-eye primers.
Her looks include bright color, designs, stickers and anything else she can get her hands on. Growing up in Baltimore, Peterman learned tough life lessons at a young age.
Going without taught her how to be unique with limited resources, she says, adding that being authentic to yourself pays off. Influencers need to be consistent and solid with their personal brands, she feels, because the industry is built on nonstop competition.
On top of all that, being a good person is extremely important, she says. Instagram may be all about photos and image, but the influencer field is built on human interaction. “You need your followers,” she says.
Peterman still receives plenty of rude direct messages. People go out of their way to visit her page and attack her looks. Her fan base protects the comments they can see and she tries to laugh off those hateful messages. Her luminous skin is tough.
Blogging and Healing
Ty Alexander is known by her blog, Love, Ty Alexander. She’s a bestselling author, a lifestyle blogger and the creator of Destination Heal. She’s been in this ever-changing industry since 2010 when it looked and worked a lot differently. She created a blog as a virtual resume because her dream was to be an editor.
Alexander submitted this blog to Hello Beautiful, a style website for women of color, and ended up getting the job she wanted in New York. She continued blogging and started to really gain some attention. She realized she had become an editor of her own content, and that was much more appealing.
The popularity of Instagram and its real-time features have allowed her to grow even more and be genuine with her followers, she says.
But she always drives her audience back to her blog. “Instagram and Facebook could be shut down tomorrow and I’d be left with nothing,” she says. As a writer, Alexander offers a storytelling component to her visual content that makes her relationship with brands unique and profitable. At the end of the day, this is her job so she is always looking for ways to expand her reach.
In 2013, Alexander connected with another blogger, Karyn Washington, who was losing her mother to cancer. At the time, Alexander’s mom was also dying of cancer.
After emailing back and forth, Alexander didn’t hear from Washington for a while. One day, she woke up to her newsfeed flooded with the awful news that Washington had taken her life. Alexander sunk deep into depression wondering how she might have prevented this tragedy. To deal with her emotions, she wrote an article for her blog, and it ended up going viral.
Cosmopolitan even picked it up, and suddenly Alexander had a contract to write a book on grief. “Things I Wish I Knew Before My Mom Died” was published in 2016. She continues to dialogue with her readers after starting a Facebook group that creates a community, particularly for black women, to feel safe expressing their grief and struggles.
“Black people as a culture are taught to suppress those feelings and be tough, go to church,” she says. That Facebook group grew into what is known as Destination Heal, a wellness community that includes events and retreats and is another example of how Alexander has expanded her platform.
Mountain Man Chic
Mountain-Urban-Euro-Chic is how Micah Pringle describes his style, which is an odd confluence of all the influences in his life. He’s an Oregon-born creative who moved to Baltimore a few years ago and started a blog, whiskeyandwisdom.com. There, Pringle shares all kinds of ideas, including parenting and fashion tips, which are simple and creative. “The key to me is to create little moments that reward closer inspection,” he writes. “Throw a pin on your jacket … roll your sleeve … do something to give it just enough touch, but never try too hard.”
He shuffles between Baltimore and Nashville, where his daughter lives, and says the difference between the two cities keeps him sharp. However, Baltimore is where he felt he came into a full understanding of himself acting as a safe place to express that through style.
“I now find joy in seeing how other humans express themselves instead of being judgmental,” he says.
Like the other influencers, Pringle pushes for sincerity in the digital. “We live in a time when everyone thinks of themselves as a brand as much as they think about themselves as simply being a human,” he says. Like any other business, relationships are the key.
How much does his daughter understand social media as a toddler in this digital wave? “A couple of weeks ago we were having Tacos at a hip spot in Nashville and she walked over to a highly Instagram-able cactus and said, ‘Dada, take my picture.’ I died inside,” Pringle says. “And yeah, duh, I took the picture.”