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At Collectively, we believe partnerships between brands and influencers (those creating awesome social media content) are most successful when there is a true win-win for both parties.

Our goal with this post is to provide perspective on what we call the Value Exchange Conversation: the give and take between a brand and influencer when assessing a partnership. Whether you partner with brands often or you’re just starting out, this guide will help you assess the value you can bring to a marketer and better understand the value a brand can provide to you in return.  

First Things First: Identify the Stage of your Brand
When evaluating any partnership, it’s important to first gut-check where your brand fits on the business stages spectrum. Are you just starting out or established with multiple revenue streams and more than 250,000 monthly unique visitors? Are you somewhere in between? The majority of collaborators (73% in fact!) consider their content brand a new or emerging business opportunity that is really more of a creative outlet—it’s a rewarding hobby, and any perks or compensation from advertising and marketing partnerships help offset any out of pocket costs. Growth may be the vision, but you’re in the earliest phases of the business opportunity.

Influencers who work full-time on their content brand and who make their living exclusively from this endeavor will aim for partnerships that support business revenue goals. Reality check: only a very small 7% of influencers fall in this category. The remaining 20% of you fall somewhere in between, and as your work grows from budding to thriving, adjust your goals for partnerships accordingly. That doesn’t always mean demanding more money—in fact, sometimes it means trading a revenue gain for credibility, traffic, exclusive content, or marketing value.

Assessing Value: Cash is King. Or is it?
Of course, you want to get paid for your effort, but how do you truly assess value (non-monetary or cash) and what works best for your situation and brand goals? We’ll tackle this next because it establishes the tone for the rest of the conversation. When it comes to getting paid by brands, many of you have probably been told: “Don’t do anything for free,” which is advice designed to protect Collaborators like you from being taken advantage of. But is cash the only valuable thing a marketer can offer? Definitely not!   

At Collectively we don’t advocate that cash is the only way for a marketer to provide value—and while many of our influencers receive payment for their content, we’ve seen awesome collaborations where cash wasn’t the value a brand offered. Value can be anything from first-class airline tickets, living room furniture, or even exposure to millions of new readers. (Hello, major cash value!).  In each of these situations, the collaborator was receiving value; just not cash value. There’s actually a term for this. It’s called working “in-kind,” and is where you offer something of value in exchange for something else of value that’s not cash. Any small business (and yes, a blog can be a small business!) should expect to do a certain amount of in-kind work—especially in the early phase when building credibility, audience, and a portfolio of great work.

We’re not saying your entire monetization strategy should be in-kind. (We all know we can’t live on handbags and discount codes!) However, there are definitely situations where in-kind partnerships will give you real value, reduce hard costs (the cost of hiring a photographer or furnish your office), open new doors (networking can be pricey!), or build your credibility. In-kind as a concept can also help you navigate the Value Exchange Conversation and any negations with brands or marketers. Which brings us to…

Next Up: Rates, Rates, Rates
It’s a great idea for all collaborators to develop what we call a post rate. It should take into account total audience, your content quality, and any special skills you have (like being an amazing photographer). This is the rate you’d like to be paid for a basic sponsored post, and what you’ll put on a media kit to kick off a conversation with a brand.

When setting a post rate, it’s important to be realistic. Everyone puts good old-fashioned elbow grease into his or her content—and while it may seem like a brand is buying your time and hard work, that’s really not all they are paying for. A marketer is also paying for the impact your work produces: your influence, your audience, the engagement you drive, and your ability to promote their brand or company in an authentic manner. There are thousands of collaborators out there, and marketers will be comparing you to other collaborators with similar influence.

For the negotiators among you (and we’ll dive into this further below), here’s a pro tip: Aim to be the first party to throw out a number or price in a negotiation. That way, when a brand approaches you with an offer, you have a starting point from which to accept or negotiate.

