How to get free stuff as an influencer without going viral for the wrong reasons
A British influencer went viral for all the wrong reasons this week — and we’re going to tell you how to avoid her fate.
It all started when Elle Darby of Bath, England, emailed a Dublin, Ireland, hotelier to ask for a free stay. She told him that in exchange for four free nights with her boyfriend for Valentine’s Day, she’d feature the Charleville Lodge on her Instagram and YouTube accounts.
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It seems like a harmless request, but the guy who received the email, Paul Stenson, threw a temper tantrum — a very public temper tantrum that’s probably dominated your news feeds for days.
First, he posted Elle’s email on the Facebook page of the White Moose Cafe, the restaurant affiliated with the Charleville Lodge, along with a snarky public rejection. (To his credit, he didn’t release Elle’s name and blacked out identifying portions of her email.)
He also instituted a blanket ban on social media influencers, to whom he refers as “bloggers” in a charmingly retro 2012 way, at the hotel and restaurant.
Next, Elle published a vlog on YouTube admitting it was she who had requested the free digs. She claims people did the math and figured out it was her, so that’s why she had to come clean.
Paul has since implied she did this for attention — and he also seems convinced that she benefited more from this public spat than he did. A writer crunched the numbers and determined that Elle benefited more (dubious…), which led Paul to invoice her for the free PR their fight had provided. Publicly, of course.
It’s now blown up into a huge news story, with people weighing in about who’s right and who’s wrong.
In our experience, you can chalk most people’s automatic distrust of influencers up to sexism and age-ism. Paul Stenson has not done anything to prove this isn’t the case with his own highly emotional public meltdown over Elle’s request. If a middle-aged male travel writer from a legacy publication had written in to ask for a free stay, we imagine Paul might have said no but he wouldn’t have felt compelled to publicly shame the guy.
But what we’re here to talk about is what Elle could have done better, so that all the baby influencers out there can learn from the process. With some help from Nick Pastula, CMO of our sister influencer agency, Kitten, here are a few tips.
For more about influencer marketing, check out our Kitten Agency.
1. Do some research on the places you want to partner with.
Elle’s boilerplate email alone (“Hi there,” *cringe*) is proof that she either didn’t do much research on the Charleville or ignored what she found.
If you do a quick dive on their website, you’ll see the Charleville and its affiliated White Moose Cafe have a cocky, cheeky, sarcastic voice on social media and in their marketing materials. Elle should have seen the potential for controversy coming a mile away, and tailored her email accordingly. The White Moose Cafe “has picked fights with vegans, breastfeeding mothers and even managed to boil the blood of a large portion of Brazil,” according to an article on LinkedIn.
They’re also no strangers to social media marketing.
“Lucky for us, we too have a significant social media following,” Paul wrote in his initial public response to Elle. “We have 186k followers on our two Facebook pages, an estimated 80k on our Snapchat, 32k on Instagram and a paltry 12k on our Twitter, but Jesus Christ, I would never in a million years ask anyone for anything for free.”
A savvy influencer would have checked out these numbers and either acknowledged the Charleville’s impressive numbers in their original email, or just skipped them altogether in favor of a business that needed more of a boost.
Also, they may not ask for free things, but the White Moose Cafe is apparently happy to accept them: they do some spon con of their own. This makes them seem just a tad hypocritical, but whatever. If Elle had done her homework, she would’ve emailed the woman listed at the above link and asked her about a social media partnership, since that’s literally her job.
But instead, Elle drafted an email that landed in Paul Stenson’s inbox. Not only does this guy seem to be jonesing for an internet war 24/7, but he also clearly didn’t understand what Elle was requesting.
Throughout this whole saga, he has demonstrated a fundamental misunderstanding of what influencers do. He repeatedly refers to people like Elle as “bloggers,” which he says “is another way of saying ‘write stuff on the internet.'” Most influencers like Elle predominantly publish videos and photos. The only things they write on the internet are Instagram captions.
Although his businesses engage in some social media marketing, this guy clearly doesn’t know the ins and outs of the influencer industry. Elle had an opportunity to educate him with her first email, but she failed to do so.
2. Understand what you are asking for.
Elle’s email reads like she’s looking for a free romantic vacation with her boyfriend — not a business transaction.
“On the other side of your email is a dude trying to make a living too,” says our CMO Nick, “so make it clear you have something that will make their hustle easier — not yours.”
What does a hotel owner want? Hotel guests. How can you, as an influencer, make that happen for them? You’d better have that figured out — along with numbers — before you even draft your email.
“The point of the matter is you’re asking for X in exchange for Y,” Nick says. “So it’s important you are up front about it.”
3. Be clear about the fact that this is a business transaction.
Elle framed her email as if she was asking the Charleville Lodge staff to do her a favor. She opened with unnecessary personal details, and closed with a request for free goods.
“My partner and I are planning to come to Dublin for an early Valentine’s Day weekend from Feb. 8th to 12th to explore the area,” she wrote.
This is her first mistake: there was no need for Elle to mention that she was coming to the hotel with her significant other for Valentine’s Day. Why would the business owner care about this? Also, not to be crude, but bringing up her boyfriend and Valentine’s Day makes it seem like she’s asking for a free place to bang. This is not a great image to put in your potential client’s head. If by “partner” she didn’t mean boyfriend, she should have been more specific.
“As I was searching for places to stay,” she goes on, “I came across your stunning hotel and would love to feature you in my YouTube videos/dedicated Instagram stories/posts to bring traffic to your hotel and recommend others to book up in return for free accommodation.”
