Last Friday, there was a lot of buzz around the findings of an influencer marketing survey that cast the industry into nervous hand-wringing. It turns out that not only did 71% of those surveyed not realise there were rules around the use of influencers in advertising at all, but 44% of respondents felt that influencer marketing is actually damaging to society.
The issue here isn’t influencer marketing itself, however. If the public isn’t aware of the rules then it’s the responsibility of brands and advertisers to educate both creators and consumers on the reality, and to be transparent about the nature of those partnerships.
A change in approach is essential for the stability of the industry. But what is the best way to go about this?
Education, education, education
Of course, the rules do exist; the Advertising Standards Authority has set guidelines to ensure any work where money changes hands between brands and influencers is clearly marked, including through the use of #ad.
The ASA states that "the brand (the advertiser) normally has primary responsibility for complying with the rules" and so it follows that they should be educating influencers and consumers about the rules also.
The nature of the industry – with members of the public generating engaged followings through their own creativity and talent – means that many influencers have not been taught how to conduct a marketing campaign, or what the rules are in terms of declaration, or even how much they should be paid for the work.
If the public isn’t aware of the rules, then it naturally follows that influencers won’t know either. Take recent events with the now infamous YouTuber Logan Paul, whose actions have thrown the question of professionalism among creators into a stark light.
Brands and advertisers must step into this void and ensure they are taking active and obvious steps to educate the influencers they work with on the rules, and also demonstrate when a promotion is paid for – this may mean going above and beyond the #ad recommendation from the ASA.
This could mean using the in-built Instagram feature that declares paid partnerships, or working with partners that help to educate creators, including offering legal advice, contractual help and education on how to get the rules right. This should be an industry standard.
Clearing the muddy waters
What’s most significant about the Prizeology research is that "two thirds of those surveyed agreed with the statement that their perception of a brand improved when it was transparent about product placement".
This demonstrates what we have been saying for as long as Social Circle has existed – proactive transparency of partnerships is essential for effective influencer marketing because it builds trust.
The Prizeology results are not overly concerning from a brand perspective if you genuinely are abiding by the rules, and if you care about maintaining integrity between yourself and your audience.
Ultimately, consumers don’t mind brands advertising on social media, and there have been many successful and clearly labelled ad campaigns that have generated high engagement.
However, this isn’t happening all of the time, as a study this January highlighted: four in 10 influencers said they only labelled when asked to by brands. Again, the onus is on brands to ensure they are as transparent as possible with paid partnerships.
What does the future hold?
I have expressed in the past that the ASA sometimes holds influencer marketing to higher standards than is expected of other industries. I wonder how many of the audience know that The Big "P" before Coronation Street means they may see product placement from brands such as Costa and the Co-op in the show?
However, research like Prizeology’s highlights how important it is to uphold honest and open influencer marketing campaigns. We see the results of such campaigns every day, and it’s a venture worthwhile enough that many consumer brands invest in it.
But brands cannot rely on often young creators without marketing training to know and act upon rules that they may not even be aware of or fully understand. It is the role of the influencer to understand the audience; know what makes them tick, what they laugh at and what they enjoy.
As a result, influencer marketing can build awareness, drive sales and foster great relationships. But ultimately, brands need to work harder to be honest about paid partnerships and educate the influencers they work with – otherwise a medium that has thus far reaped great rewards for brands could mean that they lose friends and alienate people.
Matt Donegan is chief executive of Social Circle