Posted on January 3, 2013 by appinions

What Can Brands Expect From Social Influencers?

Social influencers play a vital role in helping brands expand their reach, build their reputations, and sell more products and services. However, brands may question (especially when influencer blunders occur) just what are the influencer’s obligations where the brand is concerned. Just what can, and should, a brand expect?

One of the most important points to remember is that an influencer is not an employee. He or she does not work for your brand and isn’t generally subject to your rules for the social community at large. That, in and of itself, makes the evaluation of the influencer’s obligation to your brand dicey. Ideally, the influencers you seek out have extensive audiences and great reputations, ensuring that their endorsements of your brand will have credibility and that others will actually listen to and care about what they have to say. But what can you expect from that point on?

The importance of this question is easy to see when considering Oprah’s recent endorsement of the Microsoft Surface. Assuming she still has the level of influence she had in the past (even a level close to it would be impressive), her statement that she loves the Surface and planned to give a dozen of them as Christmas gifts will likely contribute to an increase in Surface tablet sales.

However, it’s easy to see that her comment doesn’t position the brand in a 100-percent positive light. First, there’s the fact that Oprah posted her Twitter comment from her iPad, perhaps leading her audience to wonder why, if she loves the Surface so much, did she use an iPad to share her comments? And then there’s also the fact that the Surface has already been widely criticized for its lack of apps (among other things). By sending her tweet via her Echofon app for iPad, did she just prove this point? Additionally, she unintentionally promoted the iPad as well, simply by sending her tweet from one. If Oprah was paid by Microsoft to promote the Surface (and she may not have been), she may have also given iPad sales a boost.

Let’s imagine for a minute that an influencer with a far smaller audience and a much less established reputation posted this sort of message using a rival tablet instead of the brand he or she was trying to promote. It is reasonable to think the effect for the newcomer brand might be much less positive.

Brands want influencers to create and share relevant content that shows their products in the best possible light. But does that mean overlooking any flaws or negatives? For example, when reviewing a product, does the influencer have more of an obligation to be honest about the product for his followers’ benefit or more of an obligation to help the brand shine?

One might argue that the obligation depends on whether the influencer endorsement/ promotion is paid versus earned. Certainly, brands paying for the help of influencers may feel strongly that the influencer should focus on the positives and definitely not promote rival products at the same time (or at all).  However, from the influencer’s point of view, that kind of approach could damage her credibility. If she genuinely likes a brand but omits a major flaw when discussing it, will her loyal audience notice and lose trust in her going forward? And won’t this lack of trust make the influencer less influential going forward?

Full Disclosure

One of the most important factors here is that compensated influencers do absolutely have obligations. First, they have an ethical obligation to disclose that a brand has compensated them in some way (even if not financial). However, they also have an FTC-mandated obligation to do so. This creates a degree of transparency that may help protect the influencer’s reputation, especially if he or she presents information about a brand in an as positive as possible, but still honest, light.

Pay for Play

Many agree that brands should avoid the pay for play route like the plague. While brands may have high expectations when paying for reviews, what they too often get is thin, low-quality content that does nothing to boost brand reputation or aid engagement. And on top of that, the credibility of the review and the person providing it is seriously diminished.

From Influencer to Brand Advocate

A better route? Build a marketing relationship with an influencer who becomes a partner in the brand’s success. This doesn’t have to mean no compensation (although compensation isn‘t always desirable or warranted). Instead, you can compensate influencers as marketing partners. The focus here would be on brand-driven marketing activity rather than paid reviews. What kind of activity? This can involve a broad range of efforts, including not only high-quality, engaging content, but also video and in-person appearances, focus groups, and product parties. Rather than going for the one-off effort, which can end poorly (as in the Oprah blunder), opt for identifying the right influencers and converting them to powerful (and ethical ) advocates for your brand.

What do you expect from influencers? How do you work to make them partners in your success?

Image credit: Siddartha Thota