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016 - How to work with vegan influencers to promote your business

How do you find, approach and work with a vegan influencer to promote your business? And what will they want in return? An influencer is just someone who has brought together an audience of people who are interested in a specific topic, and if you find the right influencer, they may be the conduit to a perfect ready-made audience for your business. Influencers aren’t just YouTubers or Instagram stars. They may have email lists, blogs, podcasts or run live events.

So let’s take a look at how vegan influencers operate, how you can find them, how to contact them and what they will want in return. And if you DO want to work with influencers to promote your business, it’s important to understand not only how they earn a living, but also how they built up their audience in the first place.

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Full episode transcript

Hello and welcome to episode sixteen of The Vegan Business Tribe Podcast with myself David Pannell, co-founder of Vegan Business Tribe.  If you have a vegan business, or are thinking of starting one, then Vegan Business Tribe is here to support and inspire you not just to build a vegan business, but to build a SUCCESSFUL vegan business.
And if you want to go beyond the podcast and connect with our community of like-minded vegan entrepreneurs then head over to Vegan Business Tribe .com where you can get new free content every week – or if you want more support, and at the same time to support us, then you can also join our paid membership to take part in all our online networking events, come to our business clinics, get support in our mentorship forums or even study our vegan marketing course.  And it’s all our paid members that enable us to keep recording this podcast every week and putting out all our free content and just generally doing everything WE can to support vegan businesses worldwide, so if you like what we’re doing then go check out our membership too.
In today’s podcast episode I’m going to talk about how to work with vegan influencers to promote your business or product. And you might not be completely sure what the term ‘influencer’ actually means; you might have heard it used in the news to talk about these young people earning millions playing video games on YouTube, or travelling around the world posting photographs of themselves on Instagram.  But an influencer is just someone who has brought together an audience of people who are interested in a specific topic. This audience looks up to the influencer as an expert on the topic, meaning they have ‘influence’ over their audience – hence the term, ‘influencer’.  And influencers don’t have to have HUGE audiences, and they don’t always make a lot of money out of doing it.  You MIGHT even be an influencer yourself, but would never call yourself one; you might be able to make a suggestion or share your knowledge with your own audience, even if that’s only a couple of hundred people, and if they take that advice or act on your recommendation then you have influence over their decisions. I’m acting as an influencer now – you’re listening to this podcast to get my advice on vegan business (or maybe you’re just needing something to put you to sleep, but I like to stay hopeful) but there’s a good chance that I am actively influencing your decisions with the advice I’m giving.  If I was to now recommend a product or an app, if you’re a loyal listener then there’s a good chance you would go and take a look.  And that ‘influence’ is very valuable to businesses looking to sell to those audiences.
The influencers who really make money out of it are those that talk to hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of people – who all look up to them as someone who knows a lot about a subject or who’s opinion or life-view they value.  Because THEN, not only do they have an audience, but they are a trusted conduit to that audience. And if a company is selling a product that is of interest to a specific audience, an endorsement from someone who holds influence over that audience becomes very valuable and will result in more new customers than something like a TV advert.
Because you might have noticed that lots of people, especially younger people, don’t watch traditional television anymore.  I haven’t for many years.  Why spend hours channel hopping when you can go find exactly what you want to watch online?  Streaming services like Netflix are now providing more specialist-interest programmes knowing that they will find an audience (just take a look The Game Changers vegan documentary) but if you head over to YouTube, you can find something that could have been made JUST FOR YOU.  Some YouTubers have made millions through a channel that is just them playing a video game.  And I don’t mean a video games channel where they play lots of different games, but just ONE single game.  Over and over again.  And the people who watch are the people who absolutely LOVE that game, want to get better at it, and come back every day to see the latest videos.  They want to get as good as the person playing is, or they want to find out what this expert in the game thinks of the latest updates. These people gain huge influence over the people who follow them.  And if a video game YouTuber with 10 million subscribers says that they use a special controller to play the game, or have a specific gaming chair, or drink a certain energy drink to keep them going for hours, then their most loyal fans will go out and buy the same item.  Or if a beauty blogger with hundreds of thousands of followers might recommend a specific product, saying it’s the best they have ever used – and this is why they are called influencers: they can influence the opinions and, if we’re talking commercially, the buying decisions of those who follow them.
