Getting Influencer Marketing Right…Within the Rules

Racepoint Global

Written by Jason Phillips, Junior Client Executive, London  

As boldly remarked by PR Week Editor-in-Chief Danny Rogers, we have entered the third age of the internet, with influencers in the form of bloggers, YouTubers and cult celebrities providing brands an unfiltered access to fans through authentic voices.

Despite influencers in their current form being bigger, bolder and more colourful than ever before, the principles of influencer marketing began long ago. As legend goes, founder of iconic mustard brand La Maison Maille, Antoine-Claude Maille, used his connections during the 1700’s with royal courts in order to spread the word of his famous condiment. Additionally, he leveraged the social circles of his peers to penetrate luxury dinner parties so that wealthy individuals could sample his creation.

Video reviews, unboxing videos and comments waxing lyrical of products or services have seen influencer marketing become more creative and content driven. The risks of this transparent new landscape with the entire population free to express themselves online may cause some to capitalise on their powerful position. The irresponsibility which this may bring is a topic which brought Joanna Arnold to the stage to facilitate a thought-provoking discussion with Guy Parker and Jon Riley, from the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) and Competition and Marketing Authority (CMA) respectively.

Discussing the now heavily scrutinised and regulated sector of influencer marketing, the panel engaged the audience on the topical debate of whether paid media opportunities should be labelled explicitly and specifically as advertisements. They claimed that a proportion of influencers don’t believe that they need to disclose a collaboration with a brand on their channels. This indicates that the hunt to deter influencers from potentially producing content that may distort views and cause bad decisions goes on.

Whilst there are external concerns from regulators and the government, influencers have internally been expressing their discontent. They claim that there is one rule for them and one rule for others, with a lack of communication over brand partnerships increasing the appeal of some content, albeit a range circumventing the guidelines provided.

With that in mind, it is more crucial than ever for brands and influencers to acknowledge the ASA two-step test of whether a respective post or article is compliant with advertisement disclosure rules and that it is implemented.

The test states that if either of these conditions are met, the content can be categorised as an advertisement:

  • Payment exchanges hand, a gift of substantial value is presented or a reciprocal arrangement is devised
  • The control of the content’s message lies with the brand in question

These are grey areas, as gifting products or services and having conversations with influencers constitutes as earned media and traditional PR services. However, as with a significant share of legal statute, the above is open to interpretation. For example, a gift of substantial value may have a corruptive effect on the influencer, thus effecting their judgement when reviewing or using it in favourable circumstances. With that in mind, disclosure with the audience or followership would be best practice.

The panellists agreed that with the pace of technological advancement accelerating rapidly, regulators cannot be ahead of innovation, but just behind it, in order to refrain from influencing the media landscape.

Brands must internally have appropriate procedures in place to check and monitor whether content is within the guidelines. Similarly, it is essential that every link in the content creation supply chain takes on the responsibility of alerting, tinkering or withdrawing content if they are in doubt of its validity within the regulatory procedures. To avoid any ambiguity, advertisements must be obviously identified, upfront, visible and explicit in order to avoid scrutiny and potential investigation from regulatory bodies.

Current deterrents include the banning of the advertisement in question, a formal warning or the reputation-damaging placing of their case study on the ASA’s database for five years. With more serious cases, the Trading Standards Authority may issue significant fines and/or up to a two-year prison sentence.

It is essential to devise a consistent global approach and encouraging the influencer community to self-monitor and work together to stay within the guidelines. With this in place, marketeers can continue to let go of control to create meaningful and reciprocal relationships, within the rules.