How Brands and Influencers Can Work Together on Gifting Campaigns

I have had the good fortune to work with a variety of consumer brands, particularly during their early stages and enjoy working with micro businesses and start ups who are developing their brand offering and aim to scale or at least grow their customer base. One of the key tactics that many consumer brands want to undertake when reaching their consumer base is influencer marketing, something that more and more PR agencies undertake as part of an integrated approach to strategic Public Relations. Brands can work with influencers through sponsored posts, paid content and gifting campaigns but the scope of influencer marketing requires a good understanding of intention, expectation, communication and of course measurement.

Some of key issues that come up time and time again when undertaking influencer marketing are:

  • Knowing how much to pay influencers
  • Understanding what influencers do and also understanding the perception of influencers
  • Managing expectations on both the brand side and influencer side
  • Knowing the difference between gifted reviews and paid content and the regulations that surround this

Offering influencers or content creators gifts is a relatively inexpensive way to commence the influencer marketing process with a potentially wide reach. This is not to say that it’s cheap or does not come with risks but if a small start up brand sets aside 30 items to send to 30 quality nano or micro influencers it will in the short to medium term be less expensive than perhaps paying 2-3 large influencers for a sponsored ad. This is all relative and depends on a number of factors but hopefully you can understand that this is a base point.

When working on a gifting campaign brands have to understand that influencers are under no obligation to post content about the gifts they received but they should ensure that expectations are clear before accepting gifts. I would always ask a content creator or influencer if they are working on any gifted item content or reviews. Large brands with big budgets can afford to send gifts (without necessarily expecting any kind of content or even a mention on social media) because it builds a relationship with the influencers who they know they’ll eventually want to work with on paid campaigns (this is in simple terms). For a large brand which would have a strategy in place for influencer relations, sending gifts without being tied to content requests or reviews is a good way to maintaining a relationship it is also a good way to test the water with new influencers or content creators with whom they are only just establishing a relationship with.  For the most part small/micro/growing brands with minimal budgets send gifts with the hope that influencers/content creators will share content about the items with their audience. This is because even just a small brand is likely to feel the cost of sending an item more than a big brand for obvious reasons (this is not to say that they should not have already factored that cost into their business plans already).

Communication is essential – before sending a gift as part of a gifting campaign always ask if a content creator is working on any gifted content. Sometimes they are happy to review items on their platforms because it means they have more content to work on in their own time, sometimes they do not have capacity or cannot guarantee that they can post anything so brands have to respect the response (assuming they get a response and that the response is a respectful one). Brands should set out expectations and remember that a gifted review is EDITORIAL not ADVERTORIAL so there are no guarantees of even positive messaging.  If you want certainty and guaranteed content based on your specific guidelines then look at carving up a budget for paid for content and ask for rates card. Allowing influencers or content creators the space to review items honestly though does allow for more authentic content so that is something to take into consideration. Also as soon as a brand has any input or control over the content creation process EVEN if the item in the content is a gift/freebie the content will be considered an advert based on ASA regulations.

A message to influencers:  if you receive a message from a brand you have a choice so you can determine whether you have capacity to undertake a gifted review (remember this gives you more creative freedom than an AD). But maintain good relations & communication – there’s no need to simply ignore an email or respond rudely to a brand offering to send a gifted item. As long at the brand understands your terms and sets out their expectations then you should be able to communicate effectively as opposed to burning bridges.

Another important thing to take into consideration is what happens when influencers or content creators contact you outside of a set campaign to review a product and receive a freebie. In this instance the expectations of the brand would obviously be that the influencer/content creator would create content in exchange for the gifted item – if however an influencer contacts a brand for items to create content with, receives them in full but doesn’t do anything with them tensions can arise (read my piece on why people don’t like influencers)

This post is a starting point for both small/micro consumer brands and for influencers. In summary I would say that it is important to think long term and be strategic. Influencer marketing is exciting, effective and creative and it can offer great returns but there has to be clear communication and understanding from all parties to make it work. But when it works, it can work very well.

