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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  • Mark, you sagely say, “The brand relationship must be accurately geared toward the correct type of influencer,” and that “not all influence types are equal because they’ve built their audiences in different ways — through fame, through expertise, or through emotional connection.” For my money, all such distinctions fall by the wayside whenever an endorser ventures outside his or her own brand. Case in point: When Samuel L. Jackson pitches a credit card, I stay comfortable; he’s just a straight-talking, average Joe. But when Bob Dylan appears in a Victoria’s Secret commercial, I cringe; he’s our poet laureate. (His IBM and Chrysler commercials are less cringeworthy.)

  • Really good example Bob!

  • Interesting to think in terms of influencer categories and sustainability of sponsorship opportunities. I imagine it’s more of a matrix with factors like how similar is the audience to the influencer, how congruent is the commercial brand sponsored to the personal brand sponsoring, how much blind fanboydom exists in the audience, and maybe most important, how much the audience likes the influencer – because its easy for me to think, “good for you,” when I like the person, and say “yuck” when I don’t

    influencers can likely do things like priming their audience about sponsorships and set expectations of sponsoring through predictable format types, like if one of my favorite bloggers started a podcast and it was sponsored by x brand from episode 1 on, I probably wouldn’t think twice, but if I find an affiliate disclosure blurb in a blogger’s footer for the first time after reading them for a long time, i’d get annoyed.

  • Hey Mark! Thanks for bringing this up and exploring it. 🙂

    (To Mark’s readers, let me out myself right now and state that I’m the friend who gave Mark that yuck reaction when I brought an article to his attention that I’d written about a content marketing tool. And he’s right, it was completely sponsored content.)

    It’s an interesting and not incorrect perspective to consider a writer’s past content and approach when there’s a change of any kind to their regimen. Whether they’re suddenly using a new monetization model, talking about a new topic, or introducing different writers into the mix.

    If the audience has grown accustomed to one approach, any change can potentially be jarring.

    To me, the entire exercise is fascinating. I consider The Social Media Hat to be my personal blog and content marketing playground. I refer to myself as a Content Marketing Practitioner because, quite honestly, it’s all a series of ideas and experiments to me.

    In this case, while experimenting with the idea of sponsored content as a monetization model, I inadvertently discovered the potential for negative audience impact. While I’d obviously never want anyone to say, “Yuck” when reading my content – pretty much the universal sign that it’s a bad job – I can at least take from this the lesson that, when considering the potential benefits of getting paid to write for your own site, there’s also the potential negative that your audience might not appreciate it as much.

    The nuance of understand how one has built an audience and how that audience may respond to various changes is what makes this a particularly apt observation on your part. As I continue to test and consider specific monetization models for myself, at least I’ll have yet another “learning experience” (a.k.a. massive blunder) to blog about and share with my readers. Heaven knows my readers never tire of consuming my mistakes. 😉

    Thanks again, Mark, really. I didn’t push for more clarification after your comment as I didn’t know how much time and thought you really felt like putting into this topic. I’m glad you did.

  • Wow Jim so many good thoughts here. You have my head spinning with ideas! Great comment!

  • Well, thanks for “outing” yourself! Adds to the fun. Three thoughts:

    1) There is a precedent for turning to a sponsored model. I cannot put my hands on the case study right away, but basically, a top blogger in our business started accepting sponsored posts and literally from that moment on his page views took a nose dive. After one year on the sponsored post diet, his page views had declined by two-thirds. People do not want ads.

    2) I’m glad you’re pushing and experimenting. Everyone should. But at least from my perspective, in a world filled with fakes, you are one of the true good ones left out there. I hated to see the trust compromised. You were voted as one of the top blogs of the year. That won’t happen with a steady diet of sponsored posts.

