Influencers: Organic or Paid? Making the Right Choice Matters

Testimonials and endorsements have been a mainstay in marketing for many years. In the online environment, these concepts have been combined, embraced, and refined to drive a hot trend: influencer marketing. It works. If you think about your own purchase behaviors, you can probably trace many of those purchases—whether for some electronic device, a hairstyle, a meal, or a car—to a recommendation or referral that came from a friend or relative or that was prompted through some online endorsement from an individual you admire. How effective are these kind of endorsements? Both Nielsen and McKinsey have studied the issue.

The “Nielsen Global Trust in Advertising Survey” from 2015 indicated that 83% of global consumers said they trusted earned media—e.g., word-of-mouth and recommendations-more than any other form of advertising. That tendency bears fruit online. According to a McKinsey study, social recommendations influenced about 26% of online purchases across all product categories. About two-thirds of that impact, the study indicates, was direct–meaning that the recommendation had an impact at the point of purchase. Not all product categories are equally impacted. Selection of utility services was at the low end (15%), while categories such as travel and over-the-counter drugs impacted 40% to 50% of online actions.

While there’s definitely some marketing power and potential behind influencer marketers, it’s important for marketers to understand that influencer marketing—or influence marketing—while it may have some unique nuances due to the online environment it exists in, isn’t fundamentally different from the general marketing approaches and decisions they’ve been undertaking for years.

There are (at least) two ways to generate impact from influencers—paying them to talk about or link to your brand or gaining their support organically. Paying influencers can be a slippery slope, and there are regulations that marketers must follow if they decide to go this route. Both the FTC and WOMMA (Word of Mouth Marketing Association) are keenly interested in ensuring that influencers are used appropriately—and transparently. In other words, if someone is being paid, or rewarded in some way to promote a product, service or brand they must be up front about it. For marketers that takes a bit of the value out of the process. After all, the value of word-of-mouth is diminished when that word-of-mouth is revealed to be bought and paid for.

Of course influencers aren’t always paid for, and they often shouldn’t be and don’t need to be says Corey Martin, managing director of the consumer practice group for Allison+Partners, a PR firm with offices around the world. “Sometimes, I cringe a little bit when I see people talk about influencers just with respect to paid influencers and bloggers, or just celebrities and bloggers. It’s really a bigger world. Truly, it’s anyone who can tell a brand story–anyone who can tell stories is an influencer. That really just opens it up to the university of people.” That, he acknowledges, can be both exciting and daunting.

“Oftentimes, what we see today are brands trying to purchase influencers or throwing money at influencer strategies and ignoring the simple fact that the end product is not influence itself-but influence as a means to an end,” says Martin. “Advocacy is what we ultimately want–advocacy that can be meaningful to consumers, that can have impact and move them toward consideration, toward a purchase, toward brand affinity.”

Another possible problem with paid influencers is the potential for negative brand impact when consumers realize that the glowing endorsements they’ve been relying on have been paid for.

Others have a stronger view. Andy Abramson, CEO of Comunicano, Inc., in Del Mar, Calif., says, “This ‘pay for play’ model has virtually ruined journalism at all levels.” Abramson adds, “It’s not just bloggers who are paid, but more and more, the so-called experts have been paid to appear to be neutral. Being able to discern a legitimate commentary versus  a paid shill piece is getting harder and harder.” There’s certainly some risk involved, and marketers are wise to carefully consider potential brand impacts-positive and negative–when engaging in any paid influencer strategies. Influencer marketing, in fact, may be a growing contributor to the “fake news” environment.

Influencer marketing can take a lot of time. Often, much of that time may be misplaced if there isn’t sound strategy and strong alignment with other marketing activities. It’s critical to ensure that your influencer marketing activities aren’t something separate from your overall marketing communication activities. Influencer marketing is, after all, just one element of a much larger process.

Martin points to the results of Allison+Partners’ research, which really drove home the importance of a pull versus push strategy in influencer marketing. “The biggest finding we found from the study, when we looked at consumers, is that influence is pull as opposed to push.” Right now, he says, many influencer marketers aren’t getting that quite right. “A lot of influencer relations programs are really using a push strategy. They purchase the right influencers that have reach and push out content to consumers. But what we understand is that consumers are in charge of the influence action. A consumer within the purchase journey has to be active. They make a decision to be influenced because they voluntarily go into the purchase journey after they’re made aware of a particular product.”

As with any form of marketing, focus driven by solid strategy is key.

Will the influencer marketing trend continue? Of course. Influencer marketing is nothing new—it’s only the methods being used to connect influencers to an audience, an exponential audience, that are new and different from the recommendations and referrals that have been taking place for millennia. The balance between paid and earned will likely be played out for some time—but, ultimately, influence is evergreen.

(The full version of this piece originally appeared in the Sep/Oct 2016 issue of EContent Magazine.)


Recommended Reading:

Best Practices in Influencer Marketing

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