A year or so ago, we released the results of a survey where we captured the opinions of thousands of online influencers. Our goal was to get a better feel for what they are truly looking for when it comes to the influencer/brand relationship.

Since “How do we compensate influencers?” is still one of the biggest questions our community has on the topic, and we’re heading into 2017 (yikes!), we thought it was high time to revisit this subject and map out a few ideas and parameters around influencer payment.

Money Talks, But at What Price?

According to social etiquette professionals, there are three things one doesn’t discuss among polite society: religion, politics, and money. It’s a bit of an old fashioned homily nowadays, what with the daily rants seen on social media, yet interestingly enough, talking about money still makes a lot of people very uncomfortable.

But talk about money we must. Here’s the thing: If you’re launching an influencer marketing strategy, and you’ll be asking for some sort of help or contribution from brand advocates, you’re really asking them to do work, no matter how much they might already love your company or product.

And there’s a sticky line between “compensating” someone for the time and energy they put into promoting your brand, and outright paying them for positive reviews or glowing blog posts. We’ve talked a lot already  (though it always bears repeating) about how vital it is to source and select the right person for your influencer campaigns—buying love from someone just because they have hundreds of thousands of fans or followers is NOT the way to go. Consumers can smell false praise a mile away, and if this person doesn’t truly enjoy what you’re promoting, no amount of cash will help them appear sincere.

So, what are some ways companies and brands can legitimately compensate your brand advocates, without entering into a payola’esque relationship?

Paying the Piper Without Dabbling in Payola

One of the key things that came out of the survey mentioned above is clear: Influencers love earning money for their work. And who doesn’t? In fact, a full 70 percent of the influencers we connected with said they “…prefer monetary compensation on a per-post-basis over affiliate partnerships, running ads on their blogs, or product trade.”

But, and this is important, we can’t forget that as much as you’re building and promoting a brand, so are influencers, the best ones, anyhow. And while cold hard cash is always nice, influencers who have toiled for years patiently growing and nurturing their communities and their reputations (in other words, the exact type of influencers you want to connect with!), are also acutely aware of the importance of their fans and followers. And they will protect them. This was a common thread throughout the survey: While influencers are looking to be monetarily compensated, they will only take compensation from brands with products and services that align with their readership and personal branding.

But let’s say you’re a smaller organization, and you don’t have a big budget set aside for paying your brand advocates. Are you out of the game? Absolutely not. Hyper-local brand advocates with smaller, yet extremely niche communities can be very valuable to you. Consider pitching a deal where they receive product discounts or freebies as part of their relationship with your brand (of course, to stay on the right side of the FTC you must disclose that relationship  front and center—and often!). If it suits your industry, set up a “commission based” remuneration system, where your most active influencers, those who are directing clients your way, receive a monthly or quarterly commission.

Also, don’t forget what we mentioned above: Your influencers are working hard to build their own reputations and personal brands and grow their follower base (organically). Providing products, discounts, or entrance to “special events” (think touring a craft brewery or attending a VIP function) that your influencer can give away to their community benefits in both ways: Their followers are happy, your influencer see increased personal exposure, word of mouth marketing builds, and you get the added bonus of potential new customers!

Last but not least, remember to be a strong advocate for your influencers. Do they have a blog? Share their recent posts on your brand’s social accounts. Retweet their content, and give them the odd public shout-out. Love goes both ways, and the deeper a relationship you can build with your brand advocates, the more successful your influencer marketing campaign will be in the long run.