Influencer Marketing: How Far Does Free Go?

Opinion: Free no longer goes as far as it used to

What type of guarantee can you get with 'free?'
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I’ve been asked recently for my advice on whether or not companies should send free product to some of their target influencers in return for promoting their brand and products.

It appears that, to date, some communications teams have simply been sending products to digital influencers and inviting them to events, much in the same way a public-relations executive might approach and engage a journalist.

But what type of guarantee can you get with “free?”

This approach to influencer engagement is not uncommon: It’s actually something I’ve seen consistently over the past few years. Despite the global explosion in popularity many influencers have enjoyed, too many brands are failing to splash the cash and form paid partnerships with these potentially game-changing communicators.

So why is this still happening?

The world of influencers evolved out of the world of blogging, which evolved out of the world of online journalism. As the evolution occurred, the vast majority of PR and communications people saw these emerging bloggers, vloggers and social media gurus as an extension of the earned media engagement they were already undertaking.

While times have totally changed now, too many practitioners are still trying to treat influencers in the same way as journalists, despite their worlds looking and feeling totally different.

The digital influencer community is an industry recognized form of entertainment. Influencer Marketing Hub released a 2017 study revealing influencer marketing to be the fastest-growing online customer acquisition method. These content creators know their audiences and make sure to align with brands that make sense for their channel. Having a product show up on their doorstep won’t get the desired result.

There’s also the problem of budgeting: Namely, too many decision makers don’t really know what influencers should be paid and, thus, can’t come up with sensible numbers to allocate against influencer marketing spend. Brands that align with an agency that knows the influencer world and the cost of video integrations will take care of the uncertainty around identifying and working with the right influencers.

Ultimately, it will be harder and harder to gain traction with influencers as they develop global success. But there are in fact many advantages to budgeting for influencer engagement.

Here are six reasons why paying influencers makes for a sound investment:

  1. Getting an influencer’s attention: As hard as it might be for a digital dinosaur to believe, many influencers are earning serious money. Even if your product is the coolest on the market, you need to remember that you are competing with other products (and brands) that have similar budgets. Influencers have businesses to sustain, and while the occasional brand may be able to gain traction for free, creating a scalable global campaign in this way is never going to work.
  2. Adherence to deadlines: Pay your influencers and deadlines can be agreed upon, contracted and enforced. This makes even more sense if there is a tight campaign timeline that needs to be achieved. Fail to pay your influencers and you have no leverage over if or when they decide to do anything with your product—you’ll likely join the rest of the audience in tuning in every week to see if you’re featured.
  3. Guaranteeing messaging and metrics: Working with influencers invariably involves ceding the level of creative control that brands normally enjoy in the advertising/celebrity endorsements domain. This is the new normal, and savvy brands are embracing the shake-up, forming meaningful, long-lasting partnerships with influencers where both play a role in determining the content and approach taken. Of course, these partnerships only exist when the brands pay the influencers—this gives them the license to be able to input into the creative and gain full transparency over what the content will look like. Not only that, but payment can be offered in return for guaranteed metrics, such as views or engagements, allowing brands to precisely calculate what their budgets will allow them to achieve.
  4. Getting more creative: Paying influencers can give them more resources to empower their content, which, in return, makes the viewers happy with the brand. Failing to pay influencers means that even if your brand does get featured, it’ll be far more likely to be a no-frills appearance, as any investment in the content is coming from the influencer. You haven’t invested in them, so why should they invest in you?
  5. Understanding what works for the audience: With the thousands of influencers, we work with, most of them turn down 50 percent to 70 percent of the paid deals we present to them. This may seem odd, but the truth is that influencers are geniuses when it comes to building a following and sustaining trust with their followers. If there is a project that conflicts with their content or is not a good fit to their audience, they will turn it down. Basically, they won’t take a deal unless it can be done in an authentic way—hence, paying them is in many ways a litmus test for whether or not the partnership is going to deliver for the brand.
  6. Staying out of regulatory hot water: In the past 10 years, sponsored videos have become more prominent with much more transparency around disclosures, as the Federal Trade Commission and the U.K.’s Advertising Standards Authority have continued to clamp down on misleading or opaque content. In fact, we’ve found that the more overt and clear the influencer is about the sponsorship/payment, the happier the audience will be both with the content and influencer. It pays to give the audience clarity on the brand-influencer relationship. It’s also worth remembering that if you fly out an influencer to an event or give them a free product, the influencer still needs to disclose this to their audience. This isn’t the same as earned media outreach: These freebies need disclosing, too, in the eyes of the regulators.

It is important to remember that free no longer goes as far as it used to. When it’s your brand and reputation on the line, make sure it’s in the right influencer’s hands with a contracted deal signed.

Ricky Ray Butler is global chief campaign officer at product-placement network Branded Entertainment Network.