But influencers aren’t just YouTubers or Instagram stars. They may have other channels also, such as their email lists, blogs, podcasts like this one and even the live events they speak at.  There’s a joke that influencers never have to buy their own clothes, but there’s some truth to it.  Because if you can get an influencer with a huge following wearing your brand, it gets you it in front of a huge audience.  But for most of us, we don’t need to get our companies in front of millions, we don’t need a HUGE audience – we need to get in front of a TARGETTED audience – and there’s a big difference.  If you were to book a TV commercial on prime-time television, you might reach millions of people.  But out of those millions of people, maybe only a very small percentage are your target customers but you still also need to pay to reach the millions of people who are not interested.  What if you could pay to show the same advert to JUST to the people who are interested though, and not pay for the others?  And this is where influencers offer a really interesting opportunity, because the most successful ones are not generic – they build up very specialist, or niche, audiences.  Because the influencer is usually talking about very specific topics, this naturally builds an engaged audience of people who are often semi-obsessive about that topic.  And if you’re looking to promote a product or business then you can see why could be really valuable.  If you are selling gluten-free vegan snack bars and you find a gluten-free vegan influencer – and there are some out there – then you know that everyone who is following them are potential customers.  The influencer has already done all the targeting for you.  By putting out lots of videos about living gluten-free vegan, doing gluten-free vegan cooking demonstrations on their YouTube and highlighting the best gluten-free vegan products they find on their Instagram account, they have done all the hard work gathering together a collection of your ideal potential customers. And if their followers are THAT targetted, and THAT engaged with the influencer, then getting your gluten-free vegan snack bars in front of an audience of a couple of thousand gluten-free vegans is far better than talking to HUNDREDS of thousands of generic vegans, to who your product is just another snack bar.
Get them to mention your product to their followers and you will pick up new customers.  If they review and endorse your product you will pick up even more.  If they tell their followers that this is the gluten-free vegan snack bar they eat themselves, day in day out, and it’s made them into the person they are today – then ALL their followers are going to want to try your bar.  Now, I’m not going to suggest you try and jump straight into a partnership with some of the huge vegan influencers like Earthling Ed, but you might not have to do.  One thing to remember is that many smaller or mid-level influencers have these really targetted, niche, loyal followings and they can be REALLY approachable.  And money doesn’t always have to change hands with these people with smaller audiences.  If you find a vegan YouTuber who your company aligns with perfectly, and if they completely believe in your mission and your product, there might be opportunities to set up mutually-beneficial relationships with them.  Don’t go in expecting it, because remember they need to make a living too, but with smaller influencers, you might be able to give them a free supply of your product in return for a review or a regular mention.
So let’s take a look at how vegan influencers operate, how you can find them and how to approach them if you want to work with them to promote your business.  And if you DO want to work with influencers, it’s important to understand not only how they earn a living, but also how they built up their audience in the first place. Because the key currency for being an influencer isn’t dollars or pounds, it’s trust.  If you are an influencer, then your audience is everything – you can’t be an influencer if you have no one to influence!  But for people to follow you, in any sense of the word, they need to trust you. And this is HUGELY important especially with vegan influencers.  We’ve had a number of high-profile cases where people who have made a living promoting a vegan lifestyle have then suddenly decide they are not vegan any more, or we find out that they were secretly consuming some animal products away from the camera, and the effect on their audience is devastating. And you have to ask yourself: were these people really vegan in the first place? Did they ever really connect with the vegan cause or were they doing it just because veganism has a lot of interest right now and they thought they could get a lot of views and likes? Because my own view is once you’ve made the connection between the animal and what is on your plate – and I mean REALLY make the connection – there’s not really any way back. And if you betray the trust of the people who are following you, in part because of your ethics, then you have lost your audience potentially forever.  An audience needs to both like and trust the person they are following to value their opinion.  They don’t want to find out the person they are following has been secretly consuming dairy whilst telling us how cruel animal farming is.  We don’t want to find out that the money the influencer is making is being used to support unethical practices, and, just as importantly, we do not want to feel that they see us as just a group of people to sell to. The really good vegan influencers, and by good I mean the ethical ones who are doing it for all the right reasons, constantly wrestle with how much they should be selling to their audience.  When did they last do a product promo?  Have they been doing too many recently?  Are they coming across too salesy? Are they promoting too many companies in between making their vegan content? Because retaining the trust of their audience is everything to them.
