The wild west of ‘influencer outreach’ is a risky business, and it’s only not because brands are relinquishing editorial control to bloggers and vloggers. Messy breakups between brands and influencers occasionally hit the headlines, and the cause of the fallout can usually be attributed to a relationship tussle and power struggle.
The problem with influencer marketing strategies often originates with, but is far more complex than, a rushed prospecting email. Difficulties arise throughout negotiations, whether discussing budget and editorial control, or in private while making risk assessments and navigating email fatigue.
It’s no secret that a ravenous appetite for instantaneous engagement is driving the marketing industry. Brands want a niche collection of influencers who share their brand messages, but to compensate for the number of no-replies, or lack of interest, it’s likely they’ll contact far more third-party websites than they need. As such, brands and agencies are cheapening the relationship.
No information, no deal
Collectively, Tiny Twisst, Kimberly Duran, Gina Caro, Julie Creffield and Sara-Jayne Jones receive approximately 845 prospecting emails a week from brands. Together, they dedicate the equivalent of a demanding full-time role (50 hours a week) responding to opportunities that may offer low-or-no return. But, often the approaches are so cryptic it’s difficult to know what a brand really wants, unless they follow up, which eats into yet more of the influencer’s time.
Award-winning internet behavioural psychologist Graham Jones believes there are clear reasons influencers are frustrated – one of those is brand emails: ‘The average expectation is that an email will receive a reply within one hour and that social messages will receive an immediate response. If a response doesn’t arrive (perhaps because the brand is negotiating, or the influencer is working on another job), that’s when feelings of annoyance creep in from both sides. The relationship feels frustrating from the beginning.’
‘People who deal with email once a day are more productive because they remove the distraction’ says Graham. ‘Routine is part of survival instinct. It tells you not to worry about instant replies, or keeping your eye on the inbox because you will do it at 4pm, for example. Without that regimen, your survival instinct insists you deal with it now, while you have the opportunity.’
It could be that by bombarding influencers with emails, and encouraging those high-pressure survival instincts to kick in, brands are causing influencers to feel negatively towards them. But, brands making a clumsy first move isn’t the only instance where influencers struggle with first contact. Parenting blogger and editor of Mumsnet Devon & Mumsnet Plymouth Gina Caro, says: ‘A lot of companies don’t really understand blogger outreach at all. I sometimes contact brands about a product that would genuinely work for us, and they reply like I’m crazy! They’re missing such a huge opportunity to get their message out there.’
Sara-Jayne Jones is a family and photography writer at Keep Up With The Jones Family: ‘I always try and take the time to write back, and politely too. Some emails are genuine, sincere enquiries – they show that the author has taken the time to read our blog, know our strengths and understand our niche – while others are blanket emails asking for free publicity. Sadly that doesn’t pay my mortgage and unless it’s a genuine charitable cause, I respectfully decline those.
Fitness entrepreneur Julie Creffield started her business as a running blog, and she encountered adversity right from the off from a business development center, of all places: “This is all about your ego” I was told, “that’s not a business, it’s a hobby and you’ll never make money.” He was wrong… my ideas are worth something.
When Too Fat To Run started to make money, her dealings with brands and the sheer amount of communication involved, caused Julie to enlist professional help. ‘In the end, I got a PR team involved because I had 100 emails a day and it was an emotional rollercoaster. I’d love the brand and want to work with them, but then it would quickly emerge they wanted to use me to get to my followers. There was nothing in it for me. I can’t pay the bills with goodie bags, and products worth 10p. They’d say: “sorry, we haven’t got the budget to pay bloggers” and you think: “Hang on! Massive brands are doing this. Why should I use my time like this?” Often as a blogger you can feel like a puppet. I’m trying to build myself as an entrepreneur – me as my own brand – yet I could spend every hour of the week promoting other products.’
Assessing risk and securing reward
No one likes the prospect of an unfruitful or unhappy partnership and to prevent this we turn to research. Agencies, PRs and brands should (but don’t always) research the influencer’s online personality and output, forging a snapshot of his or her ways of working, and creating an appropriate approach to entice the influencer to consider the partnership. Meanwhile, influencers turn to extended email communication or online research, to determine if the brand does infact align with their values. If the level of risk is acceptable, the partnership goes ahead.
