When I first decided to grow my Instagram back in 2017, I really wanted to work with brands! My first collaboration was with 1000 Instagram followers and a brand new blog. There were fewer “influencers” then, and the game has changed a bit in recent years. While there are more social media influencers and bloggers now than ever before, brands are more familiar with advertising through micro-influencers. They know the value of increasing their reach to smaller target audiences if it can be done in authentic way.
If you are struggling to get started with an Instagram following, you don’t need a huge audience but you do need to be able to tell brand who your audience is. And if you can figure out how to get better than average likes and comments then you can even start working with brands at less than 1,000.
I have a step by step guide of how I grew quickly to 1,000 here called: The best way to get your first 1,000 Instagram followers. If you already have an audience, then keep reading to see how I started working with brands on Instagram!
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How I started working with brands
I am now very, very selective when working with brands…but in the beginning that wasn’t the case. I needed the experience.
I had no idea what I was doing or how to respond to emails. Pitching was scary, and I didn’t know what requests from brands were too little or too much.
So just remember no one begins knowing it all. Read all you can to set yourself up for sounding professional with brand reps and study, study, study how others do this. There’s not one formula for working with brands! You can do it! Read on to see my story.
I used my new blog + Instagram for sponsored posts
Most of my first sponsored posts were a combo of an Instagram post plus blog post. As I got more experienced and grew, I shifted to more Instagram only collaborations. At that time there there no reels, no IGTV, and no Instagram stories yet! So keep in mind that to do this, you have to stay current and know what influencers are posting on.
I had a new blog at the time with around 20 posts, and I believe that landed me a LOT more opportunities than Instagram alone.
As my Instagram grew to 2,000 and my blog became less of a dumping ground for sponsored posts. I stopped offering to do a blog post in my pitches unless it was worth it to me. Because at this point, I was just collaborating for free product and not really charging yet.
Don’t worry if your blog is new or small! Much of the advice that you’ll find online says to never do a blog post for free, even with a brand new blog…but rather set your rates no lower than $200. I didn’t know that when I started and therefor did quite a few sponsored posts for product only.
It didn’t take long to find out I was being taken advantage of and had more work to do than time. That’s when I started charging.
What is a sponsored post?
When you think of sponsored post, think of the word advertisement.
The FTC requires every post endorsing that product to be clearly labeled with something like “ad” or “sponsored” or “partner”. Basically, the audience needs to know there is a relationship between the brand and possible bias.
Anytime I endorse a brand and receive free, discounted, or paid items it is a “sponsored” post.
What should a brand expect of an influencer?
Your job isn’t to sell projects. Or become an affiliate where you get a special link and earn a small percentage of the sale (although you can if you want).
An influencer’s job is to create brand awareness to their target audience.
If you can figure out how to get paid while doing that…all the better!
How to tell if someone was paid for a sponsored post
It is impossible to know by looking at someone’s post with #ad or #sponsored if they were paid or not. This used to really confuse me.
In fact, two influencers with the same number of followers can both be doing sponsored post for the same brand, and be paid completely different amounts. It has to do with their pitch and negotiating skills and what they have to offer the brand.
And sadly many influencers don’t even disclose for fear of seeming inauthentic. Often times you can tell if their post says “Thanks brand-x for this product.”
When to turn down a sponsored post
If a brand ever reaches out asking you to NOT disclose that it’s a sponsored post in order to appear more “authentic”… run the other direction. They know what they are doing.
It’s sketchy and it could get you in trouble.
You should also turn down a sponsored post if it’s not completely free to you.
I received SO many offers of a discount for doing x,y, and z for a brand. Think about it…they are getting you to PAY THEM, work for them, and advertise for them!
Politely say, “Thank you for offering, but I only work for free product.” Or even better, “That sounds like something my audience could really use! My rates for x, y, and z are …”
They’ll email you back with their response and you can decide if it’s still worth it to you.
Also, never pay for shipping. No matter how small you are…it should be free to you and you should quickly fulfill whatever agreement to the brand you have agreed on.
The first time a brand contacted me:
I initially starting working with brands because a small brand reached out to me when I had just reached 1000 Instagram followers. They messaged me via social media because I forgot to put a contact email on my new blog…oops!).
The company liked my style and asked if I would like to collaborate.
They proposed sending me two swaddles in exchange for a blog post and Instagram photo. And, they offered to host a giveaway to my followers which they sent directly to the winner! (UM, YA!) I was so stoked! I could hardly believe it and was doing a happy dance!
This was my very first gig, and I had no idea what I was doing.
If a brand contacts you first, it’s a sure sign that you should also be out there contacting more brands!
