The Changing Face of Paid Influence

As the income of influencers depends on brand partnerships, which in turn depend on their engagement rate, they find that the only way to battle against ever-changing algorithms is to run ads on a slow burn. Shirin Gupta from 'The PRactice' argues that paid influence by influencers is not a bad word.

As social media grows and leaps from your phone to the boardroom, marketing strategies are rewritten and new rules of engagement are born. One of the pillars of any social media manager’s charter is ‘targeted social media marketing’, which is essentially the use of paid marketing to boost a brand’s reach. The skills required to run and monitor these ads have become so specialized over the years that they’ve led to the creation of yet another job title under the social media umbrella. All things considered, it is safe for us to assume that paid marketing on social media is not just ‘acceptable’ but is also a norm.

"Sentiment towards influencers who ‘pay for followers’ is largely negative"

But what if we were to step away from the brand side and take a look at individuals who have created small businesses out of their social media accounts? How acceptable is it for an influencer to use paid marketing to boost his/ her reach and engagement? Recent moves by brands indicate that their sentiment towards influencers who ‘pay for followers’ is largely negative and that they would not like to collaborate with them. Interesting, considering how both brands and influencers operate in the same environment of dwindling organic reach, flighty consumer attention and a complete dependence on platform algorithms for success on social media.

Drawing the line

Of course, the very basis of influence is organic traction and the belief that people who follow said influencer discovered him/ her organically and chose to follow because they are genuinely interested in their content. This, in my opinion, is a very fair consideration for brands to bear in mind while choosing the influencers they want to associate with.

But then again, the very basis of engagement is a simple function of reach. Now that social media platforms have cut down organic reach in a ‘ploy’ to drive advertising revenue, must the rules remain rigid for influencers while they’ve become fluid for brands?

The Unspoken Truth

A close analysis of your Instagram feed, with a special focus on the ‘Sponsored’ caveat, will show you that influencers from across categories are now boosting their content for engagement. However, when approached for a comment, none of them is willing to add their name to a statement about their opinions on the same. Candid conversations with a few revealed that as their income depends on brand partnerships, which in turn depend on their engagement rate, they find that the only way to battle against ever-changing algorithms is to run ads on a slow burn. The slow burn strategy is gaining popularity with several accounts, particularly because it spends money over a period of time, thereby not raising any red flags upon a sudden inflexion in engagement.

On Facebook, influencers are now fighting to even be seen by their existing followers, let alone a new audience, and often run ads to target content to the former. As said by a popular lifestyle blogger in New Delhi, “I worked hard to gain followers over the last three years, but only 3 to 5% of them are shown my content organically. No matter how special my content is, such restrictions aren’t letting it go out even to those who consciously chose to follow me and want to see my work!”

What next?

Considering how the content game is no longer a mere fight for numbers but is now as raw as a struggle for basic visibility, several questions about its future pop up. They range from whether brands will ever openly accept an influencer who uses paid marketing to increase his/her reach, and if so, which metrics will both parties use to determine success and of course, what success on social media will really mean in the next few years. In a market with hazy rules at best, answers to these questions and developments in this progression will play an integral role in shaping the future of paid influence.

Shirin Rai Gupta leads digital strategy and Planning at The PRactice. Before this, she worked with TrulyMadly as marketing manager, where she conceptualised and executed their viral campaign #BreakingStereotypes, which led to a 150% boost in registrations for the brand and received international media acclaim. 

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