By Chuck Kapelke
At first blush, the video posted on Instagram looks like any other makeup tutorial: Nicole Williams, star of the TV reality show WAGs, sits in her car applying highlight and mascara. But then the video takes a turn: She complains of the heat and starts to sweat. The music turns ominous. She is trapped inside the car with no cell service. She withers to the point of collapse.
This scene was part of a video created by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), an animal rights nonprofit, to remind people not to leave their pets inside hot cars. PETA enlisted Williams to star in the video and, more importantly, to share the clip with her 2.1 million followers on Instagram.
“That was one of our best-performing social media posts of this past year,” says Ashley Byrne, associate director of campaigns at PETA. “It was shot in a style that really spoke to her followers, and it was relatable because she often shares stories about her own dogs and how much she loves them. We saw massive engagement.”
PETA is among a growing number of nonprofit organizations taking advantage of influencers, internet personalities with sizable followings on social media, blogs, podcasts, and other channels. In a fragmented media environment, influencers use the clout of their internet celebrity to help nonprofits generate buzz, boost fundraising, and advance their missions.
The influencer market is now “as big as it’s ever been,” says Ryan Skinner, principal analyst at Forrester Research. He estimates that global direct spend on influencers will grow to $15 billion by 2022, a sum that does not include additional money used to promote influencer posts as paid advertising units. “Most brands are now doing influencer marketing to varying degrees, some of them in a very centralized, strategic way,” Skinner says. “It has lost some of its worst Wild West qualities. A more established approach has taken over.”
Learning how to navigate this emerging landscape can be intimidating. Following are some tips for success, with insights from nonprofit leaders and industry insiders.
A Natural Connection
Influencers are classified based on their number of social media followers, with mega-influencers (more than a million followers) charging a premium for their broad reach, and macro-influencers (between 100,000 and one million followers), micro-influencers (1,000 to 100,000 followers), and nano-influencers (less than 1,000 followers) each offering nonprofits the potential to connect with more niche audiences.
Finding advocates who already have a natural connection to an organization’s cause is critical. This requires monitoring the online chatter and spotting potential partners. “Starting with influencers who already know and love your brand is a great place to start, rather than pitching people cold,” says Mae Karwowski, CEO at Obviously, an influencer marketing agency that pairs brands with influencers.
The marketing team at the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society (LLS), for example, tracks hashtags and keywords to identify potential partners. “We see people who are naturally engaging with us on our social platforms, and based on that, we’ll reach out to them directly to get a sense of their interest and start to cultivate a relationship,” says Lynn Godfrey, The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s SVP and chief experience officer, who is leading the organization’s marketing and communications efforts. “A lot of times it’s people who are blood-cancer survivors themselves or who have had family members who’ve been survivors, and so they are really passionate and have this connection to the cause.”
LLS has worked with between 50 and 75 influencers, Godfrey says, including mega-influencers like pro wrestling star Roman Reigns, a two-time blood-cancer survivor. The organization discovered one of its most effective micro-influencers, a young adult and three-time blood-cancer survivor named William Yank, and enlisted him to create a video sharing his story on Giving Tuesday. The video was viewed 357,000 times in a month and helped LLS gain 3,000 additional followers on TikTok.
“He may just have 7,500 or so followers, but those followers are highly loyal, passionate, and engaged,” Godfrey says. “It’s not so much about how many people you’re reaching. It’s the quality and authenticity of their content, and their level of commitment. Without a connection to the mission, it doesn’t come across as authentic and falls flat.”
Key Takeaway: Just because someone has hordes of followers doesn’t mean they’ll be a good spokesperson for any cause. “The way to find authenticity is to do your homework,” Godfrey says. “We always have our ear to the ground for who may have recently gotten a diagnosis or who mentions in an interview that they were a survivor. And yes, we track those keywords. It requires patience and time, as well as a commitment of resources internally.”
