Written by Holly Wood aka HollyGoesLightly, Content Creator and Founder of WeBlogNorth - February 28, 2018.
Let us start with the basics (if you can call it basic, as it seems in fact, far from that) - What is influencer marketing? Well according to the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) here in the UK, it is:
“...a technique that has evolved alongside the rise of social media and modern technology. It involves brands engaging with figures popular on social networks such as YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, to discuss, photograph, recommend and sometimes just insert themselves into conversations about a product
Sometimes these engagements are authentic in nature and the “influencer” may just be posting a genuine opinion. In such cases, these posts are not considered ads.
However when the brand has control over the content of the post and rewards the influencer with a payment, free gift, or other perk, the post becomes an ad. If the commercial intent isn't clear from the overall context of the communication, it should be labelled as an ad so as not to break the ASA’s rules and mislead the influencer's audience.” - (full article here)
Clear? Lots of us aren’t, including those in the industry who are forging these commercial content relationships on a daily basis and this brand-to-influencer engagement, has been the hot-topic of much debate in the press of late, for many reasons. As someone who has worked in this crazy industry of online content creation for over six years, specifically in blogging and who in recent years has been deemed “an influencer”, and as an individual who is growing a business, solely geared at supporting and encouraging fellow content creators, I feel in a position to comment on recent hot-topics.
Set the scene
But first I’ll set the scene briefly and tell you who I am. I have been blogging since 2012 (ish) in one guise or other and have always blogged out of passion, creative outlet and a sort of online diary of my life and experiences. Six years ago, blogging wasn’t really “a thing” and I never dreamed or even saw the potential to make a career out of it. I wasn’t brave enough to consider that prospect being in my mid-twenties and just starting out on the corporate career ladder.
Having moved from London to Manchester, I was eager to find like-minded bloggers and frustrated that all the industry events were in the South and anyone who seemed to be carving a way for themselves as an influencer, seemed to live in London and have a million followers. I paid hundreds of pounds to travel down and attend weekend workshops to better my knowledge and standard of content, meet other people wanting to do the same and try and figure out exactly where I wanted to take my little blog (HollyGoesLightly if you’re interested). But I wasn’t really getting anywhere, nothing was clicking for me, it wasn’t relative and I was falling into the trap of just wishing I was like others and thinking about how I could emulate them. Not a good place to be and totally pointless!
So, instead, I decided to create my own community up in Manchester, of other people at a similar “stage” of their blogging as me, who shared some of the same frustrations and who essentially just wanted an outlet to a) make friends, b) be inspired and c) share knowledge with their peers. Other people who didn’t have a photographer boyfriend following them around the streets, papping their every move or an agent, or a book deal. People who were just working out what they wanted to say to the world and how they might be able to do it online - for whatever reason that may be.
With my Events-Organising background, WeBlogMCR was born. A network of bloggers in Manchester, who would meet-up occasionally for a drink, a natter, a bit of learning and a selfie or two.
I still wasn’t brave enough to do anything other than just meet-up, buy a few rounds of Prosecco and then go home and think about all the things I still wasn’t doing (or didn’t have time to do because of my day job). Then circumstances changed, I found myself on maternity leave with my first baby, with no job to go back to and my husband and I had a good chat about what I could do, what I wanted to do and what would make me happy. That was growing my own business somehow. And what did I know? I knew blogging!
Yes I wasn’t insta-famous, no I didn’t have a million hits to my blog each month, no I wasn’t making thousands of pounds per campaign - but I was a good little blogger, with an engaged audience, banging out some pretty decent content that I cared about. I’d overcome some challenges, taught myself and was developing my own style and tone of voice. And I knew there were hundreds of others like me in Manchester who felt the same about themselves.
Photo credit - WeBlogNorth
So WeBlogNorth was born: an online and face-to-face community of content creators looking for community, inspiration and collaboration opportunities. Our meet-ups in a bar turned into workshops with guest-speakers and industry experts, our selfies turned into photography sessions with professionals, we ran seminars, afternoon teas, dinners and even the Northern Blog Awards. All in the name of making our content the best it could be and finding our space on the world wide web. It’s important to say at this point, that no one I’d met in our growing network had ever expressed a desire to live life one freebie to the next, or being “instafamous” or chancing-their-arm to see what they could get... But I’ll come back to that later.
