The 17 Essential Commandments of Influencer Marketing

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Y’all sure liked last week’s post about Influencer Marketing, so I’m back with another behind-the-scenes dish as part of my ongoing series celebrating 15 years in the travel industry. (Where does the time go?!) I know some of you would rather watch paint dry than read about this inside baseball PR & media stuff (ahem – MOM), and I hear you loud and clear. Next week, Rae will be right here with stories and stunning photos from her gorgeous trip to Jordan. Until then, you’re stuck with me and my well-intentioned ranting. 

Before we dive in, let’s clear the air on one thing. If you are “not a big fan” of influencers, bloggers, content creators, the whole concept of individual as brands and paying them for work completed, you are free to leave. This post, and all the content I share on the topic, is designed to help influencers and marketers work together better. It’s not a dissertation on the validity of influencers or a plea for you to take “us” seriously. Frankly, it doesn’t really matter if you think influencers are a dumpster fire worth little more than your snide internet comments. We’re here and becoming a bigger part of marketing budgets every year.

If marketers can learn how to work with us in the right way, we all might see fewer outraged stories about bad influencer behavior and see more about how the influencer economy has changed the way consumers travel and make purchasing decisions. I think if we can openly address the elephants in the room (payment, disclosure, etc.) and inform marketers on how to find “influencers” worth working with, perhaps we can all find a way to take the bad taste out of the term.

So who am I to be sassing so loudly from my soapbox? Hi, I’m Angie and this is my wheelhouse!

As an agency publicist and a freelance media strategist for 15 years now, I’ve worked with thousands of beauty, fashion, family and travel influencers in every demographic on paid partnerships and trade agreements. On the other side as a blogger and *gulp* influencer myself, I’ve worked with hundreds of brands on content campaigns, mostly in travel but with a focus on lifestyle, too. I live in this weird space between and I love talking about it!

I’ve touched on a few of these commandments for influencer marketing over the past few years, but in my ongoing effort to get publicists/marketers and bloggers/content creators/influencers on the same page, I’m going to get super specific here. If you’re a brand rep or publicist, take a look and make sure you’re not inadvertently participating in the following shenanigans.

And please, please trust that all of these gentle suggestions come from a place of love and personal experience. We all have to start somewhere, and who could blame marketers for getting it wrong when there’s no official guidebook on how to work with influencers in their many forms? I still cringe to think about my days as a wide-eyed young publicist in NYC when I thought press trips were just the most fun vacations and journalists should just be so thrilled and grateful to go on a free adventure. See? I told you. SHAME, SHAME, SHAME! But no one told me otherwise, and I never thought to ask. The good news is that influencer marketing is not confusing or even remotely difficult, once you have the right tools and information to move forward. We aren’t figuring out the meaning of Stonehenge, know what I mean? 

I’m here to put my years on both sides of the gorge to help bridge the gap. So let’s party!

 

1. Thou Shalt Not Ghost

We live in the Tinder era, where swiping and ghosting, where people just never speak to you again as if they straight up died, are par for the course.

But, how did not communicating become the biggest trend in the communications world?! It happens to me a few times a week at least. I’ll have a dozen conversations with a brand, send a beautiful, detailed, customized proposal per their request and then… crickets.

I’ve asked around and here’s the deal: ghosting is truly an epidemic. Business Insider, Buzzfeed and Psychology Today all agree: it’s disrespectful, inappropriate and unprofessional, and we should avoid doing it to one another at all costs.

In the blog world, ghosting happens every day, and not just for new partnerships. Even brands I have long-standing relationships with have been known to ghost at times. I’ve had brands I’ve worked with for a DECADE just stop responding. Sometimes when I’m still under contract and still getting paid. What sense does that even make?

If there are issues on the other end, why not just say that? Like, “Hey, we’ve hit some roadblocks but will get back to you once we have answers.” That took 7 seconds to type.

There’s no excuse for professional communicators, being paid to communicate, to cease communicating. It’s tacky and a little bit gross.

