Offering ‘free product’ in exchange for promotion is often far from a fair value exchange
The recent BBC article “I’m sick of influencers asking for free cake” doesn’t tell both sides of the story.
In the piece, a cake shop owner vents her frustrations around being asked to send creators cake for free in exchange for some posts on social media. While the argument is somewhat balanced, the striking headline and general tone paints creators in a very bad light, and I want to explain why I think some businesses like the frustrated bakery have spoken out. Successful influencer marketing campaigns are down to planning, clarity and openness of expectations on both sides – in particular around the value exchange.
As someone with ten years of marketing experience and who’s also a part time creator, I am aware of what takes to make a good partnership. On the flip side to this bakery’s argument, fellow creators and I are often being offered something like ‘a free cake’ in exchange for a post on our platforms, and the value exchange simply doesn’t add up. Sadly, I do not live in some Marie Antoinette universe where endless cake will sustain me, and my platforms are a business which needs to be compensated for promotion to engaged audiences which I’ve spent time, money and effort to build.
A typical post with a product – which often tends to be afternoon tea on my account – would involve the following:
Setting up the shot: Around 1 hour of time
The actual photography
Hashtag research, caption editing
Posting at optimal time, tagging etc
Total value of my time: £300-500
Approximate marketing value for the brand: £1,600-£2,100
Being asked for free cake all the time sounds annoying, yes, but if creators approached businesses with a clear outline of what’s in it for the business as well as the creator, we wouldn’t end up with frustrated companies giving us all a bad name. Brands and creators alike need to know what the return on their investment is going to be, if they’re exchanging both a product and time for free.
Appropriately pitching for business
When I was 21, I started a job working in advertising sales. It taught me some key fundamentals when it came to pitching to businesses. Armed with a media pack jammed full of information about the magazine, I would approach businesses to try and pitch to them advertising in the magazine. Every single brand I approached always asked the same questions:
- Who is your demographic?
- What am I going to get out of this?
- How much will it cost me?
I sat and explained to every single business, whether they were spending £1,000 or £10,000 what they needed to know and what return they should expect to see. Now, why am I telling you this story? It taught me that if I was to approach a brand then I would need to explain what I was going to give them in return. As quoted in the BBC article, some of the businesses mentioned it was really helpful to have a rate card and be upfront about what the influencers would post.
If you’re approaching a business asking for a gifted product, it’s paramount that you include the above three points to illustrate clearly how the business will benefit from working with you.
Structuring partnerships honestly
Whenever I approach partnerships, I always make sure I try the product before agreeing to do anything. I’ve been scarred in the past when I went for a freebie afternoon tea and agreed in advance to post about it on social media and it turned out to be dreadful. It was a really difficult thing to deal with afterwards because the company insisted that I had to post about it as I had already agreed that I would do so. This experience taught me not to get backed into a corner when it comes to dealing with brands and free experiences. It was back in my early days and told myself that I would never be in a situation again to feel under pressure to post. You have to hold yourself to your own standards otherwise your followers will smell your lack of authenticity a mile off. It’s something I work very hard to preserve as I would be devastated to learn that someone paid good money to go for afternoon tea after seeing it on my page and then didn’t enjoy it.
The best way to approach a partnership or paid opportunity is to make sure the product fits in with your brand. Let’s say I want to work with Aspinal. They aren’t directly related to afternoon tea but they are a strong British brand with links to traditional British culture, similar to my page. I already own some of their products, follow them on social media and have signed up to their newsletter. Given I have an understanding of their brand it gives me a much better chance when pitching a conversation to them so I can explain the similarities in our brands, similar audiences and ethos. I also have an appreciation for the quality of their products and can confidently tell my followers how much I love them. Authenticity is key!
When brands approach me, unless it’s a brand I’m really keen to develop a long term relationship with, I usually say that I only produce paid-for promotion and I need to receive a product sample before entering into an agreement, as I want to ensure I genuinely do endorse this product.
Often, smaller brands can only offer a free product, e.g a cake, a teacup or a teapot. In this case, I ask myself how much of my time will it take to style an image, edit the caption and research hashtags for this post. In almost all scenarios it outweighs the value of the product. In the UK, the Advertising Standards Authority highlights if someone gives you a free product then it must be recorded on your page as an advert. I have always found this unfair to influencers as it means that a £20 cake must be displayed as an advert when you may have been paid £300 for a static post as a ‘real’ advert. If it is a free offer that isn’t worth my time then I politely decline and ask to keep in touch, as I’m not currently running value-exchange collaborations. You’re better not wasting people’s time and being upfront with them. Don’t ever criticise a company who can’t afford your services, some day they might be a super brand and will appreciate your politeness.
This year I had two very successful paid partnerships, one with a perfumery and the other a tea company. Both approached me to ask if I would be interviewed for a 30 minute segment of a live video, which is exactly the kind of work I love doing and much prefer to static image posts. We went through what the expectations were from me and from the company, and signed very structured contracts which included detail of what I would wear, the location and what menu I would provide. Both clients were delighted, I had a ball, and I was fairly paid. However, it did take longer than I had originally planned for to set up an afternoon tea at home for the demonstration videos. Everything is a learning experience and I will know in future to adjust my rate card for this time accordingly.
During my experience working in sales and marketing, it was drilled into me that potential customers would ask a lot of questions before investing. It leaves me gobsmacked today that businesses offer me free cake ‘for a post’ without asking me any questions.
I recently moved to Northern Ireland but still work in London, and therefore have a very small following in Northern Ireland compared to my following in London. When N.Ireland cake deliveries offer me free cake without asking any questions, it makes me sad that I could just say yes, knowing the chances of them receiving an order would be tiny because I know my Northern Irish audience is small, and they haven’t done their research or asked my any questions about my demographic. I always say no, but I can’t believe there are still some businesses out there who don’t ask any questions.
My advice is, if you are approaching a brand, make sure it is because you are truly interested in their product and that you’re prepared to answer all of their questions.
If you work hard on your brand, remaining authentic to what your tastes are then you are bound to bring value to businesses. Do a stock take of your own and work out what your selling points are and why brands would want to work with you. Remember you can say no to freebies!
We as creators can bring huge value to brands and businesses, but we need to be effectively communicating the value exchange, so that everybody knows there is no such thing as free cake.
Eileen Donaghey is the Afternoon Tea Expert