Don't Call Us "Influencers"

More brands are reaching out to creators, most struggle to communicate, gain trust & build relationships that last. Here is why & what brands can do to get better at it. Tips from a content creator!

When the word “influencer” as defined below, appeared a few years ago, The Creator Economy was not what it is today. The “influencer” concept is an outdated one some brands are still using to talk about content creators.

Brands recognize today more than ever the tremendous reach they can get by working with the right creators, and yet they’re failing to reward creators fairly for that voice, their craft, and the powerful networks they have built.

I’m writing this post based on my personal experience in the past 5+ years as a part-time content creator and tons of conversations I had with hundreds of fellow creators and brands throughout those years. I under no means own any universal truth. I’m simply sharing my point of view, and that’s a general discussion topic among the creator community. What I’m sharing below is not meant to be representative of all brands. In fact, I had the pleasure to work with amazing brands that get creators just right!

But with more “traditional” brands approaching creators, the feeling is that they want to take advantage of you as a creative. No one to blame here; the industry has changed, it’s an entirely new game for many of them. So my aim with this post is to level the field and educate if I can. Constructively and creatively! I will start by explaining the real difference between content creators and an influencer, and how knowing that difference can be powerful and empowering for both, brands and creators. I will divide the post into simple sections that will help anyone to understand a very simple difference. At least from my perspective

Content Creators are the present & future of advertising.

The most important thing to understand before we start is that all those “social platforms” or “social networks” are just content distribution platforms with a social component. Today most of the tools we use, even a running app, are social. So the term social network is kind of a given.

The difference between YouTube and Netflix, both content distribution platforms, is just that the entry requirements are higher on one than the other. One is that every creator can join, access, and publish content, and the other is where everyone can access, but only a few that meet certain requirements can share content.

So I will break down some key points everyone should consider when talking about content creators and not influencers.

Creators care about their audience. Influencers don’t!

Today, the number of creators that can be literally called “influencers” is minimal. On top of that, if you know any content creator or work with one, simply ask them.

👉 “Should I call you an influencer?”

The answer will, in 99% of the cases, be a straight NO. The reason being is that content creators, mostly small to mid-tier creators, are a one-person army. They are filmmakers, copywriters, screenwriters, their marketing department, their own managers, editors, social media managers; you get the idea.

Creators are, in most cases, one-person businesses, combining all the functions of a small to medium-size business into one. Let’s leave the 1% aside for a moment of those mid-tiers that can start hiring a team. So when we call any of those creators “influencers,” it’s like calling Pablo Picasso a doodler instead of an Artist. Content creation in any form, video, art, photo, music, or sound is extremely well planned and thought through. That’s why audiences engage; that’s how communities are built and the main reason why brands reach out to creators in the first place. Let’s always acknowledge that.

Content creators give everything to their communities because it is through their communities they get to do what they love for a living. Most of them will not simply advertise anything that comes their way or falls into their inbox. They want to add value to their communities, and their full brand is based on the trust behind that relationship. They don’t want to “influence” people to buy things they don’t need. They want to share with their communities products, services, or “things” they personally find valuable and that they believe will improve their communities’ lifestyle, crafts, or business in one way on another.

On the other hand, some will sell anything to their audience, in every post a different cream, cheap electronic, or a useless subscription. I call them influencers. The question for a brand would be 👉 do you really want to be associated with an “influencer” like that? - guess not.

A famous (and funny) incident that can serve as an example is when Marques Brownlee, aka MKBHD - a super known tech reviewer - called out Gal Gadot on Twitter for posting a “fake” tweet add for the Huawei Mate 10Pro 👇 which was showing “sent from Twitter for iPhone” capture.

To be extremely fair with Gal, this was 99% someone from her social media team, not her posting this. Situations like this are quite normal, but those funny examples tell us a lot about how important it is to actually care. Or when a typical influencer presents a product that does not align with their audience, to get that $$$.

Creators care about their craft.

Creating a good community is extremely hard, but you know what’s even harder? Creating good quality and engaging content, regardless of the platform or medium. When brands approach creators, they do it from the community reach angle, and it makes sense; I see nothing wrong in that. On top of that, many brands really like and resonate with the creator style, but to be realistic - it’s generally for the reach.

Casey Neistat in one podcast interview recently said that he had realized at some point that brands were approaching him because of his reach, and not because of his (amazing, in my opinion) content, and he was surprised at the begining.

And that’s kind of crazy if you think about it, and I don’t believe that’s smart either, because it misses the potential. Let me explain what I mean by that.