    3) Here is the thing I love you most — the pictures of you with your little girls. Really, that’s the only thing that matters — caring for those kids. If you need sponsored posts to do it, do it. But it you don’t I believe that the only sustainable way to stand out above the noise in the long term is radical trust. Now that I’ve seen one sponsored post for you, I will be nervous looking at your blog from now on — is it sponsored or not? Should I trust it or not? My view is to never have that cloud over your head. I don’t even want an appearance of conflict of interest on any content I produce. Never, ever let your readers down.

    Thanks for enabling an exceptional discussion!

  • You bet!

    I’d love to see that case study because that kind of dip in performance has certainly been shown to exist as a real potential when talking about placing ads on the site, like AdSense. Doing more sponsored articles is something that I hadn’t seen or noticed being documented from that angle.

    What’s really telling though is the Trust point. That’s something our friend David Amerland discusses a lot because when it comes to the Internet, trust is even more fragile than in real life.

    If someone close to you in real life violates your trust, it’s likely they’ll have opportunities to rebuild that trust and eventually even make that issue a thing of the past.

    If, however, a casual reader decides that they can’t trust your content anymore, well… poof! They’re gone.

    As you say in your book, this is why it’s critical to have a plan from the beginning for most businesses. And of course, why it’s all so challenging. New bloggers often cannot conceive where their blog will lead them and what opportunities will open up. Do they run ads? Accept sponsored posts? Build up affiliate relationships? Create their own products? All are fraught with opportunities to interject enough personal bias to make readers question motives.

    (There are certainly other *active* monetization models, but these are the key passive options.)

    As I was telling Jeff Sieh offline, one of the key takeaways for me here is to be aware of the risks involved in making a shift too far in one direction or another. I’m not worried for myself so much because I don’t need ads or sponsored content or affiliate links, I just want to learn about them so I can speak to them. But my readers need to know – and bloggers in general – need to study your book, make that plan, and be mindful of potential consequences should they decide they need to pivot or expand.

    Thanks in advance for the blog post topic I’ll be writing soon. 😉

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  • Hi Mark,

    Thank for bringing this topic up,
    To be frank, it’s hard to earn a living as an influencer. You become an influence because you fight for a cause or for a personal passion. Most of the case, it’s not a well-paid niche. That’s the reason we all struggle to monetize our blog.

    I think we can get money from the brands by not using sponsorship. We can become a brand ambassador. It means we explore the brand product or service and we write by ourselves an honest review out of our experience.

    I have received a lot of sponsorship proposal. By following my instinct, I rarely accept it. I accepted some in the past but now never again.

    We write it for the brand but also because it’s useful for our audiences. Let’s be honest and write the facts.

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  • Great points Mike and I will keep looking for that case study. It’s on my blog somewhere but apparently not filed under a tag that makes sense!

  • Santel, thanks for bringing a real does of reality to the discussion. You’re correct on all counts. It is very hard to monetize. But here is the only thing I know — you can’t monetize without an audience and you can’t have an audience without trust. There is a lot of tension out there right now between brands who want to turn influencers into advertising vehicles. If that happens, everybody loses. Like you, I turn down sponsorship opportunities. If it is a product I truly love, I’ll say, “I’ll advocate you but I don;t want to be paid for it. I don’t want people to think that I am pushing something on them because I’m being paid.”

  • Very true Ellie. And keeping that trust over the long haul is the tricky proposition!

  • Solid question. I’ll be honest that a lot of leaders in my space have lost credibility with me as I continue to watch them take the money, but rarely see them use the products or services they’re tossing out there. Not to mention the fact that they rarely even disclose the relationship, either. I won’t even start an influencer campaign for a company until I actually see what they do, how they do it, and research what type of company they are. And even then, we’ll test for free to see the response of my audience. I’m not going to put my reputation on the line for a couple hundred bucks.

  • I’m still not big on ‘influence’ b/c it rarely supersedes my own agency, my own mind. I have healthy eyerolls when I read about SM ‘stars’ that make their living being on YT and IG. I wonder WWWWH and mostly, get annoyed that there’s not better disclosure required by SM networks. (And of late it’s been F&F on FB and IG gushing their 2nd gig multilevel marketing crap, double yuck.)

