The 2019 guide to influencers and ads

The 2019 guide to influencers and ads

There’s been a lot of discussion about ads and influencers recently, sparked by the CMA (Competition and Markets Authority) agreeing with a handful of influencers about their future ad disclosures.

There’s a lot of great articles already written about this but I wanted to approach this from the point of view:

  1. I’m a blogger / “influencer” and have been for around 10 years (back when freebies and gifts were rare!)

  2. I am a digital marketing freelancer, working with small businesses who may consider working with influencers

  3. In Australia, I practiced as a lawyer so I genuinely really enjoy reading guidance and legislation

  4. And I’m an avid consumer of social media (that’s the positive way of putting a spin on all my scrolling).

I’ll link to some of the articles I’ve read below, in case you want to do more reading. In Australia, I practiced as a lawyer and always enjoyed deconstructing legislation and guidance. So while this blog post does not constitute legal advice, I have tried to take a methodical approach to my analysis.

Why are we here?

The ASA (Advertising Standards Authority) has been issuing guidance for influencers for years, and generally, they’ve not been adhered to. Bloggers and influencers receive gifts, money and loads of other benefits in return for coverage from brands.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that relationship – for brands, it’s another form of advertising, and for bloggers they get a the benefit of being rewarded for their work.

But the issue is the disclosure of these relationships. Too often do influencers post content which isn’t properly disclosed as an ad, which is confusing to the general public. The general public are who the ASA and CMA are looking to protect – does the normal consumer understand your post is an ad?

Influencers and bloggers exist in a bit of a bubble and tend to look to each other for reassurance they’re doing the right thing. So when non-disclosure is rampant, it’s easy to say “Well, x doesn’t disclose their ads and they have more followers than me, so why should I?”

The issue is the general public’s perception of those posts, and whether it’s clear they’re an ad. And the CMA and ASA’s position is that no, influencers are not being clear enough. That’s why there’s new guidance in place.

Who is an influencer?

I can’t see a definition of influencer in any of the guidance, and I think this is a major issue. The only place it seems to be defined is in the press release as: “‘Influencer’ refers to bloggers, vloggers, celebrities and social media personalities.”

Personally, I’d never call myself an influencer but I do have around 7k followers on both instagram and twitter, so people might actually listen to my recommendations. Therefore, I need to abide by the guidance.

Is there a number which makes someone an influencer? What about business accounts? The wording of the guidance is very much around an individual, so it’s people like Zoe Sugg and Binky Felstead they’re talking about (two of the signatories).

What needs to be disclosed?

There’s a simple guide here which is worth checking out. If you’ve posted a piece of content online, and tagged, mentioned or linked to a business then it needs to be marked as AD at the start of the post when:

  • The post is paid for - you’ve received money in return for any kind of post on social media, including instagram stories

  • You’re posting about your own business services on your personal channels

  • Affiliate marketing - if you’re receiving a commission from sales of an item, then you need to disclose that

  • Advertorial type content - if you receive free product, it needs to be disclosed The wording of the guidance makes this more complicated than it needs to be as they’re splitting hairs about which regulatory body cares about this kind of disclosure. It’s the CMA, they’re the ones with teeth so disclosure is required. I quote: “ The CMA expects influencers to disclose when they’ve received any form of monetary payment, a loan of a product or service, any incentive and/or commission or have been given the product they’re posting about for free.” #Gifted should be fine when disclosing a gift but it might be worth considering using AD to be on the safe side.

  • Commercial relationships – there’s a rough guideline of 12 months for disclosing past commercial relationships. So if you work for a client (as I do), previously worked for a client, previously did a paid-for campaign with a brand, then that needs to be disclosed. This is because you’re not really able to be independent about a business when you’ve had a relationship with them recently.

The disclosure needs to be obvious – the AD can’t be hidden away behind an ellipses, not in hashtags. The viewer shouldn’t need to click/tap to find out it’s an ad so the disclosure will need to be in the title, start of caption, top of stories etc.

Importantly, the disclosure also covers endorsing a product which you’ve not actually used. This would cover products like weight-loss shakes etc which seem to be everywhere – so you can’t represent that you use something which you actually don’t. This is considered to be misleading.

What about RTs?

I can’t see any mention of this in the guidance and I think this is a potential issue which hasn’t been discussed. I’d happily RT a post from a client but there’s no way for me to disclose that they’re a client, so that’s a problem.

What does the future look like?

I genuinely think this could be the demise of influencer marketing. The industry has been tainted by non-disclosure for too long, and influencers are unhappy about having to disclose about their relationships with brands. Influencers will no doubt see less “likes” on ad posts, which will affect desirability for brands to participate in influencer marketing.

Content will be more clearly split between AD and organic content rather than the mix of advertorial content we see now.

Maybe Instagram (and blogs) will return to the heydays of people creating posts for the love of it, rather than simply featuring ad content. A return to posting pictures of things they love, and not worrying about the likes. I think with this added disclosure, we’ll all have a harsh wakeup call to how much ad content we’ve been consuming - even for the skeptical people, like me!

It will be interesting to see if anything results from non-disclosure. A quick scroll through my Instagram feed still shows that influencers - even ones mentioned in the press release are still doing whatever they want. So what will the CMA do about it? I think only once there’s some serious court action will influencers actually change their habits.

I think social media platforms should make disclosure easier. Instagram has the option for a “paid partnership” disclosure in the location field for some influencers - why not customise this so every influencer can use it and describe the nature of the content? Same with IG stories, Twitter and Facebook.

Marketers, PRs and agencies are just as responsible for upholding the guidelines as influencers. In the past 6 months I’ve been asked multiple times to write about or post about a “freebie” (free meal or event) without disclosing that it’s free. I think this is appalling conduct from so-called professionals, so I’d like to see them take some of the burden of helping influencers abide by disclosure requirements.

Aside from the couple of points mentioned above, I do think the guidelines are pretty clear. I think it’s better to err on the side of caution and disclose things as AD which you maybe previously wouldn’t have. I personally don’t think there’s much harm in that as your audience will appreciate the honesty.

Over to you, what do you think of these new rules?

Further reading:

  • Nik Speller on Influencer, “The CMA and Social Media Endorsement Disclosure: Where The Heck Do We Stand Now?”

  • The Guardian, “Instagram: beware of bad influencers”

Case Study: increasing organic traffic without creating any new content

Case Study: increasing organic traffic without creating any new content