Put Your Money Where Your [Word of] Mouth is.

moneymouthYou know that friend who’s always talking about new products and trying to get you to use them? Well, it’s becoming more and more likely they’re being paid to do it.

And why not?

An individual’s span of influence is no longer the dozens of people he/she might come into physical contact with. Now it’s the hundreds, thousands or  hundreds of thousands of followers, fans, and “friends” he’s amassed.

With that potential to impact a company’s sales, why shouldn’t those influencers be paid for the power of their persuasion? Shit, celebrities get money for this stuff all the time. Larry King is on Sunday morning television every week pushing Omega XL (and reminding us he’s still alive). What’s the difference between paying Larry for access to his reputation and audience, vs. paying a blogger with 100,000 followers for access to theirs.

The truth is, there is a difference. It lies in transparency, context, accepted norms, and how we decide to compensate our social media influencers.

As I’ve written in previous posts, what’s accepted in one context is reviled in another. The tolerance for paid endorsement is much lower in social media, whose roots are in organic, personal expressions of ourselves across a network of ‘known’ entities, in a (relatively) ad-free environment. That’s wildly different from the context of television, where “free” programming is offered in exchange for viewing paid advertising.

When Larry King hosts an infomercial promoting a joint pain reliever, there’s no question he’s being paid to do it. The program is clearly announced as a paid advertisement, and the viewer can decide for himself whether that fact completely discredits Larry, or whether it’s worthwhile to continue watching. The context of traditional formats such as infomercials, advertising, and public relations provide the transparency to allow for celebrity endorsers and paid brand ambassadors to deliver their (your) message, while maintaining some level of legitimacy. It’s an accepted norm; everybody knows the deal.

On the other hand, paid endorsement is not an accepted norm in social media. It doesn’t fit naturally in the historical context of the channel.

But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for compensating social media influencers to promote your products.

All of us (ok, most of us) are capitalists at heart. Those with a large social following are waking up to the fact that they have an asset companies can leverage. And companies are interested in encouraging and accelerating promotion of their products among those audiences, beyond the natural, organic word of mouth that takes place.

The conditions are ripe for a value exchange. The question then becomes, how do you do it without alienating  your social media audience?

First, I’ve already talked extensively about transparency. Always remember that you’re dealing in a channel that expects organic expressions of interest. If there’s even the slightest question about how much you should disclose, err on the side of transparency.

Second, be careful how you compensate your influencers. A recent study by social influence agency Engauge suggests that 53% of influencers who’ve been compensated for promoting products expect money, and 20% expect free products.

Avoid anyone who wants cash to promote your products via social. Tie your compensation to the usage and value of the product. Free samples, loyalty programs, rebates on future purchases. Limiting compensation to these types of rewards filters out the disingenuous types and leaves only those paid influencers that have a legitimate interest in your product.

Be fair, but don’t over-compensate your paid influencers. Even if the incremental cost of a generous rewards program or a few hundred free samples is minimal to you, don’t tempt the paid influencer to over-promote. Give them just enough to remind them of your products and encourage legitimate sharing.

Follow these simple rules and you could find yourself successfully accelerating your word of mouth without getting into too much trouble. You’ll never completely eliminate the risk of backlash, but if you’re transparent and use a little common sense in how you compensate your influencers, you’ll find a much more forgiving audience in the event the negative feedback kicks up.

Follow the conversation @Adriel_S or #marketingpfft.

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