Influencer Marketing: Why the regulators have got it wrong
With influencers becoming an increasingly prominent part of the industry, regulators have released the first guidelines specifically relating to the sector. However, they still haven't gotten it quite right yet, with influencer marketing being subject to uniquely stringent rules.
Who’d want to be a marketer in 2019? With consumers making the conscious decision to switch off from marketing material, it can be incredibly difficult for brands to get their messages to cut through. Marketers have adapted by tapping into the power of social media, partnering with content creators to reach key audiences. For brands, the appeal is obvious, an influencer can personalise a campaign, bringing an authentic and relatable voice – something corporations can struggle to do. So, for any brand looking to engage customers, working with influencers can be key.
However, like many digital industries, finding effective regulation has proven to be difficult. Due to the nature of influencer marketing, where promotions are akin to a recommendation from a friend, pre-existing marketing guidelines are inadequate. In response, regulators have released new rules specific to influencer marketing. These require influencers to ‘tell the full story’ of any commercial relationships with a brand. In plain English, this requires content creators to ensure that the #AD label highlighting the commercial relationship is ‘obvious’ (it must be clear before a piece of content is clicked on/engaged with), ‘prominent’, ‘appropriate for the channel’ and ‘suitable for all potential devices’.
As a relatively young industry, the influencer marketing sector does need guidelines, and with effective regulation we could begin to see the sector mature. There is also no doubt that the regulators have every intention of protecting consumers from fraudulent, and potentially dangerous activity. But unfortunately, they haven’t got it right yet. While the core of the new rules is fair, the full scope of it feels a bit overzealous and as though a “one size fits all” approach has been taken; realistically it needs to be a more nuanced approach that encompasses the variations across different social media platforms. The problems are more apparent when the guidelines are compared to those for other forms of advertising such as product placements in music videos.
No one’s suggesting influencers should be given free rein to mislead people and not disclose brand partnerships. However, the whole ‘people must be aware before they click’ stance is a bit excessive – especially when targeting YouTube content.
For example, if I click on a video, and the creator introduces the video by saying ‘Thank you to brand X for sponsoring this video’, is that not enough disclosure of a commercial relationship? Surely, I can then use my discretion as a consumer to decide whether I want to continue with the video or not? To say this ‘doesn’t tell the full story’ (as the guidelines do) feels a bit redundant. The video creator has clearly flagged the nature of the relationship, making the viewer aware that the opinions in the video might be somewhat controlled by the brand.
There are some who claim this information needs to be conveyed to viewers before they click the video, yet on other platforms the content is often served alongside the disclosure. If I am on Instagram, I see the #AD or ‘Paid Partnership’ tag at the same time as the content, giving me context to it while I experience it - not before. Watch almost any music video from a top 40 artist, does it say #AD in the title of the video or on the video thumbnail? No. But I guarantee there were countless product placements in there.
As we know, we disengage as soon as we know something is an advert - we tend to avoid them out of instinct. The issue is that the collaboration with the influencer could be a brilliant piece of content that consumers would really enjoy, but it is extremely likely that seeing #AD in the title will affect their willingness to click on the video; for no reason other than the fact we are so used to being “attacked” with adverts that usually provide us with no value, so our natural instinct is to try and avoid them as much as possible. Ultimately, the most active YouTube viewers are well aware of how this works, and are pretty savvy, so it’s a shame that they’re not being given much credit under the current guidelines either.
On YouTube, we’ve seen promotions contained within a video range from dedicated videos, to 30 second shout-outs, or simply gifted products. It feels like there should be a more nuanced approach to make viewers aware of what they are watching, rather than grouping it all under the exact same rules. If the sponsored part is such a small section of the video as a whole, should the entire 20 minutes of content that is not sponsored be classified as an advert?
Indeed, in other countries, we’ve seen influencers taken to task over brands displayed indirectly in the background of their content (intentionally or otherwise). The impact of which could result in influencers over-censoring organic brand presence within their content, which would be a real shame.
This isn’t to say that branding something as an advert will be totally detrimental to how it performs - quality content will always rise to the surface, and as long as the viewer is being provided with value, it will work. However if we’re trying to be transparent with consumers, let’s be more specific about what form of sponsored content is present rather than lumping it all under #AD. The current rules have good intentions, however in practice they are somewhat stifling when they don’t need to be. We absolutely want to see effective regulation brought to the sector, but we as an industry need to have more input on the laws and work with the relevant bodies to ensure that consumers are protected while content continues to thrive.