Why influencer marketing is starting to grow up
A view from Callum McCahon

Why influencer marketing is starting to grow up

Instagram's native feature, indicating when influencers are being paid by a brand, could have drastic implications, writes Born Social's strategy director

Six months ago, I predicted that the influencer bubble was about to burst.

My reasoning was simple. There was a total lack of transparency over what constituted an ad and what didn’t.

A hashtag (usually #sp or #ad) hidden in the depths of the caption on an influencer’s paid post just wasn’t cutting it. It was messy, opaque, and ultimately irresponsible.

One solution, I suggested, would be the release of a native feature on Instagram that influencers could use to indicate when they were being paid by a brand. This week, Instagram announced that they are going to be rolling out this exact feature to influencers and brands.

This branded content feature is a necessary move from Instagram. It will offer a native way for an influencer to indicate when they are being paid by a brand for a post.

This effectively kills the questionable practice of using hashtags in the caption of a post to indicate a paid post. Indeed, The Social Survey found that 77% of Instagram users didn’t know what the #sp hashtag meant, while 48% didn’t know what #ad meant. That’s why it was unsustainable.

But this is not just a feature. This move comes with the arrival of an entirely new set of rules for the platform – namely, that if an influencer is being paid for a post, they must indicate it using this new feature. It’s not an option.

So what does this mean?

Let’s first look at the implications for brands.

This move legitimises influencer marketing as a key part of the social media mix in 2017. Instagram has effectively given it the rubber stamp. It’s recognised that this practice (or problem, depending on your viewpoint) is widespread enough to warrant fully integrating into the platform itself.

This could encourage brands that haven’t yet tested influencer marketing to delve into it. Influencer marketing is now most definitely in the mainstream.

More importantly, this puts the onus on brands to do it properly. Influencer marketing can no longer be seen as a clever way to manipulate an "organic" recommendation – paid posts will be obviously identifiable as such.

In a move to incentivise brands to adopt the feature, Instagram will be giving them access to analytics and insights from the post itself.

This is significant, given that the elephant in the room for influencer marketing has long been the lack of reliable measurement methods. It’s therefore traditionally been tough to assess the return on any investment in influencer marketing.

This feature will allow brands to measure the impact of a post on an influencer’s profile to almost the same degree that they can assess their own content. A small (yet significant) step towards solving the measurement deficit in influencer marketing.

For the influencers themselves, the change could have even more drastic implications.

The key issue that is going to be thrown into question is the "organic" feel that influencer collaborations have at the moment, a factor many laud as the key selling point of influencer marketing.

Now that we’re moving towards total transparency, how will audiences react? It’s going to become instantly obvious when an influencer is plugging a product in return for payment.

On the one hand, this could jeopardise the trusting relationship that influencers enjoy with their audiences. On the other, perhaps users will appreciate the openness and transparency?

Frequency of paid posts will become more of an issue. As more influencers professionalise and start to earn a full-time living from their audience, it will become vitally important that they strike a balance between the volume of paid posts and the organic posts on which they built their audience.

Now that paid posts will literally look different to organic ones, the balance will be more exposed than ever. I’d predict that we might start to see backlash against influencers who push it too far.

With all of that said, there are three key questions that provide interesting food for thought as this feature begins to roll out.

Firstly, it’s now going to be crystal clear when an influencer is being paid to promote a brand. That’s obviously a great thing for transparency, but what will it mean for effectiveness? Will users start subconsciously skipping past these posts when they see the paid post indicator? Or will it still retain an organic, natural feel? In reality, the answer probably lies somewhere in the middle.

Secondly, Instagram has a history of formalising a widespread behaviour as a precursor to monetisation down the line. The likelihood is that Instagram will soon give brands the option to boost branded content from influencers directly. If that happens, we can be confident that this will be accompanied by a decline in organic reach for these influencer posts.

In that scenario, would we lose one of the key strengths of influencer marketing, allowing us access to an influencer’s audience? An influencer’s content creation skills could become much more important than the size and strength of their community.

Finally, will influencers and brands actually use it? What punishments will Instagram enforce when brands and influencers don’t do it properly? Might we see an increase in the amount of value exchanges – collaborations that don’t involve payment – as a way to bend the definition of what constitutes a "paid post"?

These are all big questions that are going to be thrown open over the next few months.

All in all, it’s certainly a positive step. This is the by far the biggest move so far towards a formalised and regulated influencer marketing landscape.

Influencer marketing is starting to grow up. Finally.

Callum McCahon is strategy director at Born Social