Greedy Influencers, Bitter Brands: 5 Ways to Spot and Select an Ethical Influencer

white brick building with vines that says "We like you too" - 5 ways to spot and select an ethical influencer to work with

How to Improve the Influencer-Brand Relationship

There’s a passive aggressive war going on in the influencer marketing space these days.

Sure, big brands like Gucci have fully embraced influencers as the key to selling their high-end products. But their marketing budget can be measured in millions of dollars, whereas smaller start-ups, social enterprises, and nonprofit companies simply can’t afford to experiment with different types of advertising.

This, paired with a lack of transparency and pushy-ness on the influencer side, has put a bad taste in the mouths of small businesses trying to navigate their way through a tricky online marketing space.

Brand Complaints

From what I can tell, most brands avoid working with bloggers and influencers for a few reasons:

  • Influencers routinely “cold” email them asking for collaboration, then demand payment.
  • Paying money for a collaboration feels dishonest (whereas sending free product feels organic).
  • Influencers fail to disclose paid relationships, which is misleading to potential customers.

My personal policy on contacting brands for collaboration is that I can’t simply demand something without starting a relationship. And in most cases, if the brand hasn’t reached out to me first, I don’t request payment at all.

This is because I can’t make assumptions about their marketing strategy and budget, and to assume they can throw some money at me doesn’t take into account the relationship-building that is integral to a quality collaboration.

In a similar vein, I find a failure to disclose partnerships ethically ambiguous at best and thoroughly irritating at worst. It’s the actual law to disclose marketing relationships, so if you notice an influencer never disclosing, avoid them!

But to the point on payment versus offering free product: in the eyes of the Federal Trade Commission, both strategies indicate a marketing relationship. You may feel that offering free product doesn’t have the power to sway an influencer, but that still counts as a form of payment, so to create a clear dichotomy between them is a justification that doesn’t hold up.

The Business of Influence

When a blogger or influencer works in a paid or comped-product capacity, they are taking on the role of a marketer. Marketers get paid for what they do – they are compensated for deliverables such as photography, copywriting, and concept – so it only makes sense to pay influencers, too.

Sponsored posts are like advertorials in a print magazine: they offer a service and fit in with the features in the magazine, but they’re marked as advertising. That’s not so foreign when you look at it that way.

The key to effective influencer marketing is transparency! Bloggers and brands should do their due diligence to ensure that readers understand the collaborative relationship and trust the influencer’s discretion and curation of brands.

If you’re a brand looking to work with influencers in an effective, legal way, this is what you should look for…

1. Check for FTC disclosures and ask follow-up questions.

Do blog posts and/or social media posts that appear and read like sponsored posts have a disclosure indicating the influencer’s relationship with the brand?

i.e. “This post is sponsored,” “I was compensated for my work on this post,” or “I received free product.”

If you’re not sure what’s going on, reach out directly to the influencer and ask them what their disclosure policy is. It’s ok to ask for links on what a sponsored post looks like for them versus what a non-sponsored post looks like.

This will help you confirm proper disclosure and determine how frequently they create advertising.

2. Track how often they feature the product they’re promoting.

Does the influencer seem to authentically enjoy the product they received for review? 

One way to gauge this is to check their personal style and #ootd posts on their blog, social media, or Instagram Stories to see if they use the product more than once. While this is not an indication of ethics, it does indicate something about the way they curate collaborations.

3. Assess their overall aesthetic and writing voice to gauge authenticity in collaborations.

Do the products you see the influencer promoting seem to fit within her overall aesthetic, meet her explicit standards, and cohesively work in her life?

I’ve seen some bad collaborations (a fashion blogger promoting Tylenol, for instance). Trust your gut when you see these types of off-brand posts, because they may indicate a lack of curation on the influencer’s part.

The products an influencer promotes should fit into her life, and align with her aesthetic and values. Most ethical influencers turn down far more collaborations than they accept.

4. Analyze the balance of paid versus unpaid posts.

Do all posts appear to be sponsored or is there clear variety?

Carefully scan through blog and social media posts, looking for FTC disclosures and other indications of sponsorship. Decide what balance you’re looking for and how that balance affects engagement and trust with readers.

(I know some bloggers who do almost exclusively sponsored posts to great success. Most of us, though, will be more in the 50-70% non-sponsored content category).

5. Ensure that influencer fees are in line with fair market rates.

Does the influencer’s pay rate seem in line with the influencer industry at large?

Ask the influencer to plug in their stats to a site like FOHR or Social Blue Book and check their rates against standard rates for the industry at large. This will help both you and the influencer know that you’re getting a fair deal.

Any questions or anything I may have missed? Let me know in the comments.

I wrote a book on this topic. Check it out here.

influencer marketing - how to work with ethical influencers and bloggers

Leah Wise

Leah Wise is the founder of StyleWise Blog. She has been writing, speaking, and consulting on sustainable fashion, the fair trade and secondhand supply chain, and digital marketing for over ten years. An Episcopal priest, Leah holds a B.A. in Religion from Florida State University and an M.Div. from Yale Divinity School. When not working, you can find her looking for treasures at the thrift store.

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