    WHEN you ask? I’d almost say when you cash the check. Almost. Affiliate links, whatever. A few ads to keep the site running, ok then. I mean.. even major media outlets now litter their pages with all sorts of clickbait my eyes are well trained to ignore. TEHO. Helpful, on brand, well disclosed sponsorships, that’s OK. Example – I follow some beauty bloggers who always mention the ads/links help them, b/c they also help me by finding and sharing the good deals. .. VS ..

    A not OK example from just the other day on LinkedIn: a Name w/ a following b/c a Name as a business writing thought leader had a post about health. Not the business of healthcare, but actual healthcare as if I’d take medical advice from a personality on the Internet. Ahem. THAT is where it gets YUCK, when the speech or blog post is such a completely off brand, link stuffed, not disclosed, money grab. Kinda of the perfunctory ‘Holiday Album’ of the business world. FWIW.

  • My thoughts exactly. I’m in it for the long term.

  • Whoa. That is beyond weird. There is some lazy marketing behind that story!

  • Can’t tell you what was being ‘marketed’ or how that column as a LI insider helps him or his ‘brand’ or biz, can tell you I unfollowed and will rethink any other content when I see his byline elsewhere.

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  • Hey Mark! Great post and definitely a hot topic 🙂
    One of our common friend asked me what I thought about the topic as a vendor so I take the liberty to add my response to him here:

    “My thought process is super simple, I would never buy a “sponsored” post only about us, it’s not valuable enough for the readers. Eventually, what I care about is bringing value to the end user and give her a chance to have more information in hand to make an educated choice.

    Let’s face it, our market is crowded and there are a lot of valid offers out there, it won’t help anyone to just promote one, they know others exist. What they want to know is how the different options compare and which one may be a best fit based on their own specific needs, budget, etc.

    That’s why every time I’ve done something with “influencers” it was always with that goal in mind, no expectation for them to “promote” us but to honestly present us with our pros and cons along with other valid choices that had pros and cons.

    As long as the primary goal is to provide value, the line is never crossed. The line may be crossed when the goal of “promoting” exceeds the goal of “providing value”. That’s why I will always push for comparisons which, in the end, also promote my competitors at my expense ;-)”

    One important point here is that I’ve always been convinced that people who have invested a lot of time and effort to build an audience should be able to benefit from it, financially. We don’t pay our rent with backlinks, social shares or blog comments…

    I know your business model is to sell consulting services, so monetizing the hard work you’ve invested in your blog is taken care of. But for many others, the consulting route didn’t work out and I would be very sad for them to not be able to make money out of that great asset they’ve built. Thats’s why I’ve always tried to find smart ways to give them money to do what they do best: create great content that’s seen as uniquely helpful, without crossing any line.

    I’m on a mission here 😉

    Thanks for writing this and letting me add my 2 cents.

  • ME: Ready to accept your money!

    I think this is a very strong and enlightened post Emeric and I agree with you on nearly all points. The only exception is that I think it is very, very difficult and risky to monetize content directly. You basically have two choices: ads or subscriptions. An ad can compromise the trust and a paid subscription is very nearly impossible. There are lots of other options, but those are the two direct methods.

    There is a fine book out by Kevin Kelly called The Inevitable. In it he declare that we must view content as something that must flow unimpeded on the web. I believe this is true. We need to give up trying to interrupt the flow with ads and interruptions. We need to unleash our content with no expectation of a direct return. The key is monetizing your content in a way that helps you become known. Then,you have something to leverage.

    Here is the simple fact — people hate ads. They block ads any way they can. If you or your content becomes an “ad,” you are on a slippery slope in my opinion. You are asking to be blocked, and you probably will be.

    Thanks for the superb comment my friend.

  • Perfect timing. I just read an article on foundr dot com. As soon as I saw it was sponsored, I closed the tab. It was almost instinctual.

  • Do these folks even realize what they’re doing?

  • Apparently not.

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