“Hi, I’m Not Dressed As Lamb”. Having a pseudonym that abstract is kinda weird, but as a blogger who’s been around for the best part of a decade, I’m used to being called by my blog name.
However, this IS my job and working on a business-to-business level with other companies means a certain amount of professionalism has to come into play. When you have an online pseudonym you sometimes get addressed in strange ways in emails, such as
Dear Not Dressed As Lamb
Dear Not Lamb
And this is my favourite:
Dear Not (#FacePalm)
How I’m approached and addressed online is part of the important relationship that forms between myself and brands. If they don’t get my name right, the collaboration is doomed from the beginning. Don’t get me wrong – many, many influencers haven’t a clue about how to deal with brands and, quite rightly, get a bad rap for the shenanigans they pull. It’s either naivety, foolishness or professional immaturity. Or (worse) a sense of entitlement coming through, and I’m ashamed at some of the stories I read about influencer demands.
But that said, despite influencer marketing having been around for several years and it being a major part of what they do to reach their audience, a few brands (and PR agencies) get it wrong just as often – and that’s just from my experience.
I’ve adapted this post from a talk I gave at a Retail Conference in Amsterdam back in 2017. I want brands and PR agencies to understand how we (bloggers/influencers/content creators) work, and why some of the demands they send our way are just so unreasonable. It’s actually REALLY easy to get it right. With a bit of fairness and understanding all round there is a whole lot of mutual (I stress the word mutual) benefit out there waiting to be scooped up by both parties.
[Reading time: 15 mins]
Back to addressing me by name…
Getting my name wrong is one of the things that can make or break a working relationship right from the beginning. (I kid you not: the other day an email from a brand started off with “Hi babe”. I just don’t know what to say about that level of unprofessionalism.)
I’m sure everyone can think of a time that they’ve opened up a cold email that has addressed them with a misspelt name, or the wrong name, or no name at all. What do you normally do in that situation? Carry on reading, excited to know what this person has to say? Or is the temptation to hit Delete just too great…?
The relationships that form between brands and influencers are more important than they’ve ever been, and they start right from that first email.
I’d like to give you an idea of what it’s like for influencers [content creators] who are just starting their inaugural foray into the unforgiving beast that is social media and the blogosphere.
(BTW from on I’m going to say my preferred term of “content creators” to encompass bloggers, vloggers, Instagrammers and any other person with an iPhone and an audience. I find the term “influencer” has such socially negative connotations and many old-school bloggers like myself find the term especially cringeworthy. I do recognise, however, that “influencer marketing” is a term with no other variation so I will use that in this post.)
How much ‘career guidance’ do content creators receive?
Zero. You get nothing. You’re on your own out there.
I’m what I’d call a mid blogger – I have a loyal, engaged readership with healthy stats which brands want to tap into. I’ve had to work hard to convince myself that mistakes haven’t been made when I think about some of the amazing opportunities that have come my way during my career. Imposter syndrome has been a major factor at certain points in my blogging career.
I think my underlying lack of confidence is typical of many content creators who aren’t in the realms of “super bloggers” like Victoria Magrath or Zoe Sugg. Very few of us have “a team”. No one is there guiding or supporting us as a career individual, self-employed person or small business. That part of what we do can be scary and we have to learn as we go along.
And unfortunately, it’s this lack of confidence that brands and PR agencies – whether knowingly or unknowingly – are taking advantage of. Brands SHOULD be taking advantage of bloggers but NOT for their lack of confidence, or lack of knowledge, or lack of experience, but in the right way and for the right reasons, and in a way that benefits everyone.
There is an awful lot that brands CAN take advantage of where content creators are concerned, but they often go about it in completely the wrong way.
To put yourself in a content creator’s shoes:
Hopefully you have worked as an employee (anywhere) at some point in your life. Think back to any time that you first started a new job. Preferably one of your very first jobs when you were a young adult.
You would have (hopefully) had somebody guiding you the whole way, telling you about the best practices, what your job role is, and what is expected of you. When I was 16 I took my first weekend job at a large department store while I was studying. Everyone was really nice and I was shown everything I needed to do, like how to ring in goods in the till (we’re talking 1988 here), wrap the goods, how to use the credit card imprinter (remember those?! Apologies if I’ve made you feel very old) and how to interact with and treat customers.