Why Do People Hate Influencers?

With the growing popularity of influencer marketing and influencer engagement amongst brands the spotlight has well and truly been fixed on influencer culture and the impact it is having on consumerism. In the UK alone “one in four Brits has bought a product as a direct result of social influencer recommendations – but 42% called for content creators and influencers to curb the fake news and offensive opinions” according to research from Golin (2018).  Transparency from influencers and brands is crucial as more and more advertising regulations are being put into place to ensure that all paid for content should be made clear by influencers across all social media platforms. In 2017 the Committees of Advertising Practice and the Advertising Standard Authority shared this useful blog article: “Hidden” advertising on social media is taking up more and more of our time. In particular, marketing by influencers is an increasing challenge and one that doesn’t fit so neatly into our standard categories.”  The influencer industry is changing rapidly and brands as well as regulators have to keep up with those changes.

Why Don't People Like Influencers?

The advantage of using influencers in campaigns is the proximity that influencers have to a brand’s target audience. Fans/followers place their trust in influencers in a way that would take years for larger and small scale brands to establish themselves. There is no denying that at its core influencer engagement is about tapping into the relationships that influencers have with their follower base which is why PR and Marketing departments are so keen to work with social media influencers across a variety of platforms. Social media IS part of the media mix and using traditional media alone is not enough. At the same time standard advertising has started to incorporate the social media space with adverts becoming more “shareable”.

You can see where the lines start to converge when it comes to the influencer space, once upon a time you could read a review or an editorial and you knew (for the most post part) that it was earned coverage whilst with an advert you knew it was a paid for and you could make up your own mind whether you wanted to buy something or not. But now you see your favourite Youtuber/Instagram/Blogger/Tweeter talking about a product or service and you might be more inclined to check out that product because of the virtual relationship you have with that individual. It is not a faceless corporation telling you to buy from them, it is that “pocket friend” who makes you smile with their lovely pictures and funny jokes who is nudging your perception and potentially changing your spending habits. Many of your favourite online personalities, particularly on YouTube and Instagram and blogs, have invested time and money (hopefully not by buying followers) into building their online reputations, follower base and online clout. They are brands in their own right and they have the right to be paid for their time, effort and of course their influence. There have been a number of instances that have given influencers a bad reputation recently or which have led to people undermining the effort and impact of influencers which leads to the question of whether society actually likes influencers?

Sondoss Al-Qattan, a Kuwaiti  Make-up artist and blogger went viral globally in July 2018 after she shared a video of herself criticizing new provisions to protect Filipino domestic workers across the Middle East. Al-Qattan, currently has 2.4 million followers on Instagram and although her awful comments sparked an international outrage  and some brand withdrew their endorsement she still has a sold fanbase. This video gives a great overview of the story:

Interesting to note that she did not apologise and her online platform is still doing well so whilst she has lost some deals she may have been able to sustain her lifestyle directly through her fanbase. This is a good example of why some people do not like the power and clout that influencers have particularly when it comes to sharing harmful rhetorics, there comes a stage where they seem to be untouchable and unfortunately if they have fans who share their values even if brands distance themselves their online visibility continues to thrive. From a PR perspective brands have to be mindful of who they align themselves with, too often brands become obsessed with numbers and do not take the time to assess the character of the individuals that they are working with.

This moves onto the moral foundations of some influencers, is it all about the money or they actually care about the brands that they are representing? A great example of this was when the Road Safety Authority of Ireland had to withdraw an influencer campaign about safe driving and seat belts when the influencers involved were seen not using their seat belts correctly. From an ethical stand point it says a lot that individuals would accept money for a cause that they might not care about and their subsequent content could lead to harmful behaviour from their followers.

