I’ve worked in the media, both print and digital, for more than 15 years. I’ve had a blog for 12 years. I’ve also been heavily-entrenched in what is now referred to as “influencer marketing” for more than a decade. That’s all to say: I’ve been around the block. And I hate to see brands and DMOs (destination marketing organizations) misuse their funds by blowing their entire annual budgets on these phony third-party platforms.
With “influencer marketing” becoming such a buzz term in recent years, there are a growing number of creator platforms cropping up trying to capitalize on this trend. I get anywhere from 10 to 20 emails a month from startups touting their influence to brands and trying to get me (and assumedly anyone with a blog or Instagram) to sign up and lend their company credibility.
“Collab with us!!!!” they say excitedly in the subject line, usually with more than one exclamation point, their Millennial flag waving high. “Join our exclusive network of the top 100,000 influencers!” Rrrrrrright.
Here are screenshots of just a few I received last month:
Even Fohr, which tries to market itself as the gold standard in the influencer realm, boasts: “We have 54k influencers and have delivered over a trillion engagements!”
I mean, let’s start with the obvious: Are there really 100,000 influential people out there in any one genre? Or even 10,000 for that matter? And if you’re a brand or destination after a high caliber of content creators, do you really want to consult the help of a platform that is the opposite of selective and, conversely, takes anyone? This seems like an obvious “no” to me; then again, this is an industry that has gone off the rails, so nothing really makes sense anymore. These platforms thrive on volume, not quality, as evidenced by the fact that they spam everyone in their network (and many who have yet to join) with these “exclusive opportunities.”
Before I go any further, please note: When talking about third-party platforms, I mean those that exist solely as a content management funnel or “influencer” recruitment service. There are plenty of professional influencer marketing/digital agencies like Travel Mindset, FleishmanHillard, and Weber Shandwick with whom I’ve worked on projects and would highly recommend. There are also more old-school agencies like Madden Media trying to hop on the bandwagon and market influencer services without any experience in that world as evidenced by the fact that they’ve attempted to hire us for several “influencer” campaigns without sending us to said destinations (that’s not influencer marketing; that’s just straight-up advertorial or copywriting work).
Don’t know who is legit and who isn’t? Email me, and I’ll be happy to divulge!
Where influencer marketing has gone wrong
Last week, a platform called #paid reached out about a campaign that could not have been a more perfect fit: It was about creating an outdoor entertaining space, which happens to be something we’re currently working on for our backyard. They wanted us to create a branded video about the experience in coordination with their sponsor, as well as post to our channels. No problem—we always document our homes projects, and the company they are representing happens to be one that we already use, something that’s important to us before signing on to endorse a product. So what’s the issue, you ask?
First up: When I signed up for #paid, they must have asked me for rates. This is pretty typical when you sign up for such platforms, that way account managers know which content creators will fit within a campaign’s budget. Our rates are very competitive by industry standards and dare I say actually lower than many who have been doing this half as long as we have.
The rep confirmed my availability to complete the project within the timeframe, and I told her it worked on our end. It was then that she tried to negotiate me down—to a mere 15 percent of the already competitive rate I had set forth. Look, negotiating is nothing out of the ordinary for any kind of business, mind you, it was rather her language and justification for doing so that made my skin crawl:
Are your rates up to date? Your CPE (cost per average engagement) is very high. On average we see a typical industry average CPE between 0.30-0.60, so we can offer you $0.87 CPE, which is more competitive. Let me know what you think!
It was then that I realized this was yet another one of the thousands of Instagram platforms just looking to canvass social media with their clients’ branding rather than creating a mindful marketing strategy. (I also don’t believe in Instagram-only marketing campaigns as you may have heard me say a time or 20.). If you’re thinking, “hey, Kristin, I remember you telling me about all the shady things people are doing on Instagram. SURELY, a big brand would be savvy enough not to encourage such behavior by compensating content creators based on their engagement alone,” then, YEP, we’re thinking the same thing. The real issue is this: Everybody knows that the algorithm is flawed and that the only people seeing more than, say, five percent engagement on Instagram are those gaming the system by bots, like farms, pods, etc. In other words, #paid is saying in not so many words that if I were to buy thousands of likes per post like many of my peers do, I could charge a higher CPE? Not cool, #paid. We pride ourselves on authenticity and would never sink so low.
For reference, a quick Google search shows how easy and cheap this would be to do: $.06 can get me 100 likes, meaning for just $.60 I could buy 1,000 likes, and for the bargain price of $6, I could have an additional 10,000 likes per post. And just like that, my CPE rises, and #paid has to pay me more than 10 times what they’re offering me with their current rate structure. Do you see why, ignoring the mere fact that a simple “like” doesn’t translate to a purchase, compensating by CPE is the silliest thing ever? I ignored her email because it didn’t warrant a response, in my opinion; this is clearly not a company with whom we are copacetic.
