Ijeoma Kola sits in her living room on a woven pouf with a modern rug and yellow pillow

The Brand Partnership Litmus Test

I have been working regularly with brands in a paid capacity since 2014, long before the term “influencer” was used to describe creators who mobilized social media and digital platforms for marketing. Since then, I’ve collaborated with over 200 brands, ranging from large Fortune 500 companies to small businesses that sadly no longer exist. Over the last eight years, with increasing opportunities, more visibility, and exponentially more professional and life responsibilities, I have had to be more intentional and selective about the brand partnerships to which I agree. Whether you’re planning to start working with brands this year or are wondering how to choose the right campaigns for you, here is my Brand Partnership Litmus Test, or five questions I ask myself before agreeing to an influencer campaign.

1. Was I addressed by name in the outreach email?

First up, if you receive an email from a company regarding a campaign and they do not address you by name, ignore it. My team knows that those are automatic NOs for me because if my name is not in an email, it signals two things: the email was sent to a mass list and there is a 99% chance there is no budget.

Campaign managers with budgets study the influencers they want to onboard for a campaign and send personalized emails explaining why they would be a good fit for the project. Would you reply to an unsolicited email without your name promising you $500? Absolutely not. So why would you reply a “campaign email” without your name promising you some obscure partnership? Exactly. If you’re not addressed by name (and not your username, your actual name), then it’s not a serious campaign.

2. Would I normally shop at/support this brand?

The next question on my litmus test is whether I would normally support or shop at the brand if not for the campaign. For me, campaigns are much easier to pull off — both in terms of my ability to execute it and my audience’s interest in engaging — when there is already brand affinity.

Since moving to the Midwest, I’ve been approached by Midwest grocery stores to partner, and I’ve had to decline. Because I don’t shop at Kroger or Meijer, grocery stores that are common in the Midwest. I shop at Trader Joe’s — because that’s what I’m used to and what I’m comfortable with. So if I did a campaign for Meijer, it would be difficult for me because I have no affinity for the brand.

Now for brands that are new to me, I usually do a search of their organizational history and mission statement to try to get a sense of their brand and leadership values. Then I check their inventory and see if I would spend my own money on anything they sell. If not, I pass. I don’t care how much money is in the budget if I don’t find any of the clothes cute or if none of the foundations are my shade, I’m saying no. But if I would actually buy things myself, then I move on to the next question. 

3. Does this campaign benefit my audience?

You’re not going to like this one, but a campaign that doesn’t benefit your audience in any way won’t resonate with them. And I don’t mean that there has to be a giveaway in every campaign you do — I actually am not fond of giveaways and try to avoid them at all costs. But there has to be a point for your audience. You can’t just receive something for free and show it off and expect people to engage positively in a way that satisfies the brand’s partnership goals. Why does your audience need to know about this new product or brand? How does it help them?

Last year I had a fitness company reach out to me for a campaign about their really cool fitness machine, which I would totally have used, but I could not for the life of me figure out how it would benefit my audience. The price point was out of range for most people, and it seemed too niche. So even though it was something that I would have used myself, it didn’t benefit my audience so I didn’t move forward with the campaign. 

4. Do I have the time to complete this campaign?

Ah, the question that eliminates a huge chunk of campaigns for me. If you’re a full-time influencer, then this question is more about whether you have the time to complete the campaign with your existing content and partnership calendar. You do have a calendar right?! Ideally, you should have a max number of campaigns you do a month for your sanity and so your audience isn’t bombarded with ads, but don’t be tempted to make exceptions when you’ve reached that magic number. Speaking from experience here, because 1 more campaign turns into 2 which turns into 4 and all of a sudden you’re going to bed at 4 am and posting 2 sponsored posts a day because you didn’t check your calendar ahead of time. 

If you’re a part-time influencer, hobby creator, or are just starting out, then you have to figure out whether you can complete a campaign given the available time you have outside of your other work and personal responsibilities. Most campaigns come with deadlines, and if you are not sure, it’s better to clarify turnaround expectations before you agree to a campaign, lest you sign a contract and then have a brand ask you for content back in 4 days even though you’re going out of town on vacation (true story).

5. Am I comfortable with the provided rate or confident that I can negotiate my desired rate?

Note that the question about the rate always comes last for me in the brand partnership litmus test, because I have reached a stage in my professional career where no amount of money is not worth my sanity or integrity (peace over profit for 2022!). Now maybe you’re not there yet (hopefully you’re always going to choose integrity over money though), so if this question needs to be bumped up for you, by all means, do so. It is important to establish what your base cost is for doing any kind of work (influencer or otherwise) — what is your hourly rate and how long will this campaign take you? If you’re going to be buying a new outfit for the shoot, how much will that cost? How much is photography? Do you have to rent a studio space? Do you have to buy props/accents to bring the product to life? Those are just some thought starters but here’s a whole post on what to charge for influencer campaigns.

If a campaign provides a budget at the outset (as most serious ones do, back to question number 1), then you my dear MUST negotiate. It is the professional expectation in the world of influencer marketing. If someone says “the rate is the rate,” then they are lying. There is always some form of wiggle room in a campaign — maybe it isn’t always about getting more money, but maybe you can remove deliverables, or reduce the exclusivity, or they can send more products. Negotiating gets easier with practice, but the more sure you are about your starting rate and the justifications behind it, then the more confident you’ll be when negotiating.

So those are the five questions I always ask myself before accepting any brand partnerships. Save my Brand Partnership Litmus Test so you can refer to it next time you pitch a brand partnership or get an email addressed to you by name!

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  1. Those are good. I will keep these in mind. Great points! Integrity over money 👏🏾👏🏾👏🏾