Influence for Good: A Conversation with Merrill Hersam, VP of Creator Success, Urban Legend - Ep. 54

James Nord
April 5, 2023
Updated Feb 09, 2024

Welcome to Negronis with Nord. In this episode, Merrill Hersam, VP of Creator Success at Urban Legend, joins James to discuss how creators can use their following for good. They also explore ways to incorporate cause-based items into content more seamlessly. Urban Legend is a platform that powers idea-driven campaigns, mobilizing trusted content creators to promote important issues and drive audiences to action.

Below is a slightly edited transcript of the full episode for your reading pleasure. Make sure to subscribe to the Fohr YouTube channel to get notified of new episodes.

Welcome, Merrill Hersam, VP of Creator Success at Urban Legend!

James: Negronis with Nord episode 54, we have Merrill Hersham, the VP of Creator Success at Urban Legend. We will discuss how creators and influencers can use their influence for good and how we can support more cause-based organizations and, ideally, make some money. So thank you so much for joining us.

Merrill: Thank you so much for having me.

James: Okay. Usually, when we have guests, there'll be influencers. This may be one of the first guests we've had from another organization that does something similar to what Fohr does, but in a different world. So first, maybe tell me what does Urban Legend do?

Merrill: Urban Legend is an influencer marketing platform for ideas, never products. And what that typically looks like is social, cultural, economic, environmental, mental health, parenting issues, and topics. And most of our clients are kind of non-profits and cause-based organizations. We operate on what we call a cost-per-action model. So essentially, all of our campaigns are tied to a real-world tangible action, which might be, you know, clicks to an informative landing page. It might be petition signatures, might be letters to lawmakers. And we pay creators kind of based on how many of those actions their content drives. So it's similar to an affiliate model, but rather than asking your followers to spend money, you're asking them to kind of drive change with you.

James: I think it's hard in beauty, fashion, and lifestyle to pay people just on results. Have you found, as that market matures, that is a model that influencers are excited about? Is it hard sometimes? Is it that they need to try it once, and they're like, ‘oh, actually, I can make a lot of money doing this.’ How does that generally work?

Merrill: I mean, honestly, if this were two years ago, we would've gotten a very different response. But I think the climate has changed in the influencer marketing industry. People are a lot more receptive to this model. And I mean, especially given kind of the economic climate right now, I think people are excited to get, you know, any deals. But at the end of the day, it's a lot better for the clients, and creators end up making more money than they do for a typical flat fee post a lot of the time. Yeah. they just aren't expecting it. Yeah. But yeah, definitely kind of, there's been a shift in the industry when it comes to CPM type of stuff.

James: Yeah. I was excited to have you on today and about what y'all do because we're a year and a half out from the election. We have talked about it for years—we believe influencers need to balance product-based content vs. them-based content, which is great. Like all that is fun and needs to happen with some cause-based stuff.

And if you think about how in the world of the one-percenters of wealth, there's this expectation that you'll give some of that money away. Yes. <laugh>. And it's almost like a thing you must do even if you don't want to. I guess unless you're like Steve Jobs, he was like, **** all those people. I'm not giving any money to charity. I don't know why, but it was not his thing. He built a very nice boat for himself though we never got to step foot on it, sadly. But I digress.

James: We believe that influencers are kind of like that digital 1%, right? They have more influence; they reach more people than certainly 99% of the rest of the world. And so we believe that they kind of have to give some of that up. With the elections coming up, I think there will be more focus on influencers using their feeds for good.

Can you give a little sense of how they're more tangible to help, right? Like so that I'm not just, you know, posting that I hate Donald Trump or when something terrible happens like the school shooting today. You know, I'm not just kind of reacting to terrible things happening in the world and trying to support them, but I'm able to like support organizations more consistently through time.

The first step to using your influence for good is to align with what you care about

Merrill: Yeah. I mean, I think that the first step is figuring out what you align with and what you care about. And I think many people sometimes haven't taken the time to explore the things they care about and how they can get involved. So that's the first step, and it comes to start seeding it in, especially if you haven't spoken about this stuff to your audience to kind of seed it in little by little and get them used to you talking and kind of your views and understanding.

