We Are Sunshine

Power of the People: Turn anybody into an influencer for your business

Thursday, March 14th, 2024

Long before social media, tanning businesses relied heavily on “word-of-mouth” marketing to gain new customers. Even those that had the resources to invest in traditional advertising understood that more customers came to them organically via recommendations from friends and family. That’s why many independent tanning businesses with limited budgets eschewed traditional advertising, and many continue to do so.

But these days, digital platforms have made advertising more far affordable and efficient. It makes sense that many small businesses didn’t want to invest in billboards, radio or newspaper ads, but anybody can and should be spending as little as $100 a month to garner hundreds of clicks and tens of thousands of impressions with local consumers.

At the same time, social media has revolutionized word-of-mouth marketing. Instagram, and later TikTok, gave birth to the phenomenon of “influencers,” the impact of which goes much deeper than just business and marketing. It’s a whole cultural shift. People who probably wouldn’t be famous otherwise are now amassing millions of followers and making millions of dollars from brands that will pay for their influence. More importantly, everyday people take cues from celebrities and influencers in the way they portray themselves online. Understanding and playing into that mindset is the key to building an effective influencer program as a small business with limited resources.

Even if it could be afforded, it wouldn’t make sense for a tanning business with one or even 100 tanning businesses to pay Kim Kardashian for promotion. What small businesses need is local influence, and anybody can afford that on some level.

On a small scale, literally everyone is an influencer, even if they don’t have an Instagram account at all. Every one of your customers has influence. Your friends and family have influence. All your staff members have influence. You just need to give them the right tools and incentives to make them use it to benefit your business.

All Hands on Deck

Higher-profile influencers can certainly be a good investment, but you can probably still have a more significant overall impact by focusing on turning your entire customer base and staff into an army of influencers. You should already have some sort of referral program. You should have a commission program for your staff. For all intents and purposes, these already are influencer programs, and shifting your thinking to treating them as such can great enhance your promotional efforts.


Gaining new customers is always tremendously valuable. You should always promote a referral offer that benefits current and new customers, but you can also take your referral efforts to social media to greatly expand your reach. Plenty of customers will be willing to “work” for free tans or small perks. It’s always worth a small reward if someone brings you a new customer. Along with providing referral cards to hand out, you can create a coupon code for highly motivated customers to take their referral efforts online. You might be surprised how much social media reach and influence some of your clients have in your community.

Your staff are even more important advocates for your business. Tanning businesses tend to employ young, vibrant individuals – the same type of people who thrive on social media. While you shouldn’t require staff to promote your business on their social media accounts, consider how you can make it worth their while. If you have a strong commission structure, that may be enough in itself. They can benefit personally by reminding their followers when they will be working and why they should stop in. You can also appeal to their vanity by organizing professional photoshoots and producing content that you can use on your business accounts and they will also be excited to share with their followers. Or, if you have staff members with more substantial followings, think about how you can motivate them more aggressively.

Try to get your staff to look at referrals as one of the best ways to make more commission. Incentivize them to post content from work and include a direct plug. Set up an online store where people can sign up for a membership at an impulse when they see your employee’s post and a deal associated with the employee’s individual promo code. They can even promote a deal you’d offer any new member, but you get the extra promotion for a small incentive to the employee – something like “Use code Sally50 for 50 percent off the product of your choice when you sign up for a membership.”

Florida Tans in Texas provides a great example of these types of programs. By leveraging their online store and discount codes, they give employees a way to make money when they’re off the clock through their influence. Each employee has a unique code that gives customers 10 percent off online purchases, and it also allows owner Tiffany Pflieger to attribute the sale to the appropriate staff member and reward them accordingly. That way, Florida Tans team members don’t lose out on commission if their loyal customers choose to buy online, and they also have added motivation to promote the business via their own social media accounts.

“It’s a modern world, and if I said the girls couldn’t have their phones, they’d be sneaking in the bathroom. Be respectful and don’t do it in front of customers but also get involved with the social media. We created the discount codes to give them something to share. Here’s how you can win at this, and the more you share, the more money you can make,” Tiffany says. “Our girls all have their own personalities and different things they do. Some take product pictures. They share selfies. We have these big, beautiful mirrors they say are the best selfie mirrors in town. I appreciate everything they do, and I tell them to contribute what they want because the way they think about promoting might be different than what I think, so I’m open to all formats.”