All the while, whilst WeBlogNorth was growing, shaping and forming, I was still writing HollyGoesLightly on the side, taking photos, speaking to the world in my own little way. As a small but established blogger (it had been nearly 5 years now!), I’d get approached by PR agencies and brands to collaborate regularly. I couldn’t believe it! They wanted to work with me, give me their products to gauge my genuine opinion and some even wanted to pay me for it. I had absolutely no clue how to respond to this, what to charge - essentially, I had no idea what I or my content was worth to these brands. My commercial background kicked-in a bit admittedly, as I had experience liaising with PR and Marketing teams. I knew there were people out there making some serious cash from the “influencer marketing” world, but I didn’t know where I fit into it all. And all the while, at the back of my head, I was worried about looking like I was selling-out, or not being genuine. I was worried about what my small but perfectly formed audience would think of me working with these brands.
Trial and error
After a lot of trial and error and no real guidance (if the ASA had created regulations at this point, I didn’t know about them!) and in honesty, using my common sense and gut instinct, I navigated my way through the crazy world of earning money from my online content. Yes, I naively accepted small but easy sums of money to write about something and back-link it to the brand (little did I realise this wasn’t a great basis for an on-going brand relationship and essentially brands were just using my little blog to link-build and grow their SEO). Yes, I accepted products worth just a few pounds, spent hours writing about them, taking and editing photographs and crafting a blog-post about them, only to realise the reward didn’t really stack-up and in fact, it may not have been something I would have written about ordinarily.
I quickly made the decision to say “no” to lots of offers. I decided I didn’t want to lose the essence of HollyGoesLightly, the things I was passionate about and the content I wanted to create. I didn’t want to sit there for hours, trying to think of an angle to write about the latest herbal supplement pills, wasting my time creating content of no real value to anyone.. I wanted to create content about things I loved and if some brands fit in along the way, then that’d be a bonus and I’d only accept collaborations or sponsored content with brands I was genuinely interested in.
Once I’d made this decision, it was utter relief and I at least knew I could always say my content was genuine. Not an easy decision to make when you’ve got bills to pay and no “regular” day job, may I add
Why am I telling you this?
I guess the reason why I’ve felt compelled to write this article, is because I’ve been talking about it a lot lately with my fellow “WeBloggers”, my husband and other industry professionals (in fact, I’m talking on a panel about it next week). The industry is being tarnished from all angles, it’s growing exponentially and in essence, it’s becoming disheartening for a lot of us out there from all sides of the spectrum and damn confusing, to say the least.
Five years ago, when I used to say I was a blogger (sheepishly mumbled under my breath), people would either glaze over, look confused (“but how is that a thing?”) or roll their eyes. Nowadays, people recognise it as a career or part of one, but perhaps don’t always see its value or place in the marketing mix still.
The majority of content-creators I’ve met (and I use this term now, as I could be talking about bloggers, vloggers or youtubers, instagrammers, social influencers, podcasters - the list goes on) have been passionate about something. Passionate about their life experiences, food, fashion, their family, their illness, their travel, their home - whatever it may be, they’ve felt that for whatever reason, they have something to say to the world and they would just love it if somebody read it and found it useful too. Most want to create beautiful content, whether written or visual and most want to feel like they’ve helped someone else in some way. For most of us it’s a cathartic and creative outlet and for some of us, it supplements or forms part of our income too.
It’s hard work
Good content takes time. It takes hours of work, writing, editing, fine-tuning before you’re brave enough to press that “publish” button and put it out there into the big wide world for scrutiny.
It can be fruitless. I’ve written things that I’ve felt I’ve poured my heart out onto the screen, am really proud of, the quality and content of my writing really strong (I’m no trained journalist!), yet no one comments and it just seems to pass the world by in a fleeting moment. But hey, it’s out there. I wrote it for a reason, I’m happy with that, no pressure.
But when you’re working with a brand, there is a whole new level of pressure to behold.You have to create not only well-curated content, engaging and visually exciting, it has to strike up conversation, interest and ultimately encourage people to go along and try that product out for themselves. And what if no one really engages or retweets or likes? You’re a failure? You’ve got no influence on the world? The brand thinks they’ve wasted their money on you? People judge you?
This can be the reality of an influencer-brand-relationship: pressure, doubt and worry.
