It has been nearly 10 years since I was working as a cybersecurity product manager, building an enterprise-grade identity service and social networking platform at a publicly traded aerospace company with 70,000 global employees. The questions that intrigued the data geek within me then, still fascinate me to this day: what makes someone a subject matter expert (aka an influencer or creator) and what motivates them to use their expertise, influence, and creativity to spread a message on behalf of others?
Since founding Mavrck in November of 2014 to pursue answers to those questions, we have accomplished some pretty remarkable things. We have helped nearly 3 million people collaborate with brands, serving as the private-labeled data and workflow engine underneath the hood of what has quickly become one of the world’s fastest-growing digital marketing disciplines for leading consumer brands. Those 3 million people have created nearly 7 million social media posts, which have earned over 35 billion impressions and engagements. In order to accomplish this, Mavrck has helped these people earn more than $200 million worth of cash, products, promo codes, gift cards, coupons, loyalty points or VIP experiences, with some very fortunate individuals earning well over six-figures for their collaborations with brands. That is 10 times more than what Mavrck has raised in venture capital funding.
We didn’t know it when we started out, but along the way, we discovered five guiding principles that shaped our philosophy on how to compensate people for their collaboration with brands. I’d like to share those with you, and welcome any dialogue on this topic so that we can push our industry forward, together.
1. Optimize for the Ideal Persona within the Spectrum of Influence, Not for the Most Followers
In 2014, influencer marketing was still a very nascent industry. Despite companies like Klout having already come and gone, the question we were asked most often from marketers was “why should I use influencer marketing over TV, programmatic, or paid social media?” I often felt like a digital marketing missionary, sharing a prophecy around an impending shift in how consumers would trust information from brands, all thanks to the democratization of content creation, brought on by the mass adoption of smartphones and social media platforms. It wasn’t until 2015, with the help of our newly hired VP of Marketing at the time, that she and I created a foundational framework that started to resonate with marketers, and established what would later become a new industry-standard: the “micro-influencer.” Along the way, we were surprised by how many marketers wanted very distinct definitions for each persona, usually in the form of follower counts, which still continues to this day. But what we quickly learned was that an individual’s follower count was merely a fraction of the compensation equation, and often one of the least important in the eyes of some marketers.
In order to guide marketers, we expanded upon our spectrum of influence frameexisting customers with influence firstwork, to provide guidelines for how to collaborate with each persona, including when to use activity-based compensation (i.e. compensate when someone puts in the effort for creating high-quality content) versus performance-based (aka via an affiliate link or coupon code) or a combination of both. For marketers who didn’t know where to start, we recommended the micro-influencer — the “triple threat” of all the personas, because they are able to deliver on many use cases, with the most trust, authenticity, and cost effectiveness.
2. Recognize that Motivators Are Dynamic, Can Vary Widely Brand to Brand, and Should Be Opt-in Based
I can still remember it like it was yesterday. It was winter of 2016, and we were helping a leading chocolate brand power an upcoming Valentine’s Day campaign. Our team (including the brand) was shocked by how many people with over 500,000 followers were willing to collaborate for a box of chocolates and a $100 gift card. We’re talking hundreds of people, with a collective reach of more than 50 million. It was the first time we saw just how impactful brand equity could be in the compensation equation, especially when some of those same people with more than 500,000 followers would charge thousands of dollars for a CPG brand collaboration. We saw this playing out across several brand verticals: sneakerheads being more than willing to collaborate for early access to a new pair of shoes, fashionistas more than willing to create content with an outfit from a new seasonal line, or foodies willing to test new recipes in exchange for the latest kitchen appliance. In all cases, the average retail value didn’t exceed $250, yet those same people would charge 10 times that for other collaborations that they were less enthusiastic about. Beyond just the brand or product, we know that influencers take many inputs into consideration when reviewing the rate for a collaboration — such as time required, scheduling and complexity of the content creation — and we want to ensure those opportunities are still made present to the creators.
It seems pretty obvious in hindsight, yet some critics are quick to call out brands offering their product as the only compensation without all of the context first. The reality is that there are tens of millions of influencers and creators out there, and plenty of people who love a brand enough to want to collaborate in exchange for a brand’s products. If you’re not one of those people, that’s more than okay, too. That is why every campaign we power at Mavrck is opt-in based and requires consent from an influencer or creator. Contrast this with many others who attempt a “surprise and delight” approach with a free “gift” that arrives with no contractual obligation, but is followed up by several annoying emails asking the creator or influencer if they liked the free product enough to post about it (a very common practice in the beauty industry, unfortunately). I’ve seen this practice way too often, even through the perspective of an influencer, ever since I helped my wife AlyssaKStevens launch her blog a few years ago.
