The truth about brands, influencers & #sponsored content

The truth about brands, influencers & #sponsored content

I am wholly addicted to the blogosphere. For the last 7 years or so, I have devoted a good proportion of my time to consuming fashion and beauty content on digital platforms such as Youtube, WordPress, Twitter and Instagram. Aside from that, my day job as an influencer marketing manager focuses heavily on partnering fashion and beauty brands with relevant influencers to help market their products.

Digital content really does make my world go round!

Heck, I even write a beauty blog myself and have in the past experienced an albeit teasing taste of what it’s actually like to create a little income from being a blogger. I’ve even received some of the perks of being in favour with international beauty brands.

Over the years I’ve watched the industry swell at a rapid rate of knots. Being in such an advantageous position, experiencing both sides of the coin, there is one aspect of the industry I find myself pondering regularly — the ambiguous world of sponsored content. Everytime I see the terms #AD or #SPON cropping up on my carefully curated subscription list, or Instagram feed I ask myself…

…Is it really an unwavering infatuation, a little appreciation or just another #AD?

So what exactly are #sponsored posts?

There’s no beating around the bush here, they’re adverts! Here in the UK, the Advertising Standards Agency (ASA) have decided that #AD is the preferred way of disclosing that content has been paid for by a brand. The intent is to make it clear to audiences that payment has been exchanged in order for the video, blog post or Instagram image to be created.

Yeah, but how exactly does that work?
Brands have products that they need to push, so they reach out to the agents of bloggers or vloggers they’re interested in (or, to the personality directly if they’re unrepresented) and outline a creative campaign they’d like the influencer to be involved with.

The collaboration is arranged, terms outlined and a fee is proposed. The influencer sticks to their part of the bargain by producing the sponsored content (hopefully disclosing it is sponsored work!) and the brand pays a fee for the work that has been completed.

Sounds pretty simple, so what’s the problem here?

A lack of solid rules, vague ‘guidelines’, transparency issues and a few rotten eggs!

Let me explain…

Whilst many digital influencers do their best to be transparent, others are inconsistent and highly ambiguous with disclosing that they have been paid to create a piece of content…others are just ignoring the guidelines full stop.

Here are two examples of Instagram posts focused on beauty products… Which one makes it clear to you that money has been exchanged?

The truth about brands, influencers & #sponsored content

Katie Price regularly features Crystal Clear Skincare on her Instagram feed..Has she been paid? Or not? Why not say ‘I haven’t been paid to say this…I genuinely love it”

The truth about brands, influencers & #sponsored content

Victoria uses #ad to state she has been paid to create the post

Obviously, advertising is nothing new…
You only have to flick through your favourite magazine, or sit down to watch an episode of Corrie and before you get to what you actually want to consume, you have to digest a number of advertisements.

Yet traditional advertising is less vocally scrutinised to a point where individuals are met with outpoured criticism, even personally trolled and abused when they upload sponsored content on their platforms. In the traditional sense, a complaint can be sent anonymously to the ASA who deal with it. Who is safeguarding influencers from the hate?

The influencer perception…
In the digital space, as technology has advanced, our pool of information has become broader and our need to stay connected is more prevalent than ever. With that in mind, it’s no surprise that the output from ‘influencers’ has become a large part of our daily consumption of content.

Due to the enormity of the movement, many bloggers feel that audiences are being especially quick to blame the issues surrounding sponsored content on them. This in turn causes them to voice their stance. Remember Victoria who we mentioned above? Did she feel the animosity had bubbled over enough? Compelling her to write this post: ‘Let’s talk about ads’.

It’s no secret that over the past 2 years, bloggers have started monetizing their content through sponsored brand collaborations and advertorials. The terms #AD and #SPON are becoming more and more commonplace as brands opt to use self-created influencers, reality-show celebrities and social media stars to market their campaigns.

Consumers on the other hand are meeting these terms with a certain level of dubiosity and distrust. It is often the case that members of their audience feel compelled to express disdain through negative comments when an influencer includes promotional content on their otherwise ‘free to consume’ channels.

The truth about brands, influencers & #sponsored content
A public comment left on a video from popular Youtuber ‘Fleur De Force’

The question is why? Take a Youtuber for example, perhaps 5–6 years ago they were creating lo-fi videos about MAC or Rimmel make-up in their bedroom.

As a consumer, you loved their authenticity and how they seemed accessible and familiar, just like one of your mates. Fast-forward to 2017 and the same person who once sat in her bedroom talking to the camera, is now being paid to become the face of such brands and creating collaborative content to promote them.

