Are the Wild West days of influencer collaboration over?
- 16 March, 2017 07:42
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.
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
Keeping it #authentic
For brands like Tourism Australia, where transparency and authenticity lie at the heart of all social interactions, the new rules only reflect already ingrained good social practices.
“The added scrutiny being applied to social media advertising can only be a good thing,” Tourism Australia’s CMO, Lisa Ronson, says. “The more transparent companies are about their relationship with influencers, the better.”
Tourism Australia doesn’t actually pay social media influencers but does operate an international media hosting program that brings bloggers, instagrammers and other social media influencers to Australia. “We usually cover travel and ground costs, but they are not paid, nor do we exert any control on what content they might produce,” Ronson says.
One example was working with its global tourism ambassador, celebrity Chris Hemsworth, plus state and territory tourism colleagues and industry to arrange an itinerary for him and wife, Elsa Pataky.
“We were upfront that we wanted him and Elsa to share their experiences on social,” she says. “But what they chose to post and what photos they chose to let us use was entirely up to them.”
While brands like Tourism Australia cannot control what social influencers, journalists and celebrities post and are never guaranteed great content or a great story, it doesn’t worry Ronson, as she knows the brand is true and authentic.
“I’m happy with this approach for the simple reason that I have utter confidence in our brand,” she says. “We see this every day in the 3500 or so amazing photos and videos our fans and followers share with us through social. Australia doesn’t need editing. Our content works so well because it is unfiltered and authentic.”
In the long run, experts agreed the changes won’t mean social communities will be deterred from brands openly collaborating with influencers. Instead, consumers will be more trusting of authenticity and transparency.
Head of social at online marketing agency, Web Profits, Katherine Chalhoub put the onus on brands to refine their content and advertising strategies, to ensure they develop content that effectively markets their products or messages in a way that appears native to the platform.
“This will no doubt ensure the authenticity of followers who naturally engage with ads and content, as well as allowing brands to maintain a community that will likely convert and advocate for their products or services,” she says. “And I think users will appreciate the transparency. It will bring about greater awareness of influencers who regularly align their name with multiple brands, and bring into question the authenticity of influencer content, especially the kind that overtly markets products.”
Align and affiliate
Ikon Communications’ head of content, Maria Casas, suggests brands who want to maintain a good influencer relationship continue to align and affiliate wisely.
“If the output is content that provides value, rings true and is relevant to an already engaged audience, both the brand and the influencer will most likely see it is well received by their audience,” she says.
When choosing an influencer to work with on a campaign, brands should look beyond the number of likes or followers, Adelaide Social Manager’s founder, Kimberley Reddy, says.
“And at the end of the day, great content is great content. So long as influencers continue to deliver advertised or branded content in the same voice and tone their followers loved when they first began following the influencer, I can’t see these changes having too much of a negative impact,” she says.
Wright also stresses that if brands are correctly selecting already brand-aligned influencers and are allowing them to speak openly about their brand, they won’t be hugely affected by the new changes.
“Influencers and brands need to stay true to their own brand architecture regardless of gifting or payments,” she says. “If they deviate from this, it is going to be far more detrimental to them both in the long run.”
From an influencer perspective, the key thing is to work with brands they already love or aspire towards so that they maintain their consistency and don't come across as a sell out to their audience.
“If a brand is taking full control of messaging, the influencer needs to ensure that this is still aligned to how they would normally speak to their audience,” Wright says. “Influencers may not have all been to journalism school or have done marketing degrees, but they need to be ethical in how they approach their audiences, they need to treat them with respect and be open and honest if a brand has helped influence an opinion they are communicating.”
Landes notes smart influencers who have maintained an engaged audience over a period of time are already acutely aware of what their audience will and won’t accept from them, and understand the authenticity their audiences have come to expect from them. “For those influencers who have something specific to say, who speak from a position of authority or are well regarded in their specific area of influence, very little will change.”
Managing the rogue influencer
But not all influencers will be willing and able to comply, and brands need to prepare in advance to avoid landing in hot water with rogue influencers, Muenster warns.
“It’s important to note the influencer’s behaviour isn’t governed by the new rules, it’s the brands that are ultimately responsible,” Muenster says. “This might have a chilling effect, as brands push for more disclosure from the influencers, and you’ll have certain influencers that will say no, my community will not like that.
“It’s up to the ACCC to bring proceedings against a brand where they see a series of social posts where disclosure requirements haven’t been met and are deemed misleading to consumers.”
That is where an influencer can be brought into the problem. And the rogue problem can be compounded when the brand says they told the influencer to tag appropriately - and they didn’t. Muenster advises brands to adopt best practice and ensure if they do engage with influencers from a brand point of view, there is a contractual mechanism to control whether they go rogue.
“We know incidents rogue influencers have happened, it’s much harder to bring them into line if you don’t have a contract that forces them to comply with simple disclosure agreements like placing #ad on posts,” Muenster adds. “So strong influencer engagement relation contracts are crucial, or use a platform which has the conditions embedded within their terms of contracting – so you can actually damage control a situation that is going a bit haywire.”
Next up: Tips on how to effectively collaborate with influencers
Expert Tips for brands to effectively collaborate with influencers
From Butcher Baker & Co Communications’ director, Jane Evans
Accept that aligning and affiliating with influencers in brand campaigns is legitimate and expected – be open and transparent.
Develop guiding principles for your brand - whether you are a small business or a large one, understand down why it makes sense for you to work with influencers, and also what rules you will operate by (and ask of influencers) to ensure transparency. Share this with customers and staff.
Create visible cues as part of your campaign - How will you make sponsored content highly visible? Innovate, be creative and consistent.
Become your customer - How would you customers feel if they didn’t know you had a commercial arrangement with an influencer? Keep your campaigns genuine and real. This probably means that you won’t limit yourself to the AANA rules alone but apply across the board.
Practice the rule of seven - Plan for seven times that you can declare a specific commercial interest with an influencer to your customers and importantly why it makes sense – from website to social channels to newsletters. Make sure the influencer does same.
Take a partnership approach, and expect two-way transparency - from both influencers and also PRs / third parties. If you are working directly with an influencer, be clear on your expectations of them, and work out together how you can meet the requirements of the code and expectations on transparency in a way that makes most sense for both brand and influencer.
Don’t be bound by the AANA rules - An influencer is invited to attend a dinner at a restaurant for free on a no strings basis / no specified quid pro quo – this is not in breach of the AANA code. But is it relevant to future customers to know that influencers attended the event for free? Probably. And what about products sent out as gifts? That too. Think about it from the perspective of customers - and keep campaigns transparent and real.