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The Influencer Vendor Showdown: How Do You Know Who’s Legit?

Author’s Note: This article is the first in a series about the influencer economy. Future columns will feature vendor profiles and a deeper look at the landscape. If you’d like to be featured in these columns, please fill out these short survey!

It’s time for a social media reality check. Kevin has acknowledged it on this very blog: organic social is disappearing into the larger realm of “social media marketing.” I think that all seasoned social media professionals understand the reality of algorithm-driven content distribution — it’s never really up to you as a brand or publisher to decide what’s going to happen with your content. But what if there was a way that still gave you power? 

It’s not terribly surprising to see the rise of “influencers” as a way for brands to reach new audiences.  

In fact, for many brands, it’s a primary way of sharing their message. Influencers allow relatively consistent distribution of selected messages in their area of influence to hundreds or thousands of adoring fans who will almost certainly love your message. What could possibly go wrong? (#sarcasmwarning).

But for every reputable superstar influencer, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of other “influencers” (human and animal) who are willing to take your money and broadcast your message to their loyal followers (or, frankly, just take your money).

The result is a sort of “Wild West”: individual contributors representing themselves, influencer talent agencies representing contributors, PR and social agencies, and stand-alone self-service software and analytics tools trying to identify influencers. It’s a byzantine process (see also, the so-called influencer “Bad Neighbor Effect”). 

Combine that with confusion, anxiety, mistrust, and lack of accountability for both vendors and talent, and it’s not surprising that brands are confused about the influencer economy.

So what does this mean for you, the brand, who wants a network of top-notch people delivering your message, on time, on brand, in a FTC-compliant way, and with some level of performance measurement that fits the bill?  

To arm yourself, you should focus on understanding these key facts before you pick an influencer vendor:

  1. Network size and (how they manage) scale. When you ask about the size of influencers managed by a network, the fact is that managing more influencers is not necessarily a good thing. While it may seem that a bigger number provides more opportunities for you to pick from, the strength of the relationship between the vendor and the influencer can vary widely. An influencer is only helpful for you if they agree to work with your brand. Closing the deal can be more difficult than you might think.
  2. Network quality. An influencer network is only as good as its members. Having a good understanding of what makes a influencer qualify to be part of the network is important. Is it based solely on audience case? Does the network have a rating or quality score up front? Do they ask for samples of prior work before they let influencers join?
  3. The content review process. How exactly are you able to review content before it goes live? The more enterprising networks have tools that allow you to monitor and comment on content in a centralized tool, rather than going back and forth over email, which can be a laborious process. In addition, how do they handle FTC standards? Ideally, compliance shouldn’t be solely your responsibility. Getting compliance wrong can potentially be extremely damaging for your brand (economically and otherwise).
  4. Tracking, reporting, and accountability. Influencer vendors sell access and reach. How they track, report, and show it to you is another thing. Some vendors have better and more accessible reporting stacks than others. Make sure you can fully understand the stats they share are able to answer any questions you may have about performance so that you can justify your spend.  Also, ask them what happens when influencers don’t meet their targeted goals as part of a campaign. Algorithm changes and product updates can have a substantial impact on an influencer’s ability to deliver on goals.
  5. Price, payment and terms. It’s obviously important to understand how a influencer vendor prices their product, but in this case, it’s also important to know how the vendor makes money, and even more important to know how they pay their influencers. If they’re keeping the lion’s share of the cash for themselves, the risk of the vendor/influencer relationship fraying over time is higher. With that comes the risk that the influencer will go rogue, which leads to the next consideration…
  6. What happens when something goes wrong? This space is still new. There have been relatively few known instances of “influencers gone bad.” But, what happens if an influencer has a run-in that doesn’t reflect well on your brand? Or, what it they flat-out don’t do what you’ve them paid for? Influencer relationships can be a hornet’s nest of contracts, out-clauses, and kill fees.  Make sure you understand what’s involved in these relationships.
  7. Understand their endgame. Let’s take a brief detour.  In 2011/2012, there was a consolidation amongst publishing, social apps, and vendor listening tools, most notably when Salesforce bought early social leaders CoTweet, Radian6, and Buddy Media. In response, Oracle bought early social leaders Vitrue, Involver, and Collective Intellect.

These consolidations marked the zenith of the first act of enterprise social for brands, and left a lot of startup founders flush with serious cash in their coffers. The brand turnover from this consolidation left a lot of brands holding the bag as their vendors disappeared, or were subsumed in completely different companies with new contacts who had no idea about their business. Do you really want to go through this whole vendor selection process again?

Clearly, there’s a lot more to discuss with your influencer vendor partner than these seven questions. But you should ask as many of these questions as you can before you sign up for a long-term commitment. It doesn’t 100% guarantee they’re not lying, but your relationship should be built on trust and honesty from the beginning.

Want to know more about the state of the influencer industry today? Download Simply Measured’s 2015 Instagram Influencer Report below.

This report analyzed the most followed influencers on Instagram to learn:

  • Tactics top influencers use to engage followers
  • How personal brands attract followers
  • Which brands top influencers are talking about

…and much more.

Get everything you need to analyze the metrics that matter

2015 Instagram Influencer Report


Matthew Knell

Matthew Knell is a social media and audience development strategist, digital marketer, web technologist, and community evangelist. His work includes a patented pay-per-click advertising system for, the first social media strategies for JetBlue Airways, a social media platform for Viacom Media Networks, audience development strategies for CafeMom and enterprise social strategy for AOL. He currently serves as's Vice President of Social Media and Platform Partnerships, where he manages enterprise social strategy and relationships with publisher platforms including Facebook, Pinterest and Twitter.

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