Like any big new trend or idea, there was going to be an adjustment period, but for Influencer Marketing that time is over. With new regulations, expectations, and reports, the Wild West days are done. No longer are we supposed to see bought and paid for posts that act as ads, without acknowledging it. The times of singers, celebrities, and Kardashians posting about a music festival or coffee, and allowing their followers to believe that it was genuine, are done. For years this was the case, and it allowed brands to advertise without accountability to consumers, and without following guidelines put in place to regulate their practices.
At the advent of influencer marketing there was a sense that anyone with a significant number of Facebook friends, Twitter followers, or Instagram loyalty, could boost a brand’s online profile and build their brand community and sales numbers. However, with a lack of rules, regulations, and reality involved, the truth about influencers and the brands they worked with were never truly on the table.
If you spend any significant time on social media, and you follow many popular accounts, it’s a 100% guarantee that you’ve seen posts that have been bought and paid for, but likely you haven’t been told. Maybe you were savvy enough to figure it out. But maybe you didn’t and you did what you were supposed to do – think that a person you know and trust believes in a brand and their product, and wants you to do the same.
At Blade, we’ve looked back at famous spokespeople in our Spokes Folks series. Tom Selleck, Bob Hope, Wayne Gretzky, etc., they all worked with multiple brands in print and TV ads, and they were all paid to do it. There was no illusion. Smart people consuming media knew that those celebrities were being paid, not just pitching products out of the goodness of their hearts. But the influencer trade is different, making everyday people the vessel for a brand’s message, and adding the appearance of genuine love for a brand and their offerings.
It was recently reported that the American Federal Trade Commission (FTC) sent 90 letters to influencers and brands, reminding them of the guidelines in place, meant to protect the public. The #1 rule that the FTC is focused on is the requirement of clear and conspicuous disclosure that the post is an advertisement. Instagram influencers had become well versed in the art of hiding cryptic hashtags in posts rather than being up front about their business, skirting the spirit of the guidelines. So now, with a watchful eye, those same influencers, celebrity or otherwise, will be expected to include hashtags like: #ad and #sponsoredpost to their photos and captions. And they’ll be expected to not hide them in a string of other hashtags in hopes that the public misses them.
And here’s where things get tricky for the entire practice of influencer marketing. In the beginning, brands and brand advocates (celebrities and civilians) would collaborate on social media posts that didn’t look like ads, or feel like ads. They were more like the “Just Like Us” pages of a gossip mag, than they were the ads in a magazine. The theory was that the general public, would be influenced by those posts to try the brand’s product or service. Simple, really, BUT, by adding #ad to one of those posts, do brands lose the advantage?
Now that the general public is supposed to be made aware that these posts aren’t just testimonials, but purchased content, will they still trust the message? Data is starting to show that fewer people are trusting social media posts and online reviews than they were just years ago, and without proper reaction from both brands and influencers, that trend will continue. There may still be influencers who still have clout (not Klout, for those who remember) with the public. But if they do, it will be because of their work and integrity. Yes, celebrities will continue to be paid for their social media posts featuring/pitching product; that’s the reality of the social media climate and the way media is now consumed. However, influencers who have made the decision to work only with brands, and on campaigns, that their brand communities care about, or could believe in, could be the ones left standing.
Influencers who have worked with every brand that would pay them, are the ones who will start to lose their influence. If a blogger or Instagram personality can’t convince their own brand community that what they’re posting is believable, they’ve lost their credibility. And the brands that continue to work with those influencers won’t gain anything from those campaigns. Instead they will look like they’ve paid for testimonials, instead of garnering them organically, or earning them by delivering on their promises.
As the social media landscape continues to evolve, brands will be required to evolve with it. Audiences will become more savvy and informed. The influx of fake news (the real kind, not the Trump branded kind) has made people sceptical, and the lies that some influencers have passed on to their brand communities has made them cynical of the practice. Consumers are becoming tuned into the truth. And transparency has become more and more important. Trust has been eroded, and only the brands that are dedicated to telling the truth, and working with influencers who are willing to do things the right way, are going to retain, or regain that trust.
The faster brands learn these lessons, the better equipped they will be to move forward. The longer they take, the further they’ll fall behind and risk doing more damage to the equity they seek to build with their brand community.