Why we need to talk about transparency in influencer marketing…

The influencer marketing space has boomed over the past few years with brands of all shapes and sizes getting involved, largely driven by rising consumer preference for the opinion of trusted individuals, over and above the voice of the brand itself. For the relationship between an influencer and their followers to be truly genuine and sincere though, it has always been crucial that the individual is fully disclosing their commercial interests to their audience, so that there is complete transparency when content has been paid-for or incentivised. Credibility is of utmost importance, and consumers need to trust that an influencer is offering their honest review of a product or service, for their overall content to be of any value.

Historically there has been some confusion as to how and when influencers should be disclosing their brand affiliations. In the UK, the guidelines are set by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) and in the US by the Financial Services Authority (FSA). For some time it appeared that few influencers were disclosing their brand affiliations, but this has improved slowly over the past year or two. Saying that however, some dubious ethics still prevail with even well known media personalities and top tier influencers sometimes failing to disclose when an image post is sponsored. In fact the Federal Trade Commission recently sent letters to more than 90 influencers reminding them that they need to “clearly and conspicuously” disclose when their posts are sponsored. 

The role of sponsored posts

While sponsored posts might not be everyone’s cup of tea, they serve the purpose of enabling influencers to discuss and review brands and products which they might otherwise not be able to afford, and also allow them to make a full-time career of building their social media content streams. “Sponsored posts are what pays my bills and allows me to continue blogging and sharing my life with all of you. Otherwise, I’d have to get a 9-5, which would mean a whole lot less content from me,” shares US fashion and lifestyle influencer Sivan Ayla.

The reluctance to disclose sponsored brand relationships is simple: influencers worry that paid-for content will be less well received by their followers than non-sponsored content. To a certain extent this is true – it’s easier for a reader to trust the opinions of a product review, for example, where no money or gift has exchanged hands. To add to this, brands are increasingly needing to justify the ROI of their influencer marketing spend, and so they are wanting o see tangible results from an influencer collaboration. This a view which Ayla supports, and she admits that “over the last year I’ve read and heard a few bloggers I follow express their frustrations with low engagement on sponsored posts. They explained how their following doesn’t ‘Like’ their photos if it says #sponsored or #ad, which then looks like poor ROI to a brand, which then means they probably won’t work with that blogger anymore. I get it, but if you have an engaged audience they will be able to tell when a paid post is genuine or not.”

To a certain extent an education gap still exists, where brands aren’t always insisting that an influencer discloses the nature of their commercial arrangement. But ultimately, it should also be the responsibility of the influencer to know and understand the legal and ethical obligations within their country.

Instagram’s new “Paid partnership with” tag

To date, Instagram has done little to support the earning of incomes via its platform, but very recently this has changed with the introduction of its “Paid partnership with” tag, which creates a standardised format for influencers to use when a post has been paid for by a brand. Influencers can tag the relevant brand within the post so that first and foremost there is full transparency, but secondly, the brand will automatically get access to the same data as the influencer around a post’s reach and engagement, and that data will show up in the same Facebook dashboard as the rest of their advertising data.

(Image credit: Instagram)

The initiative is still in phase one of rollout, but Instagram says that eventually there will be enforcement and a branded content policy across the platform for the first time, which is no bad thing. It will mean that influencers will no longer have the choice whether to include hashtags such as #ad and #sponsored within their paid posts, as the new “Paid partnership” tag will soon be mandatory.

The future

According to a recent study by Elite Daily, 43% of millennials rank authenticity over content when consuming news. They first have to trust a source before they even bother reading the content that they produce. Moving forward, brands will need to be certain that they are partnering only with influencers where there’s a good natural fit, for the sponsored relationship to make sense to their followers. No doubt other social platforms will soon follow Instagram’s lead, and hopefully, in the future, influencer marketing will have no choice but to become completely transparent.

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