Crossing the influence line: When does sponsorship destroy your reputation?

influence line

By Mark Schaefer

A comment, a question, and a blog post all came together last week to make me ponder this question: When does an “influencer” become a “salesperson,” and is there a difference? Can a social media influencer cross a line become an ad … instead of a thought leader?

Let’s unpack those questions today.

The influence line

Hamish Campbell recently posted this question on my blog (edited for style):

“Influencers started out as your friends, your social group … real life and virtual. Your interactions with this group may lead you to new store fronts, show you interesting products or teach you something new. When influencer marketing began, they were nothing more than the popular kids, social personalities, and industry leaders. And when you came across them in your virtual mall or street you stopped, looked, took a selfie, shared a moment, and took notice what they were wearing or where they were eating. They were doing it because they were just living. Before it was all monetized.

“Now we have a new breed of influencer, with a new pecking order. They want free things and will shout about anything and everything they receive. The integrity of each of these people can now be anything from 0-100 based on their activities but at some point they cross a line. How is it different for a company to pay a member of their sales staff to sell a product versus paying an influencer to sell the company’s product on Instagram/blog/Twitter?”

Borrowing trust

On the surface, the difference between sales and influencer marketing is reach and trust. Even after a decade of work, a salesperson may have a limited audience but an influencer may have the hearts of thousands or even millions of fans. A company representative has an agenda, so there is natural mistrust. An influencer, in theory, is a passionate, honest expert.

Companies are generally seen as cold and detached but influencers are trusted friends. We will ignore an ad, but we’ll subscribe to our favorite influencer.

The smart influencers (and the companies who sponsor them) don’t cross the line and break the trust of an audience. I think the placement of that line of trust varies by the type of influencer and the acceptance of their audience.

And to understand where that line is, you have to understand that there are three different types of influencers, not just one.

The three types of influencers and the line of trust

There are three social media influencer pipelines available to brands today … let’s look at these types and the implication for the “line of trust” for each one:

1. Celebrity — The oldest type of influence marketing is aligning your brand with a celebrity. An example would be Matthew McConaughey doing car commercials. For a celebrity influencer:

  • Influence is based on their fame
  • Enormous “pipeline”
  • Endorsement is purchased
  • Brand Goal = “Image.” Certain brands may pay to access this pipeline just to be associated with this person’s image and lifestyle.

The line of trust for a celebrity endorsement is very low, meaning we’re willing to trust celebrities unless they really screw up. We’ve become conditioned to seeing famous people in ads since the 1920s and celebrity endorsements are now an expectation. They can take money from a brand and we usually don’t think any less of them.

2. Thought leader — This might be a well-known blogger who has established their position through consistently creating helpful content.

  • Influence based on authoritative, original content
  • Brand content may be either organic or sponsored (purchased)
  • Large, engaged audience
  • Limited brand engagement, i.e. probably no organic advocacy exists without sponsor dollars
  • Brand goal = “Awareness.” How do I get the word out quickly in a business niche?

The line of trust for a thought leader is extremely high. They have built their reputation based on expertise and once that expertise is put up for sale, their credibility may be diminished among their discerning audience. Smart brands (and influencers) will be careful about crossing that line between “thought leadership” and “advertisement.”

3. Advocate — An example would be a content creator who makes passionate videos about their favorite fashions and shopping experiences. They post content about your brand because they love you and they can’t get enough of you.

  • Influence based on passion and the emotional connection with their audience
  • Targeted, relevant audience
  • Authentic, organic, unpaid advocacy
  • High brand engagement due to true belief in the product and company
  • Brand goal = “Drive word of mouth attention and sales”

The bar of trust for an advocate is moderate. They are passionate and authentic but their audience also knows they need to make a living. Sponsorships may be seen as a badge of social proof that the advocate is moving up in the world.

Any single person might fit into multiple categories depending on the situation. Author Seth Godin is a celebrity often featured through the mainstream media, he is a content-based influencer, and he goes out of his way to authentically advocate people and products he believes in (without compensation). But a person can only have one type of influence relationship with any individual brand.

destroy your reputation

There is probably a fourth kind of influencer I’ll call the placeholder. It is certainly possible to be considered by some people to be an “influencer” based on Twitter followers or some vanity metric like that. Most companies are moving past that (I hope) and I do believe that in the end, true influence and authority will win out and eventually focus on the three types I’ve described above.

Putting this into action

One of my friends, a person who created his well-earned influence through his own content and thought leadership, recently ran a sponsored post (content another company paid him to write, which was clearly labeled). My reaction was “yuck.” That reaction doesn’t seem quite fair until you start to apply the above model.

His reputation is built entirely on trust but has now turned his content into an advertisement. Taken to an extreme, he will destroy his reputation in the industry if he does this too often.

Casey Neistat (pictured at the top pf the post today) is also an “influencer,” but he built his reputation as a YouTube entertainer and is now a true celebrity. He was recently featured on a Samsung commercial and my reaction was “cool.”

Similarly, mommy blogger Glennon Doyle Melton built her career through authentic advocacy (and may have crossed over to celebrity now) but if she sells some products through her site, it is seen as part of her genre. People expect her to make money from her blog through brand sponsorships.

The point of this little exercise is that not all influence types are equal because they’ve built their audiences in different ways — through fame, through expertise, or through emotional connection. The brand relationship must be accurately geared toward the correct type of influencer, and the influencer must accept the responsibility of sponsorship based on how they built their reputation and their fanbase.

I recognize that there are lots of opportunities out there to monetize content. I don’t blame anyone for trying to make a buck to put some food on the table. But be intentional about what you’re doing and recognize the long-term consequences and risks of sponsored relationships.

SXSW 2016 3Mark Schaefer is the chief blogger for this site, executive director of Schaefer Marketing Solutions, and the author of several best-selling digital marketing books. He is an acclaimed keynote speaker, college educator, and business consultant.  The Marketing Companion podcast is among the top business podcasts in the world.  Contact Mark to have him speak to your company event or conference soon.

Mid-post illustration courtesy of Toothpaste for Dinner

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