On the subject of money, people seem to have a complete misunderstanding of how much money influencers earn and so have become resentful of how influencers not only make their money but also do not see their work as even being worthy of payment. There was the interesting story of #VisaBae in April 2018 when a  fashion blogger, Rutendo Tichiwangani who had been living in the UK since she was 10 feared deportation to Zimbabwe from the UK. It came as a surprise to some when she launched a crowdfunding campaign to fund her visa application. Her online activities including YouTubing, blogging and instragramming had enabled her  to sustain a certain level of lifestyle, or at least enabled her to present a certain lifestyle to her followers.

She managed to raise twice the amount that she was asking for and is still in the UK by the looks of her instagram page. Her story raised the serious issue of perception and how followers perceive their online favourites but it also shows yet again that even with the backlash there were still many loyal fans willing to help and support her.

Perception is something that many people bring up when talking about social media influencers, most of us know by now that people only show what they want to show online, and of course due to the power of brand identity many show a highly filtered perspective. More often than not this is what brands want to align themselves with, real people who still look unreal. The online conversation surrounding instagram influencer Scarlett London was the inspiration behind this piece. The backlash to me was overwhelming and for the most part unnecessary. Her post in partnership with Listerine was criticised by some people who felt like she was representing a false ideal – which begs the question so those same critics complain about fantastical commercial adverts in the same way? The level of negativity directed to her was excessive in light of the context of the content. We have to each take responsibility for how much we are allowing ourselves to be influenced, anyone who sees this post and runs out to buy helium balloons to decorate their headboard with should probably spend less time on social media and more time becoming their own person.

Yes certain influencers can be described as ambassadors of aspirational living but it is up to brands to do the work when it comes to understanding the influencers that they work with. We have to understand that there are real people (bots notwithstanding) following these influencers and whilst I would never advocate for harmful rhetorics to be shared by them, their followers are their “bottomline”. Without fanbase support they would not exist, thrive or survive and without due diligence from brands they can be swept up in the idea that they are untouchable. They should be held accountable for their all of their actions but not reproached for simply existing.

Another interesting point that media outlets won’t always admit to is the way in which influencers are taking up space in the media realm – when PRs conduct media relations campaigns they are not just inviting journalists they are inviting influencers too. Inevitably the usual benefits and perks of the job that were traditionally only for journalists are now being spread out and causes tensions. With that tension comes the possibility that journalists may amplify negative stories about influencers in order to shift perception as Bola Awoniyi, Founder of The Fluid Concept mentions here:

Now is the time to understand and pay attention to the complexities of the influencer industry, learn from them rather than criticise all of them, after all they are not going anywhere anytime soon and do we want them to? Influencers serve a purpose in the media space, just take the time to understand what their purpose is and take it from there.

How To Work With Influencers

Influencer marketing is a form of marketing which focuses on working influential people with strong digital footprints to reach a target audience. Influencers have a dedicated and loyal digital tribe which can give brands the opportunity to have impact on captive audiences. Whilst working with influencers is a powerful PR and marketing tactic it has to be undertaken with a strategic perspective. In this video I discuss how businesses and brands can work work with influencers and build effective relationships with them as part of their PR strategy.

There has been a lot of speculation recently about the value that influencers bring to brands’ PR and marketing campaigns. I still believe that the relationship brands (specifically small ones) and influencers have, can be a powerful one and they can really make an impact within a PR and marketing campaign. However a lack of communication, misunderstanding and lack of education is having a negative impact on the relationship dynamics between the two parties. Influencers who are working on building their own personal brand in the digital space are seeing large brands working with their colleagues and counterparts within the industry and sometimes they’re not able to understand that not all brands have the same level of budget. On the flipside brands and businesses aren’t always clear about what it is they are looking for, what the intention of an influencer campaign is and what their expectations are.

The following story is a great example of how a brand and influencer potential relationship can fall apart:

In this video I aim to help small businesses understand how to work with influencers, engage with influencer and help them understand how to communicate effectively so room for a fruitful relationship built upon on a long-term basis.