3. Prioritize People Who Know and Love Your Brand, Over Those Who Are Looking for the Highest Bidder
Once we started to see how dynamic motivations were for people across different brands, we started investing in technology features to help marketers recruit their existing customers with influence first, and then expand via “lookalike” influencers who may not have known the brand previously. This made the compensation structure inherently more effective for the brand because an existing customer who knows your brand and loves it, is more likely to accept products, loyalty points or VIP experiences in exchange for a piece of content. In fact, we would see many marketers start using Mavrck after spending years working with a traditional influencer marketplace or agency, because those marketplaces or agencies typically asked influencers for their “standard rate” which was then applied in a one-size fits all approach (counter to principle #2 above).
Many marketers also shared how they felt the “standard rate” was inflated for several reasons: (1) The influencer was starting higher than they would accept as a negotiation tactic, (2) the influencer’s agent was taking a cut and marking up the price even further (3) the marketplace or agency was taking a cut and was incentivized to make the price as high as possible to maximize their own revenue, which has had even more detrimental side effects, such as a lack of transparency in influencer compensation. At Mavrck, we take the payment of influencers seriously, and only take a percentage when we are acting as the “bank” on behalf of the brand — for example, floating cash to pay influencers before we get paid by the brand. In those situations, we charge a modest 10% processing fee to act as the “bank,” which some marketers are more than happy to pay in exchange for us making the process more scalable for them.
4. Provide Freedom and Flexibility to Brands, with Benchmarks, Best Practices and Fraud Analysis
In an effort to help many marketers across many verticals scale their influencer programs, we had to build flexibility into our platform. We do this by allowing several incentive types, including cash payments (powered by PayPal), promo codes, gift cards (powered by Tango Card), product, loyalty points, VIP experiences and affiliate commission. We also allow marketers to enable a Quote feature as part of any campaign application, where an influencer can counteroffer how much they would charge for the collaboration.
Additionally, we aggregate the average cost across historical collaborations that the influencer has participated in, in order to establish CPM, CPE and CPP (Cost Per Post) benchmarks per individual influencer that the marketer can review when selecting who they want to collaborate with. We publish those benchmarks, by industry vertical and by follower count brackets to provide best practice guidance to marketers.
We know that marketers also want flexibility in how they measure the success of their influencer campaigns. The performance of an influencer’s collaboration may also be valued by the conversions or purchases that it drives, as measurement moves further down the funnel and the intersection between Affiliate Marketing and Influencer Marketing deepens. Influencers should be prepared for compensation rates to reflect the impact that the marketer most cares about, and while sometimes that can be the high quality content, it can also be the actual product purchases made by followers.
If you are starting out as an influencer, or even transitioning from a micro- to a macro-influencer, it is becoming increasingly difficult to understand how to benchmark your compensation for collaborations. Mavrck acknowledges that a gap exists in a “standard” rate calculation that both aligns the marketer’s assessment of value and the influencer’s need to build and grow their business. A tool like this could help influencers more confidently ask for the right rate and spend less time negotiating over compensation and more time creating amazing content. Stay tuned for more from Mavrck on that front.
Lastly, and probably most importantly, we perform fraud analysis of an influencer’s followers and engagement to ensure a marketer is not overpaying for an audience full of bots. This is something many influencers fail to recognize is happening, as some may take the shortcut to 10,000 followers or 100,000 followers in hopes of making more per collaboration. I can assure you this flags a profile for fraud, leaving it up to the marketer to choose if they want to consider that influencer (unless they are only seeking content assets, and are deprioritizing the quality of the influencer’s audience).
On that subject, I’ve always wanted to collaborate with other influencer platform companies to publish a high fraud index, rooted in transparency for both marketers and influencers to find value in — with best practices to educate the industry and hold it to a higher standard. But I feel strongly it requires multiple platforms in the industry to make it fair and balanced, similar to how your credit score is compiled from multiple credit bureaus and consumers can contest their score. If anyone wants to collaborate with Mavrck on that, please let me know!
5. Build for Long-Term Relationships Versus One-Off Transactional Campaigns
The last guiding principle for our philosophy on influencer compensation is the most important. Because we are collaborating with people, and not commoditized ad units, building a genuine relationship should be at the core of any influencer marketing strategy. This takes many forms but could look like an ambassador program, an advisory council, an advocacy program, or even a creators club. The positioning can vary brand to brand, persona to persona, and can even feed into another, more exclusive program for the top performing members of your ambassador program. This approach rewards results, and allows an influencer to gradually earn more and more compensation from a brand, while also allowing marketers to achieve economies of scale, where the cost per post, impression or engagement continuously gets more efficient. This win-win approach leaves all participants feeling fulfilled, and results in a healthy, vibrant influencer economy for the growing creator class.
At the end of the day, despite all our learnings to date, several influencer compensation challenges are far from resolved, especially those faced by BIPOC influencers and creators. The pace at which the influencer marketing industry is growing and evolving requires an open and honest dialogue on this topic with all stakeholders, and I more than welcome the opportunity to have that conversation with marketers, influencers and technologists alike. Feel free to reach out to me on Instagram, Twitter or LinkedIn if you want to engage in that dialogue together — I look forward to the conversation!