 

2. Thou Shalt Not Use Partnership Language when it’s not a Partnership

I’m gonna go ahead and define a few terms as they relate to influencer marketing so we are all on the same page.

  • Partnership. In the influencer world, a partnership is a specific kind of relationship formed between a content creator and a brand or destination. The brand should have specific, well-defined KPIs. They then choose appropriate influencers who can collaboratively find ways to meet those KPIs using their social channels and individualized skill sets. Partnerships are quite often paid and contracts are almost always in play. The point is, a partnership has both partners on equal footing, offering up relatively equal value. If you’re reaching out to an influencer about a partnership that is really a thinly veiled way to get them to post about your product without paying them, then that is not a partnership. 
  • Ambassadorship. An ambassadorship is a long-term (think six months to two years), paid business relationship between a brand/destination and an influencer, often reached after completing a successful one-off campaign. There can be all sorts of roles for an influencer ambassador, from spokesperson to SMT host to internal blog content writer. An ambassadorship is not sending free products to a beauty blogger or a pair of shoes to a fashion blogger and having them post one Instagram story. 

I’ll say it again for the folks who were drinking cocktails in the back of the room: a true partnership or ambassadorship is almost always paid. Or it better be a high value trade. (And if you’re essentially hiring someone to cover your brand, why wouldn’t you have an agreement to protect your interests?) Sure, there might be product included, but the product itself cannot be considered payment. If you want an Instagram unboxing of your new eyeshadow palette from a fashion blogger, maybe they’ll be willing to do that for exchange. It doesn’t take all that much effort. But calling it a partnership? It’s not a partnership at all. It’s a one-time, quick content reaction. That’s not the same thing as a blog post, corresponding social and edited video. Do you see the distinction? 

It can take anywhere from 4-10 back and forth emails and sometimes a call or two to get brands to own up to not having a budget for the work they’re asking you to do with these alleged partnership emails. Professional content creators know these tricks. Emojis and cute language don’t hide the fact that a brand has the cojones to ask for a week’s worth of work in exchange for a beer or the chance to get a social media shoutout. It’s a waste of everyone’s time – mine, yours and YOUR CLIENT’s. You know, the brands that are paying $200/hour for expertise!

There are plenty of micro-influencers who are happy to wax poetic for 45 minutes about eye cream on their Instagram stories, so if that’s what you need, own it. But you have to know who your target is. If you don’t have a budget to pay for the top veteran influencers, I ain’t mad. Focus on micro-influencers – there’s so much to be said for that group. Just stop blowing up our inboxes with PARTNERSHIP in the subject line when you just want free publicity. 

 

3. Thou Shalt Not Expect Guaranteed Deliverables for Editorial Opportunities

If you were helping Travel + Leisure with content for a story, you wouldn’t dare send them a contract telling them what to write, when it’s due or how many of their photos you now own. Just because someone is an independent content creator (blogger, journalist, Instagrammer), doesn’t mean you have any more rights to their content than if you worked with traditional media.

After my last post, I see there’s still a ton of confusion around what constitutes an editorial opportunity vs. what needs to be paid. I’ve written about this in detail here and here, but if you don’t feel like clicking around, here’s a quick reference of the difference between editorial and influencer opps:

Editorial – UNPAID

  • Also called: Press trip, FAM trip
  • What’s covered: Travel expenses, product provided
  • No contract necessary
  • Writer decides when, where, how and if they’ll publish anything about the experience

Campaign – PAID

  • Also called: Influencer Campaign, Content Campaign, Partnership, Ambassadorship
  • Guaranteed deliverables agreed upon in advance (could include social media, blog content, video, Instagram takeover, licensed images, b-roll, drone footage)
  • Confirmed deadlines
  • Contract is a must to protect both sides
  • What’s covered: Travel expenses, product provided
  • Unlike an advertising spend, campaigns of this nature do not guarantee a positive opinion of the experience. It’s still meant to be an influencer’s real experience.

I’ll say it again: a press trip is not a payment. An influencer campaign is not an ad buy. Are we all on the same page yet?

