How to Explain Influencers to your Grandma – 101

Who are These People?

A Complex Age of Influencers, Ambassadors and Advocates


Words and Photos:: Sarah Bulford

I’m sure all of you have wondered at some point: “What does it mean to be an ambassador or influencer online?”

The title “influencer” seems to attract a variety of opinions in today’s society. For some people, they label influencers as those looking for “freebies” or someone who is trying to avoid having a “real” job and attract attention. They see the product placement Instagram posts or the blog post trying to attract sales for a specific brand and shake their heads. Some folks want desperately to live that lifestyle online – they want to go to events, network and watch their following grow. Others find it amusing to troll popular users or avoid the complicated world of social media altogether.

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So what is an Influencer exactly?
In the age of Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat – there is a growing community of brands doing advertising through social media. Having real life, influencers for your brand is one of the best things you can do to sell your product. It’s real people, out in the field, using and loving your gear. Whether it’s hammocks or outdoor clothing – they can sell their brand through the user’s experience. The users will then blog, post photos, make videos and promote that company and the free product they’ve been given. Some Instagrammers or bloggers are paid for each job or are on a contract. But most I know, don’t do this as their full time job. Like me for instance, I work a full time job on top of working online.


What’s the difference between a brand ambassador, advocate or influencer?
Honestly, I believe it all has to do with the company’s vision for the individual they wish to work with. Typically, an ambassador has a contract and works directly with a brand to curate content and test gear. Influencers and advocates are usually driving traffic, specifically through product use on their page and using their online presence to influence others into a specific theme or lifestyle. Influencers are usually given free product to just go out and play on their own or are linked up with a brand to occasionally promote. I label myself as an ambassador just based on the work I am doing now. I’m usually only working with a company if I am on some sort of contract. I prefer to have expectations laid out very clearly. I also don’t have time to just try new product all the time, I like to stick to a few brands that I love and that work for my lifestyle. I typically do writing, reviews, send in photos or run contests (on my Instagram and blog).


Sarah Bulford in one of her instagram posts featuring a contest
Contest are great, your audience gets free swag, brands get recognition. Everyone wins.

How I became an online influencer and brand ambassador:
Running a large account sort of happened accidentally for me. I wasn’t trying to grow to 20k+ or create a new job for myself. I was just posting photos and enjoying life.

My Instagram was slow going in the beginning. It took me some time to figure out how it all worked: Hashtags, ambassadors, followers, engagement, tagging, likes…it was all a massive learning curve.


Sarah tying into her harness
We all begin somewhere.

I started with sharing photos and blogging whenever I did any sort of adventure (climbing, working as a backcountry Ranger, hiking, skiing – sports mostly.) And slowly, I grew a following from just living my life. I posted often because I love photography and playing outside! I tagged the brands when I was using their products in a shot and my channels started to get noticed by them.

The first brand I ever worked with was Static Climbing Chalk Bags – Taylor reached out to me on Instagram about joining their team in October of 2014. I was ecstatic to say the least. I didn’t fully understand how it all worked but I was stoked and ready to dive into that world.

Since then I have a variety of contracts with some of my favourite brands (Mountain Life, Arcteryx, GoPro, RedBull, Leatherman and a few more).


How did these brands find me?

Most brands have contacted me via email or private message on Instagram. Usually there is an introduction, contract to look over and then back and forth discussions about how you will work together. GoPro contacted me through my website about joining their family. Since then, I have done several trips overseas, gone to events, had my content purchased and written articles for them.


Bags and gear out and ready to catch a plane.
Bags are packed, flights are booked, headed to Korea. With Pearce Mundy.

Pros + Cons
Most brands I am involved with are an absolute joy to work with. Each one usually has a direct contact person, whom you can send questions and ideas to anytime. It’s a pretty painless process to get product and work it into your content curation.

