Compliance and social media influencers

Influencer marketing has become a major trend in the advertising industry with the increasing dominance of social media and blog networks in the media landscape. With influencer marketing, brands and their advertising agencies identify the individuals to whom certain demographic groups look to for suggestions on trends or products and services to purchase. These individuals, referred to as “influencers,” then share or produce editorial content for their followers (the people who like or connect to them on social media networks) or engage in the brand’s marketing activities.

Through these sorts of campaigns, both the brands and the influencers hope to gain a non-traditional advantage in appealing to a wider audience. From the brand perspective, they get creative and incredibly targeted content that is produced on a bespoke basis for very specific consumers who are already engaged and interested in the channel through which the content is shared. Through the detailed metrics that are abundantly available via social media and blogs, advertisers can determine which campaigns were successful in spurring either interest or actual sales. From the influencer perspective, they get opportunities to generate paid content and engage with their followers and fans in a novel way. Relationships with brands can be very lucrative for influencers, especially if they become long-term, and can drive significant, much-desired traffic for blogs and social media posts that brings attention to other content the influencer has to offer.

From the above, it is evident that along with all the opportunity comes a complex set of interests which may end up in conflict or give rise to concerns about business practices and accuracy of representations and disclosures. For influencers in particular, blurring the line between the position a follower or a fan, which is even on some networks referred to colloquially as a “friend,” and the position of a customer or a referral, complicates an informal relationship where few duties are owed. Instead, these interactions can occasionally be viewed as a commercial relationship where much more responsibility exists and can be potentially breached.

  • In the United States, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is one of those regulators who is contemplating stronger restraints in the practices of influencer marketing. The main area of the FTC’s concern centers on disclosure of the relationships between brands and blogger influencers. Without full, clear disclosures, consumers cannot make reliable, informed choices about purchases they may be influenced to make due to influencer marketing content. The FTC hopes to protect customers from being misled or ripped off entirely by influencer marketing that is targeted to them without providing them with the necessary disclosures for them to make ethical and financially-wise decisions. The FTC has already informed influencers and advertisers that disclosure of relationships between them must be “clear and conspicuous,” with posts that paid promotions clearly indicated as such so that they are not lost within the influencer’s unpaid content that engaging with would not lead to a directly-linked commercial interaction. These regulations have been around for some time, but the extra enthusiasm for enforcing them protectively will have a much bigger impact on the market going forward: Regulating influencers: What retailers need to know about the regulatory crackdown
  • The SEC also has influencer marketing on its regulatory enforcement docket. This is an interesting clash of social media advertising etiquette and investor protection priorities. Companies offering trading of cryptocurrencies have begun to rely on celebrities for endorsements. Much of influencer marketing is done in “testimonial” style, so this medium lends well to a celebrity sharing his or her preferences with thousands or millions of followers. When that preference is for a cryptocurrency investment, however, the endorsement may run afoul of proper disclosure expectations. These regulatory expectations for cryptocurrencies are still evolving, as the market for initial coin offerings (ICOs) is in its infancy still and nearly everything that happens with cryptocurrencies is new, with its impact on banking, the markets, and investors unproven as of yet. Central banks and regulators have taken wildly different approaches in different countries to handling demand for and developments in cryptocurrencies. In the US, this approach has been cautious and restrained, but one area in which the supervisors have not been quiet has been to protect potential investors from advertisements without appropriate disclosures: SEC warns celebrities over endorsing ICOs without proper disclosure
  • Brands and influencers aren’t the only ones who may need to meet a higher disclosure standard when it comes to advertisements that aren’t immediately identifiable as such. Hidden marketing on social media sites as just as insidious as the political advertising that has received so much attention in the press recently. As Congress pushes social media platforms like Facebook to make clearer disclosures about and take more monitoring and control responsibility for the advertisements that appear on their sites, the need to build in protections against deceptive actions by marketers and their partners is urgent as well: It’s not just Facebook’s Russian ads: Hidden advertising is pervasive and growing
  • Social media compliance enforcement will be a major priority for the FTC in this regulatory environment. It should be expected that even within regulatory rollbacks in other areas, the FTC will continue to pay attention to possible non-compliant social media posts and advertisers and their related influencers could be subject to formal enforcement actions. Compared to some other industries like banking or pharmaceuticals, advertising agencies are subject to a relatively sparse supervisory agenda. This light regulatory touch may change dramatically if the FTC chooses to extend and entrench investigation and enforcement efforts on influencer marketing. This is worrying for the influencers as well, who are even less likely than advertising agencies or marketing divisions of brands to have fully-formed compliance programs and to be ready to have the record-keeping and other regulatory controls they may need in place and up to speed: How to Comply with FTC Social Media ‘Influencer’ Rules
  • For more on influencer marketing and the way that brands, advertisers, and influencers may use it to spread content in the future, check out this 2018 forecast for possible trends in the practice, which will in turn dictate the ensuing regulatory priorities, from Forbes: The Influencer Marketing Trends That Will Dominate 2018

Given these potential developments and risks, it is definitely not premature to direct appropriate and pro-active compliance attention to the cultivation and use of influencer marketing networks. Regulatory and supervisory entities are already starting to consider cracking down on various marketing activities in this sphere, and enforcement of disclosure and reporting standards will become robust and should be aided by proper control frameworks.

 

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