What to do if a brand contacts you to collaborate
When brands have contacted me, they usually have pitched some sort of idea of what they are looking for, (like sending their product for an Instagram post, or if they are hoping for a blog post too) which is nice because it gives me an idea of what they are looking for.
If they don’t specify anything, I usually say something like, “I think my audience would really like your product! What did you have in mind?”
When a brand reaches out first, you don’t need to worry if they think you are a good fit for them. But you do still need to ask if they are a good fit for your audience.
Not every product is worth the work they are asking. I learned this later on when a lot of influencers with similar numbers to me (1,000-3,000) were getting the same products, but doing way less work (aka no blog post, just an Instagram post or two).
Research who is getting sponsored by the brand
It’s super helpful to see if the brand reposts any influencer’s photos to their Instagram. If they do, follow the tag back to the name of the influencer to see how many followers they have, and how many times you see them posting a pic for that brand.
Then, if they have a blog go search it for a sponsored post for that brand. This can give you a feel for what others are required to do!
Remember, brands can work with big and small influencers. They may work with you if you are small for free product, and be working with a bigger influencer doing a paid collaboration. You won’t know.
How to find other influencers who have worked with a brand
Google the “brand’s name + sponsored post”.
You can find out if the brand does a lot of blog posts this way and then go check out the influencers Instagram from there. (Note, you will not be able to know if the influencer or blogger was paid or just sent free product even if it says “sponsored”).
You can also go to a brand’s Instagram, search around in their posts for a campaign hashtag they’ve used recently, and click on it. There you should see every influencer’s post that was required to post on Instagram for that campaign.
See what size they are, and how their photos look. Is your Instagram feed as good or better? It will give you a good idea of what the brand expects and who they work with.
My first pitch as a micro influencer
The first time I contacted a brand, I was so scared of rejection and didn’t know how to “pitch” (or what that was) in an email.
My first pitch was basically like “Hi, I’m Liz and I love your — and think my audience would too! I would love to collaborate for your —. Thanks and I look forward to hearing from you!”
It wasn’t great, but everyone has to learn. I think the best way to learn is to see examples of how other people pitch. And to work with brands that are used to small influencers.
What does it mean to pitch a brand?
A pitch is an email that:
- Introduces yourself as an influencer.
- Explains who your audience is.
- Shares in a sentence something genuine you like about the brand/product.
- Lays out what you hope to deliver for the brand and what you are hoping for in return. Hint: It’s all about what the brand can gain!
At this point, it’s access to your clearly defined audience. For me, it’s moms with small kids who love baby products, mom style, and things that make mom life easer.
Never just introduce yourself, ask for a product, and run. No no no.
Pitch companies that collaborate with small influencers
This is often smaller brands that can’t pay. But it can be a great place to start and learn how to go about authentically posting.
How I found brands that collaborate with micro influencers
I looked at Instagram accounts in my niche with a similar following (around 1,000-2,000 followers) to see what brands they were collaborating with. Sometimes you really have to click on a lot of pictures to find out if it’s sponsored!
Hint: I’ll usually notice a product featured in a photo and click to read more and see if it was sponsored. Then, I’d work on finding a contact for that brand and writing a short pitch if I want to work with them.
One thing to expect: Some will say no, or offer radio silence. If you pitch enough brands, plenty will say yes. Some people I know who have around 1,000 followers on Insta pitch brands almost daily and work with a LOT of baby brands!
Start with posting pictures for free product.
Some will say to never work for free product. That you can charge around $100 for every 10,000 followers you have. But what if you only have 1,000 followers on Instagram? I think there are smaller brands that still want that authentic recommendation to an audience they’d never reach otherwise and are willing to send you product.
This will get you some experience, and when you have more opportunities than time you can start charging $25, then $50 or $100 according to what brands are paying for your typical reach.
I believe charging is the way to go eventually, but you’ll find many will say no to paying if you are small. So if you REALLY want those kid shoes or that nursing pillow…and you’re a tiny account, then they’re much more likely to work with you if you’re doing it for free.
When to begin monetizing your Instagram
I started charging when I was doing more free collaborations than I had time for, because let me tell you, trying to post beautiful photos, and writing blog posts all while trying to make it not look like an ad is WORK.
My first paid Instagram post was for $25 for a diaper bag post when I had around 2K followers.
Monetizing Instagram is a worthy goal and something I’m beginning to do, but it also narrows the brands that will work with you.
I was excited to find out that a few of my influencer friends with around 5K-7K followers were getting PAID to post a product, around $50-$100 a photo. Just FYI!
If you want to know more, here’s how I started charging brands for sponsored posts on my blog and Instagram.
What networks work with small influencers?
There are TONS of networks that connect brands with influencers. You usually have to fill in some info, blog URL if you have one, upload a photo (always use the same photo across all social media accounts and your blog), and connect any social channels.