Build Your Army
Before reaching out to recruit influencers, it’s important to develop a plan that includes details like budget, target audience, campaign goals, and measures of success, such as increased awareness, new donors, or a boost in social media followers. This can then translate into a creative brief to help potential influencers understand what they should and should not say.
It’s important to vet influencers to ensure they have not posted anything potentially controversial or damaging to an organization’s cause. “We can review comments and hashtags, and determine how brand-safe creators may be,” says Krishna Subramanian, CEO at Captiv8, an influencer marketing platform. “To take it one step further, we also allow partners to measure how brand-safe the influencers’ audiences are.”
Formal negotiation and contracting should be handled similarly to any other partner. The good news is influencers who may be reluctant to endorse products may be willing to work for little or no cost to support a cause. Eighty percent of influencers surveyed by Obviously said they would participate in a charitable campaign without compensation.
“A lot of influencers are looking for ways to give back,” Karwowski says. “They have a really rapt audience, but not many nonprofits are reaching out to them or asking them for anything. Nonprofits can probably get quite a bit for free, and if you ask, you’re not going to offend anyone. Showing that you have an organized plan, and that you want to build a longer-term relationship, poses a really great opportunity for both the influencer and the organization.”
Nonprofits may also be able to piggyback on the efforts of corporate partners. For example, the Boys & Girls Clubs of America (BGCA) partnered with the beauty brand Dove to enlist 11 influencers for a campaign pegged to the International Day of the Girl. The influencers, including Allison Kimmey and Kelly Uchima, posted pictures from when they were younger and shared a message about self-esteem, with a nod to how the Boys & Girls Clubs provides mentorship to young women.
“Corporate partners have lent their army of influencers completely to our disposal, so if something is a match for both parties, we’ll do something collaborative,” says Tiffany Rivers, director of digital and social media at the Boys & Girls Clubs of America. “We get the best content when we’re not proscriptive and telling them exactly what they have to say. They have their own opinions and their own flair.”
Key Takeaway: Invest time to build strong connections with influencers, and set up an approval process for content if necessary. But when it comes to the creative, be prepared to loosen the reins. “It’s crucial that nonprofit marketers not be overly proscriptive about what influencers can and cannot say,” Karwowski says. “You want to make sure it looks like normal content and that it looks super organic so that people will pay attention to what they’re saying.”
Nonprofits should not assume that influencers have all the time in the world to help them. “It can be daunting to be an influencer, creating a lot of content across platforms and balancing multiple partnerships,” Karwowski says. “If everything’s really buttoned up on your end, you’re going to see much better results, and the influencers will appreciate that relationship that much more.”
Setting up an online repository of resources can make it easier for would-be influencers. The American Red Cross, for example, established a dedicated channel on Discord to provide fundraising links, graphic overlays, and other information to help influential gamers raise money while live-streaming. The nonprofit also launched a campaign called Mission Red to encourage gamers to connect on a deeper level.
“Influencers provide the opportunity to speak to a group of people who we may not be reaching through our owned channels, and the live-stream space, gaming in particular, has been an exciting new place for us to explore,” says Alison Teres, executive director of core donor fundraising and operations at the American Red Cross. “No matter where the partnership is taking place, it’s critical that we find influencers who share our values as a humanitarian organization, who we can build a long-term relationship with, and who understand our goals so that their posts make the most impact.”
Finally, be sure to monitor what’s working and what’s not, and update accordingly. In addition to shares, views, and dollars raised, platforms like Captiv8 and Obviously can measure how content resonates with intended target audiences. Also, be sure to let the influencers know how their contribution helped. The Boys & Girls Clubs of America sends small gifts and messages of thanks to the influencers after a campaign, along with data on their impact. “We don’t want them to feel like they’ll never hear from us again,” Rivers says.
Key Takeaway: A little “care and feeding” can go a long way toward building strong, meaningful relationships with influencers that go beyond producing content. “You could enlist them to help launch a t-shirt or have them be part of your fundraising walk, or have them donate something for a silent auction,” Karwowski says. “There are a lot of cool ways to work with these people and get them excited about it.”