Over the past couple of years, social influence has become a big thing. It started out as what you might call an editorial thing, where people with a passion for something naturally attracted a following of other people with an interest in the subject who want to know what they think about it.
Some of these people – Zoella was the poster child for this – then realised there was money to be made out of this audience they had built up, and began monetising it by letting brands and their agencies know that they’d be happy to say good things about their products in return for money. Sounds a bit base when you put it like that, but as long as everything is above board and transparent, why shouldn’t someone with a few million followers on YouTube or Instagram or any other social network make some money out of their fan base?
To date, social influencers have been used largely to promote games and fashion & beauty products, but now other sectors are getting involved. Earlier this week, we revealed that Kellogg's had teamed up with a trio of social media influencers to promote its latest cereal flavour. Kellogg's brand mascot Tony the Tiger is collaborating with Snapchat and YouTube magician Justin Flom, Insta-famous graphic designer and photographer Elise Swopes, and US pro skateboarder Lizzie Armanto.
According to Dom McGregor, COO of social media marketing agency Social Chain, this is a growing trend. He told me: “2016 saw a rise of influencer marketing across the board. Whereas travel, fashion and beauty brands were some of the first pioneers of influencer marketing, now everyone wants a piece of the action.
"With this in mind it is no surprise that brands such as Kellogg's, which falls into the umbrella of ‘FMCG’ has now caught onto the trend. We've noticed it ourselves with a number of our recent enquires coming from FMCG brands, compared to a year ago when we weren't speaking to many at all. It seems this is very much the space of things to come - we predict that by the end of 2017 it will be commonplace to see influencers used across multiple sectors."
Another noticeable recent trend has been the aggregation of these influencers into networks. After all, not everyone has the following of a Zoella, but if you have a few hundred thousand followers, and someone else in broadly the same field has a couple of hundred thousand, and another blogger or vlogger the same again, it soon adds up, and the agency aggregating these influencers’ followers can then reach out to relevant advertisers and offer them significant reach of maybe a million or more of their target audience, by recruiting half a dozen or a dozen influencers to the cause of promoting their brand.
The aforementioned Social Chain, which claims a reach of 305m people from its 100 “rule breakers” and which once claimed it could get anything trending on Twitter in half an hour, was one of the first, and probably the best-known of these.
Another is the BLU Market, co-founded by Kevin Jonas, who decided there was more to life after being one of the Jonas Brothers than a solo music career. Head for the BLU Market website and you can simply fill in a form right there to join their network of influencers (provided you have enough followers that is).
What interests me about these (mainly young) people is the issue of transparency. Scrolling through my Facebook and Twitter feeds, I was under the impression that the social networks had been obliged by the regulators to use specific words such as ‘Sponsored’ or ‘Promoted’ to flag a piece of content as paid-for. Yet when I look at promoted content on YouTube, like that Kellogg’s campaign with Justin Flom for example, I see no such terms, just #ad in the description of the video. Sometimes.
So what are the precise rules a social influencer has to follow to be fully transparent and stay on the right side of the law? According to Christie Dennehy-Neil, public policy manager at the IAB, the rules are not prescriptive in terms of how precisely you should flag a piece of sponsored or promoted content on YouTube as opposed to Instagram; they merely spell out the requirement to do so. It’s then down to the person making money from promoting the content to decide how they do it.
“You have the underlying legislation – the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008 - and then the specific advertising rules, the CAP (Committee of Advertising Practice) Code,” she told me. “Both – the underlying legislation and the CAP Code – are media-neutral; the channel is not relevant. If it is advertising, the rules apply, but there are different ways to apply them, so it’s not a case of: ‘This is how you do it on in YouTube and this is how you do it on Twitter.’”
So back to that Kellogg's/Justin Flom promotion, which you can see here. In the description of the video, below the playback window, it does indeed say #ad. But is this enough to flag it as promoted content? Dennehy-Neil is not certain. She told me: “Whether #ad is enough of a disclosure comes down to the individual case. On Twitter, space is limited so if you are paying someone to tweet about Frosties, the ASA have adjudicated on rulings where they had said that yes, you could tell by looking at the tweet that it was an ad. Whether someone can tell by looking at this [Kellogg's] video that it is an ad is a different question.
“The body that writes the advertising rules, CAP, has published guidelines around promotions in blogs because they had recognised it was an area where there was a lack of understanding. They would say that it should be apparent at the point you engage with an ad that you should know at that point that it is advertising.”
In fact, on closer inspection of the Kellogg’s video, Dennehy-Neil pointed out that there is in fact a line, ‘Sponsored by Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes’ that appears for the first three seconds of the video. But boy, is it small, and depending where you have your cursor, it appears either in white, which is visible, or in grey, which is much less so.
That said, Kellogg's looks like it is ticking all the transparency boxes when compared to another YouTube video I stumbled across in the process of researching this piece. This one is done by a vlogger called Nightwing2303 who has 286,604 followers on YouTube. It’s an unboxing of a Threadbeast (streetwear subscription service) box of clothes. You can see this here.
As you can see, there is nothing in the title of the video or in the description below it to say that this is a promotional item, save for the line: ‘Hey Guys! Thread Beast sent over some gear so I decided to share.’ So this looks slightly less than transparent. But the IAB’s Dennehy-Neil says the video is not necessarily breaking the transparency rules. She told me: “There are things that determine what disclosure you need on it. Broadly, speaking, if you are using editorial content to promote something and getting paid for it, you should make that clear”
What if you’re not being paid hard cash, but get to keep the goods in question?
“If you just get to keep the items, that’s less clear,” she said. “It comes down to the arrangement. If the company sends it out on spec. in the hope that the social influencer might talk about it, then they are not paying for any particular message. But if Threadbeast had come to an arrangement saying: ‘We will give you free gear if you say something positive about it,’ then that would be considered payment in kind and that should be disclosed, because the person viewing the content should understand that there is a commercial influence.”
Last August, Bloomberg reported that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in the US was planning a crackdown on social influencers who don’t make it clear when they are being paid to promote something. The Bloomberg report cited three instances involving Snapchat star DJ Khaled promoting a vodka brand; fashion lifestyle blogger Cara Loren Van Brocklin endorsing PCA Skin sunscreen; and “internet personality” iJustine posting Instagrams from an Intel event. In each case, the report said, there was no indication that they were being paid to do so.
The report made it clear that the way in which the influencers disclose that they are being paid to endorse what they are endorsing is a big part of the problem. While the FTC is happy with #ad being used at the beginning of a post to flag the fact that what follows is promoted, it is not happy with #sp or #spon being employed to do the same job.
As grey areas go, this one is a particularly dark shade. Fortunately, some guidance is at hand. Check out the IAB’s good practice guidance for content and native advertising here. The CAP’s vlogging guidance here. And a useful one-page guide to the laws around paid promotions (reviews and endorsements) and disclosure from the UK Competition and Markets Authority here.