The power to encourage others is to not be taken evenly
MERRIAM-Webster defines the word influencer as “a person who inspires or guides the actions of others”. A person who is able to bring a company or a product to the platform. Establishing connections between businesses and consumers and essentially breaking the white noise of social media in a comprehensible and theoretically authentic way.
Not an easy task, although it is an endeavor that is increasingly under scrutiny as online platforms now require would-be influencers to disclose paid sponsorship – be it free products, merchandise, or any other combination of freebies – in advance The following content will be published in front of scrolling eyes.
The rapid pace of this novel industry is so fast that before #ad became the standard identifier and platforms like Instagram built in influencer-friendly tools to categorize commercial relationships, dozens of content creators were slapped for not disclosing it to their online endorsement has been paid, sponsored, or rewarded in any way.
Now that social media users have tuned their ears to brand collaborations, such content is faced with questions of transparency and authenticity … or the lack of it. The real problem is that social platforms have been too slow to implement adequate regulation. And without them, budding content creators eager to partner with brands and tap into a corner of the internet will find themselves in an argument about knowingly or unknowingly misleading their followers.
It wasn’t until 2020 that Facebook – the parent company of Instagram, a time-honored cornerstone of the influencer world – introduced new measures and algorithms that were supposed to sort out hidden advertisements. The so-called #sponcon crackdown came after an investigation by the British competition and market authorities.
So not on its own initiative, which is symptomatic of an industry that has placed profit and digitized growth – likes, followers, engagement – for too long above the interests of the makers themselves, whose well-being and reputation hardly more than footnotes in the general discussion to #ad.
Now, in 2021, there is a thriving culture of content creators, bloggers, and social media luminaries, many of whom proudly exist under the umbrella of “influencers”. The same culture made headlines this summer when the Committee on Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport held its first meeting to examine the growth of the influencer world.
On the agenda were an investigation into the influence of influencers in the media and popular culture, as well as consideration of the fact that there are no regulations governing the online advertising of products and / or services. A timely investigation, particularly based on government studies suggesting that more than three-quarters of influencers “buried their disclosures in their posts.”
Not necessarily out of deception, but out of fear that sponsored content will be viewed as hollow or even insincere in the eyes of passionate followers. It’s a very fine line. The need to ensure that ads are targeted to a person’s brand and voice, while it also rests with followers and the wider public to realize that influencers and advertising are not mutually exclusive.
There is of course a greater awareness of influencer marketing and its machinations, the Digital Marketing Institute found in a recent study that 49 percent of consumers rely on influencer recommendations when buying. However, an early insight from the committee’s investigation was that the nuanced role of influencers was far from being fully understood.
Last week, Creator Union co-founder Nicole Ocran spent MPs along with former Love Island nominee Amy Hart. Part of Ocran’s testimony pointed to social media platforms which, in her experience, “don’t act fast enough and in some cases not at all” when it comes to tackling misrepresentation.
For this reason, the Creator Union and its mission statement of regulating the influencer marketing industry and protecting its creators should be welcomed with open arms by both digital architects and governments examining the need for further legislation. Their creation is also a clear sign that if the platforms fail to keep up and implement their own regulations, it may be taken out of their hands.
In itself, influencing should be viewed as an extension of the marketing industry. Where the ability to platform products to make that connection between businesses and consumers often rests on the shoulders of a single person.
It’s an industry that has grown too fast, forcing government officials and even the platforms that the content is produced on to catch up.
But it’s also worth careful consideration in terms of ethics, transparency, and creator wellbeing, as the term influencer has become so much more nuanced than the dictionary definition suggests.
:: Claire Aiken is the managing director of the PR and public affairs company Aiken
:: Next week: Andrew Webb