You can’t (really) buy influence

Craig Rodney Submitted by on the 26th of May 2015

Influencer marketing is an important communication tactic in our socially connected world, but it’s important to question whether brands can actually buy influence without destroying the very thing they’re hoping to acquire. This post formed the thinking behind our latest eBook, Influence for Sale.

Influence is a tricky beast. While we know it exists and can see it at work, we struggle to accurately measure it. We can measure reach, but influence has some magic to it that we can’t quite quantify. What we do know is that influence is important – and we want it.

The question I’ve been struggling with for a while is: can influence be bought?

If you’re in or near the media industry you’ll know the term ‘advertorial’ – paying a publication to run your editorial. Publications that allow this will tell readers it’s an advertorial to differentiate it from the content that is published on merit. They’re telling you that the only reason they’re publishing the content is because they were paid to do so, ergo, it didn’t make it on merit. By not disclosing this, they’re risking their credibility.

Fast-forward to today’s complex media world where certain individuals have the same reach and influence as traditional media. Where we had advertorial, we now have ‘influtorial’ – brands paying influential people to share their content and say nice things about them.

I’ve always believed that earning positive media coverage on merit is better than simply paying for it. Paying is easy – cheque books open doors – but creating content that gets published based on merit and quality is infinitely more valuable than the paid-for advertorial.

Everyone gets this. Not only because it’s pretty simple to understand, but also because we all rapidly skip past paid content and skeptically dismiss opinion when we think it’s not independent or genuine. This behavior is hard-coded into our human nature. Our inner skeptic will always ask, “Why is this person telling me this?”

This is why I struggle so much with the concept of paying online personalities for their ‘influence’. For as long as influence is tied to credibility, introducing a direct financial transaction will help to destroy the very thing you are trying to acquire.

Admittedly, there’s a lot of grey in this topic because influence is far from simple. We must first recognise the distinction between reach and influence. Reach is a number and is the part we can measure by counting readers, followers, viewers, or listeners. Influence is the capacity to have an effect on the character, development, or behaviour of someone or something.

Reach does not equal influence. You can have a large reach but be unable to influence the behaviour or thoughts of your audience. Influence requires elements of credibility, believability, trustworthiness, and more. These traits are all earned and can rarely be bought or sold. Thinking that paid opinion is credible is like believing the stripper when she says she really likes you.

Before you think I’m completely against engaging with influencers, allow me to offer my thoughts and advice for brands looking to ‘buy’ influence, and ‘influencers’ looking to sell their reach:

  • You can buy reach but you can’t buy influence. You can pay an online personality to share your content or talk about your brand, but if it’s paid it’s less likely to be believable. Buying reach is just like any other form of advertising. Influence has to be earned.
  • There’s nothing wrong with earning influence. Create a value proposition so good that the personality talks about it of their own free will. If they don’t want to, it either wasn’t relevant to them or it wasn’t good enough. Money will unlikely change how they really feel
  • If you are going to pay for it, target online personalities who are actually likely to love your brand or product. That way your money supports them sharing something they do genuinely believe in.
  • If you’re trying to simply buy awareness, instead of influence, then paying for the reach will probably work well, much like any other form of advertising. Unfortunately, most complex marketing requires some level of influence on top of the basic awareness.
  • Online personalities, unlike other publishers, often don’t have a revenue model beyond “pay me to say nice things about you”. This is a big problem for both parties and personalities should look to expand their revenue channels.
  • Buying / selling ‘influence’ can quickly erode the credibility of the online personality. If people think you’re only sharing for money, and they don’t know the difference between independent and paid-for content, they’ll choose to dismiss everything.
  • Both parties should actively build a form of disclosure into their influencer campaigns. If the audience can easily understand the ‘transaction’ they can more easily buy into, or out of, the content. This is legally required in countries such as the US.

The big risk that we’re currently facing is that, by using our cheque books to chase influence, we will destroy it. We will tarnish the credibility of not just the people who take money to tweet, but also those who don’t. When we no longer know who to believe, we’ll choose to believe no-one. Let’s not do that to ourselves.