Should Brands Pay Online ‘Influencers’ to Promote Their Products?

An article in the Harvard Business Review last week made an interesting, if not particularly novel, argument: brands should seek out independent “influencers” or “brand advocates” who have expressed support for their products in the interest of building relationships that will eventually involve the exchange of money for promotional services.

The story’s headline addresses “marketers”, but of course it’s relevant to PR pros as well. So should our clients identify and pay their “brand advocates” before it’s too late?

This issue is almost but not quite a retread of the “should brands pay for blog mentions” slippery slope debate: do we locate people who genuinely support our clients’ products and then offer them money to continue doing so?

Author Teresa M. Caro notes that brands have a lot of trouble pulling this off. Why? Because—all ethical concerns aside—it’s extremely hard to do. And proving ROI is a bit like finding the needle in that haystack.

Caro is right to point out that many brands have yet to appreciate or utilize the reach of such influencers, who can create PR boosts or crises with a single blog post or tweet if their audiences are large enough. She also correctly identifies the futility of sending product samples to bloggers you think might support your brand and then harassing them if they don’t follow up. But the substance of the post itself highlights the need to address this issue in a different way and reconsider the role played by these influencers.

For example, the author writes: “influencers need to be perceived as independent, authentic fans of the brand”. We agree—but how is this possible if they disclose the fact that the brand is paying them by the post? The act of spinning the relationship into a case of “yes, I am receiving money from Brand X, but this fact has nothing to do with my decision to promote Brand X products” is a stretch even for those far more experienced than ourselves.

It’s an incredibly difficult balancing act to pull off, and even if the brand and the influencer are happy, many consumers will be less than impressed, thereby limiting the real value of the relationship. The crafty influencer will eventually try to leverage his or her readership into greater compensation from the brands at hand, at which point everything starts to get messy because the blogger has effectively become a blank billboard.

Wouldn’t it be better to simply invite these influencers to create branded content that clients can then distribute on their own terms rather than passing it off as editorial and hoping for the best?