WHY INFLUENCER ‘SEEDING’ HAS AN EMPATHY PROBLEM
Updated: Apr 21
Have you been in the influencer marketing world for any length of time?
Then there’s a good chance you’ve at least heard of influencer seeding.
You know, that approach to influencer where you ‘seed’ a relationship by sending an influencer a free product.
It’s often touted by its advocates as the only way to do influencer marketing authentically. Oh, and it’ll drive results for your brand too.
But what if I made the argument that it’s not as harmless as you’d think.
What if I told you that it actually undermines the very system that it claims to help.
In our experience, that’s exactly what we’ve seen.
You’re not convinced? No problem. Take a few minutes and hear us out.
But first, let's recap what influencer seeding is.
WHAT IS INFLUENCER SEEDING?
At the core of influencer seeding is offering a “free” product to influencers. You’re not asking them to post it. Not asking for anything in return. But, as we’ll argue, you’re kinda sorta expecting them to actually post about it.
After you've sent out the free product, you then calculate that about a fifth of them will post about your brand. According to proponents, these posts are more authentic because they're unprompted and unpaid. They've had such a positive experience with a free product that they decide to post about the brand.
In contrast, these advocates suggest that paid sponsorships produce inauthentic and dull content. In short, if they're compensated, then how will we know if they are actual fans of the product?
Next, the brand reviews the content of those who posted and begins work to get usage rights from the creator. At this point, some creators think to request a royalty, some don't.
From here, the brand brings these creators on as brand affiliates. This is to ensure they get paid for any extra sales they drive to the brand.
I mean, even if the creators grant free usage rights, this way they'll at least get compensated in some way.
And there you have it, free high-quality creative in exchange for gifting some free product.
So, what’s this empathy problem with influencer seeding?
This seems like a pretty savvy approach for a brand, right?
Well, yes and no. In our experience, we've found that it's short-sighted.
Let me explain.
THE INFLUENCER SEEDING EMPATHY PROBLEM
Let’s start by imagining you’re a creator.
You’ve spent months or years building a loyal audience around a topic you’re interested in. And you've done it for free.
Now, the reality is creators work hard. Being a creator is not some whimsical thing that some folks like to think it is.
It is a job. It is work.
In fact, popular YouTuber Emma Chamberlain highlighted this in a recent podcast:
"I got to such a dark place in this hamster wheel of being a YouTuber that I just said you know what, I can't do this at all. I need to step back completely. I need to step back and heal from the years and years of burnout."
This highlights something we often come across from brands. A mindset that shortchanges many creators. Instead of seeing creators like small media companies, brands tend to see creators like contractors.
This would make sense if all they were doing was making creative for a brand. But the reality is, their greatest value is coming from the fact that they’ve built a trusted and loyal audience. Making creative is just one component of that.
But do creators even drive results? Should you pay them beyond the value you can prove they're delivering.
The research says yes. In fact, clickstream data shows that on average, for every 1 attributed sale that a creator drives, 3 more unattributed sales occur.
This means that most brands are only seeing 25% of the picture.
Now let’s get back to our thought experiment.
You’re a hard-working creator that’s built a loyal audience. A brand then comes around and asks you for your address to send you a free product.
They said it's free and no strings attached...BUT they did give you something for free.
This is where the social psychology principle known as reciprocity comes in.
The way it works is that when you give something away with “no strings attached”, people feel pressure to return the favor in kind.
You’re given a gift, so you feel inclined to give the giver a gift of their own.
See where we're going with this?
Let’s apply this to our creator scenario. Influencer seeding begins to look more like using the power of 'reciprocity' to drive some free brand awareness and creative.
And we get it. This may sound savvy, smart even, for businesses—but it’s hardly as altruistic as proponents make it sound.
This is like the B2B salesman giving you a “free gift card” and then asking if you’d like to hop on a demo. Or like the non-profit sending you direct-mail with a quarter knowing that you're now more likely to give.
From the perspective of the giver, this may seem like a smart strategy. From the recipient's perspective though, it often looks and feels more like manipulation.
The reality is, a lot of creators see right through this supposed altruism. When a creator receives a free product the first time, it might be exciting. But all that excitement will wear off once they’re getting them all the time. Not to mention that it begins to lose its effectiveness for the brands.
Think about it. If 75 different makeup brands send free products to the same beauty influencer, are they going to advocate for all of them? This is the diminishing return that influencer seeding is spiraling towards. This is why it's short-sighted.
At the end of the day, when creators get a “free product” with “no strings attached”, it ends up looking more like manipulation to get a return favor.
And can we be honest? They’re not wrong, are they?
Look at all the brands and agencies building their entire influencer programs on influencer seeding.
The reality is, things aren't going to end well if it continues in this direction.
BUT WHAT’S THE SOLUTION TO THE PROBLEM?
At this point, we know you're asking, but what's the alternative?
Isn't a traditional paid campaign transactional? Won’t that make the campaign less authentic?
We’d argue it’s the opposite. When a creator feels like they're receiving fair compensation, it makes big difference. They are more likely to go the extra mile for the brand and give a full-throated endorsement.
As humans, we communicate in many different ways, with words only being a fraction of them. The truth is, there’s not a ton of distance between creators and the brand. And they know when they are being paid fairly & when they are not. This directly affects the quality and type of endorsement.
At the end of the day, if you're a hard-working creator who had built an engaged audience, what would you want? Would you rather get a free product AND get paid for the value you’re providing to a brand? Or would you want a free product and the unspoken expectation of a free return favor?
After working with creators for over 14 years, we've found that paying creators what they’re worth upfront is far more effective. It's more authentic because there are no unspoken favors involved. And it lays a strong foundation for long-term relationships because it's was built on respect instead of manipulation.
In our experience, the most successful brands get that it's better to pursue good win-win deals with creators.
Not one-sided deals that only help one party.