Public Service Message to Influencers
(brands, you’re welcome to read, too)


Conniving brands will do everything in their power to harness the “aspirational labor” of social media influencers at no cost to their business. As the industry evolves, managers, marketers, and influencers need to work together to ensure the cash compensation aligns with the very real work done by social media influencers. It’s time for influencers to stop working for free!

As brands wake up to influencers’ need for cash compensation, will 2018 finally be the year that YouTubers, Cosplayers, Bloggers, and Streamers finally stop letting big business rip them off?

2017 has already been an unstable year for influencers with advertising controversy on YouTube and Kylie Jenner plagiarizing products from any number of smaller creators. Still, a 2017 study on the state of Influencer Marketing showed that now, more than ever, brands and marketing agencies are ramping up the amount they are willing to spend compensating critical personalities for their advertising services.

But the industry is a far cry from where it needs to be. The study, “The State of Influencer Marketing” by PR Firm Launchmetrics, surveyed a representative sample of 600 PR and marketing agencies. This is the third year the firm conducted the study. There are clear upward trends in both the perceived value of Influencer Marketing to brands, as well as the budget for fairly paying influencers for their time.

Here are a few of the key findings from the 2017 study:

  • In 2015, 84% of respondents said they planned to reach out to influencers. In 2017, 64% of those businesses said they followed through and started influencer marketing campaigns.
  • 88% of participants said influencer marketing was an effective asset towards raising awareness.
  • In 2016, 33% of brands said they never paid their influencers. In 2015, that number dropped to 18%
  • 62% of survey participants said they planned to increase their budget for influencer marketing campaigns in the near future.
  • 45% of marketers surveyed recognize that influencers are primarily looking for cash compensation for their work. Last year, the most dominant response to the same question about influencer motives regarding working with brands was that influencers main expectation when working with companies is “increasing their reach and growing their audience.”

Over time, brands have become more comfortable paying influencers.
And companies must adapt if they want to survive!

The Dark Side of Influencer Marketing

The influencer community is emerging as the professional freelance content generation infrastructure of the social media era. But most would-be influencers never even receive a check.

Brooke Erin Duffy, an assistant professor of communication at Cornell wrote the book on the struggles of aspiring influencers. (“(Not) Getting Paid to Do What You Love”) She notes that 15% of “influencers” make over $100 a year.

And unfortunately, even as brands and marketers push forward on the amount they are willing to spend, influencers have to be more cautious than ever in the way they pick their partners.

While more brands than ever value “influencer marketing,” not every organization values the influencers with whom they work.

Duffy spoke recently with Quartz about how companies try to harness what she calls the ‘aspirational labor’ of its unpaid influencers.

Brands kind of dangle this promise of hope. You’ll see campaigns where brands will say, hey, hashtag your favorite jeans look and post on Instagram and maybe we’ll feature your image for people to see. There are also more dubious promises of exposure. I talked with people who said the companies would not offer them any sort of financial compensation. In one case, this woman was a cosmetics blogger and she had a sizable following. She said companies would sometimes send her products unsolicited and say, hey, could you just do us a solid and blog about this?

Duffy says working to become a social media influencer is “aspirational labor” because the time-consuming act of blogging is an investment into a potential future career with no short-term rewards (or pay). When companies coerce influencers into sharing their brand without compensation, the organization profits at the expense of the individual.

Unless that is, we band together and refuse to “just blog about it.”


Exposure vs. Exploitation

Joe Delbridge

Joe Delbridge connects influencers and brands in the pop-culture niche as CEO of GeekSmash Marketing. “As the industry matures, trends indicate what I have always known: honesty and reciprocity are the best policies.”

Marketing vipers prey on those with low self-worth. Influencers with marketable audiences are the targets of rabid packs of product pushers and brand advocates who will use psychological warfare for the benefit of their bottom line.

Even with management, there will be scumbags who will try to browbeat anyone with an audience into doing their bidding. Do not cave in.

Joe Delbridge, CEO of GeekSmash Talent, says influencers need to know their worth.

“At a certain point, you’re not ‘faking it till you make it anymore,’” Delbridge says. “You’ve made it. Influencers who fill a niche and market themselves to the right brands will work forever. Whether you get paid or not is all in the way you interact with the brands.”

Sometimes companies aren’t worth interacting with at all.

Six Marketer Red Flags For Influencers Looking For Sponsors

1. If a brand contacts you in any way besides your professional account or email address, do not do business with them. You have boundaries!

2. If a brand goes around your manager and tries to deal with you directly, do not do business with them. They must respect your professionalism!