Florida Tans also has an “Influencer Application” on their website, so anybody can reach out with hopes of developing a mutually beneficial business relationship.

“Influencers are another way to reach more people. If I have somebody who tans and has a large following on social media, they can get membership discounts and products in return for the potential of reaching their following. I have some really great people helping with it. People get excited about it,” Tiffany says.

Worth the Effort

Influencer marketing is based on the same premise that old-school word-of-mouth marketing always was: People are more likely to trust and do business with a company that has been recommended to them by someone they know and trust. So, influencer marketing on any scale can be a powerful way to build trust with potential customers. The truth is anyone can be an influencer for your business.

When your efforts are focused on getting new customers, it’s almost always worth it. Even if you only get one sale you wouldn’t have otherwise, you’ve likely covered your costs. But, if a referral leads to a customer that stays with you, it could legitimately lead to thousands of dollars you wouldn’t have seen otherwise.

Fierce Tanning in Ohio provides a priming example of turning everyone into influencers, even if they’re not actually calling them that. Again, on a small scale, an influencer program is not so different than a referral program. Fierce Tan owner Claytin Williams believes so much in the value of referrals that Fierce Tan actually goes out of its way to give current customers referral bonuses when a new customer comes in.

“I’ve gotten away from a lot of advertising over the last couple years. I don’t want to say lessened our marketing, but I’m doing a little less than I used to. We’re focused on customer referrals and giving customers a larger bonus based on our acquisition cost versus marketing spend,” Williams says. “When a new customer comes in, we ask how they heard about us, and we actually push them to give us a name. We load our standard $10 on their account and let them use that on their first purchase or save it. We also load $10 on the account of the referrer saying thank you.

“On occasion, more so in the slow season or just a couple days at a time, we’ll up the referral bonus to $15 or $20 to say, ‘Hey, it’s really worth it to switch from your current store.’ We don’t limit how they spend that. Every year we have a handful of girls from a high school around us that tan completely free. They make it a point to send a minimum of seven new customers a month in to pay for their top-tier membership. Other owners say I’m crazy to let them tan for free, but for me, the number of new customers they send into the store is more than worth it. Keeping it simple and not putting limitations has probably been the biggest factor behind the success of the referral. There are customers that send somebody in and don’t know about the referral program, and they get $10 the next time they visit because their friend visited. Our current customers are so appreciative of that because it’s not something we have to do.”

Even without a referral, Williams is also willing to give out as many free tans for first time customers as he possibly can. Fierce Tanning offers “Platinum Passes” that give new clients a free tan in any sunbed or a free spray tan. The passes are offered both online and via cards they print and hand out. The Platinum Passes allow Williams and his staff to effectively promote the business to anyone, anytime.

“I can hand those out and my staff can hand those out. You have to be a new customer to use it. We track how many of those cards we hand out on a monthly or quarterly basis and how many are coming in each month as well,” Williams says.

“I set goals for my staff; I want them to hand out at least 25 per month, and it can be to anybody. If you go to Applebee’s and sign your check, drop a Platinum Pass in and give it to your server. The staff hands out 25 a month, which is about 300, and I try to hand out a minimum of 100 so that’s 300 to 500 a month. I would say we get 20 to 30 of those coming back each month.”

According to Williams’s numbers, this effort pays off directly, even before you consider the long-term value of the new customer.

“At least 25 percent of them take advantage of the free offer and don’t show back up. It’s a bummer we lost that couple dollars of electric, but we’re still building that reputation. Somebody comes in and it costs me $5 for that spray tan, but they can tell anybody else they know they got a spray tan here,” he says.

“The other 75 percent either come back or make a purchase right there. We capitalize on lotion samples. We really push or throw a discount to get them to buy something right then. With spray tans, we capitalize on upgrades. I can give away a ‘free’ spray tan, and it’s still an $18 sale with the upgrades. I got a new customer and all their information. I was able to pay for that acquisition and I made a buck.”

