Influencers: to pay or not to pay?

January 28, 2015 by Olivier Blanchard - 74 Comments

Okay… let’s get back to business for a minute. Today’s topic: the ethics of paying influencers.

Buzzword Bingo: is “influencer” even a credible term?

Note: When I use the term influencer, assume that I mean “influencer” (with conspicuous quotation marks). I am not a fan of the term and would prefer not to use it at all, but that’s not really an option this side of 2010. In that way, it’s sort of like “content.” Besides, part of what I do involves managing influencer programs, so it would be weird for me to skirt around the term altogether. All of this to say that when it comes to buzzword douchebaggery, I am well aware that the term “influencer” tends to fall somewhere near the top of the heap (not all that far from “engagement” and “personal branding”).

For the purposes of this post, let’s all agree that an “influencer” is an individual who can be expected to exert some reasonable measure of influence on a particular audience or community. Whether that influence is massive (President Obama, Ellen DeGeneres, @Nerdist) or lean (your mom, that hipster dude down the street or your favorite Instagram user no one has ever heard of), that’s the general idea: what these “influencers” say and do impacts the attitudes and behaviors of people who pay attention to them. Politics, culture, photography, fitness, art, tech, whatever.

Influencers and marketing – a little context:

The idea behind using “influencers” in marketing campaigns is simple: you’re basically hoping for an endorsement of some kind. Nothing all that new about it: whether you’re in the business of selling cars, oil pipeline contracts, movies or pasta sauce, it doesn’t hurt to have one or two or five hundred credible, likable, influential, trustworthy people talk about the merits of your [insert whatever you want here] on channels where you hope your intended audience will tune in and pay attention.

If you’re an author or publisher, you know what kind of impact Oprah Winfrey can have on sales in the US, for instance, Or Bill Maher, or Bill O’Reilly, or Jon Stuart. If you’re a maker of athletic apparel, you know what kind of impact a superstar athlete can have on sales. Fitness celebrities can help boost sales of protein bars and exercise systems. Political pundits with their own TV shows can help sell or kill legislation and public policy. It all works the same way. There’s a reason fashion brands throw their wares at pop stars. There’s a reason bloggers get invited to attend launch parties and conferences. It’s all part of the same process: influential people with an audience are media outlets in their own rights, and in a way that, at least in theory, tends to be stickier and more authentic than advertising. Endorsements, whether implied or explicit, do work when they appear to be genuine.

At the very least, you want an “influencer” to be a vehicle of discovery for new audiences. You expect them to make that first introduction, and hope that introduction will paint your product or company or event in a positive light. Look at these awesome new cyclist-specific jeans! Look at how how awesome my selfies are now that I have a gizmo on my face! Etc. “Influencers” can also be brought in to validate a product or brand long after the initial discovery was made by an audience. Either way, best case scenario: an “influencer” acts as a credible promotional vehicle. A fangirl/fanboy. A product or brand ambassador.

On disclosure:

I’ll skip over the specifics of the rules of disclosure this time around, but be aware that both from an ethical standpoint and a legal one, disclosure isn’t optional. If an “influencer” has received any remuneration from a company leading up to or following an endorsement of some kind, they have to disclose it. They have to let people know the extent of their material connection with the companies they promote – if a material connection does in fact exists. That way, when your favorite blogger suddenly starts singing the praises of their new super awesome Sony mirrorless camera, you’ll know if they just bought one on their own and couldn’t be happier with the purchase, or if an agency working with Sony sent them a free camera and some lenses in exchange for a few blog posts and some Instagram content.

That sort of information is important because for “influence” to work, it must be built on a foundation of credibility. It doesn’t matter if you’re a celebrity endorsing a product in mass media ads (like Matthew McConaughey driving a Lincoln) or a mommy blogger gushing over her awesome new Reeboks. The audience has a right to know whether or not a material connection exists, and how that connection may or may not have impacted the “influencer’s” opinion and zeal.

Now that we have gotten all of that out of the way, we can finally get to the crux of the issue:

 I was sitting at a conference several months ago, having a round-table discussion with a handful of “influencers” and social media managers who happen to run influencer programs for their respective employers. The discussion was about whether or not “influencers” should be paid.