I’ve found it really hard to get collaborations through these and I’ve applied to a lot. It’s tricky because sometimes it’s how you pitch, or that it’s oversaturated, that you’re too small, or who knows.
I signed up for SO many, and wasted so much time. I personally think direct pitching is 100% the way to go when you are small. If you plan to just post a pic to Instagram and not to your blog, then a lot of networks have a 5K threshold when applying.
Sign up, fill out a profile, and then apply for sponsored products you want.
I’ve gotten a few kid toys free through Tomoson, and a nursing cover. Brands have also reached out to me through this network, but I’ve mostly declined as it’s often not related to my audience.
I’ve also managed to snag a couple paid collaborations for Instagram only posts through this network. I began to experiment charging $25 for an Instagram post with just around 2k followers.
Collabor8 is just an app, but a great place to start! Lots of small businesses that don’t pay are looking for small influencers to promote things from baby bows, to jewelry, to handmade clothes, to home decor items. My one tip, don’t pay for anything.
A lot of start ups offer you a 40% discount for product that you are then obligated to take pics of that they can then use. I tell people kindly, “thank you, but I only work for free product”.
How to find a brand contact
First thing, create a new email just for your blog or Instagram to keep it separate from personal email.
I just created a new email using Gmail that had my blog name in it so it looks professional.
Next, you need to find a brand’s email to send a pitch. I usually go to the brand’s website and search at the bottom for a “contact” page, or “press” or “media”. That will be the person or department who deals with collaborations.
Unfortunately, it’s not a specific person’s email. I’ve also googled “brand’s name + media contact” and can usually find a contact page that way.
Using social media to find a brand contact
I don’t recommend pitching using the message feature inside of Instagram as it’s less professional and only allows short messages. The exception here would be to use it to ask them for the contact in charge of influencer collaborations.
After introducing yourself through a direct message, you could politely ask, “Would you be able to share the email of the person I should contact in charge of influencer collaborations?” They can share it or say no.
I would only do this if you have already followed the brand and engaged with their photos. Don’t be shy, give them a shout out sometime and see if they “like” your comment!
How to write your first pitch without a media kit
Essentially in your email pitches as a newbie, you need to
- Introduce yourself.
- Say what you like about their product you are about to ask for.
- Ask to collaborate!
- Tell them who your audience is that would be interested in their product.
- Tell them your total reach (add up followers to any platforms you would be posting to)
- Leave links for each social channel you are proposing.
What do brands mean when they say collaborate?
Collaborate is a VERY broad term. I used to think it just meant exchanging a free product for a photo. Nope. It just means “working together”.
So when I ask to collaborate, I usually say what product I would love to share with my audience, why they would love it, and on what channels I’d like to post on.
A collaboration for a newbie might look like:
- One Instagram photo and a story for one product or bundle.
- 3 Instagram stories plus a static post
- 1 post to your Facebook page, Instagram static post or reel
- Just an Instagram reel
- A set of 3-5 Instagram stories with promise to save them to a highlight for people to find later
- A blog post plus any social shares (I used to offer 1 static IG post +1 Facebook post)
- 1-2 Pinterest images of the product with links to their shop plus an IG story
The possibilities of what you can offer are endless.
If you are unsure what would be appropriate to offer them as far as photos on platforms, then leave it open and they may suggest what they want in the return email.
Tip: I highly recommend joining the Facebook group called “That Pitch Life”. I have learned SO much from other influencers about handling future situations with brands. They also have sample pitches you can buy.
I no longer offer my old sample pitches for sale for free product, as the market has changed so much and it’s been years since I’ve pitched “for free product”. If you’d like me to share real pitches I’ve sent for paid collaborations…let me know in the comments and I will consider making a collection of paid pitches for sale in the future!
What is a media kit and do I need one?
A media kit is a pdf that brands will sometimes ask for, usually if you are asking for payment.
On mine, I have my follower count on each social channel, what my blog is about, info about my audience, and a few small photos to showcase my best work…all on a one-page pdf.
If you are only pitching for free product, you can get started working with brands without one!
Brands have not asked for mine when I have pitched for free product. They certainly have though when I’ve asked for payment. Just know if they ask you for it you may need to scramble to get one.
I made my own free on Canva by using a blank sheet and adding all the info, but it took me like a whole day because I didn’t know what all to include and how to get it down to one page! You could also buy a customizable one on Etsy.
Helpful things to own for taking Instagram photos
A tripod for your iPhone or Android.
You will get so many more shots if you have this! And it’s small enough to take with you places.
This will be a game changer when placing product on flat lays and will also give your feed a uniform look.