Photo credit - The Vain Photography
Finding the real value
What I’ve always tried to champion as WeBlogNorth is genuine content and creators just being themselves. You can’t go far wrong then, in my opinion. I encourage that if a brand wants to work with you, then you find a way of it relating to you and your content, rather than mould your content to fit with their marketing line. It’s far more natural that way, far more interesting and in my opinion, far more valuable for both parties. Otherwise there’d just be a whole load of content out there that’s exactly the same and how boring and soul-destroying would that be?
In my opinion, the real value for brands comes from the insight they get from their actual real audience. They may have honed marketing campaigns for years, created impressive visuals and strap-lines, but until they get real life opinion, right from the horse’s mouth, what does that all mean? Working with influencers (who are just real people don’t forget), gives valuable market research data. Having a blogger or vlogger use the product, try it out, integrate it into their daily lives, lets the brand see how it truly works and how it really does translate to their customer, as well as what peoples’ reactions to it actually is. What an amazing symbiotic relationship. Instead of the traditional someone-standing-on-the-high-street-with-a-clipboard approach, asking what you think of a product sample they’ve just handed-out, a brand is invited into someone’s home to see it all first hand. Fantastic.
And for the audience, it’s invaluable, as shopping these days is tough! We’re bombarded with products on the high-street and online, we’re spending more money than ever it seems on goods and who knows whether something is worth it or not? Yes, it’s great when Cheryl Cole (is that her name now?) tells me it is, but do I really have that much in common with Cheryl? Probably not. But when Clemmie aka Mother of Daughters or Victoria aka In The Frow, talk about something on their blogs or instagram, from their living rooms, actually using it, I can relate. I can decide whether I like it or not and whether I think it’d work for me too. That’s super powerful.
Bringing it back to my point
I could digress on the wonders and powers of influencer marketing for hours, so I’ll reign it back in and get back to my point. Regulations.
Following a string of bad press for content creators out there, I’ve been pondering the notion of regulations more and more. What can I do about it? What advice should I be giving our WeBlogNorth members?
I keep coming back to two points: communication and education. Communication in the sense that we need to remember that we’re all human-beings. Brands need to remember this, PR agencies need to remember this and so do us content creators. I think it’s easy to get caught-up in the world of freebies, money and even fame and forget what we’re doing and that actual real people are at the end of that smartphone device.
I’ve received countless generic, impersonal and even rude emails from PR agencies or Marketing executives that just want what they want. They’re not interested in HollyGoesLightly, or my content, they’ve never read it (even though they say they have and they “just love my style”) and they have no idea what it’s worth. It’s not necessarily their faults - they’re probably over-worked, under pressure and have been given a finite budget by their client to spread as far as it can go across the internet and they just want to get it done. But, it becomes impersonal and it becomes shallow and dare I say it, hurtful.
When I spend time writing a pitch for a brand collaboration, brainstorming ideas, getting inspired, I want to hope that it doesn’t fall on deaf ears. That it at least gets the time and feedback it deserves. And if we get to the point where we’re working together, I want the brand to understand the hours (and sometimes days), spent on creating content, shaping it, editing it, writing and rewriting and making it the best it can be. Then the time taken to put it out there in the world, share it, engage with people, talk about it. It is hours of my life, spent partly for my own reward, but partly for the reward of the brand too. I’ve created a value for that brand and I would expect it to be recognised, in much the same way that a brand should expect that in return.
On the other side of that page, is the “free-loaders” and “blaggers” that are disguising themselves as true content creators and yes, they are out there. Luckily WeBlogNorth doesn’t seem to attract that type of member, as we’re a community grown around learning, inspiring and collaborating (not just getting a freebie and walking away). But there are some people out there, that for whatever reason, have seen online content creation as the path to a free dinner or handbag and forget the essence of what they’re doing and who they are influencing.
In much the same way that the rude PR emails give agencies and brands a bad name, these individuals give us genuine content creators a bad name too. There is nothing worse then when I tell someone I’m a blogger and they say something like “ooh, I bet you get loads of free stuff don’t you?”. I hate the thought that someone might look at my content and think it’s anything but genuine and not realise that a lot of hard work and thought goes into it. But not everyone has that level of awareness and conscientiousness. Some just want a quick route to free stuff or fame. Each to their own. That’s another article in itself right there too.