The general consensus was that yes, they should be. And we’ll come back to that, but first, I want to address the argument against paying influencers because, although I disagree with it for practical reasons, it has some merit… at least in theory. It deserves a little attention, and certainly an acknowledgement. Bonus: it comes from a good place. Here it goes:

Why “influencers” should not be paid:

There is a belief, particularly in the PR world, that paying an “influencer” poisons that individual’s well of credibility, that the moment you pay them to become an ambassador or an “influencer,” or whatever you want to call them, they become shills – or at least they appear to have become shills.

At best, the image that pops up is one of a mercenary opinion-for-hire blogger. At worst, the image is one of bribery. The logis is as follows: paying an “influencer” pays for their opinion, and if you pay for their opinion, that opinion becomes null and void.

And you know what? I get it. I even agree. When you look at it that way, it makes sense to want to keep “influencers” pure. They should want to talk about your products. They should want to write blog posts about them. All you have to do is treat them super well and shower them with attention and invite them to events, and they’ll just become willing little content factories for you because they love you that much. That’s how you know your “influencers” are pure, genuine, credible, without reproach. Earned media vs. paid media. (Hold that thought. We’ll come back to it.)

And you know, to some extent, that’s wonderful. There’s definitely a long tail community management model there, and some soft influencer development juice to that theory. I love how pure and clean and ethical it all is, but… let’s come back from lala-land for a second and look at this from a more realistic angle, because the assumptions driving that belief aren’t super solid.

Why “influencers” should be paid:

First of all, if you are paying an “influencer” for their opinion, you probably shouldn’t be running an influencer program to begin with. The belief that an “influencer” is paid to think a certain way or write a certain way because they were paid to is a pretty clear sign that you don’t understand how influencer programs actually work (or should work). You’re still stuck in a paid media vs. earned media conundrum, and you really need to let it go. It’s 2015, not 2008. Earned media isn’t what it was when having 5,000 followers on Twitter was a big deal.

Second, the moment you reach out to a blogger or “influencer” with an offer of any kind – an invitation to attend an out of town event, an invitation to review a product, an invitation to wear a T-shirt with your company’s logo on it – you’ve stepped into the paid media universe. I know this is going to be hard for folks with traditional PR backgrounds to grasp (or accept), but you need to, and the sooner the better. Earned media doesn’t live here anymore. It’s moved to the outer fringes of the long tail. Earned media is out there with community WOM and social shares. Your “invitation” is an RFP for content creation. You don’t have to like it, but that’s just how it is.

That means that if you are running an influencer program or an ambassador program, you are working in paid media. Divorce yourself from any notion that any of that is earned media now. If it ever was, those days are long gone. It doesn’t matter if you’re paying your “influencers” in free tickets to a conference or back-stage passes to a concert. It doesn’t matter of you’re paying your “influencers” with a bottle of your vineyard’s best wine. It doesn’t matter if all you’re paying for is their airfare and hotel so they’ll live-tweet your product launch. You’re paying them. You can stick your head in the sand and pretend you aren’t, but that well of credibility you were so bent on not poisoning, it’s glowing green from the money that’s already been spent on it. Now you need to connect the dots and stop pretending that it’s all amateur hour and free drinks in the bloggers’ lounge, because that isn’t reality.

Here’s where your mental shift needs to happen:

1) Influencer programs aren’t ‘earned’ media:

Community management (hanging out with fans in a very public way and helping them give you great WOM) is earned media. Running an influencer program (asking people to give up their time, do actual work and leverage their networks), is paid media. If you pay for your influencers’ travel and food and swag, you’re not working in earned media anymore. You might as well accept it and take it to the next logical conclusion, which is…

2) That stuff takes time:

Consider the opportunity cost (for an influencer) of either doing a day’s worth of client work that pays the bills or attending your unpaid event because it’s filled with amazing “networking opportunities.” Respect your influencers’ time. If you ask them to give up their own time in a way that will benefit you, pay for it.