Negotiating: How to Approach the Conversation
Great news! A brand you’re aligned with wants you to do something to promote them. From sponsored content to an in-store appearance to a banner on your sidebar, they like your content and your audience and they want you to talk about them. Now what? First, ask them what they have in mind and what they are offering in return. It’s as simple as that. While waiting for a reply, consider a couple of things.  First, what kind of value you’d ideally like in return (a quick overview of some common value types is below!) and second, an honest assessment of what you are providing them. Knowing where you stand on both of these points will help you hold your ground and get what you want out of the partnership or guide your decision on when to walk away. Negotiate carefully and thoughtfully, be understanding of a brand’s goals and limitations, and consider the fact that brands have more to offer than just money. 

Common Types of Value (Other Than $$$) Offered by Brands:

Exposure or Traffic: You've read it in a brand pitch before: "We'll share your post on our social media accounts, generating additional exposure and traffic back to your site!" Exposure does have value, but it has to meet a few criteria to really count. Take a look at the brand's social media accounts: how many followers do they have? Are the accounts managed well, posting thoughtful and engaging content? Do followers interact frequently? Do they often highlight great photos from collaborators? Do they have a lot of visitors to their site (usually only larger brands)? If so, exposure to their audience and the potential for traffic from that audience to your blog can be valuable. As a rule of thumb, if they have a strong social following with an audience that you’d like to reach as well, then it’s real marketing value for your content.  

Credibility: Is the brand that's approaching you well respected? Do they have a product you’d share with readers anyway? Both are factors to consider when deciding if it’s a fit. If your dream brand really wants to work with you but doesn't have a budget, we say go for it! It's worth kicking off a partnership because it's an opportunity to show the brand what you can do for them (and make the case for some budget in the future). Also, these partnerships can open new doors down the road. That dream brand may not have the budget, but after seeing the awesome post you did, another brand may realize what you’re capable of and reach out with a cash offer. At the very least, you’ll have an amazing example to share in any future negotiations.   

Experiences: Some brands have great access to what we like to call experiences—anything including travel, hotels, dinners, and interviews with experts, etc. The way we like to evaluate the value of these experiences for influencers is with two crucial questions: first, would you benefit from the opportunity to network (both with the marketer and/or peers) at the event? And second, would the content you create provide your readers with an interesting perspective or something they couldn't get elsewhere? If that's the case, we say go for it. Remember, you’re in the content business, so a brand providing a content-worthy experience helps you keep things fresh and interesting for your readers at a low-cost to you.

Product: Ah, free product! First, product should always be provided by a brand for any assignment or project where you’re expected to endorse that product. If a brand wants you to talk about its latest mascara, they should definitely be sending you one to try out. Second, how big is the brand? If it’s a recently launched organic mascara brand that you really love and it’s clear that they have no budget, you may want to create a post and share it on social media in exchange for a few tubes. But if the brand is a major drugstore name and wants you to write a blog post, tweet, and Instagram a picture of that mascara in exchange for only a tube of mascara? That's a no-go because the only value to you is mascara and it’s clear they’re asking a lot for very little. However, if that same major drugstore brand were to also provide exposure on their massively popular website, that could be more appealing, so every situation is different! Be sure to do your research. Wikipedia will tell you how big a company is, but you can also use your instinct. In general, shy away from product-only exchanges unless the value really is there. The only exception to the rule is when you're truly in love with the brand or product and would want to share it anyway and the request from the brand is reasonable. An important note: Free products count as compensation, so if the value of the products you accept in a year is over $400 you will need to report that to the IRS.

Finally, Go Collaborate!
Hopefully you’re newly armed with a fresh context for how to approach the Value Exchange Conversation when it comes to influencer marketing, but if you remember just one thing from this post, it should be this: value is a two-way street.  

The reason Collectively calls our work Collaborative Marketing is because the spirit of the work is anchored in mutual respect and commitment to working together. That means having a shared goal. In conversations with any partner, whether it’s a brand or even fellow influencer, you should strive to consider the entire ecosystem of Value Exchange, and seek to find common ground and opportunities for shared success.