Usually, I ignore this whole “influencers vs. brands” conflict served up for internet rage stuff, but I got an email requesting a response on a LinkedIn thread. It felt more civilized, so I thought I’d add some perspective that was lacking and as it got longer, it turned into a post. I mean, if I’m going to compare the anger towards alleged free-loaders to internet trolls, I obviously need to include screenshots and GIFs.
A response to all the “influencers are free-loading garbage people” hot takes
(in defense of influencer marketing)
“Influencer” here (though I would usually call myself a content creator or blogger or photographer, but never really “influencer”). It feels like there have been scads of anti-influencer articles lately, and they feel very reminiscent of all the “lazy Millennial” hot takes from 10 years ago that I’d hoped we were starting to get past as a team.
They’re society’s new favorite pet villain. Like, we may disagree on politics or religion, but we all hate lazy free-loaders, right? So, media outlet after media outlet is happy to reap the rewards of click-bait traffic and rage comments of condescension on an article tearing down “influencers” as the free-loading, vagrant, wastrel, garbage people we are.
But they aren’t representative of the whole picture. In the interest of painting with more defined strokes, I’d like to address this “epidemic” in a few categories: media, quality and costs/strategy. This is meant to add depth and nuance to the discussion that is sorely needed, not to proxy authority or blanketly defend all “influencers” (as some are, in fact, garbage people who should live in a dumpster with rotten snails).
I won’t apologize for the length because the desire for brevity is what’s resulted in such surface-level discussions of influencer marketing. There is WAY MORE to this discussion because it fractures by industry, target audience and so on, but in the interest of you actually reading at least these points, we can park the rest for later.
|TLDR: Influencer marketing works, some “influencers” are bad, but some brands are bad too, brands need to do their homework, everybody needs to stop working for free and can we all start acting like professionals?|
Different media channels are…different
To start, influencer marketing should be considered a piece of a larger marketing strategy. And a business should understand their own goals and how influencers can support them (see strategy below). But it is also important to understand the difference in media channels and their value. I will never understand a business making an investment with any content creator on a single social media platform (apart from maybe YouTube), let alone a single post.
Instagram and Twitter, for example, are so incredibly fleeting (hence the targeted ire against the Instagram influencer/model). So, to a business, it doesn’t make sense to pay (whether in cash or in kind – we’ll get to that later) for an Instagram post or Instagram story unless you’re talking about someone mega-influential. And even then, it all depends on your product. Because it’s very different for an influencer to have a post that may reach an audience of 25k in the US suggesting they buy a $10 product that they can order online with free shipping than suggesting they travel halfway around the world to stay at a specific resort. It has to be a good fit.
HOWEVER. When we say that Instagram and Twitter are fleeting, so were ads in magazines that someone reads once and probably throws away (hopefully recycles) that had pictures taken in massive, expensive photo shoots. So let’s not act like Instagram is some unique beast. What’s different here is that businesses are getting pitches from a million mini “ad execs” compared to how they might have managed advertising previously.
Now let’s look at some longer-term media. Blogs and YouTube are of significantly greater long-term value. Because the likelihood that my Instagram post influences someone to go book a stay at your lodge tomorrow is low. But when people are reading my blog post about your location and I also recommend to go stay with you – that’s now at the point of purchase intent. It has more power. Its authority also grows over time, because unlike that magazine that’s off in a recycling plant somewhere, my blog post is still there. Still going higher in search results. Still gaining authority and audience. The same can be said for [quality] YouTube videos.TLDR: Influencer marketing works, some “influencers” are bad, but some brands are bad too, brands need to do their homework, everybody needs to stop working for free and can we all start acting like professionals?Click To Tweet
Quality is proportionate to value (#notallinfluencers)
An influencer’s value is only as good as her/his content, engagement and channel cultivation. In an industry with basically zero barriers to entry and zero up-front investment required, there will be HUGE ranges in quality. It is an absolute, proven fact that influencer marketing and content creation strategies bring huge value to brands. There is NO question about the power of it.
BUT. Not everyone has the same value. And every time I’ve spoken with a brand that has described a “bad influencer experience,” it is clear that they did not do their homework and didn’t do the work to have clear expectations. Yes, it can be really hard to evaluate real vs fake/bought engagement in social media today. But it is not that hard to evaluate the quality of an influencer’s work. You look at numbers, yes, but they really don’t matter. An Instagram account with 2k followers may have an incredibly engaged audience with disposable income and one with 2 million might not be able to create action.
