The world's trusted guide to sustainable and ethical fashion

The world's trusted guide to sustainable and ethical fashion

Hey Small Brands: Here’s How to Not Get Burned by Influencers

There’s been a lot of chatter in the ethical fashion space lately about how small brands keep getting “burned” by influencers. The chief complaints I’ve read are:

  1. The brand sent free product to an influencer, but she never posted about it.
  2. The influencer was paid a large sum to promote the brand, but the brand didn’t see enough sales to justify the price.

I really do understand how difficult it is to be a tiny ethical brand. You’re bootstrapping, you have too many scruples to underpay your artisans, and your eco-friendly materials cost so much more than conventional materials. I frequently have to clean out my shopping guide and old posts because brands have –  poof! – disappeared, and all that is left is a 404 where pictures of beautiful clothing and accessories used to be. And yes, I feel bad that they couldn’t make it, even though I personally supported these brands with editorial and posts.

So I get that as a brand, you might feel really heartsick when you pay money to an influencer or send them a beautiful product that was lovingly handcrafted, and you seemingly don’t get anything concrete out of it.

And you know what? I believe you. I believe that there are influencers out there – micro and massive – who are behaving unprofessionally and unethically. Every time I dive into the wide world of Instagram, I realize that there are literally hundreds of influencers out there now who are #vegan #ethicalfashion #slowfashion #plantbased #zerowaste promoters. Like, where did they all come from? Back in my day (2013), I could count the eco-bloggers on one hand. Now they are multiplying like rabbits on an organic carrot farm!

I also believe that you get dozens of emails a week from these small sustainable influencers asking for free product, and how old that can get.

But, I also know from experience that a lot of small designers and social good entrepreneurs start approaching influencers with complete naiveté and over-exuberance.

So. I’m going to do y’all a solid and give you some advice from the inside on how not to get burned by so-called ethical influencers.

Here we go:

  1. Don’t do any work with an influencer until you have a holistic marketing plan.

If you are slapdash emailing random influencers and giving them vague offers without having a 360-degree marketing plan, I guarantee you, you will run out of money with nothing to show for it. You need to know how each influencer fits in with your larger plan. (And no, you cannot make one influencer your entire plan, any more than you should make only one product in one colorway and rely on that for all your revenue.) It might include:

  • An overall marketing (and as a line beneath that, influencer) budget for this quarter and the year, including for-sponsored posts and gifting. Don’t have a marketing budget? Then you need to reevaluate your business plan.
  • Whether you want to use that budget for a few big influencers, a lot of little influencers, or not work with influencers at all. There are several successful sustainable designers and brands who work with influencers. But that is a blanket policy. Most other successful brands are working with influencers to great effect.
  • Your target market for your product (helpful in helping you choose influencers to work with).
  • Style guidelines (also helpful in choosing influencers to work with).
  • Your goals: brand awareness, sales, website visits, Instagram followers, or newsletter subscribers are all legitimate goals. You can’t do all of these at once in one post from one influencer, so you need to choose one or two to pursue.

I can tell the difference from the first email between a brand who has a plan, and a brand that doesn’t. And I actually respect brands more when they seem to have specific goals in mind for our collaboration, rather than brands that are like, “Whatever you want! I don’t know! Please write about us!”

So, do not engage in one influencer collaboration until you have your marketing plan nailed.

2. Understand the value of brand awareness.

Sales are amazing, and obviously the overarching goal of your business. But if you are a brand new, tiny brand, then right now you need to work on building brand awareness, which will snowball into sales later on down the line. There’s a famous adage that it takes on average at least seven touch points before a consumer is ready to buy. That could be a lot less for impulse buys (a.k.a. fast fashion) and a lot more for huge life purchases (a car). But especially when it comes to quality fashion, mid to high-end beauty, and travel, a consumer needs to gather information about your brand and get familiar with it, so that she will even remember you and consider you when she’s ready to buy something in your product category. So, for example, if you are selling bathing suits, she needs to have learned about your brand, probably more than once, so that your brand comes to mind when she’s shopping for an upcoming vacation.

Brand awareness matters: brands in the initial-consideration set can be up to three times more likely to be purchased eventually than brands that aren’t in it. – McKinsey

This is especially true when it comes to sustainably-inclined consumers. They’re only buying high-quality items that they really want and need in their life. They are not impulse buyers. So they are going to think long and hard about whether your $150 blouse is really worth both the money, environmental resources, and space in their closet.

Knowing all that, it’s completely unrealistic to expect one individual influencer to generate a lot of sales for you immediately, especially if your product is more expensive than what you’ll find at Walmart, and you’re new and completely unknown to consumers.