Added Benefits

Another benefit to having an army of influencers is they generate a constant stream of content for you own social media pages. Even if someone isn’t going out of their way to generate referrals for you, you can try to recruit them to be a part of your marketing. Using photos from clients, rather than stock photos, in your social media posts shows people exactly what results they can expect and also builds on the community element. Especially in a small town, people will see that girl they know on your Facebook Page, or recognize her later, walking down the street on a shopping trip.

When they see the real pictures, not only do they get a more confident idea of what to expect coming into my store, they see it’s not just the a few people. Anybody can show their photos off; we want to brag about them,” says Tara Sanders, owner of Touchable Tan in Louisiana. “They like the fact that we’re so involved with each person, so they feel at home when they come visit.”

Appealing to your clients’ vanity is another effective approach. One strategy Sanders has used is simply posting a photo and the text: “Tag us in your best photos for a chance to be featured in our next ad!” For no cost, Sanders had clients tagging her salon’s page in their photos, generating views from all their friends and associating their tans with the salon. Then, she can also use their photos in her ads, as promised, display a friendly face with a real tan from the salon, and make the client feel special at the same time.

Even if you’re skeptical about the practicality of getting your clients involved in your marketing, you should definitely do so with your staff. Your staff members are, in effect, the faces of your business, and you can easily brand them as local tanning celebrities of sorts with the right approach on social media.

Next Level

Not even the biggest tanning businesses in the world can afford Kim Kardashian, but if you do want to delve deeper into influencer marketing, you’ll want to familiarize yourself with the term “micro-influencers.” On the overall scale of influencers, micro-influencers are those with smaller audiences, but for small businesses, people that fit in this category will be your larger-scale influencers.

As the world of influencer marketing continues to evolve, businesses are beginning to recognize the value of working with micro-influencers. Micro-influencers are individuals who have a smaller following on social media, usually between 1,000 and 100,000 followers. They may not have the same reach as larger influencers, but they can offer a number of benefits for businesses.

You don’t need “influencers” in the sense of when we hear about “social media influencers” with millions of followers, but just normal people that will show and tell their friends about the results you provided them. Nonetheless, some people have more friends than others, and you can further refine your efforts by targeting a select few people that are more influential.

If you’re looking to work with individuals who have a greater influence than your average customer or staff member, here are some initial considerations:

  1. Identify potential influencers: Authenticity is key. Your best prospects for larger-scale influencers will still already be customers. Virtually every tanning business out there probably has some clients with 10,000 to 100,000 followers. Most of these people aren’t seeking a career or even a side-hustle as influencers; they just so happen to be popular and relatable. Nonetheless, they’ll probably be willing to help promote you for some modest perks.
  2. Provide training and resources: Provide your potential influencers with training and resources to help them create engaging content and effectively promote your business. Make sure they understand your business and what you’re looking for with their content. Give them the opportunity to experience the best your business has to offer so they can speak about it genuinely.
  3. Utilize influencer perks: Utilize influencer perks, such as discounts and exclusive offers, to incentivize your potential influencers to promote your business. Unless someone really has extraordinary reach, you’ll never want to pay them in cash. If someone’s influence is worth free access to everything in the salon plus additional credit for products, that’s still going to cost you less.
  4. Monitor and measure results: Monitor and measure the results of your influencer marketing efforts to understand the impact they are having on your business. This will help you determine which individuals are driving the most results and allow you to optimize your influencer marketing strategy.
  5. Foster a positive company culture: A positive company culture will help your employees and fans feel proud of the business they support, which will translate into their influencer efforts. Encourage teamwork and create a supportive environment where individuals feel valued and appreciated.

That last point could be easy to overlook, but it’s actually one of the most important factor that will set the stage for all your efforts to gain new customers. Any business can benefit to some degree by incentivizing customers and staff for promotion, but you’ll benefit more (and pay less) if you’re the type of business that people want to be associated with. If you create a culture and salon atmosphere that makes your staff members proud to work for you and your customers proud to tan with you, most of the “influencing” will take care of itself.