So I was shown all of that.
However, what I wasn’t shown was what to do on my lunch break. I was told, Time for your lunch, be back in an hour, the cafeteria is on the fourth floor. I panicked.
I can remember nervously going up to the fourth floor, and stopping before going into the cafeteria. I had no idea what to expect, or what to do. While I was standing by the door some people came out and I could see in. What I saw was the most enormous cafeteria I (thought I) had ever seen in my life, full of beautifully dressed people who were much older and more confident than me. Complete and utter panic set in – I didn’t have the confidence to stride in, know what to do, or who to sit with. I was 16 and this was my first “grown-up” job. I didn’t have my friends with me as you do at school. I was on my own.
What actually happened next was that I turned around, left the building and went and got lunch somewhere in town. (Knowing my 16-year-old self it was probably McDonald’s.) And guess what – the whole time I worked at that department store (which was over the course of about five years while studying), I never ONCE stepped foot inside that cafeteria. No one had bothered to give me guidance in that area of the job. I always wished that someone had taken me into the cafeteria on that first day, and shown me what to do.
But they never did, and it affected my confidence in that one part of the job all the time I worked there.
So think back to the early job you had, and imagine doing that same job without any guidance whatsoever. You’ve just been dropped into the workplace one day – and told to get on with it.
There’s absolutely no one to greet you on your first day.
There’s no one to give you a job description or tell you where your desk is.
There’s no one to tell you exactly how you should be doing anything – you’ve just decided to do this job and you have to get on with it all by yourself.
You’re also unsure whether you will actually ever get paid, or how much.
In fact, YOU have to decide on your salary, because when payday comes around they ask you “How much are you expecting to be paid?”
THAT is essentially what life is like for many bloggers. Whether they earn a little bit of pocket money on the side, or whether they earn a 6 figure sum a year, when they started, they were all exactly the same: starting a job with zero guidance.
Content creators are too often asked to work unethically
Blogging – or rather, ALL digital content creation – is such a new profession that it has few solid industry guidelines. There is no HR department or union for content creators to go to for advice. The rules are being written as we go along. And some of the people we work with aren’t following any rules either and therefore “unfairness” is rife.
I don’t know how many non-content creators know this, but when you set up a new platform in WordPress/Blogspot/Instagram, etc. or start a YouTube channel, you’re not sent any guidelines on how to run a blog or social media platform and what your legal requirements are.
You get NOTHING. No help whatsoever.
Most new content creators also don’t know if or when they can (or should) charge fees to create content for a brand. If they do, they usually have no idea how much to charge. Or they’re (unknowingly) asked to bend the rules and do things like using follow links or not disclosing the content as an #ad, often being told that that’s what they’re meant to do – or have to do if they expect anything in return.
I’ve had (and still receive) many, many emails from brands or PR agencies asking me to do something unethical, or wildly over-demanding. Just the other week a long-established, highly-regarded British brand asked me to feature a pair of their boots and insisted on a follow link on my blog. If brands aren’t working correctly and ethically, how are content creators (especially green ones) meant to do the same?
I’ve also received many emails and messages from fellow content creators asking advice about how to reply to a proposal for work that is unethical and/or over-demanding. It’s fantastic that brands can work with content creators and capitalise on their growing popularity, but it’s not right that a) they’re not compensated for a lot of content they’ve created and b) that they’re effectively being guilt-tripped into saying yes and don’t realise the brand is making money out of the collaboration. Many times I’ve heard content creators quietly complain to me about how badly they’ve been treated by a brand, and the phrase I’ve heard so often is “I thought I was doing them a favour”.
NO brands should be taking advantage of content creators to the extent that they end up disappointed and feel like they were “doing them a favour”. Brands WANT to make money out of content creators. Profit is the whole point of their business and, therefore, the whole point of asking creators to create work for them. And that’s totally fair enough! But if brands are making money out of content creators, content creators should be paid and treated like any other professional they employ to work for them.
Brands have to understand that content creators are working in an industry that has formed out of nothing, something that didn’t even exist 15-20 years ago. However, brands have been marketing for years, whatever form it may take. It’s therefore the responsibility of the brand or PR agency to nurture inexperienced content creators if they wish to capitalise on their popularity.