I subscribed to Casey’s channels (plural) when he was 20K, maybe 30K subs total, and immediately saw that potential. Imagine a brand investing in him back then, supporting his growth—a winning formula for both of them. His content was something I’d never seen before.

As an example, back then, he was vlogging every day, and he made a total of 467 daily episodes. While doing so, he trashed cameras and lenses, going through them as if they were Tic-Tacs, as he likes to describe it. Can you imagine a partnership with Canon, Sony, Nikon back then, when he was starting? Potentially worth millions. For both and their audience.

The same thing, when I started watching some of the other biggest YouTubers in their early days. You can tell they had so much potential just by looking at the content itself. I already was able to tell they would be huge, either for the production quality that raises the bar for everyone else, engaging personalities, or because they cracked a “viral” formula.

But, how could have someone possibly known that? Quite a simple answer, in fact. I’m a content creator, and by looking at the content, I can easily tell how much dedication a creator puts, how much passion, how many hours in the edit bay the creator is investing. That will translate into consistent content, leading to an engaged audience, a strong community, and more reach. Some brands get this right. Other brands or representatives/employees reaching out to creators don’t even understand that, which is why they are missing out on great partnerships.

As a rule of thumb, in my opinion, when it comes to content creation, the more casual it looks, the more natural it feels, the more work that creator puts into that piece of content. They really care about quality, sound design, cuts, edits if it’s an image, and quality if it’s sound. They are also supercritical with their work, so when a brand approaches and says: “I loved that video of yours” they will immediately know if they really have seen it. That puts brands at a disadvantage, does not inspire trust, and might jeopardize an amazing partnership where everyone wins. Brands, creators, and audience (win win win street)

Both brands and creators should focus on “early potential” detection and get good at it.

Creators know more About Content, and often Products than Brands

More times than I can remember, brand representatives have personally approached me, and just reading their first email would make me flinch. For example, they would try to explain what works and what doesn’t content-wise, what’s a successful Instagram post, or how to make and prepare a Youtube video. A content creator already knows all of that - they’ve mastered it.

“… that’s why you are sending this email in the first place..”

Today, content creators understand their own content more than anyone else. Creators know when to post, precisely what to post, how to film & edit, and how to phrase a message in a way that’s more likely to resonate with the audience they have to build a relationship with. They will also understand all of this in ways no brand even thought of. No matter how much a brand can trace in the back end, they have the best hands-on experience. And that’s what makes us, creators, so valuable for brands.

So trusting a creator's ability to create is key in any partnership. They know better about content because creators have become experts. I share my take on this in my post titled The Creator Economy - an Economy of Experts.

Also, in most cases, the creator will know more about the product itself than the brand does, as they use them daily. A good example of this are content creators that are videographers or photographers with all camera gear. Or gamers and tech reviewers with computer gear, phones, or any kind of hardware. And the list goes on, as the same applies to fashion, travel, cosmetics, etc.

Every time I set to work with creators at Paak, I work with them the same way I would like for a brand to work with me. Building long-term relationships based on trust and transparency. I’ll share my ideas, as a content creator, someone that understands the craft, but at the end of the day, I will trust them blindly - “1000 pushups? - 1000 pushups”

Creators will see right through you.

As a content creator, you will start receiving brand deal offers as soon as you get some early traction. It doesn’t have to be much. The first ones to approach are, in most cases, causing a terrible experience for any creator. I remember how we started receiving emails for partnerships as soon as we reached a few thousand subscribers on YouTube, and most of them were clearly looking to take advantage of us or ask to show a product that in no way was in line with the content.

Imagine that over a period of one or two years, as a content creator, you start gaining experience in reading and learning about brands. For better or for worse, that is the reality. For example, with my wife, we probably receive four or five emails a week with a brand proposal, and most will go straight to the trash bin. Literally, we see an email, look at each other, and say “delete, delete, delete” with the voice of the Robinsons Robot.

And that’s a reality. Most creators will not reply to your emails, because they can see through them and they don’t inspire trust. I can talk transparently about this, because I’m not a full-time content creator.

For example, if I look at the email from brands that approached us in the past five years, I can summarize a few top things that will make me go BOOM with the “delete” button:

  • Getting the name of a creator wrong or pasting a generic message.

  • When a brand is looking for a FREE partnership or pays “in Kind” or even worse, tells us they will pay with “exposure.” No one can pay the bills with the kind of exposure an average brand can offer. 99% of the time it’s precisely the creator who’s giving the exposure to the brand.

