3 Reasons to Stop Paying Influencers Based on Follower Counts

Focus on the quality and fit of a creator’s content and audience

Digital advertising is experiencing a shift from quantity to quality. For years, advertisers have sought massive audiences, incentivizing publishers to rack up users without vetting for bots or fraud. They’ve rewarded digital platforms for scale while punishing premium publishers for fostering smaller but high-quality audiences. But now privacy changes are forcing advertisers to seek highly engaged, verified users.

But the digital marketing industry risks replicating the same obsession with scale, including its poor business incentives and outcomes, when it comes to the next generation of publishers: creators.

The default model in brand-creator partnerships, or influencer marketing, is paying creators based on their number of followers. But by paying creators based on audience size, marketers are inventing another broken attention ecosystem that incentivizes inflated follower counts and discourages high-quality content with legitimate, targeted audiences.

Let’s dive in to the three reasons marketers should not pay creators based on their number of followers.

ROI isn’t highly correlated to follower count

Creators can drive value for brands in four ways: audience insights, persuasive or captivating content, views, and sales. Only views and sales seem to be connected to a creator’s number of followers, but it is unclear that having many followers drives a proportionate increase in views and sales.

Data on creator pay and performance has found a strong correlation between the rates creators are paid on TikTok and Instagram and their number of followers. But the correlations between the views these creators generate and their follower-based pay are much less convincing. Plus, the data shows that other business outcomes are even less correlated with follower count. Clicks, units sold and sales value all show negligible correlations with the number of followers.

So, a creator’s number of followers may drive more impressions (and even then, the correlation is not as strong as one might assume). But a high number of followers does not correlate to ROI. Plus, follower count says little about the strategic insights and content creation abilities of the influencer.

Fraud is rampant

Marketers need only think of the current state of Elon Musk’s Twitter deal saga to understand the reason fraud makes paying creators based on their follower count a risky proposition. Fraud is rampant on social media platforms such as Twitter, Instagram and TikTok. So, the question for marketers is not how big a creator’s audience is but rather how legitimate, engaged and targeted the audience is to a sponsor’s offering.

What’s more, by paying creators based on follower count, marketers are introducing bad incentives into the influencer economy. This compensation model encourages influencers to seek giant audiences, even if those fans are fake or irrelevant to the influencer’s ethos or the products they promote. It is even common for creators to buy followers to maximize campaign compensation.

Vetting creator followings for fraud and bots is not enough. Marketers should realign the incentives of the creator compensation model to encourage performance and targeted followings, not scale (real or invented). That means paying based on engagement and business outcomes, not audience size.

More followers doesn’t mean captivating content

Instinctively, as humans, we look at a creator with a large audience and assume they have earned it via the quality of their content. But there are many reasons creators rack up followers. For example, physical attractiveness, celebrity and personality traits unrelated to their ability to promote a product can all boost follower counts.

One factor that will determine a creator’s effectiveness at driving business outcomes is the quality of their work. Do they follow brand guidelines? Do they convey enthusiasm for the product? Are the technical features of their content such as lighting strong? Do they drive engagement with their audiences and seem keen on driving sales? All of these are better metrics for creator selection than their number of followers.

Follower count focuses on reach, but ultimately, marketers don’t just want to reach people. They want to transform the people they reach into long-term customers. By focusing on the quality and fit of a creator’s content and audience, not the audience’s size, marketers can transform creator partnerships into a driver of social commerce, not just social media fandom.

As global CMO for Humanz, Pierre Cassuto is responsible for accelerating awareness and growth of the top influencer marketing and social commerce platform. Pierre’s career journey and popularity as a speaker is rooted in his passion for the creator economy, belief that creators are the true marketers of today and tomorrow. and ability to simplify complicated concepts—so marketers can move from understanding to application quickly.