How to think about influencer marketing—gifting vs. paying

Note: This post is part of the series, How to think about influencer marketing. As we learn about the challenges and successes marketers are having with influencer marketing, we’ll share them with you.

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Gifting in influencer marketing happens when you send your brand’s product to influencers with the hope that they’ll talk about you on their social feed. Daniel Wellington gifted watches to its network, and it helped them build a $200MM business.

There’s a place for this. No doubt. 

Some marketers praise the practice, even claiming it as the only way to influencer marketing. Others start, and when they see the obstacles it poses, switch to paid programs.

The reaction on both sides is strong enough that it's worth talking about.

Is gifting more authentic?

I’ve heard marketers say that gifting produces content that’s more authentic.

But the idea fails to understand that a gift is a form of paymentone that can easily be turned into cash on sites like Poshmark, depop, the RealReal, or ebay. A practice that raises a lot of ethical questions and discussion.

Gifting is hardly neutral. 

Let’s say your stuff doesn’t get resold. The simple fact that an influencer got free stuff impacts the public’s perception of a post.

That’s why the FTC requires influencers to disclose when they talk about gifted products. They even get influencers to disclose incentives they receive that don’t have financial value. Why? Because they “might affect the credibility of an endorsement.”

Gifting doesn’t automatically make your content authentic. The reality is that authenticity goes deeper than the paid / unpaid question. 

What makes creator content authentic is that there’s genuine interest in the product. Is the creator a genuine fan of your brand—yes or no? If they are, consider them an excellent candidate for a gift AND a paid partnership. That’s the type of person you want to work with long term.


Does gifting bring out the best in a creator?

I've heard some marketers say that gifting allows them to work with creators who are hungrier. The thought is that hungry creators will work harder to produce better content... because they hope to get paid one day.

The other implied idea is that creators who get paid don’t work hard, and that they don’t give it their all. 

Big assumptions. And kind of condescending.

Not paying someone doesn’t guarantee they’ll produce high-quality work. It only guarantees they won’t have money to eat. And that will just create more hungry people.

The truth is that many creators already work around the clock trying to balance sponsored content with their own content production.

As creators become aware of their potential and value, and platforms like #paid continue to show measurable results, there will be a shift away from accepting gifts. Creators will expect to be paid fairly for the content they produce and the metrics they impact. 


Why gift?

Affordable

Some marketers love to gift. They swear by it. It's definitely a low-barrier way to get started with influencer marketing. It's affordable. The cost of the program is pretty much the cost of the inventory—whether it’s a $2000 mattress or a $20 essential oil, costs are pretty contained. Even if you splurge on packaging to creators, it’s still cheaper than a paid campaign.


New users

Here’s another advantage: you get your product directly into the hands of creators—many that probably never heard of you. By sending your product, you’re giving them the chance to try it without having to discover it on their own. If they like your product, you’ll potentially expose your brand to a whole new audience.

Sounds like gifting is the way to go, then. It can be. But it also has its challenges.

Challenges with gifting

Competition

Sitting at your favorite creator’s doorstep are a bunch of other “gifts.” All screaming for attention.

On top of competing with other brands who are gifting, you’re also up against products and brands the creator already loves and uses—brands and products the creator is probably eager to promote. Brand and products that are compensating her for the time she invests developing that oh-so-coveted engaging content.

That delicious creative work doesn’t just come out of thin air. It takes literal sweat. Sometimes even tears—literal ones. For the best creators, this is how they make a living. So while your product is cool, that dope pair of kicks you just sent won’t pay the rent, tuition, or medical insurance.

If you want to work with meaningful creators (the ones with word-of-mouth-like influence), show them that you appreciate the work and pay them.

Predictability

Gifting isn’t always predictable, especially at the start when you have no historical data telling you how many DMs you need to slide into for a response, or how many gifts you need to send out to reach that target number of posts. Over time, you’ll develop the creator funnel, and build consistency into your campaigns. Like many things, it just takes time. You’ll get there. But you might want to consider hiring a dedicated person to support this. Managing a funnel like this is enough work for a full-time gig. 

Control

You have little control, if any, over the narrative. It’s hard to make sure that your product shows up in its proper context, or that the message accurately represents what your brand’s all about, what it stands for. And of course a big part of the narrative is the production value. You can’t police the quality of the work. How do you prevent the content from being inauthentic, poor quality, and boring? You can’t really. They’re not being paid. They don’t answer to you. 


Wrapping up

Now don’t get me wrong, gifting is better than not tapping into influencer marketing at all. But it’s really just a small sniff of the channel’s potential. I’d at least explore paying your creators. In many cases, it’s a cheat code to predictability. If you’re working with the right creators, paying them means guaranteed deliverables that meet your criteria. It also mean guaranteed responses and response time. You’re not sitting around hoping for them to get back to you. They’re professionals who are accountable for the work, which makes for a smoother end-to-end campaign experience. 

Most importantly, paying creators shows them you value their work. Shows that you get the potential in the partnership. They respect your business. Paying them shows that you respect theirs. If you want a true ambassador who’s going to mobilize a multitude, paying your creator partners is good marketing.