  • Automated “I love that video” plus a copy-paste of the Youtube video title. This shows that someone clearly hasn’t seen any of our content or any other video/photo. And they act as they have.

  • Going back to calling creators influencers. If you are a brand reaching out to creators to work with, your email reads “I love what you do… we are looking for influencers like you to join X, Y, Z” or use the word “influencer” in any other way - you are up to a really bad start. By this point, you should understand why.

  • Trying to hide the fact you’re getting in touch with the creator because of their community reach. Any creator is fully aware of the power of their community. It’s hard to trust in a brand representative that’s trying to hide it.

  • Trying to teach a creator how to create.

  • Offering a product “for free” when showing/having the product is actually needed for the partnership and should be a given.

  • Being fake in general, too generic, copy pasty.

To be fair, brands are not to blame. Many companies and creatives databases tag themselves as influencer marketing tools, influencer marketplace, etc. They provide this senseless automation only by the numbers. There’s also a lack of education regarding this, because, let’s face it, most of the department’s heads and teams are not fully educated about working with creators. But that’s a good thing; there’s a lot of room to improve.

Same for creators; when brands get better at working with them, there will be less stigma about brand deals. At the same time, brands will understand creators better and make the best out of that relationship.

Creators will appreciate it if you…

To contrast the prior point, some companies and brand representatives made the right impression. They carried along with a great partnership and a good brand-creator relationship standing to this date.

Good communication is key for a great collaboration or partnership. I believe good relationships are built on trust and transparency. So when it comes to talking to brands, there is a couple of things I appreciate and they constitute a good base for a potential partnership.

  • Getting my name right and spelled correctly. As creators, we introduce ourselves all the time. Knowing the creator’s name indicates you’re familiar with their content to start with.

  • When a brand is looking for a paid collaboration from the get-go and not expecting anything for free, or paying “in-kind”.

  • No senseless automation. By simply reading an email I can tell if someone knows my content.

  • Calling us content creators, filmmakers, artists. Never influencers

  • Acknowledging that we have a great reach and the fact we are talking to the same audience. Highlight how the product can be a good fit for our audience, asking for our opinion, explaining how they believe the community can benefit from it. Meaningfully, no BS

  • Giving us creative freedom. Sharing guidelines or a brief is ok, but showing trust in my skills as a creator is even better.

  • Being open with the budget; I appreciate it when brands are willing to negotiate and have an open conversation with the creator about the budget.

  • Being transparent and honest about your product, the expectations, the results, and what you'd like to achieve together, long, short, medium-term.

  • Not asking creators for creative control under their content. Instead, prepare a good brief and easy-to-follow guidelines. Not a full script, let creators talk in their own voice.

  • Trust is the key.

I can add more to the list, but it might be already too long.

If you are a creator reading this and don’t agree, please let me know in the comment section. I’m writing this from the perspective of my experience and what I would like to receive. Also what I try to communicate transparently and openly when working with creators.

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Back then, when social media started, we did initially have influential people that, for the reason that I don’t justify, used their reach to modify people’s buying behaviors. We all remember the early days of Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and even Youtube. But those days are gone.

Numbers Don’t Matter

Last but not least, don’t focus on the following count. Focus on eyeballs. In other words, please focus on the numbers that matter and not only the number of followers. As an example, most platforms’ and brands’ representatives keep focusing on the following to categorize creators. The one that has 1M followers is a “Meta-Influencer.” The one that has 50K is a “micro-influencer.” Who cares?

We see this all the time; when creators are being measured, it’s by their following count. Of course, that matters, but within the context of all the other data, including reach, active audience, engagement, and most importantly, the views.

The reason why the following counts are no longer relevant is because of how the content creation and distribution are being done. This concept is more true on some platforms than others. For example, someone on YouTube can have a 5K following but reaching 1M with their videos. That will lead to a subscriber count increase but not the other way around. At least to a certain point (but I can cover that in a whole new post). Same with TikTok, Snapchat, or IG Reels.

Also, someone can easily buy followers from follower farms. Please don’t take my word for it; google it. What’s really important, something no one can buy, is the relationship you have as a creator with your community. And that goes beyond numbers.

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So if you are reading this as a content creator in the travel & lifestyle space, and want to get to know a pretty cool brand to work with, be sure to check us out at 👉 paak.io

And if you are a brand or startup looking forward to better work with creators, don’t be a stranger, and reach out!