3) It also takes work:

You’ve asked an influencer to write a blog post or make a video? That’s work. It has value. Your company is going to reap the benefits of the content they create and of their endorsement, right? Everybody up and down your org chart got paid for their part in it. The graphic designers, the event managers, the people booking your travel… If the only one who didn’t get paid is the “influencer” who created content for you, something isn’t right. That isn’t protecting anyone’s credibility. That isn’t keeping a program pure. That’s just being cheap. They’re doing work for you. Pay for it.

4) Networks aren’t free:

Consider that “influencers” have worked pretty hard to build their audiences, to build and nurture their networks. They’ve invested a lot of time and love and hard work into it. You know that those networks and audiences are valuable. That’s why you reached out to those individuals in the first place. Recognize that value and be prepared to invest in them too.

5) Your aren’t running a buddy program:

This isn’t coffee with friends, we’re talking about. You aren’t trying to be buddies with these people. You’re creating and developing a business relationship with them. Treat it like one. Respect them enough not to lure them into absurd “the networking opportunities are far more valuable than what we could pay you to come here” bullshit. Pay them for their work and time.

Note: At best, the “networking opportunities” are a bonus. And if the “influencers” you invited to your event are doing what they’re supposed to do (paying attention, testing your wares, live-tweeting presentations, posting pics and videos of your shinding on Instagram, spending half the afternoon in some wi-fi friendly corner writing a blog post about what they’ve seen), there isn’t going to be a whole lot of time for “networking opportunities.” They’re working, not hanging out at an industry party. Pay them for their time and their work. Period.

But the most important thing you need to take away from this discussion is this:

6) You don’t pay influencers for their opinion. You pay influencers for their time.

That’s why the “ethics” and “poisoned well of credibility” arguments hold very little water. If you’re paying for opinions, you’re doing it wrong.

You want to keep influencer programs pure? Me too. You want to protect the credibility of your “influencers” by keeping them from becoming shills? Me too. Put it in your contracts. Make it absolutely clear that you aren’t running a paid endorsement program. Use disclosure to your advantage. Rise above any and all suspicion by making your position crystal clear on this: You pay for time. You pay for work. You don’t pay for opinions or endorsements. Brand affinity and alignment get you in. The work you do is what gets you paid.

Which means:

1) Establish day rates for your “influencers” if you want them to attend events.

2) Establish content creation rates for your “influencers” if you want them to mention you to their audiences.

3) Build all of that into your budget before proposing it to your client.

4) For the love of puppies, start being a little more diligent about your “influencer” selection process.

7) Pick your “influencers” well and ethics won’t be an issue.

Tip: if an “influencer” favors “networking opportunities” over billing you for their time, they probably aren’t worth the investment.

Either they are too green or too desperate to build a “personal brand” on the backs of unsuspecting brands to be of any value to you. If it’s the latter, they will spend as much of the event (that you paid to send them to) as they can pitching themselves to your partners and clients. Not super professional. (Is that what you want? I doubt it.) Worse yet, their “influence” will likely be paper-thin and inflated with fake followers, and (irony of ironies) they are probably exactly the sorts of shills you aimed to avoid getting involved with in the first place.

You know the old saying: you get what you pay for. Well, there’s another piece to it: if your due diligence sucks, everything that follows will probably suck too.

Here are some tips on how to dig up better “influencers” – the kind you will actually want to work with:

A) Authority:

Don’t just look at the size of their audience, their Klout stats and their keyword clouds. Study their channels. Study their content. Ask yourself not only what they talk about but also whether or not they are credible in these subjects. Do they mostly publish formulaic and vacuous “Top 10” type posts every five hours? Is their content just reheated fodder gleaned from hundreds of equally derivative and useless blog posts littering the web? Are they inveterate self-promoters? Is most of what they do just SEO-driven? Do they plagiarize other people’s work? Have they dedicated entire Pinterest boards to self-made memes of their own quotes? Are they pretty much just professional conference attendees at this point? In other words, are they just social media douchebags passing themselves off for actual credible authorities in their field, or are they the real deal?