Assessing risk and reward is a hugely complex task when the brain is denied cues – such as body language, tone of voice and facial expression – to make an informed decision. Both parties are liaising with a snapshot of a personality, and often forget that a real person exists behind the website and branding.
Gina says: ‘If I get an email that doesn’t have my name on it, I know they haven’t researched me. And then they follow up with “we love your blog.” Well, you quite clearly don’t because you don’t know my name! The worst is when I get a pitch that’s completely random and they don’t say what they want. The follow up is a million emails trying to get to the bottom of it.’
While Julie prefers a more open approach: ‘I feel good about brand collaboration when they don’t know exactly how they want to work with influencers. I can see they’ve no ulterior motive and want to see what the possibilities are. I switch off when they approach me with a list of demands; you must attend a launch event, you must say this and you must achieve this. It’s worth nothing to me.’
Sara-Jayne says there are three things that make her feel less inclined to work with a brand: ‘Firstly, the offer of “exposure” instead of remuneration – whether financial or by way of goods being supplied to me – particularly when it’s an offer from a very large, well known brand with a substantial turnover. Exposure won’t feed my family or keep a roof over our heads.
‘The second is when it’s quite obvious you’re the recipient of a blanket email – I’ve received quite a few emails beginning with “Dear Keep” or even worse, with a completely different name at the head when the sender has forgotten to enter my name.
‘My final bugbear is when I’m having difficulty trying to ascertain what I’m actually being asked to do and what that will ultimately mean in remunerative terms for me. If I’ve sent more than two emails trying to decode the deal that’s on the table, I know I’m wasting my time. I value honesty and openness in my working relationships greatly.
‘I expect them to have read my ‘About me’ page’, says Kimberly Duran, interiors blogger at Swoon Worthy, ‘They should at least recognise the fact I write an interiors blog. I delete any emails that don’t.’ Brands can secure a more successful approach by reviewing the influencer’s content across all their channels. Understand who they are in flat copy, and who they are on YouTube, plus look around for third-party interviews. Discover who they are off-site and build a clearer picture of their professional requirements. If brands don’t have that picture, prospecting emails are more likely to alienate influencers.
Looking at it from an influencer’s perspective, it’s understandable that the perception of risk is increased because the brand has no appreciation of the person behind the channel. But, if the messaging in the initial pitch is unclear they have no choice but to waste time investigating the offering. ‘It’s a never ending
problem for an influencer who has a healthy book of contacts,’ says Graham. ‘They don’t want to take the risk with brands without more information about the brand, and they want to be sure that the brand shares their values.’
‘Some emails do feel exploitative,’ says Kimberly ‘but you have to separate the wheat from the chaff. If you have a successful blog, it’s really easy to get insulted if there’s no payment, or benefit, apart from exposure. But the person you’re speaking to is just doing their job and sometimes it’s good to have a conversation with them and understand what it is they actually want.
‘I make them aware that I have to prioritise paying collaborations, and my time is precious, but if they do have a budget in future to please approach me. I think it’s a matter of how I respond and not feeling like I’m being taken advantage of.’
Money makes the world go round
Budgeting for influencer projects is murky territory, despite the exponential growth of blogging, YouTubing and Instagramming in the last few years. ‘Brands are familiar with allocating funds
to online and print advertising, but an acceptable budget for securing partnerships with third-party websites – such as ablog or a vlog – is ill understood, so they set them too low,’ explains Graham.
Brands trying to come to terms with influencer outreach are pitching the project with a decreased price tag because they’re uncertain of the returns. It’s an area Julie is familiar with: ‘I worked with a protein drink company to produce a ‘runner of the week’ feature. They weren’t sure what the outcome would be but they wanted to give it a go. At the end of the campaign, they couldn’t say whether they gained any sales, and neither could I because you don’t buy protein drinks directly from the company, you buy them from supermarkets.
‘They couldn’t measure the value that I gave them, but they did realise that the women who read my website were confused about the energy drinks market, and are now they’re more likely to buy the drink they read about on my website.
‘What I would say is that influencer content raises brand awareness. It may well have led to sales, but it’s often about understanding your audience and knowing you can get more from the relationship and knowing it’s more than sales.’
Brands should invest time understanding a blogger’s audience to ensure their product will reach the right demographic and ensure their campaign has clear KPIs (aside from engagement metrics, such as dwell time).
