How to Collaborate with Brands as a Content Creator [Expert Tips]

Welcome to The Creative, a series that gives content creators actionable advice from professionals in the creator economy. Whether you’re a seasoned creator or just starting out, read The Creative to learn how to grow your platform, improve your content, and stay ahead in the ever-shifting creator landscape. 

As a content creator, I’ve found the most common question other creators in my circle ask is, “How do I collaborate with brands?”

And it makes sense that it’s top of mind for so many creatives since brand deals are among the primary sources of income for podcasters, influencers, YouTubers, streamers, and more.

So, how can a content creator secure a collaboration with a brand? Where do you find these brands? And how do you know you‘re ready? Though I am a creator, I’m more of a hobbyist.

So, I don’t have much personal experience navigating brand deals.

However, I spoke with seasoned creators within HubSpot’s network with experience working with brands. Keep reading to learn everything you need to know about collaborating with brands as a creator, according to the experts.

What is a brand collaboration?

When should you seek brand collaborations?

How to Find Brand Collaborations

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What is a brand collaboration?

A brand collaboration is a partnership between a brand and a content creator in which both parties work together to create content that promotes the brand to the creator’s followers.

One of the most common types of brand collaborations, for example, is a partnership.

A brand partnership is when a brand works with an influencer or creator on a joint campaign, offering, or other promotional activity.

An example of a brand partnership would be when makeup and beauty influencer Jackie Aina partnered with makeup brand Anastasia Beverly Hills to release a line of eye shadow palettes.

When should you seek brand collaborations?

I used to think I needed a certain number of followers or that I had to have a plethora of content before even considering working with brands.

So, imagine my surprise when my YouTube channel only had about 100 followers, yet I was already getting brands and businesses in my DMs asking if I wanted to promote their products or services.

It turns out it doesn’t necessarily boil down to high follower counts and viral content when determining the right time to work with brands as creators.

“People can monetize and start collaborating with brands as soon as they have an audience that is useful to the brand,” says Scott D. Clary of the podcast Success Story.

However, Scott warns it’s crucial to understand business practices.

“You have to understand that when you start working with brands, you are working with people who are building their own empires and companies, and — if you don’t have a lot of business experience — it can be overwhelming,” he says.

Scott explains, “They’re going to ask a lot of you. They’re going to negotiate contracts, they’re going to try to ‘win’ in that deal, and they’re going to try to get the best possible bang for their buck with that particular creator.”

So, Scott encourages creators seeking brand deals and partnerships to set themselves up for success by understanding the following:

“So, immerse yourself in a variety of different YouTube videos, resources, or blogs based on how to negotiate a good deal and how to serve a brand the best,” he says.

He explains, “It’s almost more important to do the research and understand the mechanics of how to sell advertising as a service first before you jump into bed with brands.”

Scott says it‘s possible to go in without prior research and learn as you go, “but it’ll be painful, and you won‘t be getting good deals, or you won’t be getting paid on time.”

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How to Find Brand Collaborations

So, you feel ready to seek collaborators — where do you go?

Leanne Elliot of the podcast Truth, Lies, and Workplace Culture suggests in-person events.

“We have gotten the majority of our content partnerships from being at an event, representing the podcast, talking to guests, interviewing people,” she explains. “From there, either members of their team or they themselves would approach us for collaborations.”

Leanne says it’s crucial to target events you know your desired collaborators will attend, and I can attest to this.

A few years ago, I wanted to create a YouTube video for my channel diving into how the COVID-19 pandemic impacted the voice acting industry.

I knew I wanted to interview an experienced and professional voice actor for the project, so I made a point of attending a local convention and meeting with voice actors in attendance.

That day, I met actress Anairis Quinones, known for voicing various popular anime characters.

I told her about my channel and that I wanted to learn more about her experience in voice acting during a pandemic. Just one week later, we were recording a video for the channel.

Though it wasn’t a brand collaboration, the same logic still applies.

So, you’re a creator and found a brand you want to work with — how do you pitch yourself to that brand?

“You don’t,” says Al Elliot, co-host of the Truth, Lies, and Workplace Culture podcast. “You don’t pitch yourself; you pitch what you’ll give to the collaborator.”

The podcast discusses different aspects of Workplace Culture, and Al says when he meets potential collaborators, he doesn’t approach the person by going on about the podcast.

“I do the opposite,” He explains. “I go, ‘I notice you have some content about workplace culture, but not loads. I think we can collaborate on something really cool where you can tell me about how you see workplace culture.'”

So let the potential collaborator know you want to provide an opportunity for them to discuss their brand, product, or service — emphasize the value your platform brings.