3. If a brand sends you products unsolicited, you probably shouldn’t do business with them! Everyone likes receiving stuff for free – but remember, you want payments – not bribes or perks. Accepting payment in product is not a bad thing inherently, but your goal is to establish yourself as a professional in the eyes in the brand. Professionals work out deals on paper before they receive payment! The influencer marketing game is vastly unregulated and physical contracts are in no way the norm, but any reputable marketing agency will provide influencers with at least a one-page brief outlining the request, deliverables, and mutual obligations.

4. Don’t work with anyone who steals your content – reposts are fine, but nobody can repurpose your content for their advertisement. If you see your Instagram video in a television advertisement, this is a breach of contract!

5. Don’t work with anyone confusing or inept. Some influencer marketing strategies don’t work for either party. If a marketing agency becomes the butt of a joke for a failed campaign, so will you. Nobody wants to be Kendall Jenner holding a Pepsi out to riot cop.

6. Be wary of influencer marketing campaigns that don’t fit with your platform. If someone suggests a profit-sharing affiliate marketing scheme for your Instagram account, consider pursuing a sponsor who understands your niche and platform and can develop a mutually beneficial campaign.  A partnership needs to benefit both parties, and it is imperative you understand how your actions are going to help you.

An aspiring influencer needs to stay on top of their branded campaigns lest they fall into something controversial or against their values.

An aspiring influencer needs to stay on top of their branded campaigns lest they fall into something controversial or against their values.

Leveling up: When is the right time to work for free?

Developing a niche and building an audience takes work. At the beginning, a lot of that work is going to be done for free. Some “jobs” or opportunities are worth considering for the exposure.

We’ve compiled a helpful list of gigs worth taking despite their $0 payout. Most influencers keep taking these unpaid jobs even after they’ve reached the all-important audience of 20k and become marketable. Social media influencing is, after all, a labor of love.

Six Reasons an Influencer Might Want To Work For Free

1. Nonprofit work. If you’re going to work for free, advance a worthy cause. Team up with a local organization or send an email to somewhere distant but related to the interests of you and your audience. Politically-oriented causes may polarize your audience, but that may be precisely what you want to define your niche.

2. Crossover content with other influencers. As influencers, we need each other to survive. Consider teaming up with another content creator in the same or an adjacent niche. Not only can you plug each other on your respective channels, but developing an authentic community elevates you in the eyes of your audience.

3. A well-designed contra strategy. A contra strategy is where an influencer is paid in product or service for their promotions work. Although we mentioned the danger of responding to unsolicited product mailings, a contra strategy may be a stepping stone towards a valuable relationship with a brand. If you sense that the individuals you are working with are respectable, competent, and have means to further invest, by all means, begin the relationship with a low-intensity promotion for product relationship.

4. Carve out your niche. Not all marketers are competent and have the budget to invest. Still, it is imperative to develop a niche as an influencer. Niches will determine your value id and the types of opportunities with which you will be presented. Sometimes, it’s worth sucking up to a brand if it means you can say you’re an working influencer within your market.

5. Product Takedowns. Did a marketer disrespect you? If you’ve received rude or spammy communications from a brand, the chances are that they are also spamming other influencers. Beware of the bridges you burn, but sometimes it’s worth losing a potential sponsor if it means giving voice to a concern present across the community. This isn’t something of which I would make a habit. But your audience respects you for your integrity. If your standard operating procedure is to kowtow to brands, then your audience will see you as a sellout and stop following you.

6. Friendraising. Is there a brand you love? Are they within your niche and have a history of healthy influencer relationships? Consider engaging them via email at around the same time you mention them (offhand) on your platform. Brands know that influencers who are passionate about their products make better ambassadors, and might be willing to take a chance on a smaller influencer who shows ambition and promise. Be cautious of the way you do this – as you never want to appear to be a shill to your audience!

The Future of Influencer and Brand Relationships

The influencer market is saturated with creators, pranksters, designers, stylists, foodies, freaks, furries, gamers and grandmas – and that’s not going to change. People share the things they love, and social media is the perfect place for communities to form.

We have to work together!

We know that brands are willing to invest more money than ever into keeping influencers happy.

We also know that they are becoming more and more aware that influencers need financial compensation.

We know that some brands will try to play us against each other and always be searching for someone they can trick into hocking their crap for free.

Managers, mentors, and coaches can help, but brands will always be coming after the influencer. They have learned over time that there is always another influencer they can wheedle!

The only way this industry can evolve is if influencers work together and refuse to better brands at the expense of their health and happiness.

Do you need help cutting fair deals with sponsors? Sign up for a free consultation with GeekSmash to see if an influencer manager is right for you.