 

4. Thou Shalt Not Confuse Follower Numbers with Influence

Quality has to be more important to you than quantity, or influencer marketing WILL NOT WORK for your brand. You think the fans of professional fashion Instagrammers with 500,000 followers are all rushing to book your 5-star-hotel after one post? Or are they buying the $20 coverup and sandals with affiliate links to Amazon and mentally filing away the destination for a rainy day?

Fashion and beauty influencer marketing is not the same as travel influencer marketing.

Travel influencers have different goals than beauty/fashion influencers. Knowing that will put you in the top 1% of marketers who lump all content creators into one line item.

A better solution for destinations would be to choose a multi-platform influencer, someone who can create content targeted to their audiences on different networks, including bookable links in long-lasting blog posts. This weaves your destination into the consideration set in multiple formats, for varying lengths of time and for multiple audiences rather than just one. I get as googly eyed as anyone over a pretty Instagram shot, but it has a different shelf life than a blog post, and it’s only a small piece of the travel marketing pie.

Why would you only eat one piece of pie when you could eat the whole pie? That’s crazy.

 

5. Thou Shalt Not Paint All Influencers with the Same Brush

Why do I spend so much time speaking at conferences and responding in my email to educate marketers on how to work with influencers? Because I choose to give them the benefit of the doubt until they show me a reason not to. Just because a publicist is asking for a ridiculous amount of content in exchange for one night at a chain airport hotel doesn’t mean they have bad intentions. I assume they are, as I once was, being directed by management who wouldn’t know WordPress from a Word document. And I ask the same consideration for the content creators of the world.

Every email that lands in your work inbox is not necessarily a request for freebies from an unqualified wannabe social media celebrity. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve messaged a brand about working together on something only to get a curt, even rude response about how terrible influencers are. Someone introduced me as an influencer to a restaurant manager recently and she said to my face, “Influencer? More like influenza.”

First off, I never introduce myself as an influencer. It’s a term most of us professional content creators loathe… but it’s the search term marketers are looking for. So do we put “INDEPENDENT CONTENT CREATOR” in our bio and hope someone finds us that way? No, of course not. Influencer is the term du jour, and until someone comes up with something else, we’re stuck with it. 

We’ve talked about this before – anyone can call themselves an influencer. It’s up to marketers to know how to separate the wheat from the chaff.

The fact is, you’re unlikely to get scammed by professional content creators*. Why? Because you can’t fake a decade-long career. Ask for our references, samples of our work, case studies. If someone is a trustworthy pro, guess what? They’ll have all that and more. They’ll know how contracts work and what is reasonable to ask for. A simple scroll through social media will show you almost everything you need to know. Does this influencer work with brands professionally? Do they conduct themselves as a business or a freeloader? Do they understand and utilize FTC disclosures? This level of expertise is literally WHY you work with pros.

*Not promising they won’t be divas. There will always be folks who let success go to their heads! Ahem, bloggers who claim to have invented journalism 😉

 

6. Thou Shalt Not Steal Our Photos

Steal?! Is it really stealing? If a journalist goes on a press trip, do you get to keep all the photos they create and use them as you please? The answer is an emphatic NO. And it goes for influencers, bloggers, Instagrammers, photographers – all of us under the creator umbrella.

Why? Because that’s how we make our living! If we go on an editorial trip (please see No. 3) for no pay, you don’t have unlimited access to the content that results. Feel free to share anything we share on the same social platform we share it, but don’t even think about downloading our images and using them on your own social accounts, brochures or billboards. (Seriously – that happens a ton!) 

Working with influencers and bloggers is not a way to get high resolution, quality photography for free.

If you need images for your destination or brand, why not add to your influencer budget and purchase licensed images? It beats stealing them and getting yourself into a copyright lawsuit, which I’ve seen happen again and again, and it’s less expensive than hiring a photographer to capture the same images.

7. Thou Shalt Not Pretend There is No Budget

When a brand’s publicist reaches out about a GREAT PARTNERSHIP and eventually confesses there is no budget, I have to stop myself from asking if the publicist is also working for free. Doubtful! Entire influencer marketing budgets are spent on agencies who then spend all their billable hours finding influencers willing to work for free or reduced rates. Isn’t that gross?

