I was asked to share some thoughts on the allegedly crumbling influencer economy for an article in the Toronto Star.

‘Influencer’ has become a contentious term as of late, and I don’t necessarily disagree with some of the comments and insight shared about it recently in the press. What do ‘influencers’ do? Why are they making so much money? ‘Influencer’ not a label that I personally identify with, though it is one that I’ve adopted when dealing with The Industry™.

Yes, I have developed a following and yes I have some influence over them: viewers often ask me what kind of gear I use, or which tour company is best to travel with. My endorsement does carry some value, and if I can recommend a brand that I like and give something back to my viewers – and get paid – great!

However, exploiting my influence is not the core reason why I make content. I’ve been doing this for a long time, for free and for fun, as mentioned in the article. It took a long time for me to feel comfortable accepting this as a full-time job. But the truth is, I’d still be creating content even if I weren’t getting paid.

At the end of the day, I’m still a host, musician, video producer, traveller – and the value of my content isn’t wholly dependent on how many people see it. It’s hard to believe sometimes, given the immense pressure that creators have on attaining likes, views and subscriber counts. Luckily, I’ve been able to work with brands that just get it.

As an ‘influencer’ it’s important to guide the discussion on how we work with brands, and change the public perception of what we do – because we’re not going anywhere!

How Brands and Influencers Can Work Together

When working with a brand, my first question (either asked explicitly or in my own private thoughts at night) is always: how can we collaborate to make something cool? Something that feels authentic to my skills and interests? Something that my audience would enjoy? Maybe it’s inspiration for a music video. Or providing a budget for an epic travel series. Or maybe it’s demonstrating all the features of a given product in a funny way. I would hope that my viewers get something out of it, whether it’s a literal giveaway, or something fun to watch. Branded video doesn’t need to be a commercial.

The second question is: what are your expectations? Treatments, proposals, and timelines will help to guide what the final product will be. Is the brand’s budget big enough to fulfill the vision? If the brand is expecting a specific amount of views and impressions beyond what the influencer is able to offer through their existing reach, then it’s a good idea to invest in paid media, and think about how the content could be boosted and shared. Algorithms rule social media today, and it isn’t practical to rely on the strength of content alone. Paid media, press releases, seeding to blogs, affiliate links, discount codes, trackable hashtags, and calls-to-action are all important to consider.

What Is Bad Branded Content?

Influencers get a bad wrap when the branded content is lazy and inauthentic, existing only as a cash grab to reach as many eyeballs as possible. And it’s not always the influencer’s fault – sometimes it’s the brand. When working with influencers, it’s important to let them tell the story in their own voice. I’ve seen a lot of brand integrations that could be better – from app shoutouts awkwardly wedged into the first minute of an unrelated videoblog, to uninspired Instagram photos hawking miracle diet teas.

With new regulatory measures in place – we have to disclose when content is sponsored – we all know influencers are getting paid, so I feel that it’s the influencer’s responsibility to be creative. It’s uninspired and forced branded content that turns viewers off, and only encourages the general public to question, “what do influencers do?”

Of course, my own brand integrations are not always perfect. I’ve awkwardly thrown to a clip that had nothing to do with the rest of my video and I’ve had videos get buried because of The Mysterious YouTube Algorithm™. But these problems usually stem from the brand (or its agency) not trusting the influencer’s vision or concerns, or a lack of resources and budget to make the best content possible, and to make sure that it’s seen.

How Much to Charge? How Much to Pay?

I’ve seen the fee that influencers charge inflate over time, for several reasons:

  • budgets for branded digital content are growing
  • influencers are working with agents, managers, and agencies who all take a cut
  • the reach of influencers is growing (but remember that it is possible to buy followers #butthatsnoneofmybusiness)

I do think that the market is saturated and that it’s important to look beyond social reach when working with an influencer. Who have they worked with before? Can they deliver content that reflects a certain standard of creativity and quality? Are they trustworthy? Does the audience trust them, and can the brand trust them?

Creating content is work. We aren’t necessarily undercutting production companies and freelancers – there is generally still skill and time involved in what we do.

The cost should reflect:

  • production costs (e.g. gear, supplies, additional help, etc)
  • skill level & time spent on the work – including revisions!
  • value of the influencer’s reach, abstract as that may be
  • number of deliverables – the biggest point for negotiation
  • turnaround time
  • paid media, advertising – if it’s the influencer’s responsibility

Anything beyond that is probably going to the agents, managers, and agencies who are entitled to a cut – but that’s a topic for another time.

What is Success?

‘Success’ can be measured with many different metrics and KPIs. Some brands (and their agencies) are just looking for awareness and buzz, so they create a stunt or experience, count up the amount of times an influencer posted about it, and call it a day. If that’s all that they want, then of course the campaign can be considered a success. We were trending!

But in my opinion, for branded content to be truly effective, brands should consider whether they are reaching the right audience, not just the biggest. This is the defining advantage that digital content has over any other media. You can tap into a very specific type of audience, and you can interact with them instantly. I won’t work with brands if I don’t believe in their product/service/messaging, or if I don’t think that my viewers will like the content.

Authenticity is one of the things that makes branded content in the digital space great – it’s real people doing extraordinary things. We want to engage our audience and inspire them. But we also can’t betray their trust.

Influencers Are Ambassadors

For a brand-influencer relationship to be successful, it’s important for the influencer to understand what the brand is trying to communicate, and to tell it in their own voice. Ask questions. Be selective. Don’t be taken advantage of, but also be realistic. Do good work. Create content because you love to do it, even if you aren’t getting paid (yet). Work, bitch!

For the brand, it’s important to be critical about which influencers they work with, and what expectations they have for the end result. Do your research. Compensate fairly. Listen to the influencer. You’re not just hiring someone to create content for you or to be a vessel for your message – you’re hiring them to be an ambassador for your brand. Trust them.

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