How to think about influencer marketing, and how to get started for yourself
When you think about influencer marketing, you probably think of the high-profile “celebrity” who pretends to like sub-par products in exchange for far too much money.
5-10 years ago, you might have been right. Thankfully, a lot has changed from the early days and how you should think about influencer marketing. Now, anyone with a story, expertise, aesthetic, or skill has the power to build a following as a Creator, then leverage their audience to endorse other products and brands they believe in.
But if you’re new to Creator marketing or trying to better understand how it can work for you (as a business or as a Creator), let’s take it from the top.
Let’s go back to basics and build things out from there.
What is influencer marketing?
Influencer marketing is typically the practice of brands paying quasi-celebrities to promote or endorse their products in social media content.
There. That’s a “definition” for you. To someone even just 30 years ago, that statement would probably make zero sense.
But there’s nothing really new about influencer marketing. If you take a stroll through the history of influencer marketing, you’ll learn that gladiators were endorsing products as far back as ancient Rome. Or, at least, they used products and helped those products get sold. And really, isn’t that all influencers do?
Like Shaq endorsing Icy Hot patches or Michael Jordan starting his partnership with Nike, what we think of influencers is closely tied to our views of celebrity. These examples are from sports, but actors, musicians, and other high-profile public figures dominated early forms of influencer marketing. The shift happened when we changed who we thought of as a celebrity.
The rise of the Kardashians, Pewdiepie vs. T-Series, and social media celebrities ushered us into a new age of influencers. For the better part of the 2010s, anyone with a smattering of a sphere of influence started to have the ability to get paid for advertising access to their following. As a result, unless you were a household brand with teams of marketers and legal departments at your disposal, most small businesses and entrepreneurs shied away from influencers because they were afraid of what might happen if they were to associate with them.
But the way you think about influencers is wrong.
What is the creator economy?
Nobody wants to work with an influencer anymore. Influencers take money for little to no work and offer little to no returns for the cost. But what if people were creating such valuable content that their audience was loyal, eager to be engaged, and self-segmented to a niche based on the type of content being put out?
The creator economy is the antidote to the social media poison of influencers. Creators have built up dedicated fan bases surrounding the incredible content that—you guessed it—they create. They have a niche to talk about and strengths in planning and publishing top-notch content while also being inside their community to motivate engagement.
- Examples of creators who embody all that is good about the creator economy
When brands look at partnering with creators, there isn’t any need to fear the outcomes or impact like traditional influencers. Shifting from simple laid-back “influence” towards valuing creation gives the power to succeed back to brands and creators—and the benefit of highly tuned content (organic or paid) goes straight to their audiences.
How to get started with creator marketing
So you’ve briefed yourself on the definitions, and you’re ready to dive in. Awesome. But if you’re thinking about getting started with using creators to be a megaphone for your brand, how will you begin?
It’s simple, but at the same time, there are a lot of moving pieces that have to be considered. Remember, it’s easy just to throw money at an influencer. It takes a bit more thought to create a partnership with a creator that benefits both parties involved. If you don’t have a level head, you might do more damage to your brand than good.
What do you need to think about before making a final decision, then?
In-house vs. agency (500 —700w)
The age-old question that comes up with any sort of marketing project. For a new project or an old project that needs to new life. For SEO, search engine marketing, organic social, paid social, or influencer marketing, the question is always the same:
Do we do this ourselves on the cheap, or hire an agency that knows this inside and out?
The answers will vary across all those different types of marketing, and for creator marketing, it will change a lot depending on who and what your business is. Maybe you’re a one-person marketing team that just doesn’t have the bandwidth to take it all on in-house. Maybe your finance team needs you to do it on the cheap, so an agency just isn’t an option.
If you’re hiring an agency, your choices are dependent on your budget. For in-house, though, you have the option of “hacking” your way to success with spreadsheets or putting the software to work to automate as much of the process as possible while still technically being “in-house.”
DIY Method Pros
If we’re talking about getting started with influencers or nearly any other kind of business initiative, the benefits of keeping things in-house and doing it yourself are almost universal. There are two primary motivators to keep your cards as close to your chest as possible: control and pace.
What does that mean?
When you do creator marketing yourself, or at least manage it, you can have complete control over the entire process. You control the campaigns you run. You control the creators you engage with. You control absolutely everything from concept to completion—except for the actual creator’s posting of the content you agree on. Not relying on anyone or anything outside your organization or your marketing team can be a huge benefit and is the first way many teams work with influencers.
