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23.10.16 / Social influencers – disclosure isn’t the (only) problem

If one went solely on trade media articles, you could believe that a) ‘influencer marketing’ had swept the marketing board, and was as prevalent as TV advertising, and b) that it’s often conducted illicitly, without suitable transparency about content which is paid for and not.

Is disclosure of paid influencer marketing a problem?

Well, articles like this are creating a narrative that it is i.e. it isn’t happening sufficiently. A trawl through Instagram, Twitter or YouTube will show it through common sense. News stories like this one show it.

How widespread is the problem?

Quantifying it is difficult. Reading this chart, one could believe that either sponsored content has risen markedly, or that disclosure has risen markedly. Looking purely at enforcement is always misleading – a rise in those cited by the ASA (or others) is often a reflection of the organisation, or a stakeholders’ agenda, less the prevalence. Subjectively, based on spending all day everyday consuming social content, I’d estimate there are as many undisclosed as there are disclosed.

A big part of this has come with those who approach the ecosystem without solid social media backgrounds. PR agencies and publicists are prime offenders – in their traditional work disclosure was never required, whereas those who have always dealt in digital or paid media have this in their DNA.

What should be happening?

Well, read this post if you want to understand the law around this. But a lot of the problems come from:

  1. ‘Bad actors’ – those who are consciously subverting the rules
  2. Those who are just oblivious – this is often those who aren’t professional social content creators
  3. Double standards – there is a higher standard being demanded of social creators than we enforce of journalists. Take this, as an example – shouldn’t this be disclosed that it is, directly or indirectly, essentially paid-for? Access and content is provided to the media outlet, in return for blatantly commercial credits. It has no news value. Am I mis-led as a consumer? No more or less than a blogger saying how wonderful a restaurant who gave his or her dinner for free is.
  4. Confusion. So I get to go to an event for free as an influencer. Does that mean I have to disclose I went for free? If I get sent a product for free, express my own opinion, of my own volition, do I disclose? If I do disclose, is it enough to say ‘thanks xxx’. If I post something without disclosure, linking to something with disclosure on it, is that OK?

The solution, as ever, is common sense, and transparency. Do what the audience would expect. So, if you got paid to post, say so. If you chose to post, but got some goods or services at below or off market rate, indicate that aspect, but that it’s your own opinion.

What are the other problems around influencer marketing?

Well, the first is the phrase. But you can read about our objections to that here. The second is about the lack of understanding about why people are buying it. For many it’s a scale play, not truly about influencing behaviour. Those doing it to hit eyeballs are likely picking the wrong route – it will usually be more expensive than conventional social advertising. Working with social content creators is cost-effective only if there is targeted insight about their ability to generate marketing outcomes with your target audience, or if it drives brand outcomes advertising cannot (e.g. advocacy).

The third is the way it is damaging the quality of social content, and distorting the ecosystem. Noticed those instagrammers and bloggers who put ‘lifestyle’ in their bios? Now ask yourself, have you ever heard a consumer say “I just love reading lifestyle blogs’? No. Of course not. Those words are a signal to social marketers – which indicates what that creator is really doing – creating content to attract commercial partners, not to entertain their real audience which got them to that point. There are creators who are essentially creations of their agents – in the way that the 90s and 00s saw music and reality TV stars summoned from thin air. This trend does no one any favours: the creators, the consumers or brands.

What’s the solution?

Consumers are savvy to this. Media-literacy is extremely high amongst those often-termed ‘millennial’, and in focus groups we’ve run, they’re entirely relaxed about creators and brands working together. Clearly everyone should be abiding by relevant UK law. But we also need consistent policing. Consistent in enforcement, but also consistent between traditional and social spheres.

But moreover we need to stand up for a quality social ecosystem – one which is as it began, based on peer connections, and influence and scale being earned through genuine value creation. Brands and ‘influencers’ alike have a responsibility to make this happen. Let’s not mess it up, eh?

On a really practical level, that means everyone standing up, and calling out non-disclosure in all spheres, whenever and wherever we see it. We’e walking the walk, as you can see here. Join us.

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