by JAMES ZAHN, publisher, The Rock Father Magazine

In the action figure world, “army building” is the process in which kids and collectors rally the troops—assembling a full crew to carry out imaginary missions. Whether it’s Gru’s Minions or Imperial Stormtroopers, the right army can make a big impact. Standing out among the ranks of the troops are the “specialists”—members of the team who look a little bit different, a distinction that they have an additional skill set or niche. When working with influencers, digital content creators, bloggers, or writers to help champion your brand, the same rules apply, but since your mission has real stakes, you want to make sure that you’re assembling the right crew, and that means knowing how to work with them.

Reviews vs. Sponsored Posts

Whether you’re launching a new toy or looking to bring some new attention to an existing line, sponsored posts can cut through the clutter and make sure that consumers see your products. Sending out review product is great, but reviewers are under no obligation to publish coverage. With the volume of products that many influencers receive on a weekly basis, even with the best intentions, there’s no way to cover everything. Setting aside a proper budget for activations is essential to make sure that your toys rise to the top of the pile for a proper feature—not just a review or an on-the-fly social post.

As the media landscape continues to evolve, many lines continue to blur and some key distinctions need to be made between different types of coverage and placement. You should never pay for reviews. As always, you can provide free product for review, and the writer is permitted to share their honest thoughts, positive or negative. Once money changes hands, any coverage published on a website, blog, YouTube video, or social platform becomes an advertorial feature, and all parties need to honor and adhere to the ever-changing FTC guidelines—meaning all content that is paid for must be clearly marked as sponsored content.

If you wish to control your message, a sponsored post can ensure that key messaging gets relayed to the audience, but it needs to be done in an honest manner that’s not blatantly ad-speak. By hiring an influencer of any kind, you’re buying into their unique voice and style and renting the ears of their audience. Trust them. Good branded content will captivate—not alienate—and followers will react to content that’s honest, whether it’s sponsored or not. To remain pure, the content creator needs to genuinely love the toys that they’re discussing.

Brand Ambassadors = True Partners

Sponsored campaigns often cast a wide net for a product launch, but whatever gets created is usually one-and-done. These relationships are not necessarily long-term. Focusing on cultivating a smaller group of brand ambassadors can create enthusiasm that will last much longer. An ambassadorship is a mutual privilege for both the sponsor and the influencer with whom they partner. Everyone has a legacy behind their name and the building of their personal brand.

An ambassador becomes an extension of your marketing team. Fans first, their love of your toys will shine through. They’ll share your message across multiple platforms throughout the year, and their audience will come to expect your news to come through them. You’ll be able to work together to create content that everyone can be proud of, and in many cases you will find that some of the best content creators out there are ones that don’t necessarily have the biggest built-in audience. Craft your agreements so that this fantastic content (images/video/writing) becomes repurposable and re-shareable with proper credit and compensation. You’ll be sharing fantastic content on your platforms, while the smaller influencers have the opportunity to grow. You reach their audience, while they reach yours – everyone wins together!

Finding and Building Your A-Team

“If you need help… and if you can find them, maybe you can hire The A-Team.”

Retro toys are hugely popular, and with that in mind, I’m thinking about building your influencer team in a manner that’s straight out of the ’80s. Behind the cheese, there’s a lot to love about the old NBC series The A-Team, about a seasoned team of “soldiers of fortune” who hire out their services to those in need. Like I mentioned early on, look for these kinds of specialists.

Once you’ve got a solid crew of multi-platform influencers, start to accent that with an assortment of colorful characters that are skilled on specific platforms. Look for a Twitter celebrity, a high-profile Instagrammer, or a YouTube star that caters to the audience you need. This might mean breaking with tradition, but there’s untapped potential for crossover success.

It’s easy to target the usual parenting sites and family-centric areas when we want to get new toys in front of the buying crowd, but what about the parents and grandparents who don’t read those sites or follow those influencers?

Say you’ve got a new doll that might play well to the children of fashionable parents. Why not look for an ambassador that has a huge following of fashionistas? What about a new ride-on toy that might be a homerun for the children of parents who are big into outdoor living and ATVs? Think beyond “parenting,” and find niche influencers who may work well for specific projects. Above all, make the initial connection, but then gauge the passion to see if these people are good fits for your brand.

One of the best ways to find your next ambassador is the same way that I’ve actually been hired for some of my best gigs—seek out people who are already writing about your products. If there’s an influencer out there who is already promoting without being paid, imagine what they could do with a budget behind them. If the passion is there, the groundwork for success has already been laid.

Provide Proper Compensation

In 2018, I shouldn’t even have to remind people of this, but brand ambassadors should always be paid. Just as influencers speak to their audience, influencers speak to other influencers, and there’s no quicker way to tarnish your brand in the back channels than by establishing a reputation of asking people to work for free. In the past year, I’ve seen an alarming trend in which large companies that should have decent budgets attempt to launch campaigns by pitching unpaid ambassadorships. A bad pitch can grow legs, and often times those emails circulate in private Facebook groups for months.

If you received a contract that came with a three-, six- or 12-month editorial calendar of content to be created by you, and shared across several of your platforms, what would you say if the terms were that you’d be doing it unpaid or in exchange for merchandise or “swag?”  Sadly, I’ve seen this too many times.

I’ve also seen brands who’ve made ill-fated attempts at switching from paid campaigns to unpaid using the same crew. In one particular instance, a brand with decades of goodwill built in the public eye essentially managed to sour a few dozen ambassadors that walked, turning allies into enemies. How would you feel if your employer came into your office and told you that they loved your work so much, they’d like you to sign on for another year—but this time, without compensation. No one would agree to that. If you take care of your allies, they will take care of you.

Exclusivity Vs. Non-Exclusive

It is not uncommon for one influencer to serve as a brand ambassador for several companies, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But, both influencers and sponsors should—to an extent— be cautious about category overlap. Exclusivity should come at a premium price, so if you plan on locking brand ambassadors into an exclusive arrangement in one niche (take the “construction” or “diecast” categories, for example), you should expect to pay for that—and pay well.

But even if you require category exclusivity, still allow the influencer some necessary freedoms. I did an ambassadorship in 2017 in which I was category-exclusive when it came to paid work and consulting, but because I also report on toy news, my client was respectful of that and structured our agreement upfront so that our relationship did not stifle news coverage. To that end, I was able to continue reporting on category competitors, but not directly push or endorse their product. It’s earned media and paid media working in tandem with a respect level that all deserve.

The Endgame

The key to successfully working with brand ambassadors is to treat them like members of the family. They’re independent contractors, but they’re out there on the frontlines, delivering your message to the masses, hitting those nooks and crannies that traditional marketing might miss.

They can be a very loyal bunch, so it’s worth looking into building a long-term team that’s around not just for today’s new toy, but future product launches as well.


Best known as The Rock Father, James Zahn is a writer, actor, toy aficionado, husband, and father of two young girls, in addition to being a media personality, commentator, adventurer, and overall raconteur. He’s also worked as a brand ambassador and consultant for several toy brands.