Is paying for influence really acceptable?

Prepare yourself for the onslaught of a new buzzword – influencer marketing. About half way through the year, you’ll probably start to feel you’re missing out if you’re not doing it.

This is normal in the lifecycle of a buzz.

Web, social, mobile, content – all have been overhyped to the point of disappointment and influencer marketing will be no exception.

What is it?

Influencer marketing is the concept that, instead of advertising to people interested in your products, you advertise to people who will promote your products… naturally.

This is nothing new of course. When Kate Middleton wore a plain red dress to Wimbledon last year, it consequently sold out within fours hours. Kate is clearly an influential figure in the fashion industry. Even Prince George influences the fashion-conscious with his outfits.

But while very few other influencers will stimulate the same sheep-like mentality to buy something purely because somebody else has done it, this type of marketing clearly has legs.

But as I say, it’s not new. As a journalist, I was constantly bombarded with perks, freebies and jollies from businesses eager to get a write-up or recommendation in the press. I once drew the long straw on an all-expenses trip to Switzerland organised by the country’s tourist board, (although I think the editor set up the straws – he drew the short one).

Journalists are seen as influential because they have access to mass media. But in today’s social media environment, there are many ordinary people that have the same exposure to the public because through the web or social media, they have become publishers too.

Old dog. New tricks

It’s a bit like content. It’s just a new word for something that’s been going on for years, in the hope that suddenly it will become sexy.

And it will. Influencer marketing done well will work. People who are influential in a specific industry will promote your products and services, and how you actually get in front of them is a topic for another blog.

Influencer marketing is targeted at those who supposedly have an ‘influence’ over their followers. Like the Duchess of Cambridge.

And they have influence because they are respected in their field. For example, if a famous chef was seen to be using a particular product, foodies everywhere would start using it. The chef may not even have recommended it.

But what if the tables are turned.

And the influencer notably recommends a product or service because he is being paid to do so.

That’s not influencer marketing even though there is influence. It’s sponsorship, product placement or advertising. But the buyer may never know.

On the TV, we know the ads come between the programs so there’s a clear separation. On the internet, whether in tweet streams, videos, facebook updates, the waters are a little muddier.

Journalists are typically honest with reviews of products sent to them, and advertisers (and agencies) risk the wrath of the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) if they don’t clearly label recommendations when paid for.

Recently, the ASA warned vloggers (video bloggers) that they needed to be clearer about products they were recommending in their YouTube videos. Vloggers are seen by brands as influential and are targeted by brands for paid promotions, but often keen to hide that fact.

BBC: Vloggers paid for promotions ‘need clearer labelling’

The social media revolution has spawned literally thousands of new media marketers from all walks of life, and many are genuinely unaware of the rules, whether moral or statute.

And what constitutes an influencer.

A large following? Too easy to fake and many large followings consist of a large number of inactive followers.

High engagement? Depends on the demographic. Are you really going to sell your stuff to dedicated band of Justin Bieber fans.

Industry commentator or professional? This is probably your best shot, but you’ll need to look for someone who has clout in your industry, not just a middle man, and paying for promotion here just wreaks of insincerity.

There are now many online services which identify influencers according to their social media activity, but it can be convoluted and and time-intensive to find the right people.

As I previously said, influencer marketing is nothing new, it’s just a new name for getting noticed by the movers and shakers, mixing with the right people.

All of a sudden influencer marketing is getting commercial. There are influencer supply chains. Twitter and LinkedIn bios will change as people style themselves as influencers.

Not all ‘influencers’ have the right kind of influence in your marketing. So before you buy into influencer marketing, make sure you’re not the one being influenced.