I have no sympathy whatsoever for a brand who hires a content creator/influencer whose work is readily available to review, and then complains about their work. I’ve seen it. If you read a blogger’s writing, hire them, and then they produce that style of writing and you don’t like it, is it the blogger’s fault that you don’t like their style? Or is it your fault that you hired someone whose style you don’t like and expected something different?
If you hire a “photographer” from Instagram whose photos are literally on the page you contacted them from, and then you don’t like the style or quality of the photos, where are the expectations misaligned? If you hire a blogger to write about you in a blog post because you like their blogs, but then they don’t get enough likes on Instagram, where is the miscommunication?
You are going to receive bad pitches. Full stop. The whole debacle in Ireland in 2017 was a perfect example. Was the restaurant owner wrong for the way he treated the bad pitch? Absolutely. But the girl who sent the pitch clearly did no homework herself. She could have prevented the whole situation by doing HER research on the front end. Had she, she probably would have realized that the owner not only had a history, but that it wasn’t the right fit.
But if you think that an entire, proven industry is garbage or lazy because you get bad pitches, then you will find yourself behind the times and not taking advantage of effective tactics.
Influence vs. product
A nuance that is missed when it comes to evaluating quality is understanding the differences between paying for influence and paying for work product. Content creators have become both the creators and the marketers of their own networks. Some are new influencers with small followings, but incredibly experienced in their field (whether it be writing or photography). And some are experienced influencers with huge followings and shallow expertise in their field. And then some are great at both and some are not great at either.
None of those combinations (excepting the bad-bad one) are inherently lacking value. The question of who is the right influencer/content creator for you is directly tied to your strategy.
So maybe you want influence or authority. In that case, the influence is more important. You want to associate someone’s name or brand with your own. If that’s what you want, then maybe the quality of their writing or photography doesn’t matter. But maybe you are interested in someone’s work product. You want them to come take stunning photos of your property, as an example. If you want to license beautiful photos to use on your website or whatever, then how is their following on Instagram the most relevant indicator or their skill?
It’s all about finding the right tool for the job.
Strategy, expectations and costs
I’m writing about this topic last because I want you to see how it’s the most important, and how everything else ties into it. Having a strategy and goals is the MOST IMPORTANT part of creating any marketing success really.
Strategy and goals
*****If you do not put strategy behind your influencer marketing and content spends, it very likely will not be successful.*****
This is where it starts. I’m pretty sure that every marketing book will tell you that. Make a strategy for your marketing, for the year, quarter, whatever it is. Figure out what you want people saying about your brand. What you want them doing in response to your marketing. Are you looking for short-term awareness or are you looking to build your long-term strategy? Once you’ve defined for yourself what your goals are, then start to look for influencers/content creators whose work aligns with those goals, whose outlets have the potential to support those goals.
Get clear with yourself and anyone you partner with on expectations. This should be done in the form of a contract so everyone is clear about who’s doing what, when. I’m certainly guilty of not setting clear expectations from my end and am making an effort to do better.
For example, I worked with a tour operator who contacted me via Instagram and I was heading to that location next anyway, so they set me up to do some activities with their partners in exchange for posts about each one. There were so many other things wrong with this set up (I’ve learned and would never agree to that arrangement again), but the one that surprised me the most was that by day 2 of the campaign, I had only shared 2 posts. They wanted all 7 shared right away, even though they could clearly see that I post max once a day on Instagram.
I thought it was obvious that because they had contacted me from my Instagram page, surely they saw that I posted daily and ipso facto it would take at least 7 days to post 7 images. You know what they say about assumptions…
Before any work is started, everyone should know the expectations – what’s the schedule, what are the deliverables, what’s the cost, who’s paying whom, when and how, etc. This is how all other industries operate and influencer and content marketing should be no different. The same goes for follow-up and reactions.
When Amazon is late with a package, I don’t lose my mind, assume they’re just some “lazy, entitled Millennials” who want me to pay them for nothing and that they’re never going to send the package and that all online retailers are banding together like the second coming of the Axis Powers to screw me, specifically, over. I send them a message to see what’s up. Or when I buy a baby shower gift once and the Google ads algorithm thinks I’m having a baby and starts surfacing baby ads to me, I don’t go write a thought-piece on how all algorithms are horrible and worthless because one misread the situation.
