Should influencers work for free product?

This is such an absolutely contentious argument. While influencer free products can be enticing, you must scrutinize the potential conflicts of interest they may pose and whether they compromise the authenticity of their recommendations. I know what I have done and what I haven’t have done, so not only am I going drawn on my own experience and I have reached out to some professionals who have also commented on this highly debated topic.

Spoiler alert – don’t work for free product only. If you want to know more about micro influencers monetising their accounts, you can read this post here.

Should an Influencer Work for FREE Products Cover Photo

Would I work for free product?

When I was first starting out, I absolutely worked for free product, things I liked or things I knew I would use to get my name out there. As my account grew bigger and I spent more time creating content for it, I realised how precious my time actually was.

Now I have a set amount Ill charge for content creation and I am not shy to state that. HOWEVER, I recently reached out to a brand that I adore. They sent me almost everything I wanted and more and in this instance, knowing that I reached out, and that it was something I really wanted, I went for it.

However, I think if a brand is reaching out to multiple people, offering only free product in return for post and “reach” then it diminishes the pool for those genuinely wanting to make a business from their Instagram accounts.

Choosing to work for free is a highly personal decision that shouldn’t be taken lightly. It should match your strategy and business plan. Make the right decisions for you and your business.

When I reached out about this topic the replies were crazy town! So I’m really excited to share them with you!

When should an Influencer work for free product?

There are arguments for both sides, working for free product and not. below we asked some experts to weigh in, and the majority said the following:

  • As long as it is only in the beginning, when you are just starting out to gain exposure and reach
  • Needs to align well with your own strategy and brand
  • is something your audience is genuinely interested in.

Lets dig into this a little deeper…

Lauren Norris is a 22 year old college and lifestyle vlogger reigning from Montgomery, Alabama, his southern belle’s Youtube channel is best known for her college day-in-the-life vlogs, and travel videos. She is also active on Instagram and posts about college, her Miss. Alabama pageant competition experience;

When first starting off as an influencer, working for free product is a great way to create relationships with brands and show them and your audience the type of creative content you’re capable of making. It builds your portfolio, and shows companies the previous work you have done, which will eventually lead to companies paying you. Accepting free product doesn’t necessarily take away from the creative process of creating effective campaigns, but allows you to try different things out to see what works for you and the brand.

Liz Jeneault, Influencer and VP of Marketing, Faveable;

I have accepted some products in exchange for free content! Those products are pricier, though. For example, I posted a free video review in exchange for a luxury vegan gym bag that cost several hundred dollars. When you have less followers, though, I do feel it’s smart to work with as many brands as possible who can only offer you free product. That’s because when you’re just starting out as an influencer, you want to show other brands that you’re capable of posting branded content. You also want to be posting consistently to help drive engagement, so it helps to receive free product as it gives you something new to post about!

Photo of quote from an influencer about working for free product

Can Ahtam; photographer of 10+ years and influencer; 

Influencers who would like to grow a brand portfolio as well as gain experience in dealing with businesses mostly accept providing their services in exchange for free products/services.

I remember accepting free apparel, technology products, and hotel staycations from various brands in my earlier time as a photographer/influencer but I also made sure that the brands I have partnered up with, even if it is in exchange for products, aligned with my brand, principles, and what I value as opposed to just accepting everything that comes my way.

Chelsea Clark, Founder , Momfluence;

We believe that influencers should work for free product in the very beginning, as they are getting their feet wet with collaborations. Maybe the first 5 campaigns they work on. But after a certain period of training time, even if the influencers only have a few thousand followers, the work that goes into shooting content should be valued Monetarily.

photo of quote from influencer about working for prouducts

Bethany Spence, Content Marketing Specialist, Exposure Ninja;

At Exposure Ninja, we engage in product outreach campaigns for our clients. During these campaigns we may send out free product in return for coverage, however, this exchange is made clear to the influencer before work is carried out. Although I wouldn’t recommend that influencers accept products on a regular basis from brands in exchange for contracted work, this can work in both parties favour if influencers are at the beginning of their career and want to show their commercial value to other brands. Just as any other creative practitioner would need to build a portfolio before getting paid work, influencers can use product outreach campaigns to build successful case studies where product placement has resulted in conversion for the sponsored party.

Stephanie Chong, Founder of Synergy Communications;

It’s only a good idea to work for free product if your company just wants to get the word out and is not too picky on crafting a particular image or feel for the product. This can be very risky for your brand because once you’ve portrayed a certain image into the public, it can be difficult to get it back. If you’ve already positioned yourself as a low-cost item that is accessible to anyone and everyone, it’s going to be difficult in the long-term to target a more exclusive audience.

photo with text free product should you work with a brand

When should you NOT work for free products?

It seems as though there is far more discussion around NOT working for free product, almost all the experts highlight how important it is to take into consideration the time and effort it takes to curate good content. An influencer should carefully consider whether accepting influencer free products aligns with their personal brand and values before agreeing to promote them.

