Benefits and Challenges of Unpaid Influencer Partnerships

by | Feb 6, 2020

by Andrew Poulsen, Content Engineer, Sonnhalter

Lately, we have seen tremendous growth in the number of influencers in the trades. In fact, it has grown so much so that Sonnhalter clients are forming partnerships and relationships with these influencers much in the same way we would with traditional media. What defines an influencer can sometimes be broad, so there are categories like “micro-influencer” and “nano-influencer” that distinguish these social media content creators by the size of their audience. Many influencers make a full-time living by working with brands to make sponsored content that involves financial compensation. However, there are plenty of influencers who are slightly less established and are looking to start a relationship with a brand and are willing to make content in exchange for free product and cross promotional opportunities. Since the company is only sending product samples, unpaid influencer partnerships are great for increasing brand awareness and social media numbers when you have a limited marketing budget. Below is a real-world example that outlines some of the pros and cons of unpaid influencer partnerships.

The Origin of the Campaign

Photo Credit: @UrbanArborDesigns

One of our clients had a strong reputation overseas as one of the leading manufacturers of spirit levels, laser levels, and layout tools, marking and measuring tools, but had yet to make a major splash in the U.S. We had experienced a decent amount of success in getting this client featured in many key trade publications, but with the rise of influencer marketing in the woodworking, construction and DIY markets, we thought we could gain more traction with our time by exploring this new, grassroots approach. We wanted a better method for conveying the client’s product ingenuity in a way that was more interactive and visual. We figured that the quickest way to grab the attention and build our client’s credibility amongst the professional tradesmen on Instagram was to target key influencers within these communities that were connected to their followers and whose word would spread fast.

However, since the client was so new to the idea of influencer relations, we had no budget for sponsored posts or any paid content. Therefore, influencers could only be compensated with free products and by having their profiles and content exposed to our client’s audience. Knowing that some of the macro-influencers in these markets would likely turn down our offer of free tools without also receiving financial compensation, we worked strategically in finding influencers in the U.S. and Canada in the nano- and micro-influencer categories who would be willing to feature and review our client’s products for free tools and promo items. After receiving confirmation from an influencer, we drafted personalized letters to accompany each package of product samples. These letters not only expressed our appreciation for their interest, but also outlined all the key features and benefits of each product to help them better understand what makes them unique.

Since we were not paying for their posts, we would express to these influencers that we were pretty flexible in terms of the content we expected in return. This content would range from Instagram stories of influencers unboxing the tools, static gallery posts with a review of the tools or application shots of them using the tools in their garages and workshops.

Potential Risks of Unpaid Partnerships

While letting the influencers express their thoughts about the products in a flexible, authentic manner likely made them feel comfortable working with us, this method did come with its share of risks. The most obvious risk was not making the influencers sign a contract or agree to any particular terms as far as what kind of content we expected them to make or what kind of timeline we expected them to adhere to. In some cases, there were influencers who received products and never got around to posting anything about the tools they received, even with multiple follow ups. Fortunately, to date, we have seen about a 75 percent response rate in the influencer sample packages we send out, many with which we have maintained a long-term relationship. Another potential risk was the cost of the products and shipping that the client would have to sacrifice if we never received coverage. However, with most of our client’s most popular products ranging between $15-$100 retail, those costs paled in comparison to the average sponsorship fees from the industry’s popular influencers. For the influencers with whom we had established trust, we would send the company’s higher-end products as a thank you for their work.

The Overall Results

Over the past two years, we have sent more than 150 of these influencer sample packages. Our client has seen a tremendous uptick in sales as a result of partnering with dozens of respected influencers with Instagram audiences ranging from 1,000-200,000 followers, all of which made content for free product. In the timespan from when we started the program in the fall of 2018, our client’s Instagram audience has grown seven times the amount of followers. By having real people share photos and videos using the products on their building projects, the company was able to leverage the innovation and creativity of its tools in ways it couldn’t have achieved using more static and traditional marketing initiatives.

Final Thoughts

The success of this influencer program has both opened the door to working with some of the industry’s leading influencers, as well as convinced our client that this is a worthwhile endeavor worth investing more resources to. Moving into 2020, our agency and the client plan to make influencer relations an even higher priority and are exploring the use of paid influencer relations on a trial basis.

Like this post and want to read more about influencers? Check out this post:

Influencer Relations: Is it Right for Your Brand?


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