Costs (there’s no such thing as a free lunch – at least not a good one)
Eish, this could be its own whole topic. But we all need to get past our collective trigger word, “free.” It’s like we’re all in this dance of, “I’m not working for free” and “I’m not giving stuff away for free” without really understanding the value of it all.
Everyone has gotten really sensitive about the word “free,” but no one is doing anything for free. Brands aren’t “giving away free stuff” and influencers aren’t free-loading. When I work with a brand to promote a product and they give it to me comped, I don’t get to pay my mortgage with that product. My equipment, my skills, my knowledge, my channels and my audience all took investment to cultivate. If you don’t want to pay for any combination of them, that’s fine. But don’t expect me to give them to you for free.
Working for free – stop doing it and stop asking people to do it
Can we all agree to stop working for “free?” Marketing costs money. As a brand, if you are offended that a content creator wants to get paid to offer you services, I don’t know what to tell you. I guess, don’t obtain services?
As a brand, if you want marketing, you should expect to pay for it, both in product and in cash. As you get more selective in the quality of content creator and influencer, you should expect to pay more. If you want someone to review your product, share photos of an experience, talk about your hotel, you should expect to give them access to the thing you want them to produce content about, at no cost. That’s not a bad thing. You’re not getting “screwed over.” People aren’t trying to get freebies from you. (this is in general, assuming you’ve done the work to find the right people)
Let’s talk about it like promoting a book. If you want me to promote your book, there are two parts to it. First, you have to give me the book. I can’t have an educated, genuine opinion on the book if I don’t actually have the book. Giving me the book is what it takes for me to have an opinion on the book. Then if you want me to produce content about the book and that opinion, you have to pay me. If you want to leverage the trust I’ve built with my audience through time and investment, you have to pay me.
This should be in your budget. If you make products, you should allocate X number of products as promo/review copies. If you offer services, you should allocate X dollars/hours/whatever units of measure are appropriate for content creators to experience what you offer.
I’m not saying that you shouldn’t work in trade. There are too many factors in each content creator and brand’s situation to make a catch-all statement that money should always change hands for a successful campaign. Equitable value should always be exchanged, and that’s not always money.
But working in trade is not working for free.
Let’s see past the smoke and mirrors of “traveling for free”
Influencers and content creators, can we PLEASE stop tempting people into the field by saying all the things they’ll get for free?? How many times have we seen these headlines on an Instagram or blogging course?
|“Learn how to get free hotel stays!” “Travel the world for free!” “Quit your job and travel the world!”|
There are a lot of issues here. First and foremost, it’s not true. No one is asking for free hotel stays or trying to travel for free. Creators’ work and time are valuable, so offering them in exchange for something is NEVER the same as getting that thing for free.
Note: If you are considering one of these courses, please evaluate if the person giving the course actually makes money from traveling or if they make money from teaching you how to make money from traveling. There’s a HUGE difference. They aren’t making money from traveling the world, they’re making money from you, selling you snake oil of traveling for free. (of course, there are legitimately good blogging and social media courses, but you have to be discerning in your selection)
Intermediaries aren’t the solution
Every time a new post comes up about the scourge of evil, leaching Instagram influencers, a new influencer intermediary gets its wings. I’m sure some of these intermediaries are valuable, but in general, they’re preying on this whole situation to their own benefit.
They play up the idea that it’s so hard for brands to vet and find quality influencers and so hard for content creators to find paying gigs and say that they’re the solution! They will find the best influencers for you (by spamming us and lying to us about availability of paying jobs or other influencers in their network) and charge you a big price for it.
Then they put your campaign out to content creators for pennies on the dollar and pocket the rest as an admin fee. This adds no value to the field. You could be getting way more for what you’re spending and content creators dilute their ability to create great quality work because they have to take more jobs to make the same money.
Let’s sum it up – it’s not all terrible, can we act like professionals?
Ok, so if influencer and content marketing works, but there’s so much to interpret and factor in to weed out the fakes, how can we move forward?
