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How to be an ethical influencer

Influencing has changed over the last few years, and it’s important that brands, agencies, and influencers alike know how to navigate the space in an ethical way. It’s very easy to take advantage of small collaborators - and you deserve better!

Besma Whayeb, founder and director of Ethical Influencers, gives her top 5 tips to get the most out of your content creation.

The influencer industry is incredibly new and exciting. It’s easy to access (the apps are right there on your phone). You can influence at any level (micro-influencers with less than 10k followers tend to have the best engagement and authenticity). And you can create content about whatever interests you: in my case, and the case of the Ethical Influencers network, that’s everything from sustainable fashion to environmental activism.

However this newness can lead to some unfortunate situations. Influencers can easily be taken advantage of - just check out Influencer Pay Gap to see some of the worst requests that influencers receive. We don’t have colleagues or peers to check in with. And when it comes to industries that thrive off influencer marketing - I’m talking fast fashion - it can fuel overconsumption, pollution, and mountains of waste.

1. Know your worth

The first step to creating a fairer, more equitable influencer industry is to understand the value of content. There’s a lot more to it than pointing a camera and taking a photo! Getting yourself out there, building an audience, and consistently sharing informative, interesting, entertaining content, is work - even if you’re doing it for a hobby.

If you’re approached to promote a brand, product, or campaign, it’s important to recognise the value you are providing in this exchange, and to be given something of equal value back. 

This differs from person to person, but it’s important to recognise this as a value exchange, as opposed to a form of flattery, an opportunity to put a big name on your portfolio, or worse - exposure. 

Check out SevenSix Agency’s Influencer Pricing Report to know the average rates charged for content, and why it’s important to uphold this to ensure everyone is remunerated fairly.

2. Define your values

Next up - define what you stand for. I mean this in terms of your content, but also how you wish to work.

You want your audience to know what to expect when they view your content, so make clear rules for yourself about what you cover - and what you don’t. 

I like to cover what’s authentic to me at any given time - my current interest is sustainable fashion, and uncovering greenwashing, as well as how to take steps to be a sustainable citizen, rather than simply a consumer. I also have a personal rule not to cover alcohol, and I’ve had to turn down international press trips and paid work because of it.

Next, consider what you want in terms of creating your content. Consider how much time you wish to spend per month creating content - what does the ideal scenario look like? 

Do you want to make this a full-time career, a side-hustle, or a hobby? And what kind of content inspires you - and what doesn’t? I love to write, but I don’t particularly like video, which is why I don’t have a YouTube channel. 

Understanding this will help you to feel comfortable in what you create and sustain it, as opposed to feeling overwhelmed or uninspired.

Besma holding a small rubber plant
Image (c) Besma Whayeb

3. Consider the pros & cons of monetisation

Many people enter the influencer space with the aim of making money. This is actually quite a tough feat. While some strike it lucky, it took me more than four years of content creation before I was making a steady income. However, monetising your content can be an exciting way to earn a little extra, and fund future content too.

If you’re interested in monetising your content, be sure to know what you wish to sell - and what you don’t. There’s plenty of ways to monetise - from banner ads on a blog to affiliate links, sponsored content to audience subscriptions - each has their pros and cons that are worth investigating before monetising.

Once you start making money from your content, it’s important that you declare this to HMRC or the equivalent in your country. You will need to register as self-employed (even if you are also employed elsewhere) and keep a record of all money made through your work, declaring this income annually to ensure you pay tax on it.

And if monetisation isn’t for you - that’s cool too. Some influencers actively don’t want to make money from the content they make. However, it’s still important to recognise your content’s value and merit - you may be educating people, inspiring people, campaigning for better systems, and that’s brilliant.

4. Disclose your partnerships

We want to see more transparency in supply chains - from food to fashion. So, as an influencer, it’s important to also be transparent in your content too.

If you do decide to work with brands - even on a gifting basis, or even to promote your own side-business - you must declare it. The UK’s Advertising Standards Authority recently found that only 35% of Instagram Stories are properly labelled and identifiable as ads. This isn’t fair on your audience, and it can land you in legal trouble too.

As an influencer, it is your responsibility to know how to declare ads. Brands may also prompt you to do this - but ultimately, it’s your content, your platform, and your responsibility.

This leads me on to gifting. Gifting is sort of like a loophole for brand partnerships - if something is sent to you without the direct instruction to create content around it, all you need to do is note #gifted if you do feature it, as opposed to #ad. 

That said, many brands are using this as a low-cost form of influencer marketing, and in turn, it creates a lot of waste. Even with gifting, make sure it’s something you truly do want to try before accepting.

5. Trust your instincts

Finally, it’s worth sharing some age-old advice: trust your instincts. If something feels off, it probably is. In my seven years of influencing, I’ve had some brilliant experiences, but also some awful ones.

On a press trip from hell, I had a panic attack in a public bathroom and had to leave early. After finishing a campaign for an international brand, I had to take an agency to court for not paying me. And in most cases - it didn’t feel good to begin with.

My advice here is to offer something that makes you feel more comfortable - brands and agencies know that you understand your audience better than they do, so tell them what would work better than the original pitch. If a deadline is too tight for you to achieve, say so - these can often be changed.

Similarly, if the overall campaign simply isn’t a good fit for you or your audience, tell them that. Pass the mic - point brands in the direction of others who may benefit more from working with them (or do what I do, and point them to the Ethical Influencers community!)

Working collaboratively, being communicative, and staying organised will benefit your work, your partnerships, and the influencer industry as a whole.

Find out more about Besma Whayeb and the Ethical Influencers networking by going to the Ethical Influencers website.

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