When Natalie Barbu uploaded her first YouTube video in 2010 at the age of 15, the idea of a social media “influencer” was unheard of. But since then, the influencer marketing industry has seen explosive growth, which was accelerated during the pandemic as social media usage increased and brands increasingly sought partnerships with popular creators to advertise products to their followers.
Influencer marketing isn’t expected to slow down anytime soon—the industry is expected to grow by about 40% in just one year, from $10 billion in 2020 to $14 billion in 2021. Barbu plans to leverage the rapidly scaling industry with her recently launched startup Rella, a website and soon-to-be app that connects micro-influencers with brands.
Barbu founded Rella—she’s also the CEO—because of her own struggles as a novice YouTuber trying to get discovered by brands. Rella is participating in this summer’s Andrews Launch Accelerator at NC State.
At first, YouTube was just a fun way for Barbu to share beauty and makeup tips. But as her subscriber count grew and the influencer marketing industry came into existence, Barbu began to realize she could profit off of her channel. The hard part, she said, was figuring out how.
“It’s so hard figuring out: Who do I contact? Do I just DM a brand? Do I find an agency?” Barbu said. “It’s so hard finding who to talk to in order to work with a brand on a campaign. And a lot of times, brands don’t respond.”
Eventually, a couple months after graduating from NC State in 2019 with a degree in industrial engineering, Barbu’s channel had grown to over 250,000 subscribers. She started to make more money from brand partnerships—and sponsorships on her podcast, “The Real Reel”—than she was making at her full-time job at Accenture.
But getting to the point where Barbu could sustain a living off of being an influencer wasn’t easy and took a decade of hard work, including juggling YouTube and being a full-time engineering student. Barbu had to figure out herself, through trial and error, how to effectively contact brands. Existing apps that connected influencers with brands catered to the needs of brands more than influencers, she said.
While Barbu’s idea for an influencer-centric app was churning around in her head, she was also noticing on the flip side that brands were struggling to find relevant influencers. Through another company she runs called WeBloom Social, Barbu both manages influencer marketing campaigns for businesses and helps individuals grow their personal brand online.
On both sides of the aisle, her influencer clients and business clients were straining to reach each other. So she founded Rella to give a platform where brands can find the right influencer, and vice versa. Rella specifically targets micro-influencers—those who are still starting out and aren’t yet working with a management agency to connect with brands.
“It’s a challenge for both parties to not only find the right influencer or brand but then to set up the campaign in an appropriate way,” Barbu said. “Because influencer marketing is still a pretty new field, micro-influencers who are just starting don’t know what to do. And it’s hard to work with micro-influencers as brands because they don’t have as much experience.”
Influencers and brands can apply right now, for free, on the Rella website to be connected on the Rella “marketplace.” An app will be released in the fall that will require a subscription, and it will have the marketplace as well as a new “management” platform to help influencers and brands manage their campaigns and for influencers to plan their content via a content calendar.
The COO of Rella, Nick Kane, is working on product development along with Rella designers Tess Wiegmann and Natacha Bomparte. Kane graduated from NC State with a degree in electrical and computer engineering, while Wiegmann and Bomparte graduated from the NC State College of Design.
Barbu wants Rella to open doors for anyone wanting to monetize their social media. To her, an “influencer” is anyone with followers on social media. Everyone has a personal brand they promote online, and making money off of it is the same as running a business, she said.
“We want influencers to feel like this app is made for them to manage their business,” Barbu said, “and being an influencer is an entire business because to grow, you have to provide value to your audience and people will only follow you if they have a reason to. So you have to have a consistent brand you’re promoting, and plan all of your content to make it relevant to your audience.”
Influencers > celebrities
The ROI of influencer marketing is relatively high compared to other forms of advertising: $5.78 for every $1 spent on a campaign, according to Influencer Marketing Hub. It’s effective because people relate to and trust the influencers they follow. Laid-back, “day in my life” videos, for instance, are meant to make followers feel more like friends by giving an authentic glimpse into the real thoughts—and brand recommendations—of the influencer.
“Celebrities are now out of touch, and I can’t relate to a celebrity,” Barbu said. “But an influencer with 50,000 followers who’s still living in my hometown, like, O.K, I relate to her.”
As more businesses realize its efficiency and more people enter the space, influencer marketing will continue to grow rapidly. Especially, Barbu said, with the recent NCAA ruling allowing athletes to monetize their name, image and likeness.
“Now, especially with ecommerce, the world is getting smaller,” Barbu said. “Every single year, thousands of people are becoming influencers and it’s no longer just big businesses that want to tap into influencers. With Rella, we really want to be a resource for the micro-influencer and small- to medium-sized business, because we found that there’s not a lot of resources for those sizes of influencers or businesses to get into influencer marketing.”