Now would probably be a good time to also say that there are some amazing brands and agencies out there too, who have taken the time to work out what influencer marketing is really about and who do approach content creators in a considered way and look past just the cold-hard-cash outlay. These are a special breed and should be held onto tightly. I say this slightly in jest, but to also make the point that the brands that are doing well out of influencer marketing are doing so because they’re doing it right and content creators love to work with them! There are also some incredibly savvy, talented and inspiring content creators who have carved their own way in this industry and should be really admired for the work they’re doing, whilst retaining their genuinity and maintaining the ethos of what they’re all about. We have to remember the positives whilst we’re scrutinising the negatives don’t we?
Guidance and Regulation
Back to the negatives - this is where I think some guidance and regulation is needed and I mean on the ground, day-to-day and I refer back to my second point: education. The ASA apparently covers the influencer industry, but there’s plenty of research and anecdotal evidence out there now that suggests people are still confused by the role of the influencer, what sponsored content actually is and how they should be digesting all of this information. And from our side of the coin, as content creators, there’s still a lot of confusion about how we should be communicating with the world, being explicit about commercial relationships and protecting ourselves against being taken advantage of. So something’s not quite right here.
In my opinion I go back to that first of my two points: communication. I’m a firm believer that we’re all stronger together and having open channels of communication helps everyone in the mix. It’s our responsibility as content creators to communicate to brands and agencies how we like to work, the value of our content and what we expect in return. It’s the brands and agencies’ responsibility to make considered approaches and be clear about how they would like to work with influencers and what they are willing to give in return. And you know what, being polite and courteous on both sides will go a long way. Like in any other profession or industry, speak to each other professionally and politely - after all, we’re all just trying to do our jobs aren’t we?
In my experience, I find that a lot of brands don’t know where to start with influencer marketing - they don’t understand the value (not their fault!) and don’t know how much they should be paying for this special relationship. That’s when they often employ agencies to act on their behalf and a good agency is the most valuable asset for both brand and content creator. But a bad agency can destroy relationships, leaving both parties feeling jaded and used. A good agency will understand everything I’ve talked about today, will be able to find the value and understand the genuine potential of a brand-influencer relationship. They’ll understand that to play the “long-game” is better all round and that it’s not all about numbers and fame, but instead it is about quality and engagement. A bad agency will miss this point entirely and just look at follower counts and vanity metrics, before spending a load of cash on miss-guided relationships that don’t really get either party anywhere.
I’m obviously summarising here to make a point. But I think you’ll get my drift. We all have our role to play in this influencer marketing mix and we’re all equally responsible in our own ways, in ensuring this industry ticks-along nicely, keeping each party involved safe from scrutiny, attack and media-uproar.
Photo credit - The Vain Photography
My advice, for what it’s worth, is for brands and agencies to spend a little more time thinking about what they want from influencer relationships, the sort of content creators they aspire to work with and the audience they truly want to attract. Think about what value that relationship could bring and think beyond the numbers and follower counts - believe me, micro-influencers are just as important as the big-timers in this industry.
Speak to experts, content creators and people working in the industry everyday, like me, (shameless plug) to understand what actually is driving people to create their content, what floats-their-boats so to speak. Understand that the creative possibilities are endless. And be mindful that that there are real people behind the blogs and instagram accounts that are working really hard to create meaningful content and yes, maybe even dare to earn a living from this. We’re all people, with bills to pay after all.
For bloggers, vloggers and influencers? My advice is that we’re just as responsible to ensure commercial and brand relationships are forged in the right way. We should act professionally (that doesn’t have to mean corporate or boring!) and be confident in our value and communicating that to brands. Create a media pack, tell a brand about yourself, your drives, your passions, your reach and if you want to work with someone in particular, create a pitch. It doesn’t have to be a huge powerpoint presentation as in the traditional sense, but take the time to think about how this relationship could be mutually beneficial, how you can communicate to your audience in the right way and how you can both ultimately get something really cool out of it. Yes accept the freebies, if you really want that thing, but only if you intend to give something back in return and be clear about that fact. Sometimes brands will send you things anyway, that’s their prerogative, but be clear about where you stand on sponsored posts and stay true to yourself and your content - only create content that you ultimately feel proud of and that your audience will want to read. (But look, don’t be yourselves up either, we all trip-up along the way and there’ll always be that “I wish I never agreed to that” moment whilst you find your feet, none of us are perfect!).
