Influencers, you pay them?

You get why I put this picture up, don’t you? This picture too is from Wikipedia, by Coolcaesar at the English language Wikipedia [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

REDHILL.asia is going to launch the REDLIST. A curated list of social media influencers who we think are cool and their views and opinion carry weight.

It’s time to put the paid influencer phenomenon to bed.

More on the REDLIST towards the end of this post. First, here is a some what real conversation I had a few weeks back:

Social Media Influencer (SMI): Yes, it sounds interesting, I charge RM2000 (RM is Malaysian Ringgit, that’s roughly $500) per Instagram post.

Me (I’m going to refer to myself as RH, too many “me”s are freaking me out!): We don’t pay influencers or journalists.

SMI: Huh? Why are we having this conversation? You see no value in what I do? You want me to promote your client’s product and brand to my followers for free?

RH: I don’t want you to promote anything. Try out the product, if you think it would be of interest to your followers, put up a post, otherwise, just ignore.

SMI: You are telling me that it is OK even if I don’t post or write about the product?

RH: Yes.

SMI: Is this a game? Won’t your client be mad if they don’t get any coverage? Why would any influencer of any repute even bother if you are not paying?

RH: Good point. This is certainly a game. Let me explain:

You see, I work in PR, which falls under “earned media”, not to be confused with “paid media” which is advertising and sponsorships. My clients pay me to craft stories to educate the public through media platforms about their brand, product and services.

SMI: Ha! Gothcha! So the client pays you! Why you don’t share that with me? We all win!

RH: I guess you missed out on the “earned media” bit.

SMI: Who cares lah? Earned, paid, you want coverage or not? You happy, client happy, I happy.

RH: Not if it’s paid.

SMI: Dude, what fucking difference does it make? Paid or earned?

RH: If my client wants to advertise, they can do so cheaper and more effectively, including to every follower of yours, by paying instagram directly. You are aware of this right?

SMI: But it won’t have the same effect as me saying how cool your client’s product is.

RH: Really? You think your followers don’t know you ask for money to make posts? You think your followers don’t notice why you only say nice things about products you feature on your posts?

SMI: No no… that’s ….

RH: Sorry, let me finish. You exist because of a short term phenomenon. This was caused by the absence of any marketing (also known as advertising buying) platforms on social media platforms such as Facebook, twitter and Instagram. So for about 3 years, 2005 to 2008, everyone jumped on the social media bandwagon. Everyone wanted to be cool, including brands, but how to advertise on this? Can’t. OK so what do we do now? Let’s pay that money to these kids and make them do cool posts and updates for us! #GENIUS. #NOT.

Not really. Those kids got high on that cash and setup digital and social media agencies. Then the bigger agencies noticed this and lapped up the smaller agencies. They invested in buzz words and analytical tools to show their “reach” and “engagement” and some other crap. You know what they didn’t show? Return on Investment (RoI).

SMI: You talk too much, so boring AF, do you get laid much?

RH: Almost done. From about 2008 the platforms (Facebook, twitter etc.) decided to change gears, they want to list and share holders want to know how they are going to make money. They introduced their own advertising platforms, these were scientific, result based and transparent.

Right now, if a brand, assuming they have a smart marketing manager, wanted to reach each and every potential customer in a particular region about to take a lunch break, they can reach them. Instantly. Their platforms and others can predict when you are likely to go on holiday and where. They know how many times you eat out.

Something else changes too. In the beginning, while Facebook and twitter were just starting out, most of the real world influencers stayed away, the platform was not mature enough. Once real world influencers got on social media (the movie stars, pop artists, politicians, royals, white trash reality show celebrities… )the days of social media only SMIs were numbered.

SMI: Fine man, if they so great why I still get paid. You are the only one telling me no payment. Other than the fact that you are a fucking weirdo, why are the others paying and seeing the value?

RH: Laziness mostly. Most social media agencies are run by inexperienced millennials following outdated Standard Operating Procedures (SOP). Most social/digital agencies will die out as clients start moving more money towards digital advertising. It’s already happening. The only way to survive is by storytelling or content and adapting it to sync with new media technology. There is no PR value in getting something posted or written for money.

SMI: PR value?

RH: PR value is roughly three to four times advertising value.

SMI: Why?

RH: Because you saying something nice about you has less value than someone genuinely saying something nice about you.

SMI: Haha. That’s crap. I can just pay someone to write nice things about me. Forget three times, it has zero times value!

RH: Exactly. #MICDROP

SMI: Oh Fuck!

RH: If you genuinely create content and review products with the interest of your followers in mind, you have a future. These followers will trust you more and what you say will carry more weight than advertising on your page.

So try out my client’s product. Write what you want, let me know if you want info on it, and if you don’t think it is off interest, don’t write. Whatever works for your readers.

SMI: So this is how things are going to be? We don’t get paid? WTF man!

RH: This is not new, this is how it has always been. People follow or read or listen to you because your views and opinions are entertaining, informative, and independent. They trust you.

You only job is to act as a filter and valve of information. Curate the information that is like water bursting out of a fire hydrant into gentle droplets.

SMI: So what is your role?

RH: Point you to where the bursting fire hydrants are.

SMI: I hope we never meet in person man. I so want to punch you in the face.

RH: Thanks. I get that a lot.

It was a tough call to take. We all have pressures from clients, and the lazy, which is also ALWAYS easier option is to pay someone to get a post up. I decided not to go this route. Maybe I am old school. I would never think of paying a journalist. Why should a SMI be any different? What’s the worth of my work if I pay someone to get what I should be getting my selling my clients’ stories?

There are good SMIs out there. They will naturally rise to top but it takes time. We want to accelerate that in this region. We want to setup a social media ranking, a list you can trust made up of SMI you can trust for their editorial integrity.

I can’t believe that there are agencies who represent SMIs who will negotiate pricing for coverage. At a University I teach, I was once approached by a student who wanted to do a startup which would let brands bid for SMIs coverage. I told him there are a few ethical reasons why I would not mentor or invest in a platform that would solicit payment for providing biased views and opinions.

Brands are to blame for this as well. Why do you want to pay a SMI? What does it get you? You know the SMI will say the same nice things to your competition too, right? Do you think just because they have “followers”, they have the authority or gravitas to review and comment? Have you checked whether these followers are real?

And finally, how can a SMI be an influencer, only on social media? If you strip away the social element, does this person have any visibility? Do they do stand up gigs? Do they write a column for new paper or its website? The minute someone says, I’m a Social Media Influencer, your alarm bells should start ringing because you are about experience a shake down.

Let’s end this phenomenon. Let’s be less lazy. Let’s start saying no. Let’s reward the good guys. Let’s all get back to what we do best, craft stories.