Influencer marketing is the new kid on the block when it comes to digital advertising channels – but it’s one that has struggled to find its place in the digital marketing mix.

Should social influencers be treated as glorified affiliates, pushing links and coupons on their channels as part of short-term transactional campaigns? Or can they offer more to brands when leveraged as long-term partners and genuine storytellers?

According to the Activate 2018 State of Influencer Marketing Study, 50% of marketers are now working with influencers on projects for six months or longer, so there are plenty of people in the long-term camp.

But conditions must be right for collaborations to be successful, both in terms of how influencers are chosen and what they’re asked to do.

When it comes to selecting influencers to work with, brands have traditionally made their decision based on an individual’s social channel reach. However, the same study showed that ‘size and following’ has been bumped from first to fifth position on the list of considerations marketers make when selecting their influencer partners – behind content aesthetic, audience demographic, brand affinity and engagement rate.

This shows how influencer marketing is evolving: brands want to work with partners that can do more than just get their content seen – they need that content to resonate with those that see it; it’s becoming much more about quality over quantity.

Moreover, by placing too much emphasis on the reach and scale of an influencer, brands risk neglecting the creative potential they can bring to the table.

Influencers aren’t there to regurgitate your copy, they’re there to create fresh content for you – content that entertains, educates or invokes some level of emotion in your shared target audience.

This can only be done over the course of months – a single snap on an influencer’s Instagram feed isn’t going to cut it, even if it adheres to every brand guideline in the book.

Like all brand partnerships, working with influencers is a great way for brands to unlock new audiences, but in order to cut-through the noise, it is crucial that these partners are selected based on brand and audience affinity rather than popularity, and that they’re given the freedom to tell their story in their own way.

Influencers are content creators – it’s what they do – and true collaboration should look a lot less like ads and a lot more like content marketing.

Fortunately, influencers understand this too – the #1 reason they cite as to why they decide to work with brands is that they already love the product, and post about it organically.

Influencers (at least, most of them) want to protect their audiences and maintain their following – so if they’re a good fit for the brand, they should be on to a winner.