And the reason this commercialisation is a fine line to walk for many growing influencers is because, as they build an audience, the amount of time they need put into creating content and interacting with that audience has to increase – and they need to make a living somehow.  People think that YouTubers make lots of money from the adverts that show before their videos, but this is only trickle-income at the best.  You may be shocked to learn that an average YouTuber will make about $0.01 per person who watches an advert before their video.  And to receive that $0.01, the user needs to have watched the whole advert or, at least the first 30 seconds, for it to count.  If you skip an advert after three seconds the YouTuber gets nothing.  So most NEED to turn to other revenue streams such as promoting products or becoming brand ambassadors to be able to keep putting their content out.  So it means it’s a constant balancing act, how does someone retain trust with the people who follow them but still make a living out of that audience? And once you know that this is a battle they face, then you can approach an influencer understanding where they are coming from.  You can approach knowing what kind of deal they will be looking to make.
For example, as I already mentioned, some influencers with smaller audiences will often feature a product for free if it’s ‘on-brand’ for what they talk about and if you are willing to send them a free sample.  In fact, for some, this is why they first set up their channel, just to get free products!  It’s a hobby rather than their main income.  They might only have a thousand or so subscribers and each of their videos only get a hundred views, but that’s fine.  It’s costing you nothing apart from a free sample, and finding ten channels like this might get your product seen by a thousand people.  Some might also like to interview you, and again this is actually a really good way to practice your presentation skills.  Trust me, it’s better to make all the mistakes on the videos that get a hundred views than the ones that get ten thousand!  Do some research – remember that YouTube is also a search engine, so search for ‘vegan product reviews’ and keep scrolling until you get to the smaller influencers or playlists by people who just do vegan product reviews.  Look at what kind of products they are reviewing, and get in touch offering them a free sample or an interview in return for a review on their channel.
For influencers who have bigger audiences, this same approach CAN work – but understand what they are looking for, and put yourself in their shoes.  So often I’ve heard people complain that they sent an offer of a free sample to a vegan YouTuber and they simply emailed back a price to feature their product.  Well, what are you expecting?  Would you expect to send your product to your local TV channel and for them to just make and air an advert for you in return?  Yes, they are vegan – JUST LIKE YOU – they support the vegan course but they NEED to make a living, and yours was probably the tenth request they received that day which is why you got a templated reply.  The bigger the audience an influencer has, the more approaches they get from people wanting them to promote products to this audience.  Ella Mills, known better as Deliciously Ella, has two million followers on Instagram. ‘Fully Raw’ Kristina Carrillo-Bucaram has over a million subscribers to her YouTube channel.  Now, we know that to get to these numbers that these people are likely talking to audiences far beyond veganism, and this means that even if you have a product that goes straight to their heart, you’re unlikely to be even able to start a conversation with them. Influencers that are explicitly talking to vegans such as Earthling Ed or Joey Carbstrong may have hundreds of thousands of followers rather than millions, but because their audience is so defined, so targeted, so engaged and hold them in such high-regard, they can get hundreds of approaches every week by companies wanting to tap into that.  Company’s know that these influencer’s followers trust them and so want to use that trust to promote something.  Again, I’ve had people tell me that they sent these people details of REALLY worthwhile vegan causes and they never engaged.  But if you saw the sheer amount of requests they receive daily then you would understand why you never got a reply.
So maybe look down the table a little bit first. Find the influencer who has tens of thousands of followers instead of hundreds of thousands.  And more importantly, find the influencers who might have some affinity with your company and can see the relevance of your business or product for their audience – so for example, if they are a health-based vegan influencer then you are unlikely to get far talking to them about your vegan junk food!  How else do you find influencers to work with?  Well, if you’re a regular listener, then you will know how much I bang on about customer research and talking to your customers.  The best way to find new customers is to take the customers you already have and make them your best friends – learn everything you can about them to understand how they make their buying decisions, and use that information to find more people just like them. So if you want to know what influencers you should work with to get in front of your target customers – just go and ask your current customers who THEY follow!  And don’t just ask them about the big-name vegan influencers they follow, ask them about the more niche channels. Ask them who they follow that no-one has ever heard of.  Perhaps they follow a vegan beauty blogger that only has a couple of thousand followers, but she talks about a really specific skin problem that your product solves and maybe she would be the perfect person to work with.
