Influencer marketing is now a multi-billion pound industry – and it’s getting bigger.

Brands are willing to spend a fortune to stand out from their competitors and engage with the lucrative millennial and Gen Z market.

Somebody who knows more about influencer marketing that most is Elma Beganovich. The 35-year-old is one half of New York-based agency A&E.

Along with her sister Amra, 36, the pair have more than 2.2 million followers on social media and, before Covid-19, could command up to $20,000 for a sponsored Instagram post.

However, there is much more to the sisters than the glamorous fashion and travel photos that grace their various social media platforms.

Amra and Elma left Sarajevo when they were children and were eventually given asylum in the US. In late 2012 they turned to blogging, gave up their successful careers and today run a $5.2m revenue business with a clutch of Fortune 500 companies as clients.

Speaking from her home in New York, Elma, who is 20 months younger than Amra, explained how it all began.

The sisters left Sarajevo, which is the capital and largest city of Bosnia and Herzegovina, when Elma was eight and headed to Finland before being granted asylum to the US when she was 10.

Fast forward to 2012 and Amra, who’d been working as an economist at George Mason University, began exchanging beauty tips with a friend in Sweden and decided to write a blog.

At the time Elma was completing her degree at Georgetown Law when Amra phoned her and suggested she write a blog about her love of fashion and travel.

“My sister was the visionary,” admitted Elma. “There was this sentiment among millennials that what these traditional publications like Vogue, Elle and Harper’s Bazaar were publishing wasn’t very relatable to people. Most people weren’t spending thousands of dollars on skincare and plastic surgery to look a certain way.

“We basically said ‘why don’t we create content as the internet gives us these tools?’ We could create this mini media environment that would be affordable and accessible to most people.”

Within three months of starting, their blogs were reaching 150,000 monthly unique visitors and brands started approaching them so they left their jobs a year later.

“We had this immense surge of viewers and we were watching them skyrocket ,” remembered Elma. “In 2010 Instagram was founded. We joined Instagram in 2012. We saw this take-off in the influencer industry. This sort of explosion.

Elma compared today’s influencers to the radio DJs of yesteryear. “Before you had people listening to the radio and you would have a radio DJ who would be sponsored by a company to promote and endorse something,” she said. “In the millennial world influencers became that. They were more relatable figures.”

The sisters realised they were on to something when the management team of socialite and model Paris Hilton approached them about a possible collaboration.

At the start of their influencer career the sisters used to get $99 for a tweet but, pre-Covid, they could command $20,000 for a sponsored Instagram post.

“For an influencer of my size it would be between $7,000-$10,000 per post depending on the scope of work,” she said.

It might sound like easy money but Elma said a huge amount of thought goes into their content

“There are a few factors in there,” she said. “One is the following of the influencer and the other one is the engagement. How engaged are their fans? You also look at the reputation of the influencers. Some have more of a regional reputation and some have a truly global reputation.”

Although the glamorous world of an influencer can be very lucrative, the sisters set up their own agency – A&E – to broaden their offer. Although their 2.2 million social media followers are the attack brand, A&E makes the serious money.

“With influencers you can make a living as a person but I don’t believe you can support a company,” said Elma. “I look at our influencer income versus the agency and less than 10 per cent comes from the influencer work and over 90 per cent is from the agency work. They’re different budgets. They allow you to hire different people.”

As their empire started to take off the sisters went back to school to learn how to code.

“In essence we saw if you want to move forward anywhere in this field you have to work with engineers,” she said. “We made a platform called for influencers to sell items they were gifted and we realised we couldn’t hire an engineer without having some background in IT.

“An a millennial and Gen Z how can you get by in this world without knowing code? To this day if you look at our website we invest heavily in the technology. We have our own engineers. In order to ask good questions and make good decisions you have to know something.”

A&E now employs 10 people and works with a number of Fortune 500 companies like J&J, P&G, Netflix, VF Corp, and Wells Fargo. Pre-Covid its revenue was $5.2m.

“When we talk to companies we take a look at their target demographic,” she said. “Where are they trying to reach and where are their customers?

“For example, if you’re trying to target Gen Z, TikTok would be where most of your customers or potential customers hang out. Millennials are hanging out on Instagram.

“Twitter is a little bit different, it’s more informative. It’s basically really good for news if you’re trying to make announcements about your brand. If you’re trying to do something visual, especially a video, Instagram is a good place and so is YouTube. I always say to our clients YouTube is the gift that keeps on giving. You can post a video on YouTube and get 5,000-10,000 views but in a year you can have easily over one million if your video is good.”

And Elma had this advice for any would-be influencers. “Essentially people are looking for something different,” she said. “Content is your bread and butter. Before trying to be unique, be true to yourself and try and be authentic. Be you. This is why influencers spend the bulk of their time thinking about the content they put out there.

“Influencers follow closely the reaction of their followers. They’ll ask their followers what they want to see more of. You will follow what they say because they are the reason that you exist.”