I’ve been fielding these two questions a lot since we founded The Extraordinary Influencer Network:

Individuals ask, “When is it okay for me to give my social media influence away?”

Brands ask, “When is it okay for me to ask individuals to give their social media influence away without compensation?”

These are urgently important for you, no matter which side of the equation you’re on: individual or brand.

Individuals are rightly afraid of being taken advantage of by billion-dollar corporations. To torture the caveman-era dating metaphor, they’re concerned that if they give the milk of their influence away for free, brands will have no reason to buy the cow. Many of my influential friends can almost hear brand managers, PR executives, CMOs and the like snickering, “Thanks for the free influence, Sucker!”

Meanwhile, the last thing that an ethical leader wants to do is take advantage of anyone. And even the cynical among them, if they’re wise, are wary of burning their reputation or the reputation of their company, of being seen as a taker.

So, what’s the answer? When is it okay for influencers to give it away? Here’s what I advise my friends. It’s advice I myself have received from my peers for years, which I’m finally listening to.

  1. Give it away when you’re new. Fewer than 800 Twitter followers, or 100 LinkedIn connections? Only 200 monthly readers on your blog? 10 subscribers to your podcast? Give it away to establish your personal brand.

But beware: giving it away signals the world that you’re a small fry. Actual influencers – you know, people who are influential to a loyal, trusting, and engaged network – don’t have to give away what billion-dollar brands find valuable.

What about once you’re established? Is it ever okay to give it away?

Yes, absolutely. Here are the times it’s okay – often, recommended – to give your influence away for free:

  1. Give it away for your favorite charity. A good cause deserves some free love, right? For instance, Tim McDonald‘s passion, No Kid Hungry, has become our passion, too: it’s a terrific cause!

Of course, you can’t give it away to every nonprofit out there. First of all, there are just too many. Second, some are actually really well funded, and can afford to pay. My personal rule is, legal tax dodges like the NFL? Much as I love football: Hell no. Politically involved groups like the US Chamber of Commerce? Much as I support business: Never. And generally, any organization where the officers make more money than most business leaders, like the Alzheimer’s Association? Let’s just say I’d rather give to a group that needs me more, and that has a Charity Navigator score in the mid 90s. That way I can feel more impactful. Of course, these are my issues. Your criteria will differ, as they should.

Give it away to your favorite handful of charities? Yes!

  1. Give it away to help a friend. About four times a year, a friend I’ve known forever will come out with a book I’m certain my audience will love. For instance, I’ve been a fan of Jeanne Bliss’s since I read her first book in 2006, and she’s been an ever-closer friend since. So when she published I Love You More Than My Dog in 2011, I told all my online friends, because it’s a great read! And when she published Chief Customer Officer 2.0 this summer, again, I shouted it out from the rooftops! Same with John R Bell’s first book, also out this year. He and I have been friends since we discovered each other’s blogs years ago, and Do Less Better is too good for you to miss. Helping friends like this provides value to your entire network, strengthening it.

The unfortunate part of all this is, when you’re active on social, you’ll quickly make friends with more authors (and YouTubers, and podcasters, and…) than you can possibly support. Even though you don’t want to, by necessity you can’t act as personal PR firm and Cheerleader In Chief to most of them.

Give it away to your friends? Yes! Though again, as with charities, you can’t help them all.

  1. Give it away to build your personal brand. Yes, even the most influential superstars out there still need to nurture their existing audience and continue building their personal brand. It’s why they write for HBR, Knowledge@Wharton, and Insights by Stamford, as well as commercial sites such as Fast Company, Forbes, and Inc – sometimes paid, but much more often not. It’s why they contribute to respected sites like General Leadership, Lead Change, Talent Culture, Switch and Shift, and OPEN for Business. It’s why they give TED and BIF talks for free, even when they charge $20,000 or more for a keynote.

As for giving an interview for NPR, a newspaper, podcast, TV or WebTV show, someone researching a book – are you kidding me, 20-60 minutes and I’m done? I get to talk about stuff I love with someone fascinating? Sign me up! (And most of the influential leaders out there agree).

Once you’ve crested the 800-follower mark, I recommend you continue giving it away, strategically, to build your brand in an ongoing basis – as long as it’s quality, and especially to help the little guy.

But I do not recommend you ever give it away to a billion-dollar brand that literally spends hundreds of millions of dollars on advertising and marketing. I ignored the strong advice of quite a few of my friends on this one for a couple of years before I learned the hard way that they were looking out for my best interests, as I am now for yours with this post. Don’t be a sucker. Big brands can pay, and they should pay.

Give it away via guest blog posts and interviews? Yes. Strategically.

  1. Maybe – just maybe – give it away for a brand you admire. Everyone on earth has good and bad brand experiences. Sending a shout-out via tweet, Facebook status update, or occasionally even writing a blog post about a knocked-your-socks-off customer experience you’ve had yourself, or you’ve heard about? Heck yeah!

The thing here is, a savvy brand will want some more, and – if somebody with half a brain is at the wheel – when an influencer like you raises her hand to identify herself as a delighted customer, the brand will seek more of this brand-love from you. Lots more. Possibly even formal-contract-for-paid-influence more. (N.B. This almost never happens, just to be clear. You’ve gotta hustle if you want a brand you love to sponsor you. Apparently, that half-a-brain caveat is something brands are still developing.)

Give it away to brands you love? Occasionally.

That last one – turning actual delighted customers into paid influencers – is something we will talk about more next time. This will be the “it” next practice of 2016. For now, let’s leave it at this: there’s your gold, brand manager. Pure. Marketing. Gold.

All of which brings us back to our opening question: When is it okay for you to give it away? What do you think? Have I left something out of this list? Have I gotten it wrong somewhere? Please, share your thoughts in the comments below.

About Ted Coiné

Ted Coiné is CEO of The Extraordinary Network, a group that is rewriting all the rules of influencer marketing by cutting out agency middlemen to work directly with B2B and luxury brands. Proud “bleeding heart capitalists,” he and his team have built support of a great cause into every for-profit campaign they undertake.

His entire career, Ted has collected fascinating people, most notably other thought leaders who also have a large and loyal audience of large enterprise leaders. He has watched the Wild West that is influencer marketing until he realized an opportunity to fix this broken system, and give influencers the sway they need to move markets together, and to get paid what they’re deserved for this power they bring to bear.

An Inc. Top 100 Speaker and one of Business News Daily’s 15 Twitter Accounts Every Entrepreneur Should Follow, Ranked #1 authority on the Social CEO and #3 in the Future of Work, Ted is also a serial business founder and CEO.

Ted is a Forbes Top 10 Social Media Power Influencer and an Inc. Top 100 Leadership Expert. This stance at the crossroads of social and leadership gave Ted a unique perspective to identify the demise of Industrial Age management and the birth of the Social Age. The result, after five years of trend watching, interviewing and intensive research, is his latest book, A World Gone Social: How Companies Must Adapt to Survive.

He lives in Naples, Florida, with his wife and two daughters.

Click here to hire Ted Coiné for your next event!

Ted's latest Meddles
Subscribe to OP|EN for BUSINESS!
Receive A Weekly Digest of the Most Popular Posts to Your Inbox!