One thing we do know for certain is that the ‘psychology of pricing’ still applies. Graham advises that ‘customers are always willing to spend more than they say. The same goes
for brands – whereas businesses and freelancers will underestimate what someone will pay. Influencers have no central body representing their needs, or to negotiate the rates and pay in the way that, for example journalists have at the National Union of Journalists. There’s a serious gap between what the buyer and seller understands to be the value of the service. A correctly priced service means that both parties appreciate and value the relationship.’
Julie adds: ‘It’s perfect when the communication and brief is really clear, it’s business like, “This is what we’ll pay and this is how you invoice, thank you very much.” Simplicity is all it needs.’
Influencers are familiar with brands asking for amends after publication and the influencers we spoke to don’t mind that creative input. However, Julie has taken a step towards the more traditional model, employing a PR agency (who function as the project manager, or even the writer’s editor) to handle negotiations, and always opting for creative freedom, ‘Every time I write a sponsored post, I’m aware I’m toeing the line,’ she said. ‘The minute you’re being paid, you’re placed under restriction. I’ve never felt comfortable with that. I like freedom. I like that I can do whatever I want and I deal with the consequences. It’s me – take it or leave it.’
Kimberly believes feedback should be used to strengthen ongoing relationships: ‘Brands are always happy to give feedback on how the project was for them. You end up developing relationships with people and you should feel comfortable asking them those sorts of questions. That’s a problem with bloggers – I think they’re afraid. They feel like they’re waiting to be approached and for someone to come back to them. There are a million blogs out there – the only way to stand out is to go back to them and propose ideas, or talk. It’s not always successful but it leaves the door open. It’s business principles that apply.’
Editorial control is an influencer
Gina cites creativity and free thought as a huge draw when she picks partnerships. ‘My favourite branded projects are the upcycles. They send you the decorating products, then you go out and find an object to decorate. Restaurant reviews aren’t bad either.’
Sara-Jayne agrees: ‘Wayfair asked me to design a DIY project for their site. I worked with my parents to create a beautiful, sparkling white, wooden advent calendar village. In return I
was able to newly furnish my boys’ bedroom, which was fantastically timed for the arrival of Father Christmas! We also had the chance to visit France and experience glamping at its best, by staying in a Glisten dome. My parents came with us as part of the experience and we enjoyed a wonderful week in the South of France, spending time with Simon, the owner, and seeing the sights.’
Influencers who see their website as an authority and ultimately a creative project, are trying to strike the balance between promotional and editorial content. Brands offer influencers unique opportunities and great influencers have the skill to create genuine content that’s funded by the brand. To achieve that balance, two things must happen: influencers must be assertive about retaining their free speech and brands need to relinquish control in a space they can’t own, even if they pay. Scary, eh?
Well, no actually. Graham reminds us ‘In a traditional travel magazine, for example, writers go on wonderful adventures around the world and largely these are funded by travel companies. Despite this, the editorial ownership remains with the editor and writer. Their opinions are independent, unfiltered and the brand has no influence, despite getting coverage and recognition.’
Be realistic with expectations and execution
It’s clear that brands and agencies must treat outreach as a bonafide long-term partnership, and not a six-week one-sided love affair. Sara-Jayne says: ‘The smaller brands generally tend to be the bearers of the loveliest surprises. Their social interaction with you is always genuine as they are often depending on you to boost sales or increase exposure for them – and in my experience so many of them go the extra mile to show their gratitude. It’s not about the money – it’s about building a relationship. My favourite thank you gestures have been the most heartfelt quotes from people I’ve worked with. I keep them for my media pack to demonstrate my commitment and dedication to my blog, and to my client. They’re worth their weight in gold.’
To solve the misunderstandings that surround influencer and brand relationships, it seems like the outreach industry must return to a slower-paced and more traditional editorial relationship. Can brands, agencies and bloggers stop contributing to the false economy of small budgets and quick-hit engagement? They should, but it requires a commitment from all sides.
Brands can establish a more genuine relationship with influencers by investing time and energy in influencer research and accepting that a great influencer campaign requires a realistic budget.
Authentic relationships make for successful storytelling and this is achievable for every brand. Just remember to keep your outreach approach real at every step of the way.