With Great Follower Counts Comes Great Responsibility

As an Instagram enthusiast, I’m no stranger to a lil #ad on my feed – you probably aren’t a stranger to it either – teeth whitening, fit teas and minimalist watches, instagrammers can make a pretty penny off that hashtag. But do they always say #ad when it is an ad?

Influencer marketing is becoming an increasingly significant presence across the advertising landscape. Forbes, Medium and AdWeek all suggest that influencers are the true frontier of getting people to buy stuff.

Although I’m sure you already follow a bunch of influencers on one app or another, influencers are, simply put, an individual “…who has the power to affect purchase decisions of others because of his/her authority, knowledge, position or relationship with his/her audience”.  

A primary reason why brands are leaning towards paying independent content creators, as opposed to good ol’ Traditional Media™, is simply their effectiveness. Influencers can significantly affect purchase decisions through electronic word of mouth, and non-celebrity influencers are ten times more likely to drive in-store purchases.

Influencers can make the biggest impact when used by marketers who know about this little thing called the Diffusion of Innovation theory, which describes the five stages of how we as consumers adopt a product.

Influencers are the ultimate innovators and early adopters, which, according to Bloglovin CEO Kamiu Lee, “…makes them the trendsetters and, in turn, attracts an engaged audience that wants to hear from them”.

Knowing all of the science behind this certainly makes a compelling argument for companies to negotiate on influencer advertising due to the “native” nature of their content. Native advertising expert Dave Lovell explains that this type of content is effective as it is relevant and integrated into your feed – rather than being disruptive.

Disclosure – A #musthave

Cute pic, even cuter disclosure of partnership.

A little “in partnership with” or a #ad, #sponsored keeps everything nice and transparent and, providing the content is giving the user some kind of value, users genuinely don’t mind well-crafted ads on their feed. A look at the New York Times’ native advertising piece for Netflix’s Orange is the New Black is a great example of how native content can do well – and it’s clearly marked as an ad. Same goes for Instagram star @amelialiana shown above – her advertisements are clearly marked.

Now without going full #humblebrag, I have had a little experience with Instagram marketing – in particular using the Influencer App Which Shall Not Be Named which has allowed me to make a few extra bucks for doing the occasional  advertisement on my own Instagram. I’ve been picky, and rarely go through with briefs if I think they wouldn’t be a good fit with my content – remember that ‘adding value’ thing we discussed before? If it doesn’t fit in with me or my audience, it’s not going to happen. I’m allergic to an ingredient in skincare? I’m not going to tell people how much I love it. Not difficult.

So far all the ads I’ve done have been well received. This is likely because, while we know that millennials hate ads, when it comes to social media influencers, 57% are happy for their favourite content creators to make their money – as long as the content appears authentic.

Laying down the law

Now in this Influencer App Which Shall Not Be Named, I can see all the briefs from different brands, with many suggesting you to disclose your payment with #ad or #sponsored. But occasionally I see a red flag – aka brands who specifically request you to not use #ad, but less obvious substitutes such as #friendofbrandx or #xbrandlover. Some even request to avoid hashtagging at all. They do this in an attempt to further convince an influencer’s audience into thinking their fave is genuinely into the product and talking about it because they love it, and not because they are being paid to talk about it.

This eyebrow raiser made me scoff a little – surely no one would actually do that. After all, your audience’s trust enables you to be able to monetise your content, and losing that trust means losing everything.

But everyone discloses their sponsored content, right?

Well that seemed right, until I noticed a bunch of Instagrammers posting the exact same body lotion, within days of each other – some lacking disclosure of gifting or payment entirely. Coincidence? Nope – it turns out the brief for the post was on my app, and some of these influencers are cashing in, in exchange for singing sweet praises about a body lotion they may not even use. So who was to blame – the brand, or the influencers?

Great minds think alike.

I immediately leapt into justice mode, googling what the laws were in regard to influencers and advertising disclosure – and guess what? Technically, there are no enforceable laws regarding influencer advertising in the wild west of social media.

shocked gif, bc i was shook

Basically the guidelines are pretty vague with only two key criteria:

  • Does the brand/marketer have a reasonable degree of control over the content?
  • Does the content draw attention of the audience in a manner designed to promote a product or service?

If the answers to those two are yes, then ladies and gentlemen, we have an ad! When both of those factors are present, and it is not made apparent to the audience that it is an advertisement, then brands and influencers are in trouble. That’s when the ACCC can prosecute for breach of ACL law, with fines of up to $220k for influencers, and $1.1mil for brands.

However, there are no rules to make this clear. The Australian Association of National Advertisers practice doesn’t require advertisements to have a label such as #ad, it just needs to be clearly distinguishable. In this case, my above examples are actually covered under the AANA. Basically as long as people can identify the content as an ad, and aren’t feeling misled, it is one. Including statements like “Thank you Brand X for sending this to me..” is fine – whether you were just gifted product (and had full creative control) or were paid for the post. This would be fine, except that when all your posts are the same format and look like an ad, then there is a rather large grey area, and a lot of confused followers.

To me, these guidelines leave room for brands and creators to be able to abuse the relationship of trust built up between an influencer and the audience. By not informing them if you’re paid to promote a product, they may assume that you are so passionate that you are posting of your own volition – with no monetary benefit.

Also on a creator side, it means we have to work even harder for your trust. A genuine glowing review is now cause for suspicion, and captions and information boxes are now rife with disclaimers.

Until then, I guess we’ll just have to take influencer marketing with a little pinch of salt.

Or depending on the creator – a lot.

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