When it comes to cash, which for a lot of us, is part of the motivation, (as we all need to make a living somehow), then my advice is to think of yourself as the professional you are and set yourself a day rate and an hourly rate. Essentially an amount of money that you’re happy represents the time, effort and energy you've put into your content. This is your starter-for-ten. You may sway from this, you may negotiate this, but you’ll feel better having some sort of framework to respond to a brand with when they ask if you’d be up for trying out their new product and the brand or agency will appreciate the framework too, believe me.
If we all behave in this way, it starts to make the boundaries clearer, the lines less grey and all parties know what they’re dealing with and how they’re supposed to behave. It’s a sort of self-regulation approach I guess.
Above all, we must all remember to be explicit about these mutually beneficial relationships when actually putting our content out there publicly. Our audience deserves to know if we’ve received something for free, or have been paid to endorse something. And if you’ve built your engagement and relationship with your audience in the right way and have their trust, they will know and understand that it’s a genuine endorsement (#ad #gifted). There’s nothing wrong in supporting a brand, in much the same way you’d tell a friend where you got that new jacket from if they asked, you’re just telling a lot of friends that you’ve made online. Just be clear and honest and no one gets hurt.
Blogs, Vlogs and Social Media accounts are an amazing communication tool, they’re a lot of fun and they’re a powerful voice for a lot of people. Like with all walks of life, there are people out there who take-off, seemingly easily and do really well at it. There are people out there who make lots of money from it and there are people out there who get along just fine in their day-to-day life too. Whatever your motivation for creating content online is, then just stick at it, enjoy it and don’t lose that initial love or ethos you had when you started. Be genuine, be real and be varied.
If you want to make your online content into a career, do your research, make a plan, learn and develop like you would in any other career. Have meetings, go on training courses, head to events, meet people, communicate and be nice. Know that it may not all just happen instantly and it’s your responsibility, as much as it is the brands’, to carve meaningful and fruitful relationships and be clear and genuine with your audience about what you’re doing along the way.
Brands and agencies? All I can say is, be respectful and understanding and if you don’t understand, then ask the question. Don’t just assume, but instead, listen. You’re reaching out to creative people to help you in your job, so listen to their ideas, get to know them, let them be creative and help them in theirs. Understand the value of what you’re asking for and treat content creators with the respect they deserve and as the professionals they are. Nurture relationships, don’t just look at follower numbers and understand that it may not just be a quick-win every time.
If we all take the above into account, then the industry will be a lot stronger, more cohesive and transparent and audiences less frustrated and confused. We are all equally responsible here and the groundwork has been done in influencer marketing world, we just have to shape it, hone it and make it the best it can possibly be and I believe we all need to do that together.
We don’t want to zap the fun and creative freedom out of influencer marketing after all - we don’t need a governing body to make this a whole lot less cool - we just need to self regulate and use our common sense on a day-to-day basis like we would in any other walk of life. Well that’s what I think anyway.
Like in every industry and indeed walk of life, you meet tough people, tricky people, maybe even mean people (and these are often the ones that make the headlines don’t forget!). You meet those that give everyone else a bad name and those that strike it lucky. But mostly, like in every walk of life, you meet nice people too, kind people, hard-working people - people that want to better themselves, want to reach out, want to be good. And we have to remember this when we read about the negativity starting to encroach on the influencer marketing world.
It is a brand new industry, no one really knows what to do with it, how to treat it and nurture it and make it work for everyone. So we have to navigate our way through these rocky times, keeping the positives in mind and the reason we all started doing this in the first place at the forefront of our explorations. Adweek recently discussed the influencer marketing industry in one of their articles, saying:
“The market—estimated to be worth $2 billion in 2017 and set to reach $10 billion by 2020—will continue to see more growth in the industry…” - that’s certainly something we can’t ignore.
I know like lots of people, I welcome this crazy online world as my career and I’m proud of it. I’m proud to call myself and blogger, an influencer, a content creator. I want to stay proud and I want people to nod admiringly when they ask me what I do. Isn’t that what we all want from our jobs?
My final words on the matter (really)
Let’s work together and make each other's lives easier, more fun and more fruitful. I know that’s what I want from my career!
Personally, I’ll be writing and creating some guidelines for our members of WeBlogNorth and welcome any input, feedback or insight from fellow professionals. I do not profess to know the industry inside out, that’d be impossible, but I do feel passionately that I want to have a damn good go at shaping it into the best industry it can possibly be.
There is no rule book, so let’s create our own!