Do you know a sponsored Instagram post when you see one?

According to a recent survey, a surprising proportion of consumers remain in the dark, with 77% unaware what the #sp hashtag stands for (‘sponsored’) and 48% even unsure what the #ad hashtag means.

A lack of consumer understanding is not the only problem, of course. Confusion over how brands and influencers should label paid-for content remains a big issue. As a result, CAP (the Committee of Advertising Practice) has recently issued a fresh set of guidelines to help social influencers and brands stick to the rules. 

Here’s a bit more on the story and how it could affect the world of influencer marketing in future.

Platform-specific rules

The new guidelines relate to affiliate marketing deals, whereby influencers are paid for the clicks they receive on sponsored content. 

CAP states that all ‘marketing communications must be obviously identifiable as such’. In other words, brands and influencers should ensure that any paid-for content is clearly labelled as an advert.

While this rule is not necessarily new, CAP has now emphasised that influencers should be more aware of the differences between platforms in order to recognise how to label sponsored content accordingly. 

For example, on platforms like Instagram where images are visible before text, the word ‘ad’ should be overlaid so that users are aware before they click through. Alternatively, where a vlog might include a minute or so of content related to affiliate products, this should be flagged (even if it doesn’t require the video to be labelled as an ad overall).

Essentially, the new guidelines reinforce the notion that there is no blanket approach to labelling branded content, but that it is vital that consumers know when they are viewing ads – regardless of how fleeting or small the sponsored aspect might be.

How is it being enforced?

While these guidelines might be useful for influencers who are unaware of the boundaries, there still seems to be a problem with ensuring they are followed. As platforms are yet to introduce any features that truly differentiate paid-for content from any other kind, bodies like the ASA (Advertising Standards Authority) rely on the general public as well as fellow influencers to flag up unlabelled ads.

On the other hand, cases appear to be slipping through the cracks due to the vague and somewhat inconsequential nature of what might happen if the rules are flouted.

So far, there have only been a few instances of perpetrators being caught out, with one of the biggest examples being UK marketing agency, Social Chain. Despite being probed for failing to disclose advertising content, however, the repercussions were relatively minor, with the company merely being told to remove the content and to promise not to do it again.

As well as vague consequences, influencers might choose to ignore the rules due to worries over platforms burying sponsored posts. In other words, regardless of the creative or authentic nature of the content as a whole, the ‘ad’ label could overshadow this and lead to the content being devalued.

Do consumers really care?

With the guidelines being put in place for the benefit of consumers, how does the public really feel about influencers working with brands?

On one hand, Born Social’s survey suggests that consumers look down on sponsored content, with 48.7% of people trusting a recommendation to a lesser extent if they know an influencer is being paid. However, a poll by Kantar Millward Brown suggests that, in contrast, teenagers are becoming more receptive to brand content. What’s more, it states that 35% of 35-49 year olds in the UK also feel positive towards content relating to products, services and other brand info.

While these findings might sound contradictory, there is one common thread – that transparency is key.

Regardless of how a person might feel about brand content in general, deliberately hiding or failing to disclose it can only do more harm than good. As a result – with consumer trust on the line – it is vital for both brands and influencers to implement the new guidelines in order to retain it.

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Nikki Gilliland

Published 21 March, 2017 by Nikki Gilliland @ Econsultancy

Nikki is a Writer at Econsultancy. You can follow her on Twitter or connect via LinkedIn.

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