​Are the Wild West days of influencer collaboration over?

The latest AANA rulings have opened up fresh debate as to how to engage in authentic influencer collaboration

The rapid rise of the social influencer has given brands new and exciting ways to get noticed by customers. But it’s also raised significant questions around the transparency of such relationships.

Recent guidelines launched by the Australian Association of National Advertisers (AANA) pushing brands to disclose who they are collaborating with on sponsored influencer posts have been generally welcomed by the industry. Yet there are a number of experts who think more needs to be done.

Principal at Muenster Solicitors and Attorneys and adland lawyer, Stephen von Muenster, has been calling on the industry for such guidelines for a few years now and sees their introduction as a step forward in putting consumers first.

“The consumer should be put first - not the influencer or brand, so the consumer should be treated with respect and know they are part of a trusted online community,” he tells CMO.

In full force since March this year, the AANA’s changes to its Advertiser Code of Ethics stated social media ads must be “clearly distinguishable” and “not camouflage” that they are advertising. This includes ensuring brand posts on social have disclosure terms such as #ad in the comments section. The code is enforced by Advertising Standards Board, which is funded by the ad industry, and is also closely monitored by the ACCC.

“The Wild West days are coming to an end and now social is an important marketing channel, the ACCC and ASB will be watching what’s going on,” Muenster says. “If you are vigilant and adopt best practice, the general consensus is that if you disclose there is a commercial connection, it doesn’t mean the community is not going to like that. It’s actually better to do it.”

Social media educator and founder of Hancock Creative agency, Alecia Hancock, also welcomes the AANA ruling as a positive step forward for social media advertising.

“It recognises what we've known for a long time, ads on social media are an incredibly effective element of any advertising campaign,” she says. “Acknowledging the same advertising standards apply is a powerful step forward in both recognising digital media, but also in protecting the people who use it."

International Social Media Association (ISMA) president and principal of Axis Legal, Sara Delpopolo, says the changes may even lead to advertising innovation.

“Being clear about the 'vision/dram' that is being promoted by social media influencers and marketers will not stifle marketing, but will lead to innovation,” she says. “Audiences are perceptive and will appreciate the clarity - they will not ‘switch off’.

“To expect a higher standard of clarity from advertisers is not a bad thing. It is a mature and principled position to take given the reality of digital media use - and understanding the laws is a fundamental baseline for the innovative creation and delivery of social media content by digital advertisers.”

Naked Communications’ strategy director, Craig Adams, agrees, adding the changes mean brands now need to work harder and better to engage with their audiences on social media.

The rules have yet again changed in people’s favour, not brands and advertisers, and that’s a good thing,” he says. “They are yet another indication that brands can no longer get away with being uninteresting. So we have to be better. We have to be more insightful in our understanding of our audience. We have to work harder at creating interesting content that people are engaging with.”

Consumers aren’t idiots

Several experts argue the move will not have any major impact on most brands, nor customer perception of brands. For example, recent research conducted by Social Soup following the rules of disclosure found clearly calling out sponsored content does not impact influencer engagement levels.

“This is good news for the future of influencer marketing,” Social Soup’s CEO, Sharyn Smith, says. “Consumers are smart in terms of how social works and people value transparency, they don’t mind brands partner with influencers and they are OK with it as long as they know.”

“The ruling, to some degree, insults the intelligence of the consumer, many of whom are savvy enough to know of product or brand placement in social media, just as they are aware of brand placement in movies, television and the never-ending list of media that exists today,” digital marketing expert and founder of Menace Group, Kevin Spiteri, says. “Brands will continue to invest in clever and authentic ways to engage their target market, and customers will continue to be progressive, well researched and considered purchasers.”

For Spiteri, third-party review from influencers is a valuable example of a business and brand willing to put itself on the line as it often has no control of the message, nor the outcome of the placement.

“Further, consumers aren’t idiots,” he continues. “They follow influencers because they are aspirational, inspirational and relate to their ‘tribe’ via their activity, lifestyle, values, interests etc. They want to know what brands and products these individuals use so likewise they can assimilate.”

Blogger and social media influencer Jill Wright, who has a following of over 45,000 on her Instagram page, @iamjillwright, agrees.

“Influencers or bloggers by definition speak about what they are interested in and influence their readership based on their opinions,” she says. “People are following them for their very clear opinions on topics. I find it hard to understand how this body thinks readers are naive enough to think that brands don't play a part in some of the material."

Expert talent agency, The Lifestyle Suite’s director, Simone Landes, also asserts most of a brand’s customer base or potential consumers aren’t blind to the commercial relationships underpinning much of the social media activity and support for the brand espoused by various influencers.

“What’s interesting is that an audience will be OK with that, if they can genuinely connect the dots, if the influencer and the brand inherently fit and that the relationship between the two is a positive one,” Landes says.

The Lifestyle Suite’s director, Simone Landes says today's savvy customer  isn’t blind to the commercial relationships underpinning  social media activity
The Lifestyle Suite’s director, Simone Landes says today's savvy customer isn’t blind to the commercial relationships underpinning social media activity


According to publicist at The Gap Agency, Nicole Watson, it's important to remember today’s socially savvy consumer is hyper-aware of when they are being advertised to.

“The generation of today are spending more time on social media than ever before and are becoming able to distinguish when being advertised to, even when it is not clearly specified or in a traditional sense in most cases,” she says. “In terms of the impact the new AANA rulings will have on brands perceptions, it is in the best interests of brands to think of influencers the same way we’d think of traditional media, for example by maintaining editorial independence and integrity.

“While the landscape is undoubtedly different, what remains the same is the fact that influencers know their personal brand and audience inside and out and are very capable of making editorial decisions to complement this. But when we start dictating to much how content is shared, we not only risk brands losing consumer credibility but more importantly the influencers losing creative control.”

Up next: How Tourism Australia is keeping influencer networks authentic

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