So spread your marketing dollars out to a lot of different channels. Remember that holistic marketing plan? Many readers will see your brand in one Instagram post, and then read about it in detail on another influencer’s blog, and then see your brand in your retargeting ads, and then sign up for your newsletter to get that discount, and then four months from now (long after cookies have expired from that initial sponsored post) will be ready and have saved up the money to finally buy the thing your brand is selling. I’ve spoken to one prominent influencer that does a ton of sell-through for an underwear brand. But she said she can’t promise that to most other brands, because the underwear brand in question puts so much money into marketing that you can’t exist as a 20-to-35-year-old woman and not know about them.

The point is, each sponsored posts holds value in pushing the consumer towards eventually becoming a customer of yours, even if it doesn’t immediately generate sales. You should be aware of this going into any collaboration, and set your goals not just around sales, but around post views, read time, click-throughs, newsletter sign-ups, Instagram likes, and other measures of how many people saw your brand through the influencer’s promotion.

3. Go out and find influencers who fit your brand.

Now that you have your marketing plan and goals, you can go out and choose your potential influencers. (And assess any that have emailed you.) They should be carefully chosen based on their fit with your target market and aesthetic. Does her Instagram come close to your style guide?  Is she in your target demographic? Is she posting about topics that indicate she and her readers would be interested in your brand?

If the answer to any of those questions is no, then you would be wasting your money working with her. Cross her off your list.

4. Check to make sure they aren’t cheating.

Now that you have a list of potential influencers, do a quick check on their Instagrams. Click into all the comments and into the likes to browse through the kind of accounts that are interacting with her. If a large portion of them are in a language that’s different from what she speaks, or have similar photos or photos of non-faces, or are all private with similar follower counts, they are probably fake. Do not work with this influencer.

Here’s a selection of likes from a “popular” sustainable travel blogger. Do these accounts look like people who will book a room at your eco-hotel in Mexico? Are they even real people? Probably not.

Even if the followers aren’t fake, though, you want to see if her followers are actually the kind of people in your target market, and are lay people who would potentially buy your product. For example, a friend of mine who is a marketing consultant told me that a popular fitness blogger actually has three-quarters of her followers as men! (Blame the booty shots.) So three-quarters of your budget would be wasted if you’re trying to sell women’s fitness clothes through her.  Also watch out for circular commenting. If all her comments are similarly vapid (35 “OMG SO CUTE”) and almost all her likes are from other similarly-sized influencers with similarly-polished profiles who all have blogs, then I don’t think those followers are actually interested in learning about your brand. It’s not unethical to submerge herself in a scene where everyone is commenting on each other in order to boost their engagement, and technically, she’s not cheating. But, you should proceed with caution in this case, because all you might get out of working with her is emails from 24 other influencers asking to work with you and get free product.

Also look through her images to verify that they go back longer than six months, and that she actually created those photos. One big clue she is cheating is if the quality of the pictures in which she herself is featured is worse than the pictures of her supposed apartment or smoothie bowls or sunsets or resorts. She could have bought or stolen those photos to fill her Instagram feed and make her look more professional and talented than she is. Pictures with her face should be the same quality as pictures of her brunch. Here’s a great story with more on this topic.

5. Look for past examples of partnerships with other brands.

Honestly, if brands always did this step, they could avoid a lot of grief. When I hear brands complaining that the influencer did poor work compared to her (obviously fake bought photos), I have little sympathy. Her portfolio of work is out there for you to see! Look for #sponsored or #ad Instagram posts, and looked for Sponsored posts on her website. Do you like the photos or video she took?  Do you like the way she wrote about the brand? Did you see meaningful engagement from her readers and followers around the brand? If you can’t find an example of a partnership with another brand within the last four months, I wouldn’t engage.

5. Set aside a few hours to email them personally.

Start with the top influencers on your list and email them with a personal note. (Side note: Only Insta DM them if they don’t have a website with contact information.) Depending on their responses (some will say yes, some will say maybe, and some will say no or not respond) you can work your way down the list to the tier 2 and tier 3 bloggers the next week until you’ve reached your budgetary limit.

5. Ask for her media kit.

Any influencer worth her salt should have a media kit ready to send you with her numbers and demonstrating her professionalism. If she does not have a media kit, walk away. If she does, now you can review it to make doubly sure she is a good fit.

6. Evaluate her prices against what she offers and your budget.

Her media kit might have prices. If not, ask for them, for whatever sponsored thing your asking for. Then make sure that you’re comfortable with the price as compared to what she’s offering and the number of followers and visitors she has, and it fits in your budget, before you confirm.