When she followed up a few days later and I told her I wasn’t interested in supporting a model that encourages bolstering engagement in order to justify a higher rate for content that takes the same amount of time to produce whether you have 1 percent or 100 percent engagement, this was her reply:
We can absolutely understand where you’re coming from and we think your content quality is great too. However, we also have to consider that when working on a collaboration the brand is also looking for things like the number of engagements in comparison to the number of followers or reach you may have as well as things like the style of feed and quality of content. At this time your engagement rate is just above 1% which we believe should also be a factor in justifying your pricing.
Sadly, these creator companies like #paid and fullbottle, a pay-per-like platform that has since gone bankrupt and left many influencers penniless for work completed, seem to exist solely for the money grab, not to serve the client’s best interests as they should, and they don’t care about authenticity. Even sadder is that many brands and tourism boards are none the wiser and get a pitch deck that sounds like a slam dunk, so they fork over their coveted marketing dollars to such platforms.
How brands erroneously value quantity over quality
My friend, a very well-known food blogger, told me of a similar campaign he was approached for through #paid, this time for Starbucks. He has a much higher follower count and Instagram engagement than mine, and after his rep requested a ridiculous amount of analytics and justification for his social media packages, they tried to negotiate him down to less than a 10th of what he normally charges—calculated solely on likes and not the insights and exposure he had shared with them, nor the high quality of work he performs.
This same thing happened to a handful of us Nashville bloggers a year ago when a San Francisco platform who does not know the local media market reached out to what seemed like everyone with an Instagram presence within a 100-mile radius to attend the opening of a celebrity-owned Honky Tonk on Broadway. They sent each of us the same embarrassingly low offer of compensation attached to an insane number of requirements and deliverables. Again, these kinds of emails go directly to my trash folder, but when several close friends countered, they all received more or less the same response, copy-and-pasted, which you could tell because of the variable font sizing. (Side note, brands: Influencers talk with one another, you know! I would think this much is obvious.)
We appreciate the consideration and are happy to work with you on finding a middle ground that benefits us both. For your knowledge, for our campaigns we price out at a $14CPM using 30% as the impression benchmark for the campaign. If you share a screengrab of your top performing posts from the last 3 months and it shows that you reach higher impression rates than our 30% benchmark—we are happy to adjust and recalculate our numbers.
One particularly righteous friend, a VP at a music label and entertainment industry veteran with far more experience than said San Francisco company, responded that the offer was “subpar” compared to what most companies pay for the same amount of work, adding: “to use a formula to calculate what you believe to be the ROI is simply inaccurate and, again, insults the nature of our business and our influence. Do you use that formula when calculating value/impressions for billboards, TV ads, and other impression media outlets? Our social and web properties receive tens of thousands of views per month and to simply base pay on number of Instagram followers vs engagement—well that’s absurd and not smart on your side. As you’re aware, Instagram algorithms change constantly and therefore what people see changes constantly so your formula is already outdated.” He, in turn, received the following:
As you mention, the algorithms change constantly across all platforms. So the only way to accurately assess ROI for our clients is to use the numbers—as reductionist as it may seem. And yes, that is how every media, advertising, marketing agency measures the ROI on spends in the market—whether it’s engagement rate, impression rate, click throughs, etc.—there’s always quantifiable metrics being measured for success. We were asking for screen grabs of your post data to see if we could negotiate and find a middle ground but we will respect your decline and will remove you from our lists, as requested.
Look, I get it: ROI is tricky to measure and it takes some actual work to figure out what and who are worth your dollars. WORK THAT THE PLATFORM IS GETTING PAID TO DO, I’d like to point out. But these agencies often are lazy, want to do as little work as possible and give their clients some abstract numbers that mean absolutely nothing as justification for their hours billed. And many brands just see a shiny number and say, “looks great!” without digging any deeper; thus, the cycle continues of agencies passing the buck and content creators being asked to work for virtually nothing in an oversaturated market of phony creators.
How you can do better in your own influencer marketing
Let’s get to the nut of the issue. If you’re a tourism board or brand, how do you make sure you’re doing influencer marketing (or any marketing, really) right? Plenty of ways:
You hire content creators whose audience or niche aligns with your marketing goals. Are you an eco-resort in South America who mainly attracts European visitors? Then why are you reaching out to a fashion blogger in Seattle with a predominantly PNW following of Millennial girls liking to know it? In truth, with search engines dominating how we find information, it’s hard to know who is going to stumble upon your resort via a Google search, but you can at least narrow down the pool of potential content creators based on geography, native language and surface-level demographics. My readership is predominantly North America based, so it makes sense to team up with destinations who have or are trying to attract U.S. travelers from certain drive or fly markets. Would it make sense for a small town in Russia whose visitors all come within a 200-mile radius to hire me? Probably not.
