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The unpaid influencer: Yes, they’re out there-–here’s how to tap into their power and authenticity

by | Jun 27, 2023 | Public Relations

With 75 percent of CMOs under pressure to “do more with less,” cutting costs are top-of-mind for PR and marketing pros. Influencer marketing is a proven marketing strategy, but expensive paid partnerships aren’t the only way to build brand awareness—and many underestimate the power of unpaid influencer collaborations. By prioritizing thorough research and relationship nurturing, unpaid influencer collaborations have minimal cost, but huge potential for company exposure. Here are a few tips on how you can launch a successful unpaid influencer collaboration—and why you should.

Why unpaid influencer relations is a strong PR strategy

The biggest benefit of collaborating with unpaid influencers is free, widespread company exposure. Brands can exchange an experience or product to build awareness with niche audiences through influencers, resulting in authentic, but promotional, social media posts. Influencer marketing takes the tried-and-true, word-of-mouth promotion concept to a new, digitally accelerated level. At the same time, influencers create unique opportunities for companies to curate social media audiences, helping companies reach target demographics.

Just how integral are influencers from a PR perspective? Given 49 percent of consumers depend on influencer recommendations, 72 percent of companies believe the quality of customers from influencer marketing campaigns is better than other marketing types and 37 percent of consumers trust social media influencers over brands, influencer marketing can be an important step to a successful PR strategy.

How to conduct a successful unpaid influencer campaign

The basics

The influencers who are most willing to participate in an unpaid collaboration typically fall into one of two categories: nano (1,000 and 10,000 followers) or micro (10,000 to 50,000 followers). They are independent, digital content generators passionate about anything, ranging from their local area to sports to gaming. While lifestyle, fashion, travel, beauty, wellness, food and parenting are popular categories, there’s an influencer out there for virtually any niche. Micro and nano-influencers tend to engage regularly with their followers with whom they’ve built a strong relationship with and maintain that trust by promoting only what they genuinely support. Unpaid influencer collaborations are a mutually beneficial agreement, as long as the brand you’re representing aligns with the influencer.  

Find the right influencer(s)

Discovering an influencer who meshes well with your company’s (or client’s) vision and goals while also being open to an unpaid collaboration requires a little legwork. To start, do some foundational research on the platforms you plan to use in the partnership and brainstorm key hashtags to see what and who surfaces across channels. Along the way, actively assess influencer content and determine if their voice and aesthetic align with your brand. A successful unpaid influencer campaign is all about personalization; there is no formula. Finding the right fit will come down to your ability to read the brand, read the influencer and create an authentic connection that benefits both parties.

Play to an influencer’s passion

Once you’ve identified an influencer who’s a good fit for your brand, reach out via email (an address is typically posted in an influencer’s bio) to see if they’d be interested in a collaboration. It’s important to note that posting about a collaboration is a request, not a requirement, since there are no contracts or payments involved in unpaid influencer relations.

For example, an outdoor clothing company may offer a travel influencer a complimentary white water rafting trip—with a request that they post about their experience. To make the biggest impact, the organization should then broaden the scope and connect with similar adventure influencers and influencers who may represent another one of their target demographics, such as a parenting influencer looking for fun activities to do with their kids. This will allow you to reach a much larger audience rather than if you stuck to one niche.

As most nano- and micro-influencers operate within tight-knit online communities, they frequently engage with each other. Once you find an influencer you like, check out who they’re following to start building new relationships.

Build and sustain the brand-influencer relationship

Unpaid influencer relations programs are like traditional media relations, minus the formality. To get the most out of the partnership from the start, be sure to integrate some bite-sized brand messaging to accompany whatever content creation is in the works. Once you’ve secured an initial post, continue regular, casual check-ins with that influencer—show gratitude, follow up on any coverage your collaboration generates and link or repost related content to your brand’s platforms and social media channels.

Continually nurturing your relationship with influencers you’ve partnered with creates long-term ROI. The niceties go a long way—influencers are much more willing to post about your company again, free of charge, because of the friendly rapport you’ve established and their genuine interest in your brand. Working with influencers on an unpaid campaign must be looked at as a true partnership, not a transaction.

Gauge ROI

Determining the success of an unpaid influencer campaign can be nuanced. Since the influencer is not contractually obligated to promote anything, the brand has no control over what may or may not make its way to social media. Another caveat is the company does not have access to the influencer’s metrics. When content is posted online courtesy of an influencer collaboration, check your brand’s own social media channels for any spikes in followers and engagements. Monitor the influencer’s post as well to gauge its performance and help assess the value of the partnership and how it impacted brand awareness. Consider investing in software to streamline “social listening,” thereby ensuring you can track and analyze brand mentions and better identify brand ambassadors.

The takeaway

Successful unpaid influencer campaigns don’t happen overnight. There’s homework and genuine connection-building required along the way. While a single post could trend off the charts, this relationship-heavy strategy is more likely to drive a slow-and-steady uptick in company exposure.

Authenticity takes time and it matters—particularly to Gen Z and Millennial consumers. With the right PR strategy, influencer-prompted social media engagement will build organically. As a result, companies can gain brand awareness and build trust and loyalty from carefully curated audiences without dipping into their marketing budget.  

Emma Maurice
Emma Maurice is a Coordinator, Media Relations at Next PR.

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