So, why do we feel so uncomfortable about it? Do they no longer feel accessible? Are we jealous? Or have they simply sold out?

Nobody likes their integrity to be questioned

Instagram collaborations in particular, are the epitome of guerilla marketing. Instagram stands out to me as a marketplace for nothing but sponsored images and mini advertorials all thanks to the recently launched Instagram stories, swipe up links and endless tagging functions.

As is often the case, a few rotten eggs are giving genuine influencers a bad rep!

In the wake of the reality show rumble, brands are choosing to work with ‘5 minutes of fame’ personalities from TV shows such as Made In Chelsea, TOWIE and Love Island. Take a moment to recall how many times you’ve come across an overtly smiley individual holding up a bag of detox tea stating how it made them drop 20 dress sizes in an hour.

Dangerous and false.

Or a ‘celebrity’ with plastic veneered teeth describing how a particular teeth whitening product made their non-enamelled teeth as white as copy paper in just one application?! I think I saw at least 10 of these examples as I scrolled Instagram on my lunch break alone!

The truth about brands, influencers & #sponsored content

In July this year, Lauren Pope was seen in this image posing with Blanx Toothpaste. However, Lauren was spotted on the Harley Street Smile Clinic Site in 2012 having just had 12 porcelain veneers added to her upper teeth.

The truth about brands, influencers & #sponsored content

It is no surprise that genuine bloggers who have worked hard to create communities with their loyal audiences feel put out by this gross mass marketing.

Genuine influencers are calling for content consumers to view their sponsored content neutrally. They hammer home how they regularly turn down lucrative jobs that don’t fit their brand or values.

It is, of course, upsetting when negativity surrounding sponsored content spawns from a job they worked particularly hard on. But it is hard for us, as an audience, to believe what we see when our timeline is filled with bloated and openly fake endorsements.

The brand perception…

It has become increasingly challenging for brands to keep up with consumers who are using online ad blockers, or have moved away from traditional television for digital streaming services. In light of this, brands are choosing to move their budgets away from conventional celebrities and television and instead pour it into the audiences of lucrative digital influencers.

These are the genuine bloggers, vloggers and social media personalities that have worked hard to build up a reputation. If they have got to a stage where they can make a living from it, we as an audience should be happy about that — it probably means that their content output will become even better.

However, when brands choose to be naughty it causes major disturbances.

I have to admit, working with influencers is still something of a novelty for brands and sustainable and respectable influencer marketing through social personalities is only just finding its groove. I believe this will take some time for savvy consumers to accept. It is up to the good eggs to be creative in their output and show their audience that they are one to be invested in!

Where a major issue lies is when brands are adamant that they don’t want people to know that they’ve paid an influencer for work.

You can call it ‘AD’ ‘collaboration’ ‘sponsored’ whatever you like…it is still a paid for advertorial!

This is of course exploitative, sneaky and wholly dishonest! You are acutely aware that you are consuming advertising content when thumbing through Cosmopolitan magazine, therefore you should be aware you are consuming sponsored content on your favourite blogs.

There’s no getting around it, brands want it to seem like their collaborations are wholly natural. This is so that all important follower engagement remains high for maximum effect and audiences aren’t put off by the words #AD staring back at them.

Brands needn’t worry though…

According to Adweek:

“A study which analyzed approximately 86,000 influencers, found that followers tend to engage more with sponsored content than non-sponsored content across most follower ranges.”
“In the 1,000 to 10,000 range, non-sponsored content performs slightly higher than sponsored content, but there is a clear switch in the 10,000 to 100,000 range and above, where sponsored content received greater engagement.”

It’s all about quality content and output…
In the world of sponsored content, it is integral that brands give creators the creative freedom with their collaborations to make it appear that some effort has gone into the piece.

From the point of view of an audience member, I certainly feel this would help allay any uncertainty around integrity — as long as a full disclosure is made. Influencers need to continue to be transparent and honest with their readers, viewers and followers. After all, it takes no time at all to read up and educate on the current guidelines around disclosures.

There is still a long way to go

It took a while for the ASA to catch up with this new, very lucrative form of advertising and there are still many issues needing to be ironed out. We need clarity, regulation and even penalties issued for brands and influencers who do not tow the line.

Earlier this year, Instagram rumbled a roll out of a new feature that will allow creators to disclose advertorials in a format similar to the tagging a location function. This has, however, yet to be enforced across the platform, but why wait?

It’s taken 2 years to move only a few steps, Is this one of those things that many hope can be ignored and will just slip away? I don’t think this is going to be the case.

Follow me on Twitter @HollieBradbury

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