7. Communicate your expectations clearly.

If you just want to gift product… Most top-tier bloggers will not do a lot of work in exchange for a free gift. That’s doubly true for top-tier ethical bloggers, who don’t want a lot of free stuff sent to them. So, know that you will get a lot of no’s, or get ignored if you are only offering free product (unless it is expensive, a well-known brand that is re-sellable, or she would love to have it). But, since micro-itty-bitty influencers will accept free product, and apparently ask for it all the time…

Overall, gifting product is like loaning money to a friend: don’t do it unless you can actually afford to not get anything back. Influencers really do require free product, to test it out plus take photographs. But it is entirely possible that when she gets your product, she will decide that she doesn’t like it after all – it’s low quality, it’s not flattering, it doesn’t work, it’s not her style, etc… No, not every influencer will be professional and responsive in the event that they decide they don’t like your product. New bloggers are awkward and unsure of protocol (I certainly was) and will feel really guilty about the whole situation and may stop responding to your emails. Oh well, move on.

So, clearly outline your expectations. Do you expect her to post a picture of her wearing it on Instagram? Do you expect her to review it on her blog? Let her know so she can confirm or turn you down now, instead of three months from now after you’ve sent product. You can’t make specific stylistic requests or ask to view the post before it goes live in exchange for just a free gift. In fact, she may review your product and point out the negative aspect. Again, she is allowed to do that.

If she is a tiny blogger and the product is valuable, you can be more demanding and make her promise to post a photo or a review, or send it back in good condition if she doesn’t like it. Larger influencers, not so much. That’s just part of your budget, my friend, taking that gamble. But feel free to email her after the tracking code (don’t forget to track the package!) has indicated the product has arrived, and check to see how she likes it or if she has questions. You’re reminding her that you sent her a gift and that it’s polite for her to at least give feedback, even if she doesn’t want to post about it.

If you’re offering an affiliate program… Some people believe that it should be all affiliates, all the time. I don’t agree, because of what I discussed above with brand awareness. But if that is all you’re offering, then you can’t make any demands or set out any expectations at all. It’s completely up to her if and when and where she wants to link to your product. Smart influencers will not do an entire post around one brand just because you are offering affiliate sales – it’s just not worth the time invested. I personally tend to use affiliates links in roundups of several brands, because that attract readers who are ready to purchase now.

If you want to do a sponsored post…Then you can ask for a lot of specific assets. You can ask to review the post before publication, to see the caption, to see the photos. You can send over style guidelines and requests for how the product should be photographed, and request that certain keywords and concepts are included. You can specify a window of time within which she needs to post. Just communicate everything before she receives the item and starts testing it out and photographing it. After she’s spent a whole day shooting photos and editing them is not the time to say, “But I wanted both sides photographed!” You should have said that from the outset.

If you “don’t have a budget for influencers” then you should drastically lower your expectations for coverage from an interview and dedicated blog post, to perhaps an inclusion some editorial at some point. I know that some brands try to pull a fast one and pay certain influencers while telling others that you don’t have a budget. We talk to each other about this, and also it’s kind of obvious when that other influencer has a #sponsored post with you that you actually do have a budget and you were just lying. If you don’t think a small influencer is worth paying based on her numbers, then maybe offer her a nominal amount, like $75, and clearly outline the quality of work and assets you’re expecting.

8. Pay after you’ve reviewed the sponsored post.

This is something I came up with and it’s worked great for both me and the brands I work with. I write up the sponsored post, and the brand doesn’t pay until they’ve seen the draft and approved it. Once they approve, I invoice them. And once they’ve paid, I publish it. This makes sure that you know she’s done quality work before you pay, but she’s confident that you won’t skip out on payment after she’s published the post. It’s a fantastic compromise that I absolutely recommend.

9. Review the post as soon as it’s live.

If you sent free product…You can only request changes if there are typos or factual errors.

If it was a sponsored post…You can ask for errors and typos to be corrected, and you can make sure that she’s not broken any of the guidelines that you sent over before publication.

10. Review your campaign when it’s completed.

It’s time to learn from the experience. Who sent the most and least traffic, as compared to their monthly visitors? Who got the most and least engagement, compared to their followers? Who took the most beautiful pictures, and who, well, didn’t? You can use this information to choose better influencers to work with next time. This is all for internal learnings by the way – please do not harangue the influencers who were a disappointment. But do compliment the best influencers on their work!

Overall: Meet Her Halfway

One influencer cannot wave her magic wand and do everything for you. You need to meet her halfway with a great product, great photos, and a great website, plus diversify your marketing plan so that she’s just one piece of the overall machinery that moves customers from awareness to purchase to loyal repeat customer.

But if you follow these guidelines, I guarantee you that you will maximize your influencer marketing dollars and get the best possible work for your budget – and gain a lot of loyal new fans and customers in return for your professionalism.

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