Look for passion. Look for voice. Look for opinion. Look for critical thinking. Look for people with more than one focus. Look for people with an actual point, not just SEO hacks playing the social web to build “personal brands.” Learn to distinguish between authority (which actually drives influence), and social equity (which can be easily gamed by people without an ounce of actual influence on anyone). Hell, just look at their CV on LinkedIn. That’s usually a good start.

B) Credibility:

Do they already sing the praises of other brands or products? Great. Take a close look at how they do it and why. Does any of it seem incongruous? Does any of it seem like an odd fit? Are they lukewarm paid participants in an endorsement campaign or are they genuine fans? Do they shill for any company that will pay them to or are the companies they work for in line with their lifestyles and/or professional world? Do they even use the product in the real world, or just when it’s time to create content around it?

I’ll give you an example: I love Nespresso. I own a Nespresso machine at home. My parents own two. I pretty regularly give Nespresso props on Instagram because I start my day with coffee and… drink more of it than I probably should. I am not paid by Nespresso to do this. I don’t get a single perk from them other than the occasional “like” from their account on IG. I just do it because I’m a genuine fan. Now… if Nespresso’s digital agency contacted me tomorrow and offered me to write blog posts for them, I would be delighted. It wouldn’t be weird or out of place for me to become a more integral part of the Nespresso content universe. There’s history there. There’s context. It makes sense. But if I suddenly started singing the praises of Keurig machines, you could conceivably wonder what the hell happened to my love affair with Nespresso. The change would be dissonant. That sort of thing is a red flag. Look for it before reaching out to an “influencer” about becoming part of your world. Is this the sort of thing they do, or is their integrity pretty solid? I am tempted to use the term authenticity but… ugh… it’s been so overused already.

Another red flag is too many instances of contradictory endorsements. If an influencer writes hard and heavy about Ford one quarter then GM the next, that should concern you a little. Fan of Apple one minute and Samsung evangelist the next? Hmmm… Learn to spot mercenary “influencers” early, and you won’t have to worry about their credibility later. (In other words, make sure you only work with people who are credible in the first place. If you don’t want to work with shills, don’t hire shills.)

C) Cross-relevance:

The more interests a potential “influencer” has, the more potential connective tissue they will be able to bring to their contribution to your brand or product. Let me give you an example:

You’re an apparel brand. You make cool clothes for active, fashion-conscious men. Style-wise, you fall somewhere between hipster and business: class with an edge. The typical marketing reflex would be to look for your target market: city dwellers, 25-35, $40K-$90K, blah blah blah. Enter the search for fashion bloggers. All of that is fine and good. You will get as much play out of it as one would expect. If you handle it right, you will see a spike in visits to your sites and stores, even a spike in sales. And then, the spike ends and you either end up in a slump or on a plateau. Uh oh.

On the plus side, you’re established now, but on the minus side, you’ve flatlined. What do you do? Well, now you look to reach a broader audience. You look for tangents. In the context of an influencer program, you have to find new intermediaries: influencers who combine interests and authority across a complex matrix of communities and audiences. These are people who don’t just have fashion-focused followings. The fashion piece is just one aspect of their image, of their vibe of their shared universe. You’re going to need to look for gateway interests that will lead new audiences to your brand. You’re going to need to find side doors. Actually, find might be the wrong word… you’re going to have to build them.

More to the point, you are going to have to partner with real influencers, not just industry pundits, and with your help, they will build them for you.

That’s how it actually works: not relying on tired industry bloggers to create boring content for the sake of filling space and justifying budgets but making exciting new connections that open new doors in entirely new areas.

Your “influencers” shouldn’t just be one-dimensional internet characters writing the same stuff to the same audience day after day after day. They should also be real, complex, multidimensional individuals with roots and feelers and anchors in more than one industry, across a matrix of interconnected interests: tech companies should do more with artists, for instance. Fashion brands should do more with academics and athletes. You have to cross-pollinate. You have to build diagonal brand narratives, not just vertical ones. If you don’t, you’ll just keep doing the same thing over and over again, and with little to show for it. (Look around. How’s that whole “content is king” thing working out for you? Are you inspired yet? Neither am I. Why do you think people as abandoning Facebook and Twitter for Instagram?)