Don’t get me wrong here! I’m not saying agencies are not valuable because I think the work I did in my three agency career was incredible for the clients, and I know so, so many wonderful agency marketers who do this right. I am saying it might pay to rethink the business model for influencer marketing. If there’s someone in-house who can handle it in a way that allows you to spend the budget on content creators and not agency overhead, it’s worth considering.

 

8. Thou Shalt Not Offer Free Product in Exchange for Work

Free product or affiliate programs do not count as compensation. There might be value in an exchange product and trust me, I’ve worked on a trade basis plenty of time. But for a scarf? A pocket knife? A tube of sunscreen? The best you can hope for with small products is editorial inclusion, but no professional content creator has the time to write 1,000 words about your sunscreen out of the goodness of their heart. We aren’t bored or starved for things to write about. It’s the opposite.

When you send an email asking for blog posts, social media or photography, please know all of that takes real time, experience, equipment, planning, etc. And the key here is YOU ARE ASKING. You found me, remember? You thought I was worth reaching out to because something about my online presence looked like it could provide value for your client, product, destination, etc. If I provide thousands of dollars in value, you also need to provide comparable value. That’s fair, right?

9. Thou Shalt Not Share Clickbait Influencer Hate Stories

I am sick to death of hearing about the Fyre Festival and its horrible “influencers” in the same sentence. Guess what? At the Fyre Festival, the influencers (who were models and not professional content creators, for what it’s worth) did their jobs* so well, that organizers oversold a first-time event. It wasn’t the influencers’ responsibility to ensure the event had enough bathrooms, water or accommodations.

*Yes, they skipped FTC disclosures, but do you think that would’ve changed anything if their posts said #ad or #sponsored?

 

Furthermore, the majority of those influencer hate stories are not about the kind of influencers you’d want to work with anyway. Did you read the story last week in The New York Times, “No, Your Instagram ‘Influence’ Is Not as Good as Cash, Club Owner Says.”The gist is that this hotelier is up in arms because he keeps getting emails from influencers asking for free rooms. And so it follows that all influencers are money grubbing freebie hustlers.

Do you think professional content creators are actually asking cheap hotels for free rooms for them and six friends? Uh, no. 

When you get a pitch from a real influencer — a content creator worth working with — it’ll demonstrate a clear and concise request. My pitch is to the point: here’s a press kit, some case studies, my credentials, awards I’ve won, magazines I’ve written for, TV shows I’ve hosted, what I can offer you and what I’m asking for in return.

If you already have a policy in place to deal with influencer requests, you will save yourself a ton of time and aggravation. Use canned responses to answer all but the cream of the crop pitches. And if your budget can sustain it, this is a prime reason to have a long-term ambassador program. You work with exactly who you want to work with and don’t have to feel as obligated to respond to every influencer with a request.

Save yourself the stress and send anything less than top notch pitches to spam. (Unless you’re just trying to get publicity for your hotel. Don’t think for a moment the pros aren’t onto your little stunts.)

Read more about long-term ambassador program best practices here.

 

10. Thou Shalt Not Sneak Extra Deliverables into a Contract

If we agree on three Instagram feed posts and one blog post, please don’t send me a contract with extra social media deliverables, photo ownership clauses and terms of exclusivity that we never discussed. (No, I can’t offer you A YEAR of exclusivity for two nights at a hotel. Are you insane?) I’m not a lawyer, but I can read. It’s not cute and it’s not professional, and it makes me want to give you exactly what you paid for instead of over-delivering like I usually do.

11. Thou Shalt Not Ask Influencers to Write about Places They’ve Never Visited

My entire brand is built on the places I’ve traveled, and yet every day I get press releases and pitches from PRs asking me to write about spa treatments at hotels I’ve never visited in countries I’ve never been to. Huh? I don’t expect brands to read my whole blog before reaching out, but just in general, stop trying to squeeze coverage out of your entire randomly selected media list.

