By Cindy Riccio, President & Founder, Cindy Riccio Communications
In the last year alone, trade publications have been filled with stories of influencer marketing gone wrong—with brands being sued by the FTC for not clearly disclosing the sponsorship to consumers. As the practice of working with influencers, bloggers and Instagram celebrities becomes more common among marketers of all sizes and budgets, we as PR and digital marketing professionals need to be aware of the growing regulations that surround the practice and learn how we can steer our clients in the right direction.
In the past, the focus was on celebrity endorsements and PR via online and traditional media. Now, influencer marketing is the confluence of both of those, as influencers have become celebrities (in their own right) and a form of legitimate media.
Since influencer marketing is currently in a grey area for both marketers and consumers, the FTC has enacted regulations around the practice, which may not be present in other forms of marketing. Their guidelines emphasize that consumer protection laws apply to both traditional media, including television and print, as well as social media content. The FTC policies ensure that advertisements are not misleading and do not violate Section 5 of the FTC Act, which states that “unfair or deceptive acts or practices in or affecting commerce are declared unlawful.”
As the FTC attempts to clear confusion, more grey area is created. What is considered unfair? What is considered deceptive? Answers to these questions may come with the evolution of advertising, and until then, brands are left to define the rules for themselves in hopes that they are obeying the law.
Marketers are drawn to digital PR and creating partnerships with influencers because it guarantees targeting the right audience. However, like any form of advertising, it is a marketer’s responsibility to ensure that they are following the guidelines associated with the platform. For instance, it is very important to include the hashtags #ad #sponsored in the caption of Instagram posts. While for longer blog posts, the partnership should be clearly stated upfront.
In order to ensure these regulations are followed, marketing professionals need to make sure that these disclosures are listed in the influencer creative briefs as mandatories and should do the due diligence of ensuring they are placed prior to posting. However, from a consumer standpoint, do you trust something as much when you read “ad”? The beauty of influencer marketing early on was that the posts seemed genuine. Even when a reader is fully aware that an influencer is enlisted by a brand, the lack of the word “ad” made the product more enticing. However, law is law, and we may be forced to blind ourselves from the “a” word.
If the partnership is beneficial between brands and influencers, they should continue to work together even if it is clearly designated as a sponsored post. This collaboration ensures that both small and big brands get in front of the right audience and receives the best exposure for the brand. The majority of the time bloggers include a note specifying that they only promote products and services that they truly believe in.
Most importantly, brands should not fear consumer backlash by disclosing their partnerships with influencers. As long as the content and photos remain in the style of the blogger and still appear to be natural, consumers will be accepting of the partnerships, much like how traditional celebrity endorsements have become acknowledged in the industry.
For instance, the highly sought-after Kardashian Klan was recently accused of “deceptive marketing” after a unknown source found a plethora of posts on social media that did not clearly disclose their partnership with a variety of notable brands as being paid-for or sponsored posts. This is misleading to consumers which clearly violates the FTC guidelines and should be taken into consideration when brands want to work with high-profile influencers.
In conclusion, should your brand want to partner with digital influencers, be sure to follow the FTC guidelines so the partnership is not misleading to consumers. As long as you are targeting the key audience with the right influencer, the brand message should be well perceived by consumers and garner positive exposure for the brand.