Influencer marketing is a creative art that relies heavily on technology and governance to sustain credibility. This translates to full and transparent disclosures. Yesterday’s news about Warner Brothers, so soon after similar news about Lord and Taylor, represents repeated failures from the perspective of the FTC to adhere to established consumer protection principles for native advertising (aka sponsored content).
It’s no longer acceptable for brands or influencers to say they didn’t realize they weren’t in compliance. One of the first cases to get attention of a brand/agency violating the FTC’s native advertising principles was Sony and its agency, Deutsch LA, back in 2012. At the time the Wall Street Journal called it a wake-up call for the industry.
It’s 2016 and the rules have changed. Brands now routinely employ people outside of the company to create content on its behalf. Brands should not be concerned about controlling exactly what the influencers say, but rather ensuring that what they are saying about the brand is consistently disclosed as sponsored content.
I work at TapInfluence, an influencer marketing SaaS platform, and yes we work with hundreds of brands and agencies on their influencer initiatives. So yes, I’m very invested in this topic.
Thinking that sponsored content can be passed off as genuine editorial shows that brands both underestimate consumers and don’t understand the new marketing landscape. Consumers accept that the influencers they trust are paid for their work. As long as the content is authentic, useful, and in the influencer’s voice, its impact is as strong as editorial content. When brands try to manipulate it into veiled product messaging, consumers reject it. Creating trust and credibility with consumers should be paramount for every brand and that is why influencer marketing, when run properly, is an extremely powerful marketing channel.
I believe we need more explicit disclosures as well as technology to solve this in a repeatable and scalable way, otherwise, everyone gets hurt by the process. Influencers are publicly tainted, diminishing their audience and reducing the likelihood that brands will want to work with them again; brands know that the FTC will take action against them which could result in fines; and there is the unintended consequence on the consumer, who becomes more skeptical of content, not knowing if they can trust that it is sponsored or not.
We have addressed this head on. Our SaaS platform includes an opt-in marketplace of influencers who have chosen to do business with brands and agencies. For every assignment, their contract explicitly states that they need to disclose they are paid to produce content. In the platform, we include embed codes for blog posts and hashtags for social media posts. While we can’t force influencers to include these since they are posting on their own sites and social accounts, the disclaimer language is displayed on every assignment to ensure they comply.
Our brand and agency contracts also contain clear and purposeful language around disclosing content that is paid. And as our platform allows brands and influencers to work together in one place, it becomes the source of truth (#SOT) for disclosure information.
Looking ahead, I believe both influencers and brands will be held accountable for disclosing sponsored content. To date, influencers have not been punished by the FTC (this trend continued even in yesterday’s news). I also believe FTC rules will evolve. As social platforms become more marketing-oriented and influencer marketing thrives as a mainstream marketing activity, we will see platform-specific guidelines that provide the structure for disclosures with the platforms providing tools to influencers and solution providers to stay compliant in the creation and distribution process.
Brands need to protect themselves and should aggressively police their own sponsored content, the work of their agency partners, and of course their influencers.