Chelsea Clark, Founder , Momfluence;

Influencers replace the job of a stylist, photographer, model, editor & advertiser. The cost savings can be enormous for the brand and we at Momfluence believe that influencers deserve to be paid. For many people, this is their career and they can’t pay their mortgage with free makeup.

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Elle is a UK based Fitness Professional and Blogger / Influencer. She also runs a community on Facebook for London based Digital Creators & Influencers;

There have been many situations that I have realised working for product was a bad idea, sometimes after the fact. As soon as a brand starts mentioning deadlines, deliverables, signing off etc, that is 100% classed as work for me. Work which I need to be paid for. There have also been situations that I have been sent product without me promising any coverage, only to be chased constantly asking when I will be creating content.

I do think that accepting free product diminished the work that goes into creating effective campaigns. I think content creators and influencers are underestimate for the work that goes into what we do. We handle every single aspect of the digital marketing world, all the way from photography through to SEO. Time is the most valuable asset we have, and the time we put into content creation should be valued.

photo of quote from influencer

Bethany Spence, Content Marketing Specialist, Exposure Ninja;

It’s always exciting for influencers when they start to receive free products as it’s a sign that brands value the exposure they can bring. However, it’s important that influencers don’t get too caught up with free product as this shouldn’t be used as a substitute for cash payment. 

Being an influencer is a laborious job – even though it may not look like it – and it’s a profession that can’t be paid through beauty items, video games or clothing. Free product is a good thing to receive in PR packages – this means brands voluntarily send out product to an influencer in the hope that they might mention a new launch or product on their channels. There is no formal agreement in this case between an influencer and a brand. Just to be clear, the influencer isn’t obligated to show product, just because they are on a PR list. 

Although this route isn’t unethical in terms of working with influencers, it is often frowned upon in terms of the environment. Excess shipment, production and packaging used to deliver products to influencers (that in some cases could never effectively use all of the products sent to them) seems wasteful from a sustainable point of view. Free product becomes a problem when brands offer this as payment for a contracted job. For example, a brand may ask an influencer to create three Instagram posts in return for a watch – this isn’t a good practice for influencers in the long-term.

Can Ahtam; photographer of 10+ years and influencer; 

Not many experienced influencers will accept free product in exchange for social media services. According to Social Publi about 65% of influencers would prefer money over products. When you look at the greater scope of the influencer business, whether it is done on the side or fulltime; it is a job. You can not pay your daily expenses on products sent to you.

Experienced influencers are those that are in demand and are growing influencers so your value increases as your growth increases and there is an existing demand for you. This provides a leverage for a market value, which is more than just a free product.

Some influencers may have a production process to their creative services. Afterall, It is not holding a product in ones hand and taking a mirror selfie for every influencer. Such production processes may involve various amounts of cost associated and it may not be worth doing that for just a free product.

Rahul V J works as a Content Manager at ContentNinja;

I worked as a Growth Manager in a startup where we attempted to form clusters of nano-influencers in different regions and spread the word about our product. We categorised nano-influencers as individuals with Instagram accounts who have followers in the range of 500 – 1000 mainly because they had a strong influence on their followers as opposed to the micro-influencers and the bigshots. We used Instagram because that’s where our target audience dwelled. Moreover, they were studying in colleges and had the opportunity to go around and speak with folks which meant they developed an even higher connection with their followers or acquaintances.

Coming to the point, they were using our product which was a trivia game and offered cash rewards for the winners. We also incorporated similar game mechanics to our social accounts and let their followers participate. Along with this, the nano-influencers were effectively competing for a gamified internship wherein they had to prove they can rise to the top and emerge victorious and walk away with an even greater bounty. To summarise, our learnings were simple – influencers won’t do it for free unless they can get an offering from the product.

Amanda Claire Goodwin, Founder, The Real Housewine

There’s a lot of cheap, mass produced wines out there hoping for free Instagram content in exchange for product. I feel like this is taking advantage of people and not the proper way to do business. Creating content, writing a blog article, that takes time. When people accept free product for posts, it’s free advertising.

Stephanie Chong, Founder of Synergy Communications;

As a talent manager, the only time I would allow my influencers to feature a product for free is if they are already shooting regardless or if they’re already going to be at a location and would appreciate access to its resources. Not everything always needs to be monetized, but I always consider the viewpoints of both parties so that everybody feels like there is a value exchange.

Meg Marrs is the Founder and CEO of K9 of Mine

When I used to do a lot of free product reviews, I found that the amount of time I had to put in to photographing the product and writing up a review was not usually worth getting the product for free. This is why now I almost always ask for monetary compensation as well.

Liz Jeneault, Influencer and VP of Marketing, Faveable;

I would say that I’m honestly not too keen on just receiving free product in exchange for content. I prefer to also be paid for my content, as I put extra time and attention into my high-quality posts. I’m also just highly busy, so I consider my time to be precious and I expect to be be paid for it

photo with text Should You do Instagram posts for free product

How do you make the decision to work for free product?

