The other week I spent a few hours on the plane travelling between Austin and Atlanta and per usual this tends to be my favorite place to knock out a book or two. I was flipping through the Kindle catalog and Brittany Hennessy's cover for Influencer: Building Your Personal Brand in the Age of Social Media caught my attention. With an easy flow and a page count just topping 200, it was a perfect quick read for the round-trip.
But before we get into any of the content, and so that you take any of what you may read below with a grain of salt, a little clarification: I know absolutely zip about the current or past state of the Influencer economy. To quantify, Brittany mentions at least 100 influencers in her book, of which I knew exactly one, namely Joy Cho, because on occasion I get dragged to Target by my wife. I also have absolutely no plans of ever becoming an influencer, thus reading this book was a simple exercise in curiosity.
If you have been around the web since the 90s, you won't find much that may surprise you in either the introduction or the initial chapter. Basic definitions of the various mediums from blogging to vlogging, a bit of info about the importance of naming and branding, some recommendations on domain registrars, hosting providers, and a content management system for your blog - yup you guessed it, WordPress. To close out the chapter there are a few more recommendation on how to write a bio, what the split should be between organic content and sponsored content, and what the general tone should be of your posts - all handy things to get someone new started.
A quick note on the recommendation of WordPress by the author. I have nothing against WordPress and have used it successfully for many small and large projects over the years, but I would probably disagree with the author here on two counts. First, if you are going down the influencer path and are serious about it, consider a managed WordPress solution rather than setting it up yourself as suggested in the book. Your job will be creating interesting content rather than being concerned about uptime and security. Second, unlike the recommendation in the book which encourages customization, I suggest you install as few plugins as you can get away with to minimize your attack surface. On a related note, you may want to explore other hosted solutions such as Ghost, Medium, and Substack. All three offer well designed themes out of the box and features that are useful for audience management.
Things get interesting is Chapter 2 where the various stages of influencer status are defined from Stage 0 to Stage 5. Stage 0 is the initial stage where one has zero up to 2500 followers, while Stage 5 is when an influencer has an established community of 50,000 to 100,000 followers and is ready to approach brands for campaigns. As common sense suggests, buying followers as a short-cut is never a good idea and is easily noticeable. Regarding the stages, I do wonder if the numbers have shifted since the book's publication in 2018. Instagram annual users are up ~1.9x since 2018, Facebook's are up ~1.3x, YouTube are up ~1.4x, and finally TikTok are up a whopping 6.8x. Based on this I would think that the number of followers may need to be scaled by ~1.5x or so for each stage, respectively.
The subsequent part of the book is focused on packaging yourself. Engagement rate of your followers is the next most important metric for brands after they have established you follower count. Per Brittany, the minimum rate to shoot for here should be in the 1.5% range, but of course the higher the better. Any additional detailed demographics you may have about your followers are helpful, so collect as much as you can is the suggestion - This advice may have been good in 2018, but I'm not sure it passes muster in 2022. Users have become a lot more sensitive privacy wise, and any sort of cookies and tracking are a lot more frowned upon, if not blocked outright. Any of the above is a mute point if your production quality is sub-par as brands will not want to engage with you regardless of your metrics, so spend some time reading this section and hiring the right people to make your content shine.
To close out this section, there are a few more tips regarding your own personal web-site, about page, partnerships page and a several sample email templates you can utilize to reach out to people. Generally all fairly straight forwards and easy to follow advice. I do however, disagree with Brittany about posting your email address directly on your site over using a form. Maybe this makes it easy for people to send you nicely formatted emails, but it also makes it extremely easy for bots to spam your inbox into oblivion - you may never even see that nice email from Brittany because of that!
The next part of the book focuses on monetizing your influence once you get to that point. It has guidelines about ratios of organic vs. sponsored content, and a few examples from successful influences who have tweaked these ratios to fit their personal styles. It has a succinct table about what you may potentially charge brands based on your follower count, and how that fee is derived from distribution fees and a talent fees, each of which is then explained in more detailed. An entire chapter is dedicated to explaining the most common terms that you are likely to encounter in a contract. And, most important of all, Brittany encourages you to read every single line in the contract even if you have a lawyer. It will be slow the first few times around, but will get faster with time and you will feel good about the extra due diligence.
Speaking about contracts, I'm a bit surprised that Brittany does not cover copyright and licensing in this section in more depth. Usage is mentioned and some examples are given, but I feel that for new influences this surely is a minefield they may not expect. I don't know how these contracts are structured, but I would think that even for sponsored content, creators and influencers should be very careful about giving out any rights, especially in perpetuity. Additionally, it should be crystal clear who owns the content, images, etc. after it is delivered and who is licensing what and for how long, so that there are no unwelcome surprises down the line.
Once all of the paper work is in order, you have legions of followers, and brands love working with you, it is time to expand your team to take your brand to the next level. The roles you may need to fill are an assistant, a manager, a publicist, an attorney, and an agent. Personally, I think an attorney is probably the first person one would need build a good relationship with, but most of this chapter is instead dedicated to outlining how bad agents can ruin your progress and on tips for finding one that fits your niche. The final chapter focuses on a bigger goals such as collaborations, long-term partnerships, and brand ambassadorships. The conclusion is a set of feel good stories followed by a quick pep talk.
Overall, the book is a reasonable read, with some stronger chapters that were more of interest to me because the provided numbers gave a nice reference frame for the industry. A few weaker ones felt more like a pep talk than useful information. The "don't be that person" sections are predictable and of little value. If you want to consume this book even quicker you may want to skip all of them. On the other hand, some of the Influencer Icon outlines were interesting, as they diverged from the recommendations in the book, and yet were still successful. As mentioned at the beginning, the book is well written so getting through it was a breeze which is a definitely plus.
One final thing that I'm somewhat puzzled by after reading the book is as to why Brittany does not really follow her own advice when it comes to user and domain handles? She utilizes a different handle for just about every single one of her social media pages - it would be interesting to know why. After all with her follower count she is by all means an influencer.