Influencers: partnership or free labour?

Social media influencers are in high demand among brands wanting a bit of cool and the right audience, so why are some in our industry treating them with such contempt?

Are influencers being used as forced labour, asks Pat Southwell
Are influencers being used as forced labour, asks Pat Southwell
Despite reports of influencers getting fat fees, it’s far more often the case that rock bottom budgets or perhaps sheer arrogance leads agencies and in-house teams to have conversations that go a bit like this: "Hi! We love your work and your social media reach. Please can you slog your guts out for nothing next week, cover your own expenses and we’ll take all the credit? No? OK, perhaps we’ll allow you to reference the partnership on your website so you can get more people asking you to work for free? Hello…? Are you still there…?"

In the last month I’ve heard some horror stories where brands have asked for everything and offered nothing. 

One involved a consumer technology brand approaching a successful influencer to run workshops for them without pay. 

No expenses for considerable travel costs. Nothing.

Another involved an agency asking a fashion illustrator with a considerable social following to provide portraits to be given as gifts. 

The agency wanted them for free, although the artist could potentially add an email address to the images – if the client would allow. These are painfully one-sided "partnerships". 

Working for free doesn’t work for agencies and it won’t work for influencers.

Come on people. Remember when the lid was lifted on unpaid PR interns? That was immoral and in most cases illegal. 
Asking an influencer to hand over their carefully created work and hard-won audience for free is just as bad. 

Even if you think their reach doesn’t justify a large payout, be fair and consider how important their followers are. 

After all, isn’t that why you approached them in the first place?

These people are in their position precisely because they’ve curated their own story and their followers have bought into it over a period of time – whether that’s through images, tweets, videos, other content or interactions. 

Instead of trying to unfairly piggyback onto this and getting the PR industry a bad name, perhaps it’s best to emulate the influencers’ success by embracing storytelling. 

Through drama, human interest and topicality it’s possible to create the emotional connection that so many influencers have nailed.

Either that or offer an honest partnership rather than asking for free labour.

Pat Southwell is director of strategy and a partner at Berkeley

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