Exposure won’t pay your bills, here’s what will

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I'm Emma!

Creative success coach, Photographer, rescue dog mom, book worm, INFJ, Enneagram 3, doing my best to be mindful, kind & help people be their most authentic, purposeful selves.


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Unless you’re a stripper, exposure won’t pay your bills. So why is it that some people seem to think that offering a small business ‘exposure’ in exchange for being sent a product or benefitting from a service without handing any cash over is ok?

Honestly this is a subject that gets me quite riled up. I’ll be the first person to suggest a perception shift or trying to understand another person’s point of view at any other time than this. What comes to mind when I think of a person who’s asked me for either a free photoshoot or a free coaching session without any sort of value exchange proposition is, quite frankly, the audacity.

As the number of influencers and social media wannabes exponentially increases, the ‘give me free sh*t’ in exchange for exposure problem is only going to grow. I have no time for freeloaders. Recently someone had the nerve to ask me if I’d photograph her dog for free if she donated her time to a random charity. When I replied politely saying I only do pro bono work directly for charities, her response was, ‘what if I have a charity’ needless to say, I’m still awaiting details of the fictitious non profit she’s running. Sorry love, I’m not as stupid as I look.

Taking all of the above into consideration, sometimes you can use ‘exposure’ as part of your business building and marketing plan, however, you need to be very, very strategic about it.

Let’s take a look at some of the ways you can leverage giving your product or service away for free in exchange for generating brand awareness:

Social media giveaways: the old time sensitive like, share, follow, tag story resulting in one or several people winning a prize. Great for building an audience, getting new followers and having your audience do some marketing work for you. Even better if you collaborate with several other, preferably larger, brands to extend your reach. The downside of social media giveaways is that you may not be attracting ideal clients, you might just lure in a whole load of spongers like flies on poop who disappear when they don’t win. You’ll have to test it out to see. It’s not a strategy I use for either of my businesses.

Opt in giveaways: same principle as a social media giveaway, except you add in the far more useful principle of getting a person to sign up to your email marketing list in order to enter the giveaway. Be mindful of sticking to data protection and privacy laws with this one, but it’s a far better bet as you actually get something tangible (a name and email address) in exchange for whatever you’re giving away.

Influencer campaigns: you send someone with a sizeable social media following a collection of your products or you provide them with a service in exchange for an authentic review which they then post on their feed (this is not always a given) and stories. Great in theory, but check the fine print. Are their followers real? How’s the actual engagement on their accounts (lots of comments from real people??)? What exactly are they going to offer you? Have they promoted similar products or services recently? Make sure you have a clear agreement with what you’re giving and what you expect in return (for example that they tag you and/or your brand), then follow it all through. More established influencers will want your stuff and payment to authentically promote it. So make sure it’s a worthwhile investment.

Getting onto someone else’s mailing list: fabulous idea, but please ask for the size of their list, their open rates, click through rates, ROI etc. A mailing list of 50,000 sounds very impressive but if the same two people open each mailer each week, what’s the point? You can probably rustle up a better reach on your own accounts. Don’t be afraid to ask for stats before agreeing to marketing collabs.

Charity donations: I’ll be transparent and tell you this is my favourite (without a hint of sarcasm) because you get to make a difference and build brand awareness at the same time. Back in 2011 I found a dog shelter I loved (it’s called CLAW (Community Led Animal Welfare) and volunteered my time to photograph the dogs in need of homes. My photos were posted on their social media accounts with a small logo and a page tag and were, of course, reposted and shared repeatedly by CLAW’s audience. Over the course of a couple of years I became rather well known for my dog photography  in South Africa. Now this was a bit accidental, my intention was to help, not self promote, but you can leverage charity work/donations to your advantage by asking for: a tag in every post that features your product or service, a ‘sponsored by’ credit and a certain number of feature posts. There’s no such thing as a free lunch, so if you’re going to donate something (especially if a charity has approached you) make sure there are deliverables that compensate you, that way everyone wins and you’re more likely to help in the future.

(As an aside, I’ve not only photographed hundereds of CLAW dogs over the last decade, I’ve also adopted 4. Occupational hazard I guess….)

However you choose to use ‘exposure’ as a marketing tool, make sure you measure the return on your investment.

Do you notice a spike in sales as a result? Has your social media engagement gone up? Was the winner of your giveaway an ideal client? Was it really worth it? Exposure can be a tempting lure, but you have to be sure you’re getting long term financial benefit. Brand exposure for the sake of it is an expensive game best left to the likes of Louis Vuitton and their infinite advertising budgets.

Successful marketing requires planning, patience and it’s a product of consistency. Unless you can get Kylie Jenner to promote your business, your local influencers are unlikely to solve all your marketing problems overnight (even if their 25k follower count tempts you to think they can). Collaborations are great, as long as they are strategic and the results are measurable. I’ve found short term collabs to be a huge waste of time to be honest. 

You’re better off spending your time creating and sharing relatable, interesting content, building lasting relationships with fellow business owners and building a base of genuine fans who promote your work anyway, without having to be bribed. This is a strategy that’s worked extremely well for me and one I teach to my business coaching clients.

In the spirit of demonstrating an opt in giveaway and giving you some more tools to help you promote your business, please sign up here to access my free Marketing Masterclass where I share 4 step by step strategies for marketing your business without the aid of an influenster.

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