It’s easy to trust the process when you're in the process
Related to that is pace. When you’re running the show, that includes how fast (or not fast) you want to move. Want to get your first creator content out the door this week? You can do that. Want to go real slow and vet everything excruciatingly meticulously at every stage of the process, so it takes you six months? I don’t know why you’d do that, but sure, I guess you can. You have the power.
DIY Method Cons
Doing everything yourself isn’t all sunshine and roses, though. There are some severe drawbacks to not trusting anything to be done outside of your line of sight.
The single most challenging obstacle faced by marketers starting with creators is sourcing those creators. They don’t magically come to you—you’ve got to seek them out. That includes everything from discovering potential partners, reviewing the content they’ve created (both sponsored and organic), reading through their comment section to see if their following is real or just a bunch of bots, and seeing who else they’ve partnered with. The last thing you want is to spend time pursuing a creator who has spent the last six months promoting your biggest competitor. Or maybe you do? All of that will be up to you.
A one-man-band looks cool, but it also looks exhausting
After you’ve gone through all that trouble of finding someone you want to work with, now you just have to get their attention. Engaging with creators is a whole new problem to overcome because it is not a one-size-fits-all kind of game. You have to be tactful, timely, and know your (and their) audience if you want to avoid being just another brand reaching out. Maybe you even do some “soft” engagement of your own on their content first, so your name is familiar when you send that proposal email. It’s not easy avoiding getting lost in the crowd.
Once you’ve made that connection and established the relationship, there’s a downside to all that freedom to control and manage the entire process: you have to manage the whole process from organizing the campaigns you build (design, creative, timing) to managing the creators themselves (rates, contracts, legal, payments). It’s no small feat because you’re starting a formal partnership with a small business (or team of small businesses) and its direct owners.
Marketing campaigns are only as good as their metrics
The last area where in-house can become more complicated than it’s worth is everything that comes next—measuring your campaign success. Creators will have to send you the results of the sponsored content, like views, engagement, clicks, etc. You can do some of it “automatically” with UTM links that you direct them to use, but a lot will come to you in the form of raw screenshots. At the end (like so much of marketing DIY), you’re probably going to put everything into some spreadsheets to do some basic ROI calculation and run some pivot tables. Easy? Maybe. A headache in the long term? Definitely.
Reviewing all the in-house details might leave you running in the opposite direction. In this case, that opposite direction is an agency. Depending on who you talk to, agencies either get a bad rap or are very much beloved and can seem a requirement for success.
They can be an asset to getting started with the creator economy because they have one crucial thing you lack — experience in the space. Working with creators is nothing new to them. Experience all by itself doesn’t always mean anything, though. Just look at the Toronto Maple Leafs, Sacramento Kings, or Arizona Cardinals, who have each gone several decades without a championship win in their respective sports.
If you don’t know how to do something, you ask someone who does
The thing you’re looking for that agencies can bring you is what I could call clout. In other words, you want an experience that matters. An agency with the right connections can help you create relationships with creators that wouldn’t have given you the time of day otherwise. Agencies can open doors, and really, that’s what you’re paying them for.
Good experience and the ability to make positive connections for you will ideally translate into outstanding performance, the whole reason you’re getting into influencer marketing to begin with. Experience and open doors don’t matter much if they aren’t fulfilling your business goals, and an agency can be the stepping stone you need to meet your objectives with far less complexity than doing it yourself.
Of course, there are drawbacks to handing over the keys to your creator relationships. Agencies have great selling points, but there’s a reason they aren’t for everyone.
One negative aspect of working with an influencer agency is the price tag that comes with that experience. Depending on your campaign goals (what kind of creator you want to partner with, their reach, timeline, budget, etc.), working with an agency can range from hundreds to thousands of dollars. Whether that price is worth the benefits will entirely depend on you and your business, but it definitely should not be overlooked.
If your brand is your baby, sometimes it is tough to let go of the reins
A drawback closely related to that price is placing all your trust for the campaign’s success in someone else’s hands. Unless you’ve got a world-class contract set up — contingent on campaign success — you’re going to fork out the cash at the end of the day. That’s a considerable risk, and it might pay off, but it could also be a bust, and it will be out of your hands.
The chance of a disaster like that happening will depend a lot on the agency you work with and, more specifically, the network they’ve created for themselves and how it fits with your campaign goals. What kind of creators have they worked with in the past? Do they target a niche size, vertical, country? Are they just using a creator platform and billing you for that service?
Knowing the ins and outs of the agency you select can be as important as the creators themselves because the wrong fit can be detrimental to influencer marketing success.
Creator Platform Pros
Is there a best of both worlds? Is there a way to have control and reach without breaking the bank? In a way, yes.
