Influencer marketing has emerged as a powerful advertising tactic for A-list brands such as Mountain Dew and Amazon. As a result, marketers are doubling their investment in influencer marketing this year, with Instagram influencers alone accounting for more than $1 billion of marketing spend.
Sure, you’ve got an Instagram account. You probably have Twitter and Facebook accounts, too, and maybe even a YouTube channel to boot. With access to all of the same tools that influencers are using to earn their livings, how do you get a piece of that action?
I recently spoke with Instagram star and YouTube personality Zach King about what it takes to turn creative brand promotion into a successful business.
It starts with having a genuine audience: King boasts more than 20 million online followers for creating short special effects films designed to look like he’s performing mind-bending magic.
He shared some of his highs and lows from working with brands over the past eight years, and I provided some perspective on what it’s been like to sit on the other side of that table for more than 10.
We came up with five takeaways for every influencer wanting to grow his or her channel and partner with brands.
Define your channel
Who are you and what are you all about? The most successful influencers use their channels to answer these questions because they understand that their channels are representative of their morals and passions.
King’s content features him “uncooking” a Thanksgiving dinner into a living turkey and emerging from the inside of a flat-screen TV because he decided early on that his channel was about bringing the power of imagination to life. As long as brands empower him to realize this central theme, he’s happy to work with them.
One of King’s earliest brand collaborations was with HP on its “Bend the Rules” campaign. HP wanted to highlight its new laptop as a valuable collaboration tool in the creative production process, and King wanted to turn an orange into a glass of orange juice.
What piece of content could possibly sell laptops while allowing Zach to maintain his creative credibility? It looks like this:
Communication is key
Businesses deal with other businesses every day. Full-time creatives instead deal with their respective mediums.
For an influencer to interface most successfully with a brand, he or she must behave as a business; there’s little room for an absent-minded artist to contribute meaningfully to a major marketing campaign.
All it takes for creatives to present themselves as businesses are some practiced communication skills. The shortcut here is to communicate early, loud and often. This ensures smooth sailing when something becomes unclear or needs to be changed.
To put it reductively: Quality of communication is closely related to the quantity of communication.
Influencers can build their audiences and rise to prominence by producing collaborative videos with other influencers, everyone promoting everyone else. This cross-promotion not only grows one’s reach quickly, but also forms relationships with other creators.
However, it’s important not to leave brands out of the collaboration. Building relationships with the people with whom you’re in business makes the entire experience more pleasant. In turn, they want to come back and work with you again.
Agencies work with multiple brands—if one agency has a great experience with you, they’re more likely to recommend you for other paid brand projects. If the experience is poor, then you’re way less likely to catch a break. It’s in your best interest to be a kind team player.
You never know who your collaborators may become one day.
Don’t be afraid to say ‘no’
As an influencer, your biggest asset is your audience. When that audience grows, it brings more brands to your door for partnerships. This means that you need to guard your channel carefully. Nobody knows your channel or your audience better than you do.
It might sound crazy, but saying no to brand deals can actually help your success in the long run.
Let’s say there’s a brand that wants to work with you, but you don’t believe in the product and you feel as though it could jeopardize the trust built with your audience. Just say “no.” The last thing you want to do is to alienate the very audience that enables your influencer income.
Learn to take feedback
In King’s early days on YouTube, he was making videos that definitely highlighted his production skills, but he wasn’t finding a sustainable audience. Then a comment on one of his videos from established YouTuber Freddie Wong caught his attention.
Wong wrote that Zach was talented, but that his content lacked storylines. In response, Zach made the story-driven “Jedi Kittens Strike Back,” which became a viral hit and propelled him into digital stardom.
Being open to feedback is also critical when it comes to working with brands. Just as you know your audience best, brand managers know their brands best. They ultimately have some say in the final product that they’re paying for; their goals aren’t related to fueling the growth of your channel. Being open to feedback is critical to cultivating relationships with brands.
There you have it
Take it from Socrates: Know thyself. Successful influencers are often those who know their own sensibilities well. In best-case scenarios, those sensibilities are even reflected back at them from their audiences.
Brands are only just beginning to explore the universe of possibilities enabled by collaborating with independent creators. You don’t need to sell your soul in order to turn a creative profit—you only need to establish ahead of time what you’re comfortable with, then communicate it clearly.
If you can stay true to that, then hey: Maybe you’ll be the next Zach King.