The Paradox Of Buying Influence

6 min readFeb 19, 2017

“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” Inigo Montoya, The Princess Bride.

Influencer marketing is somehow both buzzword of the moment and the ‘next big thing’.

See “10 Reasons Why Influencer Marketing is the Next Big Thing” or any one of dozens of such recent articles.

As ad-blocking grows, two thirds of marketers intend to increase their influencer investment in 2017 according to eMarketer.

Brands are throwing money at them. Agencies have even opened studios to help influencers create content for brands.

“Social media is where those dollars are headed with brands already spending more than $255 million on influencer marketing every month just on Instagram, according to Captiv8, a company that connects influencers with brands.”

Whoa. Really? Wow.

Adtech companies suddenly appeared en masse to ‘service’ the growing market.


Mercedes-Benz announced a collaboration with influencers called “MB Photo Pass” with this Möbius strip of strategy:

“The more people who want the car, the more exclusive it becomes — social helps draw more young consumers to Mercedes-Benz.”

Let’s consider this.


Influence means one, ones ideas or behavior, can impact someone’s else ideas or behavior.

Influence is understood not to be manipulation of persuasion [because we have different words for those things].

There is a lack of intention in the idea, because influence, like entrepreneurship, is a side effect of doing something else: having status or expressing interesting ideas well; starting a company.

When we say someone is influential we mean that they can affect the behavior of others. However, inside that thought, there is also the idea of scale. Parents have incredible influence on their children, but we do not call all parents influencers.

What then are we talking about. What is an influencer?

Someone who has significant influence on significant numbers of people. If I set trends only to my friends, but no one else, no brand would seek me out, it would be inefficient.

So, in our celebrity obsessed hyper mediated culture, those that reach many people and inspire imitation or action, we call influencers.

Essentially various forms of celebrity, either bringing their audience over from traditional forms of fame or having grown one endogenously inside social media. Either way, their audience trusts them.

We copy people we like, who have status. This is predicated on the idea that what they are saying is something they believe, an expression of who they are, because that’s what we want to imitate. So these celebrities are copied, consciously and unconsciously.

Like all “Next Big Things”, it’s been coming for a long time. Five years with this version of the terminology, but really at least a decade.

[Bill Buxton calls this the Long Nose of Innovation, which you should check out.]

In about 2007 advertising agencies started experimenting with influencer marketing.

Back then, blogs were cutting edge social media and I was considered an influencer, so O2 sent me a new phone and said here play with this.

The O2 Cocoon

Back then I explicitly said you should not ask said recipients to promote the thing you are trying to market, because it turns the gift into a transaction. Rely instead on the feelings of reciprocity and primacy, which will drive them to talk about it, and because when we get a gift it feels rude to badmouth the giver. Gift economy thinking was around, and polite people don’t look them horses in the mouth.

Obviously that is laborious and highly speculative, essentially an earned media PR approach.

So now we often give them money, brand guidelines and format requirements, or even just pre-written copy [as we saw on Scott Disick’s Instagram post for ‘Bootea Shake’, in which he neglected to remove the instruction to cut and paste the copy, from the copy he cut and pasted].

The Paradox

The paradox of influencer marketing is that when we attempt to buy influence, we transform it into endorsement, which everyone understands is a commercially created fiction. Celebrities in advertisements are not influential in this sense because no one thinks they actually believe what they are saying.

They are not sharing an opinion — they are paid mouthpieces for brands.

As digital think tank L2 wrote: “Brand visibility on these channels often seems more authentic and credible than traditional advertising” but that authenticity is obviously disrupted when it is being paid for.

Hence, buying influence negates its influence.

[Arguably, the only place one can buy ‘influence’ is through political lobbying, specifically because all involved must maintain the illusion that any actions that happen are not being bought, directly, because democracy.]

This is why one in four influencers have been asked not to disclose that they were being paid, according to a recent SheSpeaks survey.

Rather than influence, this is a new way to access a hard to reach audience, paying for individuals to create content to an audience they have built on social media.

Increasing spend is driving inflation at the top end of the market — with some mega-influencers commanding up to $100,000 per post, according to a Digiday report — and consequent dissatisfaction along the tail.

There is even a Tumblr — where influencers anonymously post their fees and complain about not getting paid.

Influencers” are creative, media agency and publisher all in one.

Separate creative and media budgets

That’s why agencies are desperately trying to position themselves in between brands and influencers, since they are functionally replacements for the agency in the production of online content.

Influencer posts are online advertisements with celebrity endorsements produced through a new supply chain.

That’s why the FCC requires you to make the commercial relationship explicit. Any compensation, including free products, should be disclosed, the FTC says.

Why? Because it changes the nature of the communication, which is my point.

“The agency says the basic test is: If a consumer knew an endorser was compensated in any way, would that alter the view of the endorsement? In the overwhelming majority of cases, the FTC says yes.”

Buzzword it may be, but perhaps not the “next big thing”.

Adapted from column originally published in ADMAP.





Hello! I'm Faris. I'm looking for the awesome. Founder/Genius Steals. Itinerant Strategist//Speaker. Author of Paid Attention.