The best influencers are dot-connectors. They are translators. They are bridge-builders. Think Marco Polo, not Boniface VIII. The blogger who is going to sell your jeans to a whole new audience of shoppers isn’t a denim expert. It isn’t the guy behind the #1 jeans blog in North America and Japan. It’s going to be the selfie queen of Austin, the “eating clean” mother of three, the Crossfit fanatic who can’t find jeans that fit her properly anywhere but in your store. It’s going to be the boyish bike commuter dude in Portland, the one with the adorable pug photos all over his Instagram feed, who hangs out at coffee shops and loves how the right leg, rolled up or not, never rubs against his fixie’s chain. Those are the influencers who will be real agents of discovery and validation for you, even if they only have 2,000 followers each. They’re the real deal. 2,000 followers with an 8% conversion rate is still better than 200,000 followers with a 0.04% conversion rate. Think about actual impact, not just impressions.

That’s how you’ll reach new customers, how you’ll drive relevance and net new sales: by connecting to these folks and creating value for them that they will then be sharing with their audiences. These are the people you should be looking for and working with. These are the ambassadors you (or your agency) should be developing.

Think of the term “ambassador” for a minute. I look around at most “brand ambassadors” and can’t help but wonder why they’re even called that. They’re underpaid community managers, not brand ambassadors. They don’t build bridges across communities. They don’t go out into the world and create new connective tissue between cyclists and tech brands, for instance. They just talk to their own stagnant topic-focused audience. What they have is a church, not an embassy. They aren’t even evangelists. They’re just preachers, preaching the same sermons to the same choir day after day. It isn’t to say that there isn’t any value to that. There is. It’s a foundation. But if you want movement, if you want growth, you have to think about the world outside of your industry bubble. You’re a tech company? Expand your search beyond tech bloggers. You’re a fashion brand? Expand your search beyond fashion bloggers, or ask your agency to. (Shameless plug: we do that. … but it’s also how I’ve come to understand how this stuff actually works, so I don’t feel too horrible about it.)

Looking for potential influencers who aren’t entirely focused on your industry isn’t just tactically smart, it also eliminates a lot of douchebaggery that comes with working with the same thirty or forty professional industry bloggers who already do (or have done) work for your competitors and don’t really have anything new to talk about. You want to sort through the murky ethics of paying bloggers and influencers to create content for you? Start by fishing somewhere new, where people aren’t jaded yet, where they aren’t going through the motions just to score their next paycheck or their next free invitation to an industry event they’ll mostly use to drum up business for themselves, where their audiences aren’t carbon copies of the ones you’re already reaching now. Go make some real connections. Invest in them. Think of this brand ambassador business as a business, which is exactly what it is, both for you and for the people you are recruiting to be part of it. Social or not, it’s business development. You’re building an army, not throwing a party. Stop believing people who can’t tell one from the other.

To recap: money pays for work and time, not affinity. Not alignment. The ethics and integrity and credibility pieces of the equation are separate from the money, and when you know what you’re doing, keeping them apart isn’t rocket science. It starts with knowing how you’re going to run your program, how you’re going to manage it, what it’s actually going to be doing and driving, and how. Working backwards from that, it also means knowing how to find and recruit the right “influencers” and how to leverage them in the right way through your program.

At the core of all of this, from knowing how to actually do this stuff properly to the kind of impact (the concrete kind, the tangible kind) well-managed influencers will ultimately have on your business, you get what you pay for. It’s really that simple. You want to cut corners and invest very little? You hope that quality people with quality networks will give up their time and work for free? Don’t expect a whole lot. But if you’re serious about doing something that will work, in investing in something real and properly managed, then your program has a chance of being very successful. So take the time to find the right partners, build the right programs, and invest in the right influencers.

There’s a bigger piece that begs writing, but as we’ve already covered more than what I wanted to today, I will stop here. More soon. Until then, feel free to share your reactions and thoughts in the comments.



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