James: What about if I'm like, ‘well, look, I'm a beauty influencer. This is not a political space. I'm nervous that if I start talking about gun control, reproductive rights, or whatever it might be that you're passionate about personally, I will alienate some of my audience’?

Merrill: Yeah. I mean, it can be scary, but as long as you are passionate about a topic and well-educated on the topic, you can typically convey it to your followers. Like I said before, seeding it in little by little, getting them used to it.

I think it is important for these creators to start talking about things they care about. You know, especially with everything going on in the world.

James: One of the things that, again, I think was so interesting is the focus on the action-based things, right? I sign this petition, I do this thing, and it's less about fundraising. I think that as influencers, you sometimes feel like the thing you need to do is like drive toward a fundraiser.

You can do fundraising through Instagram directly. Some people may feel a little nervous about that cause it says the amount you've raised. So if you've only raised $80 of a $2,000 goal, maybe you're gonna feel like kind of ****** about that.

What are some actions influencers can take that feels more tangible?

Yeah. <laugh>, you're someone like me that doesn't understand the nonprofit world. What are some of those action things that your clients are looking to achieve? How do those things help?

Because again, I think for influencers, they're sometimes like, ‘I don't know what to do.’

Let's say it's about gun control because it's unfortunately timely for today, right? So I want to support organizations that are fighting for gun control. I can just send them a hundred bucks today. What are those other things that I can do?

Merrill: I mean, awareness is a huge part of the conversation. If you look at the statistics of kind of Gen Z, mostly social media consumers, their voting statistics have shot up since it became more normalized for creators to talk about these issues. So definitely, awareness is a big part. Pushing petitions, of course.

One of our quote-unquote “actions” we work with is letters to lawmakers and calls to representatives, which has been impactful. You know, you kind of get a direct line to the source, which is nice. The beauty of being a creator and working with Urban Legend is that you are crowdsourcing change, which is very nice.

James: I will see some of my more wonky political friends posting when there is a push for change in some way. Right? ‘Call your representative.’

For the beauty & fashion influencers out here that don't understand this world as much, is it money, sign a petition, or call your representative? How important are each of these steps?

Merrill: Honestly, they're all important in different ways regarding fundraising. There's a purpose for that. We don't touch anything on the fundraising point because a big part of our mission is not asking creators to ask their followers to spend money.

Awareness is very important. Again, one of our actions is clicks to informative landing pages. So that's a way that many people are just not informed on many important topics. And kind of when a nonprofit can give you a source to kind of understand something easily, it's very impactful, as well as petition signatures.

Recently there was a ruling coming up by the Biden administration, and after our campaign, they delayed the ruling and postponed the ruling because of all of the kind of chatter on social media. So even if it is just letters to lawmakers or social media chatter, it is so impactful and important to talk about these things.

James: Let's say I am interested in helping with every town, right? And I could follow them on social media, see what they're talking about, and amplify it. We talk a lot on this show about how, for influencers, most brands they wanna work with that's just like one person. They just have to find the person that works at Fenty. And then they can just reach out to them, and if they can get them interested and create a relationship, then boom. All these huge brands are just like a collection of people.

So do you have any insight on the nonprofit side of how that works and how somebody who might say, look, I've been sharing these posts, but ultimately it would be helpful to be a bit more embedded in this organization, understand what's important to you, and be able to plan some of my content around that. How do they build that relationship? Is it similar to just cold emailing the person who's at Fenty?

How to build a relationship with a non-profit organization

Merrill: It can be similar to cold emailing. A lot of the time, Instagram and DMing do work a lot. LinkedIn is very helpful in finding the right contacts in the digital marketing space. If creators wanna work with organizations directly, there are avenues. But they can also sign up for Urban Legends <laugh>.

James: Okay. How consistently could I be doing this? Because as a beauty creator, let's say I'm doing 25 in-feed monthly posts. I could presumably do 10 to 15 of those, even sponsored. How often would I have the opportunity to do this if I signed up with Urban Legend?

My next question will be, how do y'all pick people, or how does that work? How much work is there out there to do stuff like this?

Merrill: Yeah. All of our campaigns are opt-in. The way that our model works are to create anything a creator sees they’re pre-approved for, so they can pick and choose whatever they're interested in and post that almost immediately. We don't give creators deliverables. They can craft their own. It's very easy for them to log in and see the campaign brief, and within 30 seconds, they can post if they want to.

