The Influencer Debate

This week, once again, a social media storm has swirled up around a hotel publishing an email from an influencer asking for a free stay in exchange for content. Once again, there's an unnecessary online witch hunt for someone who obviously works really hard at her job. And once again, Joe Public has something ignorant to say about it.

Everyone is of course entitled to their own opinions, and it is absolutely fine if a business decides that working with influencers is not for them. But a polite 'no thanks' or even ignoring an email is the correct etiquette here - not naming and shaming in public in a misguided attempt to boost your own business.

I was caught up in a Twitter storm over a similar matter several months ago. Middle aged men, some of whom were fathers with daughters my own age, attempted to ridicule me, my career choice and my online presence. I was called out for not having enough followers to be a blogger and told to 'get a job' (I have two, thanks). I have a pretty thick skin and entered into the debate expecting the trolls to rise, but this shouldn't be the case. No one should be bullied, and this basically equates to online bullying.

Let me be transparent before I continue. I blog as a hobby, because I enjoy it and because it compliments both of my jobs. I don't currently make any money from my blog, although I do occasionally receive gifted product and complimentary hotel stays. I don't have a huge following, but I do have a very engaged niche following that is obviously attractive to certain businesses. I'm writing this article on behalf of all influencers, however big or small.

Influencers who spend time on their social media accounts, websites, blogs and YouTube channels are perfectly entitled to call this their job. A 'job' is defined as a 'task or piece of work that is paid'. So if someone is creating content and being paid for it, there should be no doubt that they have a career. And yes, most influencers who are being paid for their work are registered as self-employed and submit an annual tax return. 

Not everyone suits a nine-to-five conventional job, and being a full-time influencer is no different than deciding you want to have a career in music, writing or any other creative pursuit. Online content is a growing industry and there's no shying away from that. Most influencers will be constantly multi-tasking; creating content, taking photographs, writing, editing, maintaining their finances and a dozen other things that are essential when you're self employed. Yes, there are a handful of people who only get into this influencer lark because they want free things, but they're only going to be successful if they put in the work. 

If you're an online influencer, chances are that you find work in two different ways: brands reach out to you and you pitch to brands. On a good blog, Instagram feed or YouTube channel, sponsored content will be scattered between organic posts that the influencer has created off their own back, in their own time, for no monetary gain. 

Now, imagine you are self employed in any other vocation (e.g. as a freelance writer, like myself). Sometimes, you luck out and job offers land in your inbox and you either accept or decline them. Other times, you may stumble upon a brand/business that you would like to work with, so you send them a pitch, outlining the services that you offer. How is that any different that an influencer reaching out to a brand that they admire and wish to work with?

I see several responses to this analogy. The most common are 'but they hardly have any followers' or 'they're just freeloading'. 

I'll start with the first. Different brands work in different ways. Some exclusively work with huge influencers, others turn their noses up at any sort of influencer marketing, while some prefer to work with 'micro influencers'. In my part-time job, one of my responsibilities is to work with influencers. I almost always work with those with a smaller following, for several reasons. Engagement is usually higher, as they receive a manageable number of comments that they can individually respond to and build up a meaningful relationship with their followers. Trust is also higher, as their followers don't expect as much sponsored content as on larger accounts. They also are more likely to be influenced by the opinion of someone who is more like them and doesn't have celebrity status. Are you more likely to buy a dress that you've seen a model wear in an ad campaign, or the same dress when its being worn by someone who looks like you? Then there's the question of fees. Once an influencer hits around 50k on Instagram, their fees can be too high for smaller brands. This is perfectly acceptable; they've worked hard to get to that point and it's also a basic case of supply and demand. 

Now let's address the comment that I see everywhere that really infuriates me, that influencers are free-loaders. That whole 'bloggers are blaggers' argument. Why should someone spend time creating content for free when it will result in a monetary gain for the other party involved? You wouldn't expect a magazine or TV channel to run your advert for free, so why expect a blogger to advertise your business at no gain to themselves?

Of course, you may not see the value in such a collaboration and that is absolutely fine. As I said before, politely decline or ignore their offer. If you, as a business, decide that you'd like to partner with the individual influencer but only wish to give them product or a complimentary hotel stay or similar, don't be insulted if they turn round and tell you that this is their full time job and they'll need payment. If you can't or don't want to pay, politely tell them this and move on.

There should never, ever be instances when emails are copied and pasted by brands and shared on the internet, attempting to name and shame hard-working people who are trying to run a business. You of all people, as a business owner, should understand how damaging this would be.

Now, there's the other side of the coin. Bloggers complaining about brands who ask them to complete work but don't offer payment. 'But that's exactly the same!' I hear you cry. 'Why should a blogger get a free stay in a hotel when they wouldn't work for free?'. It's not the same. If a brand is ASKING an influencer to create content for them, adhering to certain guidelines and advertising their brand, they should be paying for it. As I said before, they would pay a magazine for the same promotion, so why expect it for free?

A blogger asking for a free stay in a hotel in return for content is offering to spend their time creating and publishing content that will promote the hotel, sometimes with a fee involved but sometimes seeing the stay itself as a fee (despite the fact that a free hotel stay won't pay their bills). Now, for that free stay, what does the hotel get? They get free publicity for a start (again, they'd pay for a magazine ad or a facebook boost, the only difference is the method of advertising). They could also gain new followers on their social channels, a potential new audience who hadn't previously heard of them and a carefully curated piece of content that will stay up on the internet indefinitely (as opposed to a monthly or weekly issue of a magazine which is much more disposable). If they only gain two bookings as a result of this collaboration, they've made a profit.

Many people who think its acceptable to troll influencers on these posts that businesses are sharing, copying and pasting their emails, simply are not in touch with modern marketing. Influencer marketing is everywhere, whether you like it or not. Celebrities have been endorsing brands for years, and this is simply a chance for 'regular' people to do the same. If you don't like it, delete your Instagram account or just follow your friends. As long as we live in a capitalist society, marketing is going to exist and it's going to evolve with the times to keep up to date with current technology and trends. 

I'd be really interested to hear your thoughts on this in the comments below. I welcome all opinions, even from those who completely disagree with me.