If they haven’t the time or the inclination to nurture the greener content creators, then they need to seek out those who’ve been working as professional content creators for longer and therefore know what they’re doing. And this will come at a premium.
Unfortunately, many content creators are disheartened about how brands and PR agencies treat them. There’s no need for the relationship between brands and content creators to be negative so early on; each has so much to give the other.
Influencer marketing: how brands should spend their budget
Influencer marketing can be something of a crazy beast. It often really, really works. Pick the right celebrity or content creator and a brand can pay for the association with them and thereby tap into their target market through them. The biggest content creators KNOW that explosive growth of a brand – through their influence – is possible.
When deciding how to spend their influencer marketing budget, there are four key things that brands should be considering:
1. Decide whether to approach the content creator directly or whether to outsource the work
The advantages of outsourcing the work is that a PR agency does all the legwork for the brand. (Content creators know this and know that PR agencies get paid to do it.) However, there are key disadvantages for a brand when outsourcing blogger outreach:
- A lot (or all) of the budget will be spent on the PR agency, not the talent. Many content creators are told “there’s no budget to pay you” which won’t necessarily find the best ones to work with. This is jarring for content creators, because a PR agency obviously doesn’t do the job for free. However, the content creators are expected to be paid in product (or worse, a discount code for themselves or their followers).
- Brands don’t know if the PR agency is doing their job properly. There are a lot of great PR agencies out there, but there are also some not so great ones. Sometimes the work is done by an intern (we see the job title in their email signature), and they often don’t know the legal requirements that content creators have to adhere to. I often know a TON more about the correct way to do things where the ASA and Google’s guidelines on link schemes are concerned than the person proposing the collaboration does.
- PR agencies often use the same content creators over and over again. They have a list of contacts that they’ll approach every time, so they may not necessarily find the right content creators for a brand’s campaign.
If a brand is able to employ an experienced person to organise their own influencer marketing it means they’ll have more control – personally, I relish dealing with a brand directly. They’ll (hopefully) have more budget to spend on paying the talent what they’re worth and get more experienced content creators with a much larger reach.
2. Choosing the right content creator to represent a brand
Getting the right “personality” is vital when finding someone to represent and promote a brand. The best collaborations are always between those content creators who have already talked about and loved a brand’s products because their content will be genuine and authentic. However, even if they haven’t, a content creator who is discovering (and loving) a brand’s product for the first time is still able to produce genuine, authentic content about that discovery.
Brands and PR agencies need to find content creators with relevant posts and target them. But too many times I’ve been contacted by a PR asking me to collaborate with a brand and, to be honest, I HAVE NO IDEA WHY. My style isn’t anything like what they sell or I never talk about anything to do with that/their product generally, so it would make no sense for us to work together. It wastes my time, it wastes their time.
Approaching a few highly-targeted content creators is much more effective than mass mailings and I don’t know why more brands and PR agencies don’t do this. They’d see a much bigger ROI when they go for quality over quantity, knowing that their target audience is the right one.
3. Is the content creator’s following engaged and authentic?
Brands don’t do this enough: asking content creators whether they have ever bought followers or likes where Instagram is concerned, or using tools like Social Audit Pro to check themselves. If brands did this more often, then content creators might be less inclined to buy a fake following. They need to look for high engagement and how much the content creator talks to their followers and replies to comments.
This is relevant for blogs too. Engagement with loyal followers (not just spam comments) can be so much more important than follower numbers or page views. Some smaller blogs can have a huge number of comments and in-depth conversations going on, while some super-bloggers receive next-to-no engagement at all.
It may seem like a lot of work, but too many brands collaborate with content creators who have almost zero engagement. To me, smaller followings that are highly engaged with regular, loyal fans are much more worthwhile than high follower numbers that don’t engage.
Here’s a frightening fact: a PR told a blogger friend of mine that her agency told her not to bother looking into whether an Instagrammer has fake followers or not. “Just go by follower numbers” was what she was told. I WISH brands wouldn’t throw away budgets on content creators that will likely give them no ROI. Association with the right personality is one thing, but getting nothing back because of a lack of authenticity is a waste of time and money.
