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How to Be an Ethical Influencer

In a role that’s often tagged as disingenuous, it’s difficult—but not impossible—to maintain your integrity and ensure you’re deserving of your followers’ trust

Erin Lowry
May 7 · 6 min read
Photo by Maddi Bazzocco on Unsplash

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Recently, as my husband and I were watching one of the Fyre Festival documentaries, he gave the mother of all eye rolls when a man and woman, both identified as “influencers,” appeared on screen.

To be fair, both of them came off — well, pretty much as one might expect, given the subject of the film. But still, the eye roll hit a nerve. I paused the documentary, turned to my husband, and said, “You know influencer work pays some of our bills, right?”

While I’m not on the level of the influencers featured in the Fyre Festival documentaries, my modest online following, combined with authoring books, does come with the opportunity to work with brands in an influencer capacity. But even to many people who identify with the term “influencer,” the label can be less than desirable, conjuring up images of superficiality and ripoffs.

“I cringe at the word ‘influencer,’ though I have yet to find a better word for it,” says Grace Atwood, the founder of lifestyle blog The Stripe and co-host of the podcast Bad on Paper who boosts more than 100,000 followers on Instagram. “To me, it feels a little sleazy. It makes it sound as though my job is to push a product down people’s throats or get them to try and be just like me.”

I know what she means. There’s something almost laughable in the way some influencers promote things they would obviously never use themselves — like the makeup tutorials where a brush clearly isn’t actually touching the YouTuber’s face. So, in this potentially disingenuous world, where it’s alarmingly easy to sell your integrity, how do you keep yourself trustworthy and make sure you aren’t scamming your community for a payday?

To start, it helps to define the term. Broadly speaking, an influencer is “a brand or person that people listen to or take action as a result of something that they shared,” says Tiffany Aliche, CEO of The Budgetnista who has more than 400,000 followers on Facebook and more than 150,000 followers on Instagram. (Obviously, celebrities have a certain level of influence and cachet, but micro-influencers — who often have fewer than 1 million followers — also carry weight in the marketing world.)

The influencer role can also encompass a wide variety of more specific jobs. When asked what she does for a living, for example, Aliche uses the term “personal financial educator.” Atwood, meanwhile, prefers to describe herself as a writer.

“Sponsored content is how I pay the bills and keep the site running, and I’m always up-front about that.”

Under the influencer umbrella is also a large assortment of potential income streams — it’s not all just posing for Instagram ads. “Influencers can make money through books, programs, courses, promoting brands and companies, sponsored posts, podcasts, brand ambassadorships, physical products (such as a makeup line), affiliate marketing, and more,” says Michelle Schroeder-Gardner, founder of the personal finance blog Making Sense of Cents, which nets her more than $1 million per year. Schroeder-Gardner earns the majority of income through affiliate marketing, as well as her courses and some sponsored content.

No matter what shape your influencer business takes, the first step to leveraging your following in an ethical way is transparency. “Sponsored content is how I pay the bills and keep the site running, and I’m always up-front about that,” Atwood says. “That being said, anything advertising-related is properly disclosed and flagged as an ad, and my rule of thumb is that sponsored content is always less than 20% of my total content.”

In fact, some transparency is mandated by law. In 2017, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) created guidelines requiring influencers to properly disclose their relationships with brands, products, and companies. You may see influencers you follow on social media use #ad, #spon, #sponsored, or the slightly vaguer “I’ve partnered with” on posts in which they’re promoting or endorsing a company.

But just because that disclosure is required doesn’t always mean it happens. “The biggest red flag is when a company tells you not to disclose that you’re partnering with them,” Schroeder-Gardner says. “Run away!”

To take things beyond the legally required bare minimum, be forthcoming about what you will and won’t advertise. Originally, Aliche simply deferred to a slight twist on the golden rule: She wouldn’t promote any product she wouldn’t use herself. But after receiving a message from her younger sister, Lisa, about signing up for a product Aliche had mentioned in a newsletter, she decided she would become even more conservative in what she endorsed.

“I don’t want to think, ‘Wait, what did Lisa sign up for?’” Aliche says. “I need to be 100% feeling good that Lisa can sign up and I don’t have to worry.” Now Aliche uses the “Lisa rule” to explain to her community, whom she calls Dream Catchers, that she’ll only recommend products that she would also recommend to her sister, the baby of the family.

Aliche also examines the labor practices and general ethics of companies that approach her. If a company doesn’t do right by its customers or workers, she says, then she won’t partner, but she will offer to work as an internal consultant to help fix the problem.

Similarly, influencer Aja Dang, who has more than 300,000 subscribers on YouTube and 160,000 followers on Instagram, recommends looking for alignment on values between yourself and potential clients.

“It’s important to know who you are and what you stand for,” says Dang, who works only with cruelty-free brands. “Unfortunately, a lot of popular brands test on animals, which limits my potential partnerships, but there’s no amount of money that would convince me to work with a brand that tests on animals.”

Ensuring that potential clients respect your time enough to pay you for it is one way to weed out red flags.

Another suggestion: Notice how the brand approaches you. Did they misspell your name? Do you just seem to be part of an email blast? If that’s the case, Dang advises moving on — if they don’t care enough to reach out personally, they likely won’t value your time as you’d want them to.

It’s common for influencers to be asked to promote a brand or product in exchange for exposure. But as any millennial who played The Oregon Trail knows, you can also die from exposure.

Okay, that’s hyperbolic, but exposure doesn’t pay the bills. Ensuring that potential clients respect your time enough to pay you for it is one way to weed out red flags.

“When I just started out, I used a site called Social Bluebook to help determine my base fee for things like YouTube mentions or grid pictures on Instagram,” Dang says. “Know your worth and start the negotiation.”

And remember not to be too generous with your trust. Even influencers can be misled by their peers — Atwood recalls a time when she almost purchased a dress based on another influencer’s post recommending a certain brand. Before going through with the purchase, though, she took some time to research the company and found plenty of negative reviews and reports of poor quality.

“It’s easy for me as an influencer to say, ‘Trust me, I’m one of the good ones,’ but at the end of the day, I know it can be hard to trust someone who is being paid to endorse a product,” Atwood says. “So I always encourage my readers to do their research.”

Erin Lowry

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