*Creator platforms enter, stage left*
When looking at the balance between the first two options, one of the most apparent right-in-the-middle features is a combination of having that complete control over the process. You and your team are at the helm—you choose who you work with, how much you pay them, and can do as much vetting as you want, OR you can let the platform do what it was made for and pair you with the perfect creator for your campaign.
“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” — Arthur C. Clarke
You get that ownership you’re looking for in a DIY method, but that doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice the ability to discover and get connected with the right creators that you want from an agency partner, either. Pre-vetting means only the best and highest performing influencers are at your disposal, so you don’t have to spend hours researching dead-end creators.
Apart from the financial gains, using a creator platform can be beneficial after the campaign. With influencer whitelisting, brands can access a creator’s audience to run paid social campaigns through a creator’s handle. The copy and creative are tailored to the brand’s campaign goals, and the audience sees it coming directly from the creator.
You just don’t get that with any other creator marketing execution strategy (and more on the power of whitelisting in a bit!)
Creator Platform Cons
Harnessing the power of a creator platform makes the most sense from a control and reach perspective, but there are a couple of reasons why it might not be everyone’s first choice.
First, there’s the issue of choosing which platform to use. Like an agency, not all platforms are built the same way. Knowing which ones have those features like whitelisting or have been around (and successful) enough to have an extensive portfolio of creators to work with is essential to reap the benefits of utilizing an influencer platform.
Slow and steady wins the race?
All that choosing comes along with still only being able to move at your own pace. That’s a requirement for some, but it means that if things don’t go fast enough, the only fault is your own. If you’re a team of one, you can only move at the pace of one person.
Plus, while you’re doing it, potentially by yourself, the price is going to be much higher than if you had just used spreadsheets. Platforms don’t come free—but you also have to consider the money saved on your time and headaches by using a purpose-built piece of software rather than going completely solo.
Content creation vs. distribution
After you’ve decided how you’re going to manage everything, you have to determine your campaigns. This decision gives you two main options: using creators as specialized content creators or only utilizing their networks as a distribution channel. Neither option is a de facto “right” choice, and it will ultimately rely on how you weigh the pros and cons for each type.
Content creation pros
No matter their niche, creators have the audiences they do because of their ability to put out content that attracts members to their community. That means that they know their audience inside and out. They understand what creates followers and what motivates engagement.
It shouldn’t surprise you, but creators are experts at creating
All that audience knowledge comes from grinding to make it happen themselves too. So you aren’t even talking to an amateur content marketer; you’re working with a specialist who has put hundreds or thousands of hours into developing content. To be honest, creators are better marketers than most brand marketers. Why? Because if you run a lousy campaign, you learn and run a better one next time. They lose followers' engagement and won’t generate income if they run lackluster content. Every creator campaign almost has to be spot on.
So the content you get from a creator will probably be so good that you can do what any good marketer already does with great content—you remix it. Use it for social posts. But turn it into a blog, a website testimonial, email content, etc. The repurposing possibilities are endless.
Content creation cons
There are only a couple of ways that using creators as content developers can have a downside. They become an issue if you aren’t doing your due diligence before you get into a relationship with them, though.
Sometimes your brand just doesn’t jive right with a creator’s persona. That should have been a red flag, to begin with, though, so if you get to this point, that problem is all on you. But if you push things forward regardless and give them free rein to create content, there can be a colossal juxtaposition between your brand (values, voice, etc.) and how they want to portray you to their audience. Now, unless you’ve somehow also not given yourself veto power, that shouldn’t be a real problem, just ask for a revision or give them some pointers to get it right.
If the vibes aren’t right, it can damage both of your reputations
You also have to remember that you’re tapping into what is essentially a freelance content creator. If you have picked your creator right, they’re making content for you that is hyper-targeted for the exact audience your campaign is looking for. That means that there might be a premium cost for that audience, tone, and engagement expertise. Is it worth it? Absolutely! Creators are making some of the best content around—even better than some agencies!
Distribution channel pros
If you don’t want to put the creation in the hands of the creators, you still have a couple of options when deciding how to get your campaign in front of audience eyeballs.
Organic distribution is what you probably think of when you picture influencer content. A brand has a campaign, and an influencer uses their platform (whatever channel that might be) to get the brand in front of their audience as organically as possible.
As the creators' following grows, your campaign will still be running—reaping the benefit of their perfectly segmented and growing reputation
The audience has “opted-in” to getting content from the creator, so the level of trust in the content source is very high, especially compared to regular “owned” content, like the brand’s own blog, socials, or website. An influencer is paid to act as a brand advocate, and their community treats that message of alignment between the creator and a brand as a seal of approval, and hopefully, they follow suit.
