Bloggers or floggers: social media moves to wise up on influencers

We report on calls for more transparency in advertising online

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Most of the choices we make as consumers are based on a recommendation of one kind or another. It might be a tip-off from a friend or a family member, a trusted review or an advertising message that manages to dissolve some of our natural cynicism. The newest and fastest-growing source of such a recommendation, however, is from social media influencers: the self-made online stars whose trusted status combined with huge audiences can have a big impact on product sales.

Names such as Huda Beauty, Markiplier and Zoella are international phenomena with millions of followers, and the key to their success boils down to their authenticity. Having set themselves up as arbiters of good taste who are just like you and me, their opinions appear to be more honest, their recommendations more impartial and their word more trusted than many other forms of advertising.

But the power of these celebrities, coupled with rumours of the amounts they earn through product promotion, has led to questions of whether money has compromised that authenticity. This, in turn, is causing brands and legislators to subject their activities to greater scrutiny.

The UAE’s National Media Council (NMC) is one of many national bodies to have introduced legislation to bring order to an industry characterised by a lack of regulation. Influencers in the UAE who use their online presence to promote products will need to register and obtain a licence before the end of June, a move described by the NMC’s director general, Mansour Al Mansouri, as “imperative” to enhance the reliability of the sector. This question of reliability and trust mainly pivots around the issue of disclosure, ie whether it’s clear to the public if a blog post, tweet or photograph is actually an advertisement. The United States Federal Trade Commission introduced measures in September to force influencers to be more transparent, while the British Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) requires the prominent use of the hashtag #ad to comply with consumer protection legislation.

But do these measures go far enough? “One UK survey showed that around half of people aren’t aware of these hashtags and what they represent,” says Christina McDermott, managing director of influencer consultancy Cattington. “And influencers find ways to get around it – either by hiding the hashtag, or by adding it as a comment [on Instagram] rather than including it in the post itself.”

Is #ad enough of a tell? 

The dilemma faced by influencers is one that’s long existed in marketing: the more obvious it is that something is an advertisement, the less receptive the audience. This is particularly difficult on social media, where followers would like their favourite online personalities to be squeaky clean and unblemished by commercialism.

“It’s hard,” says McDermott. “They need to make money because it’s their living, but they don’t want to annoy the community that’s put them in that position in the first place.”

Stephi LaReine, a lifestyle influencer with more than 50,000 followers on Instagram, believes her audience deserves clarity. “It seems obvious to me to be clear about monetisation,” she says. “Some bloggers and influencers may disagree, but having an audience that trusts your words and thoughts is far more valuable than anything you’re gifted or paid for.”

Influencers and brands who fall short of the standards adopted by people like LaReine have found themselves in hot water of late, with complaints from the public leading to warning letters, fines and court cases.

German courts addressing the issue of non-disclosure have debated whether hashtags such as #ad are enough in a country where English isn’t the first language, and whether the German equivalent (#werbung or #anzeige) should be used. But while legislators across the world emphasise that the public shouldn’t have to “play detective” to assess whether they’re being advertised at, brands are having to do detective work of their own – this time to validate claims of popularity made by influencers in order to boost their earning potential.

On fake followers

“In the beginning, this was all an experiment for marketers,” says Erick Schwab, co-founder of Sylo, a US company that has devised ways of measuring the power of digital influencers. “They were just throwing money at a new thing to see what it did or didn’t do. If you had more followers you got more money – no one was checking the numbers. The reason we’ve seen so many bots and fake followers is because that’s the metric by which brands were paying people. If you get to grade your own homework, you give yourself a lot of A grades.”

Fake followers (essentially social media accounts masquerading as real but controlled by automated systems) can be unmasked by companies such as Sylo, by looking for patterns of activity that are automated in nature. As a result, they can begin to assess who are the fake influencers, too.

“You can use technology to look like an influencer,” says Schwab. “There have been studies where people launched Instagram accounts and built up enough numbers over three months for brands to want to work with them. But by monitoring things like reach of posts, how content is consumed and how it’s responded to, we are able to measure the things that really matter.”

The gold rush that characterised the early days of the influencer industry will slow down now, he says, as a consequence of all this scrutiny. “It’s going to become divided into professionals and amateurs,” he says. “Some people will have a genuine influence over an audience that a brand will pay for, and that advertising will be worthy of those dollars.”

What will also end, he believes, is the idea that all of us can be influencers. “It takes real talent,” he says. “If it was that easy to make so much money, we’d all be doing it.”

But will we, as consumers, develop a dimmer view of influencers as we gain a greater understanding of the tools they use and the sums of money they make? LaReine is hopeful. “The key is to be organic and authentic,” she says. “Honesty is the best policy. Otherwise audiences and brands will see right through you.”