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Brand Collaboration Tools

In-person events are just one of the options for connecting with brands. Scott says multiple tools are available to help creators find brands and companies to collaborate with.

For example, if you’re a creator with a newsletter looking for brand partnerships, Scott has a few platforms in mind.

“For newsletter, you could use Paved, Who Sponsors Stuff, SponsorLeads, or Sponsorgap,” he says. “These are all marketplaces where brands that love sponsoring newsletters are already looking for newsletter sponsorships.”

Scott also suggests subscribing to your favorite newsletters, paying attention to what brands are sponsoring them, and running outreach campaigns to the head of marketing for those companies.

If you host a podcast, there are online marketplaces for you to seek brand partnerships as well.

“There’s AdvertiseCast and Gumball,” Scott says. “Or, it‘s going to your favorite podcast that’s in the same niche as you and see who sponsors their podcast, then running outreach campaigns to the head of marketing for that particular company.”

Red Flags to Look For

While it’s great to seek new opportunities as a creator, it’s essential to be selective about who you choose to work with. One way to ensure you’re dealing with the right brands and companies is to be aware of the following red flags.

Only offering Performance- or Affiliate-Based Payments

One potential red flag (or “gray” flag, as Scott puts it) is if a brand doesn’t seem to appreciate the value a content creator brings to a collaboration or partnership.

“Meaning that if you have a great audience, you know who your audience is, and you know a brand will be successful if they work with you, and they’re only asking for a performance-based or an affiliate-based payment — I feel like that is not an ideal scenario for a lot of great content creators,” Scott says.

Performance-based payment means a brand pays a creator based on the results the content generates, such as the click-through rate or social media engagement.

An affiliate-based payment is when a creator is paid after their content directly results in a consumer buying the advertised product or service.

Scott explains, “It’s how some people get started, but I think you have to know your worth as a creator, and you can’t pay your bills with potential future revenue.”

Instead, a better option would be for creators to have their own rate or negotiate their contracts to guarantee a proper, consistent, and fair income.

Offering to Pay in Free Products or Equity

“That’s even more of a red flag,” Scott says. “When brands say, ‘We’re just going to give you free products, and we expect so many posts.'”

The obvious issue with only getting free products as payment is that these items can’t pay your bills in the long run, no matter how nice they are.

Like, thanks for the free shampoos, but I can’t exactly appease my landlord with these when it’s the first of the month.

According to Scott, equity compensation is another payment method to be wary of.

If you’re unsure what equity compensation is, it’s when a brand offers a creator a payment in the form of things like restricted stock or a performance share.

This form of payment is especially problematic because there‘s a good chance the equity isn’t really worth much and may not result in any cash down the line.

“The equity the brand is giving you could be so diluted, and the valuation of the company so overvalued, that you’re actually probably never going to walk away with any money,” Scott warns.

The Brand is Too Controlling

A brand collaboration is supposed to be exactly that — a collaborative effort, meaning both parties work together for a mutually beneficial outcome.

For that to happen, the brand you choose to work with must respect the integrity of your work and not micromanage your process.

Not only can an overly controlling brand negatively impact your experience, but it can also hurt your content and damage your audience’s trust.

“We see that a lot in terms of YouTubers and influences who have gotten a lot of heat from the press and the YouTube community for promoting products and using scripts,” Leanne explains. “You see the same four or five influencers saying the same things about the same products, and it’s clearly been scripted by that brand.”

She says, “Particularly from a podcast medium, we need to be very protective of our content.”

This is because podcasts are one of the most trusted mediums for information, especially among Gen Z. In fact, 47% of the Gen-Z online population in the U.S. are monthly podcast listeners.

And 64% of Gen-Zers in the UK say podcasts are more trustworthy than other media.

“We need to be extra careful, as podcast creators, to ensure integrity is really high,” Leanne says. “So a red for me would be anybody who wants more control, or more say in my content than I feel comfortable with.”

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Green Flags to Look For

You want to work with brands who are transparent and honest about their payment methods and who will enter into a fair and equitable contract with you.

Another good sign a brand is worth working with is that they’ve worked with creators in the past and have a sense of how brand collaboration works.

Finally, you want to work with brands who will respect you as a creator and trust you to bring their vision to life rather than micromanaging your work or having too much input on how you communicate their brand to your audience.

Over the years, I‘ve seen many content creators get excited about the possibility of securing a brand collaboration or partnership.

Still, creators must know what to expect before working with companies; otherwise, there’s a strong possibility they‘ll get stuck with a deal that doesn’t yield a high return on investment.

So, do your research, trust yourself as a creator, and make sure to work with brands who take your work seriously and will compensate you fairly.

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