A roll on Amazon is around $10-$20 and comes in any texture you like such as white marble, wood, whatever. You can stick it onto a cardboard box, foam board, or just keep it on the roll.
This beach wood paper is AMAZING. Look how it snazzed up my Instagram photo here.
Lessons I learned when working with brands
By writing my first few pitches I learned SO much.
- Like emailing back and forth with a brand rep.
- Clarifying details like how many photos you are obligated to post to social media (usually just one or two), as that should be clear before you agree to any product.
- Some brands specify a post date, but if not I try to post within the week I receive a product
- Email the brand once the post goes live.
- How to tag brands in my photos, so they could see my post and feature it on their page.
I learned to study the brand’s social media pages to see the types of pics they love. Most importantly, I learned that at 1,000 followers I could start treating my Instagram like a business and not just a hobby.
It gave me the confidence keep pitching and working with brands. I don’t know about you, but when I’m on a tight budget and pretty sure I can get that thing I have to buy for free instead…I’m motivated to send a lot of emails!
Only ask for products your audience would like
If you are not loyal to what your audience is interested in, it’s a surefire way to lose followers. That is key to how I started working with brands! I am a motherhood influencer, so I first ask would my audience find this useful?
If not then the free product will hurt my following in the long run. It’s easy to get so excited about ANY offer in the beginning, but only take it if you are proud to show to your audience and if it relates to them or you will get dropped.
Working with brands on Instagram without a blog
If you don’t have a blog, you can still work with brands! Lots of moms I know collaborate with brands ONLY on Instagram with 500 or more followers! They just work very hard to have GREAT engagement (say 5% of your followers are commenting and liking posts), and you must have a uniform feed.
Anyone can go and follow for follow these days to “get to 1K followers” and still have a garbage looking feed. Ask yourself would a brand be proud of yours?
Without a blog, make it clear in your pitch emails that you would like the product to feature just on Instagram. When you purchase my guide to pitching brands + 7 real pitches, you will see examples of pitches for both blog posts and just social media collaborations.
Start today setting up a Twitter, Facebook page, and Pinterest business account with the same name as your Instagram profile. It will take months for those to grow, especially if you are focusing more on Instagram or your blog.
But once you get 500-1K on each, then you have just a tiny bit of extra value to give brands.
Having a few hundred followers (and hopefully a few thousand on each a year from now!) will be a huge perk you can offer brands in your pitches. I only have 2,400 on Instagram right now, but it’s nice being able to offer brands a couple of tweets to my 6,500 on Twitter. And it’s far easier to grow than Instagram!
Just know without a blog and with low social numbers, you may get rejected more often, or find it harder to get larger items at first.
I read that as of 2018 about 90% of influencers have a blog. While I no longer offer blog posts for free product, I’m glad I did at first because it allowed me to get things for free I couldn’t have without it like area rugs, a DockATot, and even a bed.
What product amount I should keep in mind when pitching?
With 1,000 Instagram followers and no blog, I pitched for products in the price range of $25-$100 I’d say. That’s what I saw other similar sized influencers in my motherhood niche getting for one or two photos.
With a blog post on a new blog and 1,000 on Instagram, more like products in the $150 or more range.
When working with brands the average cost of an item I’ve gotten for free is around $200. That’s for an Insta photo with 2,300 Instagram followers, a post to my Twitter that has a few thousand, and a blog post.
The most expensive I’ve done is around $1500 for two blog posts + two Insta posts +2 Twitter posts + Facebook page post. For one Insta pic alone, products I get range from $50-$150.
I’d love it if you would follow my Facebook page here!
If you have high likes and comments, say better than 3% which is pretty average, then brands may be more inclined to give you more expensive products or work with you period!
Brands would rather work with influencers who have higher likes and comments, so focus on that. If you have a really engaged audience then you can let a brand know.
This is a real and very absurd thing everyone is doing to beat the Instagram algorithm. I’m convinced brands are clueless to it somehow.
(Ahem, almost every influencer I’ve seen uses groups to “like swap” or “comment swap” because otherwise, it’s nearly impossible to get over 3% of your followers to like your photos.) After all Instagram barely shows 10% of your audience your photos anyways.
There are groups called Telegrams that do this or Facebook groups. Just DM another influencer to ask them if they use them and if so if you may be able to join.
It’s actually ridiculous to me and there is no way to know if an influencer has genuine likes and comments or not, or if they are “swapped”.
But, that’s what the masses are doing.
In the beginning, they were my only source of comments. I’ve heard that Insta’s algorithm shows you to more people based on activity within the first hour of posting, and they show you to less people if you edit your photo or comments within 24 hours.
If you made it this far I’m so amazed! Hopefully something you read today will get you closer to reaching out to brands and becoming an influencer for free product! Come follow me on Instagram!