In many ways, organic creator distribution is like finding the best use-case for user-generated content and having the message and medium crafted to perfection.
The other form of influencer marketing distribution is through what we talked about earlier — creator whitelisting. It’s like the usual process of putting together a fantastic paid social media campaign, except instead of running it on your brand’s account, you get to piggyback off of the influence of your “sponsored content” creator partners. That means a massive amount of trust and credibility get put onto your brand, thanks to the creators’ hard work.
Whitelisted ads fit right in with the rest of your paid social strategy as well, just with all that extra influencer benefit. No special optimizing or conversion tracking is needed — the power of the algorithms do everything for you. It’s highly polished, highly curated content that will just keep driving results as you ad more creators and ads to your campaigns.
Distribution channel cons
If you can find the right creator who has the right kind of content creation chops, it’s honestly tough to find a downside.
Maybe your in-house content team thinks they're the bee’s knees and will get a little miffed that you’re using creative from an influencer instead of something made? Or your whitelisted campaigns will do so well that your ROAS will be so incredible that nobody will believe you?
No matter which type of content you want to partner with a creator to put into the world, you can rest easier knowing that this isn’t a one-time-only decision. The content and partnerships you want to work through can change with each creator you engage with or even individual campaigns with the same creator. It’s a revolving door of choices to help you meet your business goals!
Does size matter?
Many of your choices about influencer marketing will impact—and be affected by—the types of creators or influencers you want to work with. There are so many choices in today’s creator landscape that you really can go as big or as small as you want and still get great results.
Like any other advertising, you can go small and wide or big and narrow.
To start small, we’re talking about what can be referred to as micro creators. They’re emerging as voices to follow in their particular niche and typically have less than 25k followers. The community (aka your potential audience) that they’re building is both loyal and highly engaged with whatever content they put out into the world. That means if you select your partnerships right, you can spend a little bit of your budget on a campaign with a single micro creator and still get excellent results. The audience segmentation has been fine-tuned for you for growth, visibility, and engagement—exactly what you want in creator marketing!
Meghan Yuri Young (@meghanyuriyoung) is a prime example of a micro-creator. She has the sweet spot of followers looking to her for wellness, health, and anti-racist content for them to engage with. Her content gets hundreds and thousands of likes and comments, and even the paid creator marketing she does get’s boatloads of people wanting to get in on the conversation.
In the mid-range, you have the established category creators. They’ve been working with that engaged audience for a while with specific niche content that has picked up speed, earning them somewhere in the range of 25-100k followers. Their reach is incredible, but the content they create is still particular to their specific audience, whether it’s cars, fashion, art, beauty, or even memes. They know how to craft content that takes off, so the price of working with them is still more than worth it because the clicks still aren’t likely to bounce.
Abhishek Dekate (@abhishekdekate) perfectly embodies the idea of the established creator. His insanely delicious recipes and food photography are enough to make anyone’s mouth water, and even his “ad” labeled content for dairy-free milk alternatives gets crazy engagement in less than a day of being live. He’s honed his craft to bust out of being a micro-creator and have enough of that more general but still category-specific audience to make those partnerships valuable for himself as a creator and his partners.
At the high end come your macro-level influencers and beyond—the true celebrities. They have over 100,000 followers who aren’t necessarily there for anything specific. Maybe they’re followed since the early days, or perhaps they’re a recent follow just for the hype. These influencers might not even be called creators anymore when a simple selfie gets more social action than anything that looks thought and creator-crafted. But maybe that’s part of the aesthetic? Whatever the case, you’ll pay way more out of pocket, but your message is going to broadcast far and wide to possibly even millions of people for still way less than the cost of a Superbowl commercial.
Jasmin Fares (@jasminefares) is a macro influencer who still very clearly wears the creator hat. Not only is she on Instagram, Tiktok, Youtube, and other social channels, she also has a clothing line with its social handles to manage. Her reach expands into the hundreds of thousands, so her audience base will be far more general. At the same time, her feed is still crafted and curated, so she is very selective in her partnerships to make it mutually beneficial.
Once you figure out what channel you’re going to go down, the next step is figuring out how you'll pay for all this. And no, I don’t just mean you should have a budget—you shouldn’t even be this far down the rabbit hole if you don’t even have a budget. I mean, what is your payment method going to be?
Shiny new things vs. cold, hard cash
Pros of paying influencers with gifts
There are many reasons why using physical items as a payment method can be the best thing for your campaigns, especially if you're a business that sells physical goods.