Once you’ve found someone who looks like a fit for your product or business, look back over their recent content and see how often they are mentioning products.  If they already regularly feature a product similar to what you sell it might be that they are unable to work with another company offering the same thing.  If an influencer is already affiliated with one brand of vegan protein powder, for example, they probably won’t be willing to promote another.  Once you’ve found an influencer you want to work with, then the next question is how do you actually get in touch with them, and what will they want in return.  Because, as we’ve already said, the more people someone has following them, the harder it is to get a message through to them!  Lisa recently interviewed Paul Kerton for Vegan Business Tribe, who is a vegan fitness influencer better known as Hench Herbivore, and he told us how in the early days he used to reply to every YouTube comment and reply to every direct message.  Now he doesn’t even look at his DMs because of the sheer volume of messages that get sent through to him.  And in influencer stakes, he’s not an Earthing Ed, he has about 50 thousand subscribers but his audience is SO engaged with the content he puts out, that the interaction he gets is equivalent to people with far bigger audiences. So as soon as you start approaching influencers who have larger followings, then you are probably not going to get through to them on the platforms they operate on. Larger influencers will have agents and assistants that you need to talk to first, but mid-level influencers – try just sending them an email.  Or a trick that Lisa uses, go find them on a platform where they don’t have so much interaction and send them a message there.  Lisa has got in touch with some really high-profile people in the vegan world by simply sending them a message on LinkedIn and it’s gone straight through to their phone and they have replied – just because no one ever contacts them on there!
But usually, if an influencer has a large following, they will have a formal way for you to contact them. And that might be an email address or a contact form on their website, but before you send them a message, understand that their admin time is limited, so although a vague reach out, you know, a ‘hey, love your work we should do something together’ might seem like a nice relaxed way to start a conversation – unless you are a really famous brand that THEY want to work with, it’s unlikely to get much of a response.
Work out what you want from them and what you are prepared to give in return before making contact.  Especially if they are a more well-known vegan influencer. Do you want them to review your product on their channel?  Are you offering them a free supply of what you make in return for them being your brand ambassador?  Are you looking to run an ongoing campaign where they produce a series of videos or posts in conjunction with your company which you are offering to pay for?  Do you want them to appear at your event?  Be straight, right from the start; if you are offering to pay for a single product endorsement, don’t then hope for a string of other favours on the back of that.  If you simply want to know ‘how much’ then ask them.  There are some great tools that influencers can use to work out how many people they are talking to and converting that into a fair fee for brands wanting to use their influence, so most can give you a rate based on this.
Note that your first message might also be the only time you get their full attention, so get all the information across about your company, your product and your mission in a clear and concise way without needing a back and forth conversation.  Remember, their integrity is key to building and keeping their loyal followers, so tell them why your product is a good fit for their audience.  If you want to work with this influencer because you know that they only include products that don’t have plastic packaging, then make it clear that your product meets these criteria so they don’t have to come back and ask you.  For example, on the Vegan Business Tribe website, we only include interviews with experts who are vegan themselves – but I constantly need to ask people who send me a message if they are actually vegan before we can get into a real conversation and many are not.  So if your influencer is vegan, make it clear that you are vegan too, that your product is vegan and that you run a vegan company.  Once they build bigger audiences, vegan influencers get non-vegan companies approaching them all the time, so use what you have in common to connect with their ethics.  If they believe in the ethics of your company and believe in your mission they will be likely to give you a lot more in return.
And if you don’t hear back first time, don’t get disheartened.  These can be really busy people. Anyone who makes themselves high-visibility gets a lot of messages.  And it may be that they saw your message and meant to respond but something else took their attention away.  It might be that they have just done something similar with another company recently or – like I said at the start – they feel like they have been promoting too many products to their followers recently so aren’t taking up opportunities at the moment.  So build a list of people to approach and work your way through them.  When you’ve got to the end, go back to the top and resend your message a couple of weeks later to those that haven’t responded in case they missed it.  Always be warm and personal, and understand that if they don’t respond it’s not because they are being rude – you just haven’t seen what their inbox is like!