Here, she should have said she was planning a Valentine’s Day content package and looking for a Dublin hotel to feature. She should have explained exactly what the content package would feature, and how the Charleville Lodge would benefit from being included.
4. State your terms up front.
Elle seemed to be asking for four nights of accommodation in her original email. Based on our calculations and the Charleville’s current rates, four nights would cost a consumer about $440.
That means Elle was asking the Charleville to invest $440 in an advertising opportunity with her, instead of placing a paying customer in that room. So she should have explained to the Charleville why this would be worthwhile to the hotel — in numbers.
That email would look more like this, Nick says:
“I have a combined 163,000 Instagram and YouTube followers. Of these followers, [X]% live in the United Kingdom and could be potential Charleville clients. I can advertise your business to this group in the form of three dedicated Instagram posts and one YouTube video. This is a [$X] advertising value. In exchange, I would stay for four nights at the Charleville, which is a [$X] value.”
By stating up front how much an advertising opportunity like this is worth, you’re giving the client the opportunity to decide if this is a worthwhile investment for them.
Also, knowing that the Charleville and White Moose have a substantial following already, Elle should have explained what it is about her following that makes them so valuable to the client. Elle is from Bath, which is a short plane ride away from Dublin. Maybe the people who follow her are from her region and interested in weekend trips to places like Dublin. Maybe this would be a great opportunity for the Charleville to branch out beyond their predominantly Irish following. These are all things she could have mentioned.
5. Never use the word “free.”
Yes, we used it in this headline to get you to click on the story. But the truth is that the things influencers display on their feeds aren’t free. They’re part of a transaction, and successful influencers need to understand that. Why do you never see the Kardashians and Jenners mentioning brands they aren’t being paid to talk about? Why don’t you ever see pictures of them at parties they aren’t being paid to attend? It’s because they look at everything they post on social media as part of a business transaction. They understand that their endorsements and appearances are worth a lot of money, so they never give them away for free.
So Elle never should have used the phrase “in return for free accommodation.”
By using the word “free,” she devalued her own job. What she was asking for wasn’t free — the hotel was going to get exposure and advertising out of it. That has a concrete dollar value, and in using the word “free,” Elle missed an opportunity to highlight that.
“Content creation and people viewing said content has a value,” our CMO says, “so put a number to it.”
6. You might want to lay off the millennial buzzwords.
This goes on a case-by-case basis. But if you’re talking to a company that might not be familiar with the terms associated with influencer marketing, then words like “content” and “engagement” might turn them off.
For example, Elle claims in her email that her posts will bring “traffic” to the hotel. The hotel is not a website — it’s a concrete business that people pay to use. Instead of offering “traffic,” she should have offered “customers” or “new business.”
You never know if you’re dealing with someone as cranky as the guy who put Elle on blast. So to be safe, and explain your proposal in the simplest terms possible — “I will get your business in front of [this many people], which would normally cost you [this much money], but I will do it for [this much less].”
As this whole saga proves, people are looking for every opportunity to hate on influencers. Clearly, Paul Stenson has a chip on his shoulder about influencer marketing for whatever reason. Not to mention he has no idea how it works. But Elle didn’t do much to explain it to him, so that’s on her, too.
7. Keep in mind that every email is annoying.
No one likes reading email. For most professional people, it can feel like the biggest waste of time in the world.
So if you’re an influencer writing to someone to ask them for something, you need to frame it in a way that doesn’t create extra work for them.
The owner of the Charleville probably gets plenty of emails from novice influencers wrongly characterizing their proposals as requests for “free” accommodation — which is why he threw a shit fit at Elle’s email. Elle’s request was a burden to him.
Instead of framing her email like she was asking him for a favor (and free stuff), Elle should have led with details about how this opportunity would benefit the Charleville.
At the end of her email, Elle mentioned that she “worked with Universal Orlando in Florida and it’s been amazing for them!” And I can’t tell you how hard this sentence made me cringe.
To an independent business owner, this basically says, “I worked with a way bigger player in your industry last year, so why wouldn’t you work with me?” It makes her seem entitled, and it insults the potential client.
Plus, I don’t even necessarily believe it’s true. “It’s been amazing for them”? Universal is one of the biggest corporations in the world. I doubt Universal would say that a business partnership was “amazing for them” and leave it at that.
Instead, Elle should have used her experience at Universal to explain exactly how much business she could drive to the Charleville. Which one of these would make you write back to Elle?
“Last year I worked with Universal Orlando in Florida and it’s been amazing for them!”
“I drove 350 new clients to Universal Orlando in Florida after we worked together. I can connect you with the marketing associate I worked with, if you’d like to hear about this process from the client’s perspective.”
Influencers might even want to create a deck to send potential partners that includes quotes from previous clients explaining how they helped their business.
Oh, and it should go without saying, but Elle should have found out the name of the person she was emailing before she sent the email. It’s obvious from her email that she copy-and-pasted the same message and sent it to every hotel in the area. This is so inconsiderate — no one wants to answer an email that’s clearly been sent out en masse.
So if you’re an aspiring influencer, please take note of this advice. People have enough of a bias against influencers already. Don’t add fuel to that fire. Treat your business like a business instead of a fun thing you do on the side for likes.
“Otherwise, you can be perceived as a free-loading, good-for-not-much millennial, and you’re not that,” Nick says. “You’re a star.”