Restaurants and food writers go together like peanut butter and jelly, or in the gourmet sense, foie gras terrine and fig jam. The exchange is simple: food writers visit a restaurant and write about the experience for their audience to read, and ultimately make the journey themselves.

But as media has [rapidly] evolved through the digital age, so has the exchange. Beyond the now-traditional bloggers, a new group has entered the arena—influencers. And they have high demands.

Influencers, theoretically, are members of the media that have such a large presence that they can command payment for ‘sponsored content’ in the same way TV charges for commercials and print/web charges for ads.

Influencers are almost entirely online with a heavy focus on social media channels. It started with celebrities—a shoe company could pay an NBA player $25,000 just to tweet about their product. But the trend has now spread to internet celebrities: Youtubers, Instagrammers, Twitter[ers?], and others who reach tens of thousands to millions of people with every post. They reach a huge crowd, more than many food writers; for influencers, however, a free meal typically isn’t enough.

Is it worth it to pay someone to post about you? Consider a few factors in evaluating ROI…

How can influencers benefit you?

Let’s use the example of a Youtuber with a cooking channel that has 1 million+ subscribers. Imagine if that Youtuber cooked a dish inspired by a special at your restaurant, or uses an ingredient that you sell? That’s some serious publicity. Not to mention that influencers rank much higher on the trust scale with their audience, so even sponsored posts [labeled as such per FTC guidelines, using signals such as #ad and specific lines at the beginning and end of videos] will get great response.

In short, will this influencer bring in enough customers to offset their cost? The better their reach, the higher their price tag. There’s no concrete formula to calculate conversion, but do know that influencer conversion tends to be higher than traditional paid marketing.

Are you already paying for marketing?

Paying an influencer for an Instagram post isn’t too different from paying a magazine for a print ad. If you’ve already invested in paid marketing, then allocating part of your budget toward influencers is a good way to diversify your outreach. You just have to make sure the influencer is a good fit [see ‘finding a good fit’].

If you rely on earned media, i.e. unpaid publicity such as articles and ‘organic’ posts, then paying for an influencer can be a big leap for your first investment in the paid world. Cheaper marketing channels exist, such as promoting your own social media posts, participating in community food events, or even a good ol’ fashioned print ad.

Finding a good fit

Finding an influencer is easy: take a quick scan through social media to see who has tons of followers. Influencer marketplaces exist as well, where you can enter in your type of business and a list of potential influencer ‘partners’ pops up. The key is to look past the glamour of follower figures and think about the investment on a more personal level:

• Does the influencer reach your core demographic?

• Does the influencer have a strong presence in your geographic area?

• Does the influencer’s content align with your brand? An intimate Italian restaurant may not want an influencer with a reputation for being wild and crazy.

• Does the influencer have engagement? This is a big one. Followers mean nothing unless they actually pay attention to the posts. Likes, comments and shares should have consistently high numbers.

• Is the influencer a sell-out? There’s a fine line between making money and selling your soul. Influencers shouldn’t have more than 10% of their content labeled as sponsored

Meet the influencer beforehand

This is non-negotiable. The absolute most important asset that an influencer can offer is a genuine passion for your brand. Sure, you’re paying them, but if the influencer sees your brand as a deposit in his bank account rather than for the value it creates for your customers, this will be reflected in his content. Have him come in for a meal, no strings attached, to get a feel beforehand. Make the decision to invest from there. If he refuses to get acquainted, he isn’t worth your time.

The idea of influencers is turning the journalism world on its head, but it’s best to use this trend to your advantage instead of fighting it. Just be sure to tread carefully.