There isn’t an interview, panel, Twitter chat, or even client meeting that I’m participating in where, at some point, someone doesn’t ask the question, “Should brands pay influencers?”
Opinions on the matter are quite divided.
The “no” camp, driven by PR practitioners, is used to dealing with journalists and sees influencer marketing as an extension of media relations, squarely as an earned media program.
The “yes” camp, led by traditional marketers, is used to controlling distribution of the brand message and feels uncomfortable not paying if it reduces control, quality, and effectiveness.
There are very few absolutes in life and whether a brand should pay influencers or not is not one of them.
My view—and that of Traackr—is more nuanced: The question isn’t whether influencer should get paid, but rather, when is it appropriate and beneficial for a brand to pay influencers?
The Seven Golden Rules to Paying Influencers
To help answer that question, here are the seven golden rules for paying influencers.
Pay for craft, not influence. To quote Olivier Blanchard:
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.
Payment equates value, not always money. When asking an influencer to spend time speaking at your conference or writing on your behalf, you’re asking them to invest time and that time should see a return.
For many influencers who have built consulting shops fueled by their personal brand, time is money.
For others, money is not the main driver, and in some cases, as for journalists or analysts, taking payment would get your influencers fired from the very job that makes them influential.
For influencers who have already figured out a business model independent of your financial contribution, value may be tied to increasing their audience or their authority status with their existing community.
The most important thing here is to understand the economic models of your influencers and align your way of compensating them for their efforts.
Influencer marketing is relational, not transactional. Build a relationship first, payment may come later.
Paying influencers for their contribution comes on the tail of earning attention and trust of an influencer.
You want to get an influencer excited about working with you, and for that they need to understand and appreciate what you do.
For example, after years of engaging one of our top influencers and building mutual value, we offered for her to build our new training program.
She’s an expert in our field, a professional trainer and educator, and we know and trust each other dearly.
She’s perfect for the job.
Choose your influencers wisely. In the past, influence was exerted by a select few (analysts, journalists, celebrities). Now, influence is spread out.
Your job is to find the most important people for your brand, whether they’re among your prospects, current customers, industry experts, or passionate individuals.
These super relevant influencers are the nodes within the community who can really help move the needle for your brand.
Finding the right influencers for your marketing activities starts by developing a deep understanding of your customers’ needs, goals, and aspirations.
Go for effectiveness, not numbers. If you want to build an army, start an advocacy program (and pray that a lot of people are already in love with your brand).
When building an influencer program, it’s the Navy SEALs you’re putting together: A small group of people going behind enemy line to create build the most effective program.
Every brand ultimately needs both to succeed but don’t confuse one with the other: Scaling an influencer program doesn’t mean involving more people, it means scaling effectiveness.
Endorsement programs are not influencer programs. Let’s call a spade a spade. When paying LeBron James to endorse a beverage brand, it is a celebrity endorsement campaign, not influencer marketing.
The same goes with programs in which people are paid to endorse a product, be it a tweet, Klout campaign, or a blog.
Metrics for success in those campaigns are much closer to advertising and broadcasting than influencer metrics.
If you run such programs, there’s nothing wrong with them (or let’s just say that we’ll have that conversation another day), but don’t call them influencer programs.
The people endorsing your brand aren’t influencers, they are micro-celebrities monetizing their personal brand.
They are unlikely to move sales for you, so don’t frame your program in a way that you’ll disappoint your boss.
Ethical standards for disclosure trump legal standards. Your own disclosure standards on payment should be way above the legal framework: Always disclose, make disclosure by your influencers of any kind of payment (free stuff, expenses or fees) mandatory in your program.
I’m often baffled by brand struggling with disclosure, “We gave this influencer a free hotel room in exchange of sharing pictures of his stay on Instagram, according to FCC, we don’t need to disclose, right?”
Technically, you’re right.
Practically, you’re very wrong.
Disclosure doesn’t have to be apologetic; transparency builds trust.
Influencers unwilling to disclose to their audience aren’t those you want to work with and brands unwilling to disclose their relationships with influencers will attract the wrong influencers.
The most successful influencer relationships are mutually valuable, authentic, and longstanding.
For your influencer relationships to last, you need to build the foundation for joint success and part of that that means figuring out your unique compensation methods.
The best way to decide for yourself is to evaluate each individual relationship with influencers, early and often, and make sure you are creating relationships of mutual value.