This is the question hotly debated in the media in the wake of high-profile stories involving influencers, hotel groups, YouTube and Snapchat.
Are they all trying their luck?
Do they have a sustainable business model? Should brands pay for their services? Or should we treat them more like journalists?
It’s unfair to categorise all influencers as casual YouTube users trying to get freebies from brands.
For many of them, being an influencer is their full-time job. For all of them, it’s their passion.
It’s becoming a serious business. The question is how they get paid in this business.
Journalists or other commentators are paid by their employers while influencers rely on brands to fund their businesses, either through advertising or through sponsorship.
That doesn’t give the brand the automatic right to dictate the process and control the creative; nor should it.
Influencer marketing is not the same as straightforward advertising.
When you pay an influencer, you’re paying the person, not the channel. You’re not just paying for an artificial, glowing review of your product or service. You’re paying for their genuine opinion of it; their skills and their time.
You’re paying to borrow the authentic relationship that they have cultivated with their community, and for access to their followers and fans.
Ask the right questions, get the right results.
I know that not all influencers are engaging and authentic. This is a young industry, and it’s finding its feet.
There are issues to navigate – so-called fake followers and engagement, gaming the system to increase follower numbers, and a lack of clear analytics in some cases.
But that’s up to the brands (and their agencies) to figure out, by doing their research and asking influencers the right questions before they part with the brand’s cash.
If you have evidence of follower demographics, understand what drives followers and how they respond to the influencer; if you have the right analytics in place, the campaign has a much better chance of delivering the results you want.
This is what we expect from other marketing so it’s what we should expect from influencer marketing, too.
Hard evidence is what will separate the blaggers from the professionals.
The best influencers are starting to shine through as brands realise that being popular isn’t the same as being influential.
Ultimately, you choose between two things: massive reach and low engagement; or lower reach and higher engagement.
Celebrity influencers with the most followers may not have time to respond to them.
Smaller influencers with more time to build their relationships with followers may have a more trusted relationship with them.
They can make a real difference to a brand. This is their business model. And it’s worth paying for.
Caroline Duong is founder and CEO of ZINE