Making the decision to work for free product in exchange for content is a completely personal choice, while we can offer some guidance, at the end of the day it comes down to the following key factors;

  1. Does it align to your overall social media strategy or business strategy?
  2. Do you have a strong affiliation with the brand or their products
  3. would the products benefit your audience or just you?
  4. Can you turn the free product into an ongoing collaboration?
  5. How can you make this work for you long term?

Amanda Claire Goodwin, Founder, The Real Housewine

I feel like it’s on a case by case basis. In the wine world, many times a PR agency, Importer, or producer will send you a wine and EXPECT a post. It doesn’t work that way. If I like what you’re sending me and I feel my following will also enjoy this wine or product then I’ll write about or feature it on my Instagram page. However, if I’m not impressed, it won’t make it to Instagram, maybe Instagram stories at best.

Bethany Spence, Content Marketing Specialist, Exposure Ninja;

This is totally up to the influencer but I would suggest working out the desired amount you would like to be paid per hour and then add up the estimated amount of time a contracted job would take you to work out whether the product exchange is worth it. For example, if you’re asked to feature a luxury product on a story (with the premise that you get to keep the product) this might be worth it. In terms of the amount of time it has taken to snap a picture and write a caption, you could consider owning this luxury product as a profit. However, if you’re asked to create an entire video on a mid-range product, the effort put into this promotion might not prove fruitful if after working out the value of the product versus the value of your labour.

Can Ahtam; photographer of 10+ years and influencer; 

Some of the things I look into as a photographer/influencer are the monetary value and the need based value. How much does the product retail for? If I accept this product will I be using it in the long run? So as brands reach out to influencers they need to be aiming for relevant influencers who either have been using a similar product in the market or may want to use it. Always make sure to highlight the retail value of your offering and the benefit it can provide to the influencer. Those are good selling points in your offer.

How can you turn a free product collaboration into an ongoing business plan?

Become a brand ambassador

Often brands offer affiliate links or ambassadorships; this is a greta way to improve your reach and collaboration. It means you will be able to earn a commission for selling or promoting the products you like. It is also a lower investment for the brand itself as they aren’t directly paying out for brand deals or content creation.

Be weary of ambassadorships that cross the boundary to far though for example a brand might reach out and offer you a free product of $20 and a 10% commission on any sales. They might want very specific content creation and you need to be aware that the commission and free product do NOT outweigh the amount of time and energy that goes into creating content.

Stephanie Chong, Founder of Synergy Communications;

In the case where a product for post exchange happens, companies need to be mindful that they can’t have control over the messaging of the post or the creative direction, because it’s not a business transaction. Shooting for product is a great way for relationship building, so companies can keep the influencer top of mind for their next big campaign, but ultimately building a strong brand requires alignment on both the influencer’s and company’s end.

Consider the value carefully

Think carefully about how much your brand is worth and similarly your time. If you feel that the value of the product outweighs or is in the right space as the value on your time, and the brand aligns to your needs then you should absolutely go for it.

Cassie, Brandbass PR Manager; At Brandbass;

Depending on the number of followers and engagement, a creator may get paid for being a brand ambassador or may receive free products as payment. It’s about building a relationship with brands. Creators partner with brands because they have something they’re passionate about and want to work with their favorite brands or discover new brands and be the first to spread the word.

Lauren Norris is a 22 year old college and lifestyle vlogger 

After you’ve worked with some brands and have established your own style, you should know your worth and accept opportunities accordingly. You should factor in the time you spend creating the content and cost of production.

It is also important to look at what the brand requires of the content you create for them. If a brand just wants a one-off post, then that review may be worth your time. But if the brand is looking for an Instagram post, a dedicated Youtube video, and four Instagram stories yet the product has a retail value of $10, it would be time to consider charging said brand for your time as those components of the campaign take a lot of time to create.

Sometimes the return on investment with working for free product is worth accepting the opportunity. If the exposure you’re receiving from working with the brand will build your audience, then it’s a good idea. But on the other hand if the exposure and number of sales you’re giving the brand is worth way more than the cost of the product, then you should be paid what you are worth. If brands have a budget for traditional advertising methods then they should be able to pay you. Essentially it is a business move, so the value you provide the brand should be equal to the value they provide you.

Meg Marrs is the Founder and CEO of K9 of Mine

Even when you start out with a free product review, you’re beginning a relationship that could become profitable in the future. For example, you could offer to promote the product to your email subscribers or post about it on social media for an extra charge.

Ultimately though, it is important to consider the value of your time and your mental energy. If you’re an influencer running your own business, every free product write-up you do takes away from other work, so make sure you are appreciating the value of your own time and consider whether the free product you are getting is really enough to compensate for how much time and energy you’ll be putting into that product.

photo of expert chat woman holding a product

While influencer free products may seem tempting, influencers should weigh the potential impact on their credibility and integrity before accepting them.

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