Press releases are largely useless, mostly because they’re not targeted. There are 600 unread in my 2019 Press Releases folder right now.

The better solution would be to invite targeted influencers to experience whatever it is you’re trying to get coverage for. Or even smarter, if you have long-term ambassadors, this would already be factored into their annual contract so you’d have built-in experts ready to cover your news for an audience that expects to hear about your brand or destination from them anyhow.

12. Thou Shalt Not Pick the Same Bloggers for Every Campaign

Good lord, there are hundreds if not thousands of us who’ve been doing this long enough to be considered professionals. The world is downright full of talented content creators in every imaginable niche. Diverse, smart, clever, witty bloggers that deserve attention. So why do the same 15 cookie-cutter bloggers end up on the majority of branded campaigns? It’s really not that hard to choose diverse bloggers that fit your strategy. And on that note…

 

13. Thou Shalt Not Choose Influencers off a List You Found on the Internet

I’m here to tell you that the folks compiling most of those breathless “Top Influencer” lists know how to vet content creators about as well as my weird uncle. That is to say, if they have pretty pictures and a decent amount of followers, that’s good enough. 

You know people can buy followers, right? And comments. And blog views. Take those lists with a grain of salt and remember that the right fit with your brand matters far more than any arbitrary list.

14. Thou Shalt Not Send Impersonal Emails

Stop sending blanket emails to your whole media list to see what sticks. “Dear Blogger” is a one-way ticket to the spam folder. 

15. Thou Shalt Not Ask Me to Do Your Job

This happens in so many ways, I’m sure I’ll add to this bullet over the years.

A quick recent example! Two weeks ago, a brand’s PR team reached out about attending an event. They had no details about what was required, but they wanted me to come up with a quote. They didn’t know what they wanted, what their budget was or what their ultimate goals were. (Oh, and they couldn’t reveal the brand they wanted me to promote. It’s a real head scratcher, right?)

I imagine someone in a conference room said, “Hey, we should work with influencers!” And five minutes later, they sent an email to 200 people they met at a conference. I guess they were surprised when I quoted them a big number, but what else do you do with no information? To no one’s surprise, they’ve since ghosted me. Face palm.

It’s not for the influencer to figure out what the KPIs are for the brand, especially with no information. That’s something you can discuss collaboratively, but mucho research should already be completed before creators are ever contacted. 

16. Thou Shalt Not Waste Client Budgets

We’ve touched on this across commandments, but here are a few ways I see brands wasting money while trying to “do” influencer marketing.

  • Paying agencies and 3rd party platforms to find and vet influencers
  • Working with influencers on short-term, one-time-only projects
  • Not sharing influencer content once it’s created

17. Thou Shalt Not Attend Blogger Conferences to Mine for Email Addresses

How many brands have I met in the past year who were all about partnerships and budgets at conferences only to get home and find out they just wanted to gather business cards for their email list? Ewwww.

You know what would be a better use of time at blogger conferences? Attend the industry sessions! Find out what influencer marketing is really about and connect with the folks who know what they’re doing. (They’re standing next to the coffee!) It’s the single best way to get insights on how to reach your target audiences. Know who does that better than anyone? Professional content creators!

RELATED POSTS

I’ve been fortunate to work with many phenomenal publicists and brands that it pains me that I even have to write posts like this, but real talk, my inbox compels me to do it. As thousands more bloggers cram the influencer space, we’re either going to see the whole thing continue to devolve into fakery and incompetence, or the pro-marketers are going to team up with the pro-influencers and make magic happen. 

I’m speaking on this very topic at TBEX and the Women in Travel Summit (WITS) this year. Would love to see you there! 

WITS tickets | TBEX tickets (code speaker20) 

Are 17 commandments enough? Did I miss any big ones? Looking forward to your feedback in the comments!

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Influencer marketing is here to stay and its easily one of the most cost effective ways of doing business. Then why is everyone doing it wrong?

Influencer marketing is a hot topic in 2019. Here are 17 commandments marketers and publicist should know before working with influencers.

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