4. What sort of campaign would harness a content creator’s popularity and target their audience
First, a brand has to decide what platform their target market uses the most. For example, a very young audience is unlikely to use Facebook, but users aged 45-54 are still spending a lot of time on the platform. Older users respond very well to blog posts or Facebook, and similarly there’s little point targeting them on TikTok.
So brands and PR agencies need to make sure their marketing harnesses the content creator’s audience, which needs to be the right audience for the brand. I WANT campaigns (so desperately!) to be imaginative. The best campaigns are the ones that are so interesting the content creator simply cannot say no. Good content creators will make alternative suggestions or ask if a brief can be tweaked – and brands need to be open to that (after all, they know their own audience best).
The other key area to get right is the way in which they approach content creators (see first paragraph).
Have you ever held a position where you have to read job applications? Monotonous, isn’t it…?
Brands and PR agencies need to think of approaching content creators in the same way as making a job application. They need to pitch a great idea to them to make them want to collaborate. In-demand content creators could receive dozens of “job applications” every day, so emails need to stand out.
How to approach content creators
Like those job applications, an email needs exactly the same approach in that it needs to get their attention and get right to the point.
Details of what the content creator does (and doesn’t do) should be checked in advance. For example, my blog clearly lists that I don’t publish pre-written content. Yet I get dozens of offers of pre-written content every week, so every one of those emails was a waste of time.
Now I KNOW that checking every content creator’s pages for details of how they like to work would be incredibly time-consuming. But it goes back to the point I made about approaching fewer, more targeted content creators – if a brand approaches me to do something that’s a million miles away from my usual content, it makes me wonder if they’ve even SEEN my blog.
A content creator should open an email and immediately say, YES, I want to work on this campaign with this brand. Mass emails are mostly a waste of time because they’ll never get that sort of reaction.
Another crime is sending ambiguous emails.
I regularly receive ambiguous emails that are vague, uninspiring or just confusing. If I haven’t got a clue what the person contacting me is trying to suggest we do together, unless it’s Gucci I’ll be tempted to just hit Delete. If they haven’t addressed me by name either? They definitely get deleted. They can’t have wanted to work with me THAT much if they don’t even know my first name.
If they say, “I’ve got details of a great project, contact me if you’re interested!” – I don’t know if I’m interested because I haven’t been told me anything. Why not just get straight to the point of what’s being proposed and save everyone time?
Another thing that many bloggers (not all, but I don’t know anyone who says otherwise) find infuriating is proposals of work being sent through social media. Unless that’s the only way to contact someone – no email or blog for instance – just, No. DMs scream unprofessional to most content creators (especially bloggers) or as if they just stumbled upon the account through hashtags or the Instagram Explore page. DMs are hard to track and keep on top of as it’s where we chat to our followers. Again, all it needs is a quick check of someone’s bio to see what they say about how to contact them – if there’s an email address it should be used.
I wish – really, really wish – that more than “Hello” or “Let’s collaborate!” is put in the subject line. If an email doesn’t clearly announce its purpose in the subject line and what the brand is, it’ll always be the last email I read. Plus it gets lost in my Inbox because I can’t identify what that email is about or who it’s from.
Lastly: Information about payment SHOULDN’T be withheld. I SO wish brands and PR agencies were honest and gave details on whether there is budget right from the beginning. Anything that saves emails going back and forth about whether there’s money to pay the content creator will save everyone’s time.
If a content creator likes a brand enough and something has been pitched to them that they can’t pass up, there doesn’t always have to be payment involved. But I wish brands and PR agencies were just honest about money upfront… it Saves. So. Much. Time.
And just before I talk about gifting, I want to make it clear that when a brand or PR agency proposes a “collaboration” to me, I’m expecting there to be payment. If collaboration means ‘the act of working together to produce a piece of work’ [source] then I’m working for a brand. Working for them means I get paid [in cash] like plumbers and accountants are paid for working for a company.
If there’s no payment, it’s just gifting, not collaborating. I’d like it made clear in the very first email that what’s being proposed is gifting only and NOT a collaboration.