On some occasions though, I have been contacted by companies that have a vibe or product that I can’t connect with. Either the style doesn’t fit for me or the product is something I would never use. It’s hard in the beginning to not just jump on board to get free things in the mail. But in the long run, you are so much better off building a real and lasting connection with a brand that you actually respect. Brands that could eventually pay you for your work or maybe even sponsor a trip for you.  You’ll perhaps get a chance to work with a company you’ve always hoped for but you may also lose connections due to budget cuts or other reasons. You may not click with the brand’s vision or perhaps you can’t keep up with their contract demands. The world of online influencing is always changing. It’s a blurry area for most people and each “job” looks a little bit different.


Some advice if you’re looking to work online
All the successful Instagram users have themes. Not to say I’m a successful Instagrammer and have all the answers, but I’ve been using it long enough to give some advice!

When you are trying to grow your audience and get noticed by brands, make sure that you are posting things that relate to those companies. If you are a skier that wants a ski company to notice you – post skiing photos! They don’t want to see you tag them in your dinner or cat photo (I mean maybe they do but you get my point). Post things that show who you are and what your passions are. Be consistent with your posts, use relevant hashtags and keep your feed flowing. Outdoor brands (if that’s your thing) usually have a hashtag they use on all their posts – for example: Arcteryx uses #CelebrateWild. These will get your photos in the correct category and hopefully noticed by the brand.


A little after work exercise on the Apron of the Chief above Squamish, BC.
A little after work exercise on the Apron of the Chief above Squamish, BC.


Aside from getting free product, getting paid or having cool opportunities – being a brand ambassador or influencer offers exposure for you. If you love writing, photography or have a talent you want to showcase, a brand can really help you there. Being posted on a social platform from a brand with a large following will push that audience towards you! The best example I have for this is GoPro’s Instagram – they have 14 million followers and great post engagement. When they share one of my photos I will instantly get 300 – 500 followers over the course of the day. It’s a win win.


Sarah Bulford photo featured on GoPro's Instagram account.
Get your content seen – when large brands share your work it’s always a win/win.

Tips and Tricks:

Don’t let the online work completely absorb you. Stay true to your style and collaborate with brands that compliment your work. It’s okay to post photos without product placement or hashtags. It’s not a full time job and if it becomes that – you should be on the payroll.

Be creative! Think of ways besides just product promoting that you can associate with the brand you are representing. Ask to write a review article or photo essay, get your voice out there using their blogs and discussion forums.


Get Prepared
If you’ve decided this is what you want for your Instagram or blog, be prepared for how crazy the internet world can be. Be prepared to travel at a moments notice, submit articles/reviews on a timeline and devote hours to editing/shooting content. Also, you should be prepared for trolls and cyber-bullying. Even though Instagram is getting much better at filtering that stuff, it still happens. The bigger your audience grows the more diverse and unpredictable responses become. I’ve had to block dozens of spam accounts and trolls who have tried to bring down my account. I’ve had inappropriate direct messages and comments that you wouldn’t believe. So, be ready to not let this stuff get to you – just remember, people will say anything behind a computer screen.


Myths and Stereotypes

I can’t debunk all the myths but I can answer to the ones I’ve been approached with before:

  • No, not all social media ambassadors/influencers are extroverts. I’m actually very shy in person. Networking was one hurdle I found extremely hard to jump because I am not the person at a party making all the friends.
  • No, I don’t just get free, expensive stuff all the time. It’s usually equal work for equal pay. These companies want something in return, they want to work with you. Scratch each others backs ya know?
  • No, I don’t think I am the best at anything and I don’t claim to be. I’m just having fun playing outside most of the time. Or looking for chocolate, I am often trying to curb a sweet tooth.
  • No, I won’t promote a product that is garbage. If I won’t use it – I won’t tell you to.


Networking and Follow up:

Always stay in contact with the brands you are working with. Check in on a monthly basis and be sure to send them photos and ideas that you’d like to collaborate on. Staying in touch will ensure that you stay on the team.

Make sure you’re easy to contact! Always link your website URL on your social channels so that you can be easily found when a company is ready to reach out!

Networking is key to the ambassador world. If there is a brand you really want to work with don’t be afraid to reach out to them. Shoot them an email and state how you think you would fit in with their label. Introducing yourself can go a long way!

Follow Sarah along on Instagram and