Back in 2015, Singapore’s influencer scene was a watercooler topic. First, one of the country’s leading bloggers wrote an exposé about ‘unethical marketing’ involving an influencer agency. The agency was accused of using influencers to lobby against certain brands.
That particular hoo-hah ended in an apology. A more recent row involving another Singaporean blogger and a different marketing agency has spilled over into a lawsuit, over alleged breaches of contract and potential defamation.
On a global level, there are many more examples of influencer-brand partnerships turning sour. Consider the case when the Federal Trade Commission hit out at Warner Bros. for a campaign that paid popular vlogger PewDiePie and other online influencers to promote its video game, but neglected to come clean about the arrangement.
Or what about this whoopsie featuring Kardashian tag-along Scott Disick and an unfortunate copy-paste incident.
It revealed just how much of this world is contrived with little or no direct involvement by the influencer other than to post the brand’s message to followers. The lines often blur between blatant promotional material and organic content without any affinity between an influencer and the brand they are meant to be representing.
All these examples bring me back to the same point. Although influencer marketing is one of the most powerful strategies available today, it must be credible in order to produce results. There is still a very real need for brands, agencies and influencers to understand the importance of transparency.
And Singapore agrees. The first local example I gave culminated in last year’s introduction of social media guidelines by the Advertising Standards Authority of Singapore. They aim to make the influencer scene a little more regulated and a little less noisy. On a broader scale, it seems even Instagram might be looking into how it can help brands and influencers better manage the issues of transparency and ethics, with a new tool being tested to tag partners in posts.
But while these guidelines are a good step forward, the real challenge starts with brands, the agencies they work with and the influencers’ themselves.
Under the influence of who?
Digital marketing can produce a great return on investment. It can also attract biting criticism. It is this paradox that keeps us all on our toes. Influencer marketing must now focus on solving the problems around transparency, trust, morals, ethics and engagement.
For marketers that partner with influencers genuinely aligned to their brand, and with a strong base of followers, have nothing to fear. Top influencers – and I really do mean the best ones, not just the ones with the biggest following – recognise that creating unique content and working with brands they have a natural affinity with is much more important than labelling a post with #spon or #ad.
Transparency overpaid relationships is not a big issue if the partnership is a good match. Many influencers say ‘no’ to brands if they think they cannot authentically convey the message to their followers. After all, there’s a reason why 71 per cent of consumers are more likely to make a purchase based on social media mentions. The best influencers value their integrity highly and they know it’s what their popularity hinges on.
Raising the bar
The best thing to come out of Singapore’s latest influencer debacle is higher standards. Sophisticated marketers – including brands, agencies and influencers – should welcome the scrutiny. It’s not about labelling posts; it’s about helping to make paid campaign content clearly distinguishable, which doesn’t have to be as hard as it sounds.
It can be done by ensuring a brand’s campaign @mentions and #tags are the only ones in the main caption. Sentiments such as ‘working with’ or ‘in collaboration with’ can be also preferable when it suits an influencer’s individual tone of voice.
Ultimately, since the introduction of Singapore’s guidelines, we haven’t seen any crazy changes to influencer feeds. The country’s top influencers are still as popular as ever. If anything, this increased focus on ethics and transparency is an opportunity to raise the bar.
Regulation and compliance are the norm in many industries. There is no reason why this sphere should be any different. Quite simply, the future of influencer marketing in Asia is about transparency and building credibility. There is simply no place for those who don’t understand this clear message.
Aaron Brooks is the co-founder of the influencer agency Visual Amplifiers