If you’re just starting to think about influencer marketing (again, I hope you didn’t just start reading here because there is way too much you should be thinking about before gifting), then gifting might seem like an appealing option. Because the dollar value is set by whatever you’re sending, it can seem like the most affordable way to partner with an influencer. If you’re sending out packages to creators en mass, it’s easy to budget because you’ll know that each reach out is worth whatever you sent them. No haggling. No guessing. The gift is the gift, and that’s all there is to it.
You know exactly what you’ve spent, even if you don’t know the outcome yet
The other benefit of gifting products is that once your wares are in their hands, it’s that much easier for them to simply start using them for content creation. Maybe they tag you, maybe they mention you in the caption, or maybe your gift just sits in the background of a stream. Why wouldn’t they return the favor and give you some screentime if they enjoyed your product?
Cons of paying influencers with gifts
Things can go sideways pretty quickly in the world of marketing if you haven’t thought things through. Sending someone a gift with no (official) strings attached might seem like a no-brainer, but it can certainly come back to bite you.
You might think that not having an actual contact in place and having that informal “tit for tat” head-nod of exchange makes your brand and the content that comes out of the campaign seem more authentic. But that is never the case. Giving someone something makes them feel indebted to you, so while you might tell yourself it’s better, gifing is not more “authentic” than dealing directly with cash.
It’s so not different that creators who post content with gifts sent to them still have to call it out as a sponsored piece of content. Unless, of course, they want to get in trouble with the Federal Trade Commission.
Creators are artists. Would you try and buy a Banksy with a gift package?
So creators have to make sure the gift doesn’t impact them negatively, but brands also have to make sure that gifting influencers doesn’t negatively impact your brand image. How? Because not offering to pay a creator can very quickly come across as paying with “exposure.” We all hate seeing those posts where musicians, artists, and photographers are pitched non-paying gigs, and creators are not any different. They're established or up-and-coming experts at their craft—creating—and a gift is an attempt to utilize their skills without paying them anything for it.
Pros of paying influencers with cash
So if gifting is out because of the possible negative outcomes, what are the actual benefits of going forward with real financial incentives for influencers to partner with you? In other words—apart from the value of an official brand-creator contact, what are the other perks of cold hard cash?
First and foremost, cash gives you a level of predictability that you just won’t ever get from gifts. From a budgeting standpoint, you might know what you’re offering creators by sending them a gift, but it doesn’t always result in the kind of content you want—if anything. And as you start to want to work with larger and more established creators who have bigger audiences, it’s impossible to know what kind of gift they would be interested in. Cash, on the other hand, is much easier to work with. Creators can simply name their price, and you can choose to move forward knowing the cost of the collaboration or not.
Sending a gift and hoping for the best is like spray-and-pray, while cash and contracts are a tactical bullseye
That flows into greater control of the relationship and your creator’s marketing campaigns. It’s a contract. So you can stipulate (or not stipulate) whatever you want. Price, timelines, content, format, tone: however you get it in writing, that’s how it will be.
Cons of paying influencers with cash
Without painting contacts as all butterflies and rainbows, there are a couple of reasons why smaller brands and early influencer marketers might not dive right in,
When you compare the financial impact of a simple gift versus an official contract partnership, the costs of going with cash will be higher. As you ramp up to those more prominent creators and audiences, that price will only increase. The benefits might outweigh the costs, but the cost exists regardless.
Cash is king, but it comes with a price
A related downside is that you have to make sure you do your research since you’re paying more for the campaign. Make sure they’re the right creator for your brand voice, that they have the right amount of influence, that they’ve worked with reputable brands, and what kind of results they’ve driven. You don’t want that hard-earned budget (not to mention all your time and efforts) to go to waste.
Whether you end up sending gifts or cheques, the important thing is that you do something. Gifts might be the best way to quickly get started and get your brand in front of some influencers, but in the end, cash-based relationships are going to give you more credibility and make creators feel like you truly value their work.
So where do you go from here?
If you’ve made it this far, congratulations! You know now probably almost everything you’d want to consider before jumping into the world of influencer marketing. 🎉
You’ve figured out:
- That what you’re looking for is a creator—not an influencer
- Whether you’ll do it all in-house by yourself, with an agency, or on a creator marketing platform
- If you want to partner with creators to create content for you or just distribute it (organically or through whitelisting)
- What size of a creator do you want to partner with (micro, medium, or macro)
- If you’re going to pay them with gifts or with a contract like a real brand doing business with a content artist
The most important thing I hope you’ve learned is how talented creators are. How worth their expertise your time and budget are. How they're as committed to their community as their followers are to them.
It’s an exciting time to be a creator, and it’s an exciting time to be able to harness their content prowess to make everyone wildly successful. You just have to get started to see it for yourself.