The App Betting Influencers Are the Future of E-Commerce

DALLAS –– Earlier this month, as fashion insiders watched the Miu Miu show in Paris, another group of influential industry figures gathered nearly 5,000 miles away.

Over 300 content creators had assembled at the Thompson Dallas hotel for LTKCon, a conference hosted by LTK, operator of the e-commerce app of the same name that has become one of the main ways influencers turn likes into cash.

Over ranch water drinks with cowboy boot cocktail stirrers, attendees learned about everything from the app’s latest features to the behavioural science behind how consumers discern value. They were able to meet influencer marketing representatives from brands like Tarte and Bloomingdale’s, who had set up stalls in the conference’s “Hall of Brands.” Later that night, Jen Adams, who goes by interiordesignerella online, won the LTK Creator Award for Fashion.

The influencers inside the hotel were for the most part not based in fashion capitals like New York or Paris, and they’re more likely to be wearing Abercrombie & Fitch than The Row.

But their influence on retail today is tremendous: The conference attendees, representing just a fraction of the hundreds of thousands of creators using LTK, collectively have tens of millions of followers. Like their peers in the Miu Miu front row, they’re living examples of how power in the American fashion and retail industries has shifted from magazine editors and other gatekeepers into the hands of everyday shoppers with an iPhone and a fan base on Instagram or TikTok.

The influencer business is booming: In the past 12 months, LTK drove $4 billion in retail purchases between its affiliate links and its app, which allows creators to share e-commerce-enabled photo and video posts. The app, launched in 2017, today has 30 million monthly unique shoppers. The company raised $300 million in investment from SoftBank in 2021 at a $2 billion valuation.

LTK, which started not long after Instagram, has repeatedly shifted its business model to reflect changes in the wider influencer world, from the decline of blogs to the rise of Instagram and, later, TikTok. At LTKCon, the company made its case for what’s coming next.

“Social media as we knew it is dead. It used to be where we built community, it doesn’t want that job anymore,” said LTK president and co-founder Amber Venz Box. “It’s now an entertainment platform.”

Founded in 2011 as RewardStyle by Venz Box and her husband, Baxter Box, the company originally focussed on the unglamorous back end of the influencer marketing business, such as affiliate links and facilitating brand partnerships. Their initial pitch was to the then-thriving world of fashion bloggers, many of whom were growing big audiences but hadn’t yet managed to turn that attention into income. Affiliate links, which give creators a portion of sales made via product recommendations, were the answer.

Blogs gave way to Instagram, and RewardStyle pivoted too. Shortly after its founding, it got into the business of setting up brand partnerships, and in 2014 launched LikeToKnow.It, a service that would send registered users an email with product details, and links, after liking a post on Instagram.

The LikeToKnow.It app, which launched in 2017, allowed influencers to create posts independent of any established social networks but also worked in tandem with them: If a user took a screenshot of a post on Instagram, the LTK app would tell them the product details.

Venz Box said the app was a direct response to seeing how siloed social-media platforms could be when it came to the rest of the internet. This was before the era of Instagram’s “swipe up” feature, and at a time when Snapchat, a platform that then had no external linking whatsoever, was rising in popularity.

“I was like, ‘We’ve got to get out of this dependency on a single platform. This has to be a tool that works across all platforms,’” she said.

It was good timing. In 2018, Instagram’s parent company, Facebook, announced it would wind down features that enabled third-party apps like LTK to automatically sync to the platform’s content, hobbling the recommendation email service.

RewardStyle pivoted again, encouraging users to create content on the app and distribute it via Instagram, Snapchat or other platforms. With that, the company brought both the consumer-facing LikeToKnow.It and the backend side of the business, RewardStyle, under the same name, rebranding as LTK in 2021, a few months before the SoftBank investment.

“[LTK is] my shopping headquarters. My followers know to go there. I trained them to go there,” said influencer Bonnie Wyrick, who spoke at LTKCon.

A Booming Industry

LTK’s rise has been helped by the fact that social networks have struggled to introduce commerce onto their platforms. Brand adoption of Instagram’s commerce offering, Instagram Shops, has been slow.

There are newer players offering similar services to LTK, however, including ShopMy and Howl, which both launched in 2020. Just last month, TikTok launched its online marketplace in the US. And though creators have long had an at-times contentious relationship with social-media platforms, that’s still where the bulk of their audience spends their time.

But creators seem to be gravitating towards platforms that play a more direct role in boosting their revenue, rather than being a passive host for their partnerships. Substack, for instance, makes it easier for writers to build a paid following through subscriptions and now hosts plenty of shopping blogs. Instagram began allowing creators to offer paid subscriptions last year.

Venz Box believes that LTK’s focus on creators is its competitive advantage.

“The way that we think about the app is that it’s not our customer, it’s your customer,” said Venz Box.

At LTKCon, the company unveiled features that will make its app more closely resemble the social media it competes with, including the ability to comment on LTK posts.

Users can now build carts from multiple brands and check out in the LTK app, and it is working on incorporating artificial-intelligence features that will automatically tag the products featured in a post, rather than a creator having to do so manually.

It’s also launching LTK Marketplace, essentially a job board where creators can pitch themselves for brands’ campaigns. Brands can post paid partnership opportunities that creators can then submit themselves for, specifying their desired rate. Creators will be paid for campaigns facilitated through the app.

Still, LTK’s goal is not necessarily to be the next TikTok or Instagram but to keep growing the platform — and in turn, influencers’ individual businesses.

“[Venz Box] always kept the company focused on making the influencers successful economically,” said David Singer, managing partner at Maverick Ventures, which first invested in LTK in 2015. “They’ve never wavered from that.”

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