And I think the final bit of advice I can give is: put yourself into an influencers’ shoes. They NEED to make content. They don’t just want to make money, they also want interesting things to share with their audience.  So if you ARE going to send them a free product sample, make sure that what you send is visually interesting.  Put it in some amazing packaging so they can do an unboxing video, make opening your product an experience that they will want to share. Be creative – what ideas can you come up with to help them create great content where your product or business is part of that?  Can you deliver some specialist knowledge that will be of interest to their followers but they don’t cover themselves?  Put some effort into helping them with some great ideas, set them a challenge or just make them smile.  If you make vegan cupcakes, can you make some with their face on the top?  If you make vegan beer, can you create a limited run in honour of them?  Maybe you run an animal sanctuary and you are trying to raise money to build a new shelter. Can you ask the influencer if you can name the building after them, and invite them to come visit and record the construction or the opening to raise some publicity for your campaign? Most vegan influencers will reserve a proportion of their time for charities and worthy causes that they want to get behind – I’ve been fortunate to meet a number of vegan influencers, and they are all really amazing people who really want to help everyone they can, but again, they get so many approaches, that they have to turn most of them down – so do something to really make you stand out! 
OK, so hopefully that might give you a bit of inspiration to start reaching out and engaging with influencers.  Because remember, it’s our job to support them also, especially if they are campaigning or taking the vegan message out to the masses.  So let’s just round up what we’ve gone talked about into some bullet point reminders to finish off:
  1. The internet means that you can now find extremely specialist content, almost as if it was made just for you.  This means that people have been able to build really specialist audiences.
  2. The reason this is important is often your business doesn’t need to reach huge audiences, you need to reach targetted audience.  And these influencers have already done the hard work in building them.
  3. The bigger an audience an influencer or YouTuber has, the more time they need to spend servicing that audience.  Influencers with smaller audiences may view it as a hobby and so be more open to working with you in return for free products or an interview, those with a larger audience need to earn a living from it so expect them to ask for some kind of payment in return.  Which leads into…
  4. Few people can earn a living just from YouTube advert payments.  They get micro amounts, meaning they would need to get millions of views on each video to be able to survive from it.
  5. If you don’t know what influencers to approach, ask your customers who they follow.  Not just the big names, dig down into the smaller influencers too.
  6. The bigger the influencer, the harder it is to talk to them.  Direct Messages won’t get read, so look for other platforms or contact them by email or through their website.
  7. Work out what you want from an influencer before getting in contact.  Give them all the information they need in a concise way and be clear about what you want and what you are offering in return.
  8. Keep trying to get through, and don’t be disheartened if you don’t hear back the first time.  Wait a few weeks and try again, or try a different way to contact them.
  9. Get creative.  Think about what will give them great content.  Set them a challenge, name a product after them, make your company stand out to them.
And one last thing to add: if you want to know more about what it’s like from the influencer’s side, then go watch that video interview I mentioned with Hench Herbivore on the Vegan Business tribe website. Paul and his partner Gemma really give Lisa all the inside knowledge on being an influencer and how they like to be approached, and they are just a great couple of ethical vegans too.  Or perhaps you want to be a vegan influencer yourself, in the interview they tell you how they got started and give a few tips as well.  Just go to the ‘content page’ on Vegan Business Tribe and search for ‘hench herbivore’, or probably just ‘hench’, and you’ll find Lisa’s full Zoom interview that you can watch back.
So that’s it for this episode, and if you enjoy this podcast then I’m going to try and use my influence on you now and ask if you can tap the subscribe button, or leave us a 5-star review if your platform lets you do that, or even better – why not share a link to this podcast with any other vegan businesses you know so that we can help even more vegan businesses grow and become successful.
And if you want more, then head over to the website to find lots more free information, or as I said at the start, you can also be part of our paid monthly membership to get access to our online events, our business clinics or just to chat with Lisa and myself in the forums about your business or business idea. So, thank you so much for listening, I always really appreciate you giving me your time, it’s like we’re becoming best mates now, and I look forward to seeing you on the next one.

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