You make sure the content produced under your brand’s name is professional quality. I see SO MANY “influencers” on Instagram with out-of-focus, grainy, rookie-level photos snapped in low light with an iPhone 6, and I wonder how brands aren’t wiser to actually vet the people who are becoming the de facto faces of their product. Oh wait, I know! They’re just looking at the (fake) numbers (*face palm*). As my PR pro friend Matt says, “Instagram is sprinkles on the cupcake. Sure, it’s nice if a content creator has a real and engaged following, but it’s not something we would pay for.” My thoughts exactly, Matt. When I’m managing a brand’s budget, I never pay for Instagram-only content; I pay for quality website work, and Instagram is just a bonus, a supplementary marketing component. If a potential consumer is finding you via Google, for example, first impressions matter. Wouldn’t you rather have a well-written, well-photographed piece of content that reaches a targeted 50,000 potential consumers versus 100,000 randoms via a blogger with no writing or photography skills who’s only selling point is “gives good SEO?” Seems like a no-brainer to me. But then again, some companies really just want the numbers to justify to their boss or board of directors, and that’s where I’m hoping the tourism industry finally wisens up.
You amplify content on your end. One of my favorite clients to work with is Visit OKC, not just because the city is one of the most underrated destinations in the US, but because they take all of the marketing assets we create and actually use them for their intended purpose (to market to meetings planners, for their visitors’ guides, on their booths at trade shows, etc.). Sure, you are effectively hiring an influencer to market your destination or product to his/her audience, but think about the additional eyeballs you’d reach if you’re also sharing all of that content with yours. Plus, it’s much more affordable to license imagery and video via an influencer already creating assets about your destination than it is to then also hire a photographer.
You hold your agency accountable, if you have one. One former client of ours told me once about a PR nightmare in which the city’s third-party digital agency was marketing their destination on social media as a place to come see grizzly bears in the wild—the problem is this is a city in the middle of the South some thousands of miles from any grizzlies not found in the zoo. My point: It’s on YOU to make sure your agency is best representing your brand or destination—as well as making sure they’re communicating with media in a way that aligns with your own messaging. In my experience, I’ve found so many CVBs just assume their agency is doing what they’re supposed to be doing without ever checking that as truth.
You hire a knowledgable consultant to do the vetting for you. SVV and I have been brought on by plenty of destinations and brands like the Grand Ole Opry to vet incoming media requests and also better sculpt how they’re doing their digital marketing, as well as coach their employees on best practices. It helps to have an outsider perspective, and while I’m not saying you have to hire us (though you can!), someone with experience on both ends of the spectrum—as both the media and the marketers—can definitely assist in sussing out who is legit and who isn’t worth your time and budget, not just the influencers but the content platforms you’re looking at using, as well.
You use common sense. If you come across an influencer with a seemingly large audience who appears smarmy, fake, or just not someone with whom you would want to share a cocktail or a cup of tea, your gut instinct is probably correct. Don’t be glamoured by a mere number; remember, that is so easily gamed. I’ve hired hundreds of influencers over the years, and the ones I thought might be divas turned out to be spot on (and wound up making my personal black list); the ones who seemed real via their social media and like people I’d be friends with turned out to be the easiest, most enjoyable content creators to work with (and, thus, have been people I’ve hired for multiple projects).
At the heart of the issue is this: You’re likely overthinking your influencer marketing strategy. It doesn’t have to be something you spend years building up to execute—I often hear from CVBs, “we want to work with influencers; we’re just not there yet,” which is baffling to me as they’re missing the boat and making it into something much bigger than it needs to be to start—but rather, it’s something you should be doing right now. It also should not be your only game plan, but rather be cohesive with everything else you’re doing to market your destination or product, including billboards, magazine advertorials and social media campaigns.
And lastly, your budget can be used to accomplish big things; like everything else in life, just start small. That is provided that you stop blowing it all on these “creator platforms” and bring the work in house or use a reputable consultant or digital agency to supplement your current efforts.
Looking for more posts on influencer marketing? Start here:
- Has Your Instagram Engagement Tanked? Here’s Why You Shouldn’t Care
- 11 Lessons Learned from 11 Years of Blogging
- Influencers, Want to Be More Hirable? Take These Tips to Heart
- 13 Questions NOT to Ask a Travel Writer