If you don’t know where to invest your money in these times of turbulent stock markets, look no further: influence is the new “digital gold” for those who boast it (the famous influencers) and for the increasing number of brands who wish to leverage it.

In fact, many people see opportunity in this new type of business. We are seeing the appearance of marketplaces—influence brokers that help people with an already-consolidated audience to monetize their “influence capital” by partnering with brands (i.e., by being paid in cash or freebies for a blog post or tweet that enables them to transmit the brand’s message).

For brands, this means having the capacity to recruit influencers who offer the best potential (or price) for promoting their next campaign. The concept isn’t exactly new; Klout’s initial success was indeed based on this very same principal. But the speed at which platforms appear – I’ve counted 47 in just 15 minutes surfing online – has shaken the foundations of my sacrosanct conception of influencer marketing.

While experience has told me that influencer engagement is a long-term game that requires progressively creating a mutual bond of trust with influencers, I now discover a brand could recruit an army of influencers in just a few hours and create a word-of-mouth campaign in the blink of an eye. Or have I misunderstood everything from the beginning?

It’s easy to see how some influencers can be seduced by what these campaigns promise. They offer them more visibility, and—let’s be honest—influencers don’t have a great deal to lose. But, if we ask ourselves what’s in it for the brands, this leads us to the BIG question: is payment a keystone of influencer engagement?

A Question of Reach, Trust & Transparency

Let’s look at the facts. According to our recent study on the Status and Practices of Influencer Engagement 2015, over a third of brands always or frequently pay their influencers. This trend is even more common in the US, where the figure reaches 50 percent. At first glance, paying may seem attractive to brands. It enables them to better control the message and timing of the post (in conjunction with product launches, for example), allowing them to calculate ROI as they would for paid advertising. This is comforting for many marketing professionals.

But, while paying may seem simple and safe, is it the most effective approach? If we measure its effectiveness purely in terms of reach, it may be the case. But the effects of influencer engagement go far beyond the number of users you want to reach; it should also be measured in terms of how much trust it generates.

If influencers are so valuable for brands, it’s precisely because they have managed to build trust with their communities thanks to their expertise on a given subject or leadership of some kind. Influence is not the same thing as popularity, and it’s intimately linked to the concepts of objectivity and authenticity.

This is why the impact of an organic article written by an influencer who believes in the brand’s message or product is much greater than that of a sponsored or paid post or tweet (something that is, by the way, clearly demonstrated by studies). Choosing one approach or the other depends on the brands’ campaign objectives, although transparency must be guaranteed in any case.

Machinima, who recently pitched youtubers on its network to promote Xbox in exchange for “confidential” payment was eventually caught by the US Federal Trade Commission. For Microsoft, who in theory were unaware of what their intermediary was doing, the consequences have been disastrous in terms of their reputation among the gamer community (never mind for those poor influencers caught up in it).

Pay Influencers With Great Content

Let’s look at this from an influencer’s perspective. Should they be recompensed for the service they render to brands? The answer is obvious. Although some of them don’t make a living from it (some experts use their blogs to showcase their business or political activity, for example), there are increasing numbers of people who use their influence as their main professional asset.

As Jeff Bullas recently said on Augure’s blog, these people have worked hard to build their communities, generate credibility with their audience and gain their trust. The benefits they bring brands are huge and their work should be fairly acknowledged.

But is cash payment really the only motivation for influencers when working with brands? Not according to the results of our study, which shows that expanding their community (55 percent) and obtaining material to create quality content for their audience (45 percent) stand above cash payment (25 percent) in the influencer “Maslow pyramid.”

How should we interpret this result? Well, even if we are prepared to offer payment, we still have to convince the influencer that the content we’re offering is pertinent and useful to their audience and that it’ll serve to satisfy the expectations of their community.

Therefore, it remains necessary to engage influencers, bearing in mind their context and finding the best way to help them reach their goals for their audience. And that’s bad news for those marketers who want to do influencer engagement by simply reaching into their pockets. It can also be seen as one of the limitations of the marketplaces I mentioned earlier.

It’s worth remembering, too, that influencers can offer your business many services that go beyond simply producing posts, tweets and sponsored videos. Don’t forget that these individuals are often industry experts who have been able to establish a special connection with their audience.

Invite them to give input on your strategy or your next campaign launch. Get them to participate in conferences organized with your clients. Hold small or online events. Publish joint whitepapers or studies. All of these occasions are excellent opportunities to enable influencers to get to know your business and clients. If your message resonates with them, they’ll want to help promote your next campaign spontaneously.

Organic vs Paid: A False Debate?

Digital marketing professionals realized a long time ago that organic positioning (SEO) and search engine advertising (SEM) had fundamentally different goals, but were closely linked. Even so, they had two common traits: neither of them can function without good content, and both require long-term optimization. The same goes for influencer engagement, should it be paid or organic. Finding the right mix is up to you, but always bear in mind that you can’t buy influence—you must earn it.