How do you onboard influencers to the campaigns?

James: Your title is VP of creator success, right? So in the organization, I assume you are thinking about creators, how you can make things more clear, how you can make it more effective, and ultimately how they can make more money and your clients can hit their KPIs.

How much education do you feel like you have to do? And I know we focus on trying to guide them to a better way to do this stuff, even in our briefs. How much do you feel you have to educate and help people? Especially if they're feeling like, oh shoot, I haven't posted about much political stuff and are nervous to do this.

Merrill: We give them a lot of education, but it can be as much or as little as they want. The process of kind of onboarding influencers is we do a full interview with them. We talk about their goals, what they're looking for as far as a platform partnership, and what they care about their values so that we can match them to campaigns well enough.

We are happy to kind of walk them through the content creation process. In our creative briefs, we give them the issue and topic. We give them potential talking points, and we also give them a full blurb on the organization sponsoring it so they kind of know where the money's coming from as well. So typically, we give them a lot of education, but it's never in a way that's kind of too wonky or complicated to understand.

We like to ensure that we know our audience when we bring creators. Especially some more complicated policy-related issues. Sometimes you have to break it down for them, but again, we don't want creators opting into campaigns that they don't necessarily care about either. So we will be kind of using the vernacular that makes sense for the topic as a way to kind of ensure that people are kind of opting for the right things.

What makes a cause-based campaign perform well?

James: Yeah. Being action-based and performance-based, you're seeing a campaign where some stuff works well but stopping stuff that’s not working well for people. Have you found consistency where the people end up being able to drive a lot of action? What is the kind of consistent thing in their content, or what does their audience look like? What are the things that are working?

Merrill: So it's very interesting because we're often surprised. A lot of the time, someone with a ton of followers could drive not that much action, whereas someone with a smaller following really may. And at the end of the day, it comes down to authenticity. If you're authentic and care about the topic, and you can talk about it in a way where you know what you're talking about—that converts. It doesn't have to do with follower size. It doesn't even have to do with content type a lot of the time. It doesn't have to do with what platform you're on. The authenticity piece is the running factor that makes for a successful campaign. Especially in any kind of part of influencer marketing, right? But especially when it comes to advocacy, issue-based marketing is very important.

James: Some people are activists, which is what their content is about. This is what their life is about. This is their main focus. And then some people are just passionate about a thing and probably some who are just like, ‘I'm interested to try this out and help out.’

Do you feel the accounts that are purely activists do better than people who dabble in it for the first time? Is there any difference there?

Merrill: I mean, it kind of depends. Again, it just kind of comes down to how they can express the issue and the topic. It varies. And, not all of our campaigns are super, super advocacy based either. A lot of it, you know, we do stuff like online safety for children or mental health or things that are a little more like the middle of the road. This is why we have such kind of a broad network of creators of all different types so that we kind of fill campaigns accordingly. So it very much kind of depends.

James: So what are some of the determining factors, you know, as you look at your group of creators on the platform of who sees this opportunity versus who doesn't?

Merrill: Well, much of it comes down to our interview process with creators before we onboard them. We usually take 15 minutes to a half hour to really sit down with them and figure out what they care about. We know creators are busy. We don't wanna waste their time by showing them campaigns that certain platforms you scroll through and it's just not what you're looking for. So we kind of take a lot of time to get to know the creators and figure out what they care about, especially when the topics we're talking about are very personal to these people.

It's very important to get to know them. And that's how we distribute the campaigns based on what they've shared with us. And often during that initial interview, they might not share something that, you know, later on, they'll come down to us and say, ‘Hey, I, I've decided I really wanna talk about this issue.’ And we'll say, great, here you go, <laugh>. Nice.

James: Yeah. I assume you're kind of getting what you absolutely don't want to do, but then, generally, what is the kind of stuff you're interested in?

Merrill: Exactly. Yeah. And it's nice cause a lot of the time, maybe their content doesn't necessarily reflect something that they're interested in talking about, and they're kind of looking for an opportunity or a way to talk about a certain subject. And they just really haven't had the chance.