The rules on gifting/PR products
Gifting is a grey area. It’s grey for brands and PR agencies, it’s grey for content creators. No one seems to follow the same guidelines or rules. It goes back to what I said in the beginning about not being given any guidance about how to run a blog or Instagram account. Any Tom, Dick or Harriet can start a blog or YouTube channel. And when brands start approaching them, they haven’t got a Scooby about what to do.
This is not a reason for advantage to be taken of their naivety, nor their good nature. Or their excitement about being asked if they want something for free. I’m pretty sure brands and PR agencies don’t know that they’re doing it, but offering X product to a blogger and then saying “All we ask in return is that you post about on your Instagram and tag us in”, etc. is massively unfair.
What most content creators don’t realise – or brands for that matter – is that [this applies to the UK and some other countries] when an item is ‘gifted’ and X is demanded in return, the content creator must declare that item’s value on their tax return as payment. So the higher the value, the more tax the content creator has to pay.
The “no obligation” rule is the only fair way for PR products to be given when the brand isn’t willing to pay the content creator a fee (which I explained in a post about how gifting should be done fairly). It affects our tax return:
Tax Guidelines for Gifted Items/PR Products (UK)
Gifted item + a guarantee of coverage/specifics required: Content creators must declare the value as earnings on their tax return*
Gifted item + no obligation to post (i.e. no demands or specifics requested): Content creators do not need to declare the value as earnings
Gifted item + payment of a fee to guarantee coverage: Content creators must declare the fee as earnings but not the value of the gifted item
*Which is, therefore, the most unfair way to gift a PR product to a content creator
Many times I’m offered something of high value and am told that although there is no fee to pay me, the brand insists I do x, y and z in return. Unless it’s a year’s free groceries or a new car I was thinking about buying anyway, this does not help me in any way.
The higher the value of the product, the more likely it is to be a luxury item. Therefore I don’t actually NEED it… it would just be nice to have. Whatever its value, I have to declare it as earnings, and if its value is high (e.g. >£500), I pay more tax and I effectively earn less. But I’m always being made to feel that I’m being done a massive favour by being offered a luxury watch, ‘diamonds’ or high-end beauty treatments and WHY would I turn them down? (“The value of this package is £750…!!”)
If I were to constantly accept all those offers of high-value items, I’d end up with an awful lot of luxury, material possessions (or a face full of fillers judging by the offers I get) and I’d be doing all this work for brands but getting paid nothing for it. And I’d have bills I can’t pay because no one is paying me.
I really want brands and PR agencies to think of it this way:
Would they pay their web designer/accountant/window cleaner in product? They set them a job to do for them, and expect it done in X amount of time and to complete X number of tasks to their specification. If they want to set content creators a job to do for them in X amount of time and complete X number of tasks to their specification, then – like their window cleaner or accountant – they need to pay them in cold, hard cash.
Otherwise, the no-obligation rule should be used. If a brand doesn’t trust that anything will be produced in return for a gifted item, then they’ve either got a poor product they don’t believe in themselves or they’ve chosen the wrong content creator.
✷ ✷ ✷ ✷ ✷
A final note: The best way to ‘take advantage’ of content creators
Reports vary, but in 2020 an average user spends over 2 hours a day on social media. But it’s still a vastly untapped market. Brands need to stop taking advantage of content creators in the sense that the latter ends up out of pocket for work provided. They both need to work to a mutual benefit to build great relationships and trust.
So many creators I speak to are appalled at how often they’re asked, out of the blue, to do x, y, z for a brand… but are told they won’t get paid. Smaller budgets are not pointless. They just have to be managed in the right way. And if budgets are smaller, brands shouldn’t be (knowingly or unknowingly) taking advantage of the inexperience of the smaller content creators they use.
If brands want more experienced content creators that they don’t have to guide as much, they need to find a larger budget.
The larger the budget, the bigger and more experienced the bloggers they’ll be able to afford.
So many content creators are starting to understand their own worth and know exactly what their value to brands is. Brands need to take their time finding the right content creators for their campaign. It will make all the difference to its success.
And whoever they choose to represent their brand, I really hope they check whether that person needs someone to take them into the cafeteria on their first day.
If you’re a content creator, what are your thoughts on how brands treat you? Do you have any horror stories about unreasonable, one-sided demands?
And if you work in outreach, how do you approach influencer marketing? Tell us in the comments…
Stay safe XOXO
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