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  • Writer's pictureJake Brewer

Influencer 101: How to Start your Brand and Collaborate

The most popular DM I get on Instagram asks how some as ordinary as me, with less than 10K followers, has worked with major brands like Gillette, Abercrombie, Hint, Allbirds and more. I don't blame them either, I'm just the guy who you sit next to in economics.

I actually stumbled my way into the business, and from a new perspective I can say it's a lot easier, but also more difficult than you may think. You, like most people, probably envision influencers having perfectly curated feeds, homes, and lifestyles that reflect the millennial dream of white kitchens and glamorous brunches.

The influencer marketing spend is expected to pass $15 billion by 2022, and in my recent memory, no marketing trend has reached the numbers and shifted the game so abruptly and drastically. I've taken plenty of classes about why influencers succeed over traditional paid advertising, and to keep it simple: people trust people more than brands. With the rise of this realization, we see more common people (a vague term, I know) tapping into the space. As the industry grows, influencers become more like celebrities, and are treated as so. They're beginning to embody exactly what they were once used to avoid. That's why brands are investing in micro-influencers: opinion leaders and active community members with less than 10K followers.

It was May of 2018. I had just finished my freshmen year at Boston University when I got a DM from somebody claiming to be recruiting for a campus agent/influencer program for Abercrombie. At the time I was beginning to take my brand more seriously. I was releasing an album that summer, heading out on tour, and working to build my YouTube channel. I didn't believe it at first because I never categorized myself there. But, they asked to hop on a phone call, and I figured if they weren't asking for a social security number or credit card information, there was no harm.

Flash forward two months and I'm on a plane to Columbus, Ohio. I was heading to Abercrombie's home office to fall in love with a brand make lifelong friends. It's there they reshaped my mindset. Until then, I doubted myself every opportunity I had. Their team saw potential in me, and wanted to be a part of the brand I was single-handedly building.

It was my first paycheck I ever got for doing something I loved. And that's a feeling you'll always remember. I was invested a lot more than the traditional influencer because of the nature of the program. I was not only taking photos and posting them, but helping Abercrombie build campaigns, doing activations on campus, and evaluating initiatives by sharing analytics and hopping on team calls to share feedback and chatter in my area.

If they had never given me the opportunity, I wouldn't have the confidence to move on to other brands upon the end of the partnership in January 2019. Most brands like "experience" when picking influencers just like any other job. Having a portfolio and numbers from Abercrombie really helped, but I understand not every has this sort of accelerator that I did. So here's a few takeaways you should know about yourself:

1. Engagement Rate: This is measured by your total likes + comments over followers. Most brands realize this a better measurement than impressions. Think about it, how many times do you look at your explore page without liking or commenting? Using engagement rates to evaluate post success actually takes into account the creators ability to connect. The average engagement rate is actually about 3-5%. Sounds low, right? It's true. Try calculating yours. You should know it. I know mine lingers between 10-20%, which is always something I mention to brands.

2. Audience: Know your audience, and know them well. What do they interact with? What posts are your top? What about them make them so popular? Embody this. Think about these trends and use them more often to have consistent brand. Knowing your audience will help you suggest to a brand you're the best option.

3. Commitment: Know your relative ability to execute a campaign. Don't agree to something larger than your skill set. Knowing your limits will earn you respect.

There's really no right way to jump into influencer marketing. The term "influencer" is only getting looser, and everyone can now find a way to fit into the definition. Rather than hitting you with some more anecdotes, I'm sharing just a few main takeaways below. Here's everything from how to pitch yourself, talk to brands, and how to stand out amongst the increasingly crowded field.

Have a Clear Brand

What's your niche? If you had to give three keywords about your content, what would it be? This should be instinctual. The first three words you think of are exactly right. Knowing your brand means you know your audience and what they like.

It helps to build your brand further. For me, I started this blog so I had another platform that offered a unique way for me to connect with my audience. When I talk to brands now I have an Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, and Blog they can be a part of. I'm more flexible with delivering their mission this way. However, most deals will just stick to Instagram, as that's where influencer marketing really flourishes.

Finding Brands

I have felt the most successful, alive, and proud when adopting the idea that if an opportunity doesn't present itself, then create it for yourself. The same goes for building relationships with brands.

There are many platforms you can use: Activate, Takumi, Heartbeat,, and more. This is one way to get a few opportunities. Sign up and apply for each collaboration that aligns with your brand. Often the payout will be less through these services since the agency has to take a cut.

Otherwise - just cold email or DM. Sound crazy? It isn't all to wild actually. I read that over half of brands describe finding influencers to be difficult. Everyone is open to the idea, so be the person who makes their job easier. I have a very generic pitch I use and then customize for any outreach I do. For me, I've landed a deal with YOTEL (which was a large campaign across platforms including IG, YT, and here on my blog) and received sponsorship from Hint Water for my upcoming 2020 tour.

When emailing, sell yourself. Share your engagement rate, links to all your handles, some ideas you have for the brand, audience insights, and exactly why your audience and brand aligns with the brand you're pitching to.

Tips for Your Business

Have a distinct business email. This for a few reasons: 1. Establish an email signature with your contact info and title ("Content Creator" !!) 2. Don't miss a single email. Always respond quick. There's often a day delay in responses from the brand, so minimize that time by being on top of your game. Set up phone alerts for this email address so you know when you've got something new in your inbox. 3. It adds a bit of professionalism. Even if it's an @gmail address, it shows you take yourself seriously enough to set it up. It also shows the brand you're easily reachable and communicate well.

Always update your pages. As a content creator, branded content takes priority, but have quality content rolling out constantly. This will increase your engagement rate and relationship with followers that will ultimately show you as a better influencer candidate for future partnerships.

If you can do so, build a website or portfolio with your content. It's much easier to navigate and is a quick and clear way to introduce your brand to a company.

Read up on FCC guidelines, too. There has been increased legislation on disclosing paid advertisements that many brands aren't caught up on yet. Familiarize yourself so you can protect yourself and ensure a smooth and successful career moving forward.

Ask brands if they have influencer guidelines. You'll find most don't want a typical smile with the product, looking into the camera post. Audiences are catching on. Photos with movement or with a very candid look are performing much better.

What to Expect

Expect the unexpected. You can roll your eye's. It's okay. It's dramatic, but true.

Expect a lot of questions and having to constantly fight for yourself. Expect to not land every deal. It's like acting: audition then forget about it. And don't take offense to anything, either. Just because a brand doesn't pick you for a campaign doesn't mean you're doing something wrong.

A lot of back and forth. Brands are working through this trend and emerging industry. So do your research and be a voice of expertise. And keep relationships alive. I've found myself with opportunities because I stayed connected with agencies I worked with.

It's a strange and sudden shift to marketing. Everyone will tell you that. I've done a lot of research myself, as I've worked on both sides as an influencer and interning with agencies who have hired influencers. Again, there's no guidebook, but take that as an opportunity. Have your mission clear so it can add a sense of clarity to a blurry path forward.

I filmed a YouTube video describing more of this, sharing some more tips, and a few stories I have about working with brands and what I learned that you can takeaway. Watch below.


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