James: I assume you're doing some of this interviewing with creators or involved in some of it. We hear questions all the time from people like, ‘oh, I want to like start to talk about beauty—how do I do it?’ You know, and it's like you just ******* start talking about it. I don't know.

Merrill: Learn, you educate yourself. Yeah.

James: Have you had the experience of having someone a little nervous about it, who then does a campaign, and it goes well and, and you get to talk to them again, and they're kind of like, oh, that was like amazing.

As I think about who's watching this video, it's a lot of creators who probably have not. Outside of sharing some posts of some organizations they support or causes that haven't gotten actively involved in this, they have never done something paid. Do you have any stories of people you feel have, outside the money, have come back and said, ‘Wow, this has been hugely beneficial?’

Merrill: Obviously, monetization helps, but a lot of the time, they just don't know where to start. They don't know where to get educated. And then that's part of what works with us because all of the education comes from the non-profits themselves. But a lot of the time, once they start talking about it if they can do it in a kind of educated, coherent manner, the results are amazing.

Audiences say, "We were talking about this the other day." You look at the creators you follow like they're your friends, and nobody wants a surface-level friend. So you want to know what they're interested in. You want to know their values. This could open up another conversation about parasocial relationships, right? But it's very important. The stronger your connection with your audience and the more they know you, the better engaged they will be. Yeah. So, you know, the results are often very positive.

The stronger your connection with your audience and the more they know you, the better engaged they will be. - Merrill Hersam, VP of Creator Success, Urban Legend.

James: Yeah. I think that, generally, the influencer space is looked down upon. Right? It's seen as unserious and kind of silly. I think a lot is due to deep-rooted sexism and the fact that this is a predominantly women-led industry. They talk a lot about clothes and makeup, which is seen as silly and unserious—which is deeply upsetting, annoying, and ignorant. Y'all are more on the front line, and we sometimes see that we sold a lot of makeup this week, which is great. It makes people happy, and we feel good about that. But you all have a different view on this. Is there any comment on the creator's power to enact change?

Merrill: I mean, it's unbelievable. Many creators are becoming more and more involved. Their followings are huge, and as I said before, it shows in the numbers. Gen Z is voting in unprecedented numbers. When one person starts talking about it, it makes another person feel more comfortable, and then the next person feels more comfortable, and suddenly you're surrounded by creators who can talk about the things they care about. So it's more about normalizing and accepting it, and allowing the people who are doing it to do it well. Yeah.

James: Yeah. We were just discussing the potential TikTok ban. Interestingly, a significant part of their strategy was to bring big creators to Washington and talk about how these people have built a business here and how it will impact the whole ecosystem of new entrepreneurs. It's interesting how this incredibly powerful organization met with an existential threat by bringing creators to try and make a case for them, right?

Merrill: Exactly. Exactly. Creator voices are so important, and it just goes to show.

James: Yeah. And we've seen the Biden administration bringing creators in exactly to the White House more. No matter what the administration is, I think we will see more and more of this.  It is validating to see governments now and some of the most powerful organizations in the world being like, oh, we need to make this point.

Merrill: Exactly. Exactly. So like, what we're doing at Urban Legend is just kind of like a microcosm of that.

James: I am so glad this business exists, and you all continue to normalize and monetize it. I think it is really important to ensure that people can make money doing this because, ultimately, those posts have value. And I think it's one thing to say, "Hey, you should be giving your feed over to supporting organizations," which is true, but I do think that you are right about how one person talking about it inspires another person, and so forth, even if they don't necessarily align on that issue. Yeah.

Merrill: And the monetization piece is also really important because there are creators out there who are very issue-based and advocacy-based, and they're unable to monetize. Many people think they're going to do things for free, and they're not necessarily being approached by typical direct-to-consumer brands, which is the large majority of influencer marketing. So it is very hard for them to monetize. They're not making money off of the platforms. So to give them an avenue to make money from things they're already talking about is unique.

James: <Laugh>. That's fantastic. Well, look, I mean, thank you so much for sitting down with us today. Thank you for having me. And if you want to talk to Merrill, sign up, and she'll interview you. You get to talk about yourself for 15 or 20 minutes and then, hopefully, make money, support some causes, and do good in the world. Right. Yeah.

Merrill: It's a win-win.

James: <Laugh>. Beautiful.


Cheers, and thanks for watching.

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