A few things we can probably all agree to chill out on:
- Stop asking people to work for free
- Stop using intermediaries who keep most of your budget for themselves
- Stop sending bad, unresearched pitches (this goes for brands AND influencers)
- Stop overreacting to bad, unresearched pitches
- Stop ghosting people and projects!!!
- Stop writing articles about how everyone sucks and should die or spend a lifetime stepping on Legos and awkwardly watching movies with graphic sex scenes with their parents
And in general, we can all keep it professional. If you’re a brand and you’re tired of getting poorly crafted pitches? Make yourself an email rejection template and fire away! Don’t want to work with influencers and want to cut back on the unsolicited pitches? Add it to your website! They’re finding your email address somewhere, so head it off at the pass.
If you’re an influencer/content creator or a brand and sending a pitch, do your homework and hit the basics. You should probably spell names correctly, but also make sure your pitch is about mutual value. And respond to emails people. Even a canned rejection is better than nothing (and means no more follow up emails).
A note from the influencer’s side of things
We get bad pitches too. Brands ask us to work for free ALL THE TIME. Brands ask us to promote them even when there’s clearly no fit. Every day in Facebook groups we’re talking about a new screenshot of an email with a terrible pitch. They don’t know our names, want free work, want to accelerate deadlines and add deliverables. They steal content and pretend they didn’t know better or the new trend is to launch a “competition” where people who enter have to sign away their first born child to be honored with the chance to then work for a brand for free.
So here is another ‘competition’ that sneakily uses a hashtag to steal perpetual rights to content creators images and not pay them for their work, this one by @SouthwestAir. Bloggers seriously need to stop allowing these. https://t.co/l6lOGe2KLV pic.twitter.com/EBm7j3UW7k
— Bemused Backpacker (@bemusedbackpack) February 24, 2019
We generally share it amongst ourselves, laugh and even talk about blacklisting brands that lowball, ghost or have payment issues. But somehow this never becomes some viral story. Perhaps because while some brands want to get free publicity for complaining about people asking them for “freebies,” the content creators see dealing with bad pitches as a cost of doing business. Or we’re supposed to feel so grateful for the opportunity to work with some companies that we shouldn’t call them out? Or there’s this seemingly growing “confusion” that if something’s out on the internet, it’s just “up for grabs“?
Hey @hostelworld no you can’t have our photos for free to use however your like and gain financially without properly paying creators for licensing. Shame on you. #hostelworld #valuecreators pic.twitter.com/MBl4F3Q1un
— Scott and Megan (@BoboandChichi) February 23, 2019
Also, to the angry people on the internet, get over it!
I’m absolutely confounded by the surfeit of hate pieces on Instagram influencers/Instagram models/Instagram girls/influencers. Especially for those outside of the industry. Sure, some send bad pitches or punch above their weight class. But don’t all businesses, everywhere, get applications from people who are underqualified? And apart from Instagram influencers and American Idol auditioners, who gets publicly shamed and made fun of for it?
It feels like a jealousy-obsession combo that can’t be healthy (hence I usually avoid the articles and threads altogether). If you find yourself angry that someone is successful in a way that you aren’t, it’s ok. I recommend repeating the motto that Amy Poehler taught us all in Yes Please, “Good for her, not for me.”
And, who tf am I to have an opinion all these hot takes?
Before people get all up in the comments to say how I’m some nobody too and who cares what I think, you’re kind of right. I’m not a celebrity and I’m not that big of an influencer. There are so many people doing it bigger and better and that’s why I focus on the content creation (work product) side of things. I don’t personally try to sell influence on its own because I think it is more valuable packaged with content.
However, I do have a master’s in Strategic Innovation and Change and a degree in journalism, a lot of experience in content creation and have been growing in this field for years. I get these pitches all the time and, hopefully, have learned how to avoid sending bad ones.
I also have recently been called a money-grubbing slut by a stranger on the internet.
To close us out and as promised, I’d like to illustrate how the vitriol for influencers looks an awful lot like the vitriol for women on the internet. Allow me to present you an exchange from a few weeks ago where I, as a woman on the internet, received a chat, which started as flirting and ended as most do. Now, does this feel oddly reminiscent of all this influencer rage?
[context is that he said he couldn’t travel, because “poverty”; poverty in quotes because that wouldn’t be an accurate way of describing his situation, but good tips, Keith]
Ok, I fixed the internet now, right?