Throughout her school days, Peyton Mabry practiced for and competed at cheerleading competitions. She reached the epitome of success when her team, Cheetahs, won major national competitions and the USASF Cheerleading Worlds (think the Olympics of cheerleading).

The year was 2012.

The early 2010s was also when social media platforms such as Facebook and Pinterest were hatching from cocoon stage into full-fledged businesses.

Mabry won awards and medals. She garnered praise from coaches and other professionals. But the most intriguing acknowledgment of her athletic accomplishments came in the form of a massive online fan following.

Digitally, Mabry was an overnight sensation by the time she began attending TCU in 2015. After her world championship win in the 2012 season, her Facebook account received hundreds of friend requests. Her Instagram account accumulated hundreds of thousands of followers.

In Mabry's first Instagram post, uploaded April 29, 2012, she can be seen wearing a blue-and-white cheerleading uniform and holding the world championship trophy with a teammate. That post has over 5,000 likes.

Mabry continued playing different sports and trained as an athlete. The bio-box on Mabry's social media accounts would say “athlete."

However, her air-jumping days soon came to an end. She had been diagnosed with scoliosis when she was 15 years old.

At age 18, during her first year in Texas Christian University, the curvature of her back got worse, enough so to become a life-threatening health risk. It prompted medical interventions and surgeries, which basically ended her career as an athlete, but not her online following.

Thousands of social media profiles, or virtual people, followed Mabry's journey and grew together with her.

"It was really a unique situation that helped me navigate my journey on social media and also personally," Mabry said. "It's not easy for any athlete to just one day be able to do something and the next you snap right out."

Her online posts gradually centered on lifestyle and entertainment themes, diverging from her earlier sports-related contents.

Today, Mabry has more than 445,000 followers on her Instagram account, which has a blue tick denoting verified status.

She transitioned from a sportsperson to a spokesperson for several companies.

Her full-time job consists of lots and lots of photo shoots. Companies and brands pay her to promote their products on social media, so her followers might spot it on their feeds.

This strategy of building relationships with consumers through direct contact via popular social-media users is gaining steam. Marketers are calling it "influencer marketing."

Influencing the market

According to a report by Mediakix, a California-based leading influencer marketing agency, the influencer market is worth $1.7 billion in 2019. The market size is expected to reach an estimated $2.3 billion next year.

"I think I'm very fortunate, very lucky, and I try to always remain true to who I am," Mabry said. "Like, being a good role model. You see it all the time, people changing or going with what's current or what's popular. But I'm not really that. But, yeah, I'm really thankful for all."

Mabry is now a brand in herself. She may be obscure to the general audience, but among her followers she is more than a celebrity.

She said her authenticity is what connects her followers to her.

And companies are capitalizing on this social media inclination.

In her most recent Instagram photo post, Mabry is carrying a Target shopping basket and holding the latest Secret Deodorant, a Procter & Gamble product.

"I’ve been a @SecretDeodorant fan since my competitive cheer days, so I’m excited to share their Aluminum Free Deodorant with y’all!" she wrote.

A commenter replied that she is headed to the supermarket to get that deodorant. Another commenter said she would get it the next day. Many others shared similar sentiments, while also complimenting the dress she was wearing and asking where to buy it.

The image attracted a lot of eyeballs. In less than 13 hours, the post crossed 3,000 likes.

Mabry's clients' list includes Cowboys Fit, Dallas Cowboys fitness center, Nike and various beauty and fashion brands such as FabFitFun. Companies also pay for her attendance at different events.

"I try to do more long-term partnerships and not just one-off things," Mabry said. "I try to establish a real relationship. I really, truly don't partner with brands that I don't use. It's not just the money or that aspect of it."

She stays busy and the work is taxing and, she said, not everyone has the patience or dedication to do it.

Estate Five, a talent management agency, manages Mabry's contracts and brand connections, along with her mother, Amy.

To get the best results on all her social media visual storytelling, Mabry recently hired a professional photographer who assists in taking photos and videos for her.

The TCU alumna also has a personal blog, updated with her Instagram photos and several written pieces about her life experiences. The blog also lists the places her followers can buy the attire she's wearing in her photos.

Selling the buzz

Advertisers have depended on celebrities and public figures for product endorsements and branding since the inception of the celebrity concept. Advertising has come a long way since the poster ads of the early 1900s or the TV commercials of the Mad Men era.

Social media is now ushering in a new revolution in marketing.

"It's so scary, to be honest," said Roslyn Sinha, a social media expert. "You know how people are so obsessed with social media. We have jobs and are busy, but we are required by society to have a social media existence, somehow.”

Sinha works as the head of content, social media and influencer marketing at Miller Ad Agency. She previously led a social media campaign for a film project in Dubai that was able to raise over $30 million.

The pressure to have and present the best version of oneself online makes users follow what the "good looking" influencers are doing, which in turn is driving sales for many brands, Sinha said.

Instagram, which is owned by Facebook Inc., reached 1 billion monthly active users last June. The social networking platform trails only Facebook and YouTube in the number of active users.

For advertisers, however, Instagram remains the more lucrative option.

In a Facebook post last year, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced that his company made changes to its algorithm to limit sponsored content from brands and advertisers. The goal was to focus more on "bringing people closer together."

According to the Mediakix report, over 3.7 million sponsored posts were uploaded on Instagram in 2018. The sponsored posts are projected to more than double by the end of 2019, according to the report.

"I don't care how many followers she has, what I care about is the engagement," Sinha said. "What kind of engagement does she get? This is very important.”

The more likes and comments an influencer gets on his or her posts, the better the engagement. Sinha said higher engagement is a sign of people being directly involved in the brand's discussions and more likely to buy the product.

Depending on the number of followers, influencers are categorized as "micro" or "macro" influencers. Celebrity accounts, such as that of Kylie Jenner, that have over 1 million followers are labelled macro influencers.

Macro influencers may have a larger audience reach but are expensive, and their followers are not as active compared with a micro influencer's tight-knit community of followers.

"Just because I'm from Dallas does not mean my followers are, too," Sinha said. "It might be right for your brand. So be careful, be careful. I can buy you 100,000 followers for $200. That's why brands need to be very careful."

The rate a company would pay influencers to promote its products depends on their social media presence and the type of post.

On average, an influencer with 40,000 to 50,000 followers who gets about 1,500 likes and comments will receive about $700 per post from the business, according to Sinha's estimation.

Influencers with larger reach who are working with bigger brands, such as Nordstrom, could earn up to $3,000 per post. Popular influencers on YouTube generally cost about $10,000 per video post.

"All businesses have to have social media existence, somehow," Sinha said. "Otherwise, what will happen if you don't have any social media existence is [that] people will create it for you. And it will be too late for you to clean that up. You need to have a community online and you need to manage the community online."

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