So after five years about posting about food, travel, tech, fashion or reverse cycle widgets you’ve being listed by Forbes Magazine as one of the most influential voices in the field.
Now every morning in your inbox is another pitch from an agency offering you freebies and access in return for posting about their clients products, some are great while others are strange.
Welcome to the world of Influencer Programs, a strange hybrid bought about by rise of social media and the collapse of printed news. As overwhelmed salaried journalists at established media outlets have less time to deal with hundreds of PR people desperately trying to get their attention, those with decent social media followings start to look attractive.
The influencer theory
A key part of the PRs strategy in engaging with social media outlets are the influencer programs, where the agencies trawl Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and the other services to find those with large followings and then try to induce them into promoting their clients’ products.
These influencer programs are not anything new, while today we associate them with Kim Kardashian and Will.I.Am, in the 18th Century Josiah Wedgwood publicised his sales to the royal courts of Europe to generate sales for his earthenware and a hundred years later Mark Twain endorsed cigars in journals across America.
So congratulations on being the modern Mark Twain, now you have to decide if you want to play with Fat Fee Media and be part of their influencer programs.
The land of the free
Most of the time the initial approach from the nice folks at Fat Fee will try to get you to work for free in exchange for a shiny laptop, a free feed or even an overseas trip to The World Reverse Cycle Widgets conference.
That might work for you, if you have a full time job and the food blog or fashion Instagram feed is a hobby then this exactly what the influencer programs were originally designed around although there might be some quirks there
Should the blog be a business, or you take the distinctly unfashionable attitude that your time as a creative content creator is actually worth something that Fat Fee Media should pay for, then things get messy.
People die of exposure
The first response for payment from the nice folk at Fat Fee Media is that working with their client will be wonderful exposure for you.
In some respects this is probably true, however the reason Fat Fee Media has come to you is because their clients need exposure more than you do. Just the fact you’ve been listed as an ‘influencer’ shows you have credibility on the interwebs.
One of the traps many of us with consulting businesses on the side is the belief that doing a favour for BigCorp will open future paid opportunities. Sadly, the truth is somewhat different.
Pay the writer
“It’s the amateurs who make it tough for the professionals” says Harlen Ellison in his wonderful Pay The Writer rant. “By what logic do you call me and ask me to work for nothing.”
Ellison’s point is well made and those working for free are marked down as amateurs by the large agencies. Be under no illusion, when the paid consulting, speaking or writing gigs become available, the folks giving away stuff for free on the influencer programs won’t be getting them.
The world of control freaks
Another aspect of the influencer program world is the sheer control freakery. The gold standard for this was Samsung’s infamous Mob!lers Program where the South Korean company threatened to strand a group of Indian bloggers in Berlin if they didn’t act as unpaid company spruikers.
While Samsung’s behaviour was extreme, it’s by no means unusual. It’s common in these programs’ agreements to have ‘exclusivity’ or ‘no disparagement’ clauses.
The exclusivity clauses are particularly pernicious because they limit the scope of your writing and could even lock you out of future paid work in the industry you cover.
Controlling the copy
Another weird, but common, part of the PR control freakery in influencer programs is the determination to vet everything so only Nice Things are said about their clients.
This never ends well as the agency and its client spend the next six weeks rewriting your work. Inevitably the results look like something published in the Ministry of Public Works house newsletter.
Even if your blog or Instagram feed is just a hobby resist any request from agencies to pre-vet your copy. If they insist, send them your advertising rate card and tell them to hire a copywriter.
You can’t say bad things
The ‘non-disparagement’ clauses are equally pernicious. One of the curiosities of the social media world is that corporates are horribly risk averse.
As a consequence they don’t want the possibility of bloggers or the Twitterati saying nasty things about them and the non-disparagement clause becomes part of almost any agreement.
These clauses are usually far ranging, not only do they stipulate a blogger can’t say something less than glowing in a post but they also restrict any social media commentary on that business.
A recent agreement I was presented on behalf of one of the world’s biggest banks required me to say I wouldn’t say anything nasty about them. This is a curious way of shutting people up but one can’t blame them if it can be done cheaply for the cost of a meal or conference invite.
Happy shiny people
Ultimately the social media and digital media worlds are about happy and shiny. Given they are largely controlled by large corporations, this isn’t surprising and much of the attitude that you shouldn’t say bad things online comes down to how food, fashion and travel bloggers have regurgitated nice things rather than been genuine critics.
To be fair to the new breed of online writers, the dumbing down of travel and food writing was well underway in the mainstream media before the arrival of the internet. One could argue that mastheads devaluing their brand with puff pieces was one of the reasons alternative online media, particularly in food blogging, became so successful so fast.
A broken model
In truth, the whole social media engagement industry is broken, it depends on poor measurements and old school marketers applying 1960s Mad Men broadcasting methods to an industry that’s diffuse and diverse.
Over time, new more effective models will develop but the for the moment this is the way business is done as we wait for the new David Sarnoff.
Ultimately for influencers the question is whether you’ll keep your own respect and that of your audience. Just don’t expect the corporates and their agencies to respect you in the morning.