It's time to get frank about influencer marketing. We've all been tiptoeing around the subject, and it's in a precarious state. The current approach is unsustainable, and the bubble is about to burst.
Our UK advertising rules – the CAP code – states that "marketing communications must be obviously identifiable as such". An ad needs to obviously look like an ad.
The problem with influencer marketing right now is two-fold:
Firstly, there is a severe lack of understanding about what constitutes an ad and what doesn’t. Influencer marketing, in its current state, occupies a blurry middle ground between the two. To the credit of the ASA, they have been working to educate on this distinction, but awareness remains at a low level.
Secondly, when the brand and influencer agree that the piece of content they create does indeed constitute an ad, it’s rarely obviously identifiable. Discernible to the trained eye, sure. But it’s not the trained eye that counts, it’s the public eye.
Here’s the issue. The platforms themselves present an influencer ad in the same way as a normal piece of content in the feed. There’s no native distinction between the two.
Facebook has released a branded content feature in an attempt to address this, but as of yet, it hasn’t made its way to Instagram – the platform dominated by influencers.
Even with this feature, the content doesn’t stand out anywhere near as much as paid advertising does on Facebook. Remember, people will never go out of their way to study posts on social media – posts are viewed in the context of a crowded feed and will be scrolled through at lightning speed.
With the lack of such a native label feature, the ASA are asking influencers and brands to indicate paid posts with certain hashtags in the caption.
We recently did some research into this as part of The Social Survey, and what we found was staggering. 77% of Instagram users don’t know what the #sp hashtag means, while 48% of users don’t know what the #ad hashtag means.
This indicates a complete mismatch between what the industry has prescribed as a solution, and how the general public actually use social media.
I’d argue that even if there was full awareness of what these hashtags mean, it still wouldn’t be sufficient. Why? Well, we’ve been trained to skip past the sea of hashtags at the end of a caption. To make matters worse, Instagram now cuts off captions longer than 140 characters, requiring users to press "more" to see the full copy.
Can anyone really argue that someone who doesn’t work in our industry would be able to reliably differentiate every time between paid influencer posts and standard posts? Get real. Of course they couldn’t.
That makes us, as an industry, irresponsible.
However, it gets even more worrying. Our study also found that 49% of users would trust an influencer less if they knew they were being paid by a brand for a certain post.
Take these two sets of findings together, and it’s clear that there’s a fundamental issue right now. People can’t currently differentiate between paid posts and normal posts. But if they did know how to, almost half of them would lose trust in the paid posts.
This is why the current middle ground is incredibly precarious. When the knowledge gap closes, trust in influencers will fall. Pop – there goes the bubble.
People can’t currently differentiate between paid posts and normal posts. But if they did know how to, almost half of them would lose trust in the paid posts.
So how do we tackle this issue? Three things need to happen.
Firstly, the platforms themselves need to take some ownership. The lack of a native tool to allow influencers and brands to differentiate between an advert and a normal post is unacceptable. Rumour has it Facebook will be rolling out their branded content feature to Instagram soon, and they need to.
Secondly, the ASA need to get tougher on implementing their directives. To their credit, they recently published new guidelines for affiliates that seek to tackle some of these issues. They are recommending that "affiliates using social media should be aware of the technical quirks of each platform they use and at what opportunity they should identify something as an ad. This is a good first step, and shows they recognise that a hashtag in the copy just isn’t sufficient.
However, it’s one thing to set guidelines, it’s another to make sure they actually get followed. We need to see them get tougher with sanctions on brands and influencers who don’t play by the rules and this needs to be accompanied by a strong and sustained effort to educate and fill that knowledge gap.
Thirdly, brands and agencies need to lead by example. I get it – there’s currently no real incentive to play by the rules, and you may feel that you’ll get better results by not following them. It comes down to a moral issue – just because you can, doesn’t mean that you should.
We, as an industry, have a duty to be responsible with our advertising. We mustn’t deceive people. I believe that influencer marketing in its current state is doing just that.
The influencer space needs to grow up and formalise itself. It’s going to be a huge part of our industry, so view this current state as an opportunity not an obstacle. Work out how to do it properly and responsibly now.
Once consumers have clear and total knowledge over what is an "advert" and what isn’t, we can move past this grey area. I do believe that influencer marketing, when done well, can drive very effective results for brands – but we must work out how to do it responsibly.
Callum McCahon is Born Social's strategy director.