Opinion

Instagram ‘paid partnerships’: transparency breeds trust

Influencer marketing often suffers bewildering breakdowns between transparency and effectiveness. At the heart of each is a need to build trust, but only by picking this apart can marketers truly address this murky practice, argues APD's Tim Sharp

One of the most salacious paradoxes in online marketing is that brands looking to engage in ‘influencer’ or word-of-mouth campaigns often experience some sort of compromise between transparency and effectiveness.

It’s a tricky subject for those running the campaigns, but for audiences it’s a relatively simple matter of trust: we take comfort in the opinions of our compatriots, yet up our guard when it comes to advertising. Influencer marketing therefore owes a duty of care when it comes to disclosing paid arrangements between a brand and a person.

Of course the bigger picture here is a more existential question of whether influencer marketing can thrive in environments of mandatory disclosure. But after years of lax or total non-disclosure this unfortunately is exactly the sort of discussion upon us today. Long story short: people should know when an ad is an ad.

The good news is that transparency breeds trust, which is why we should welcome developments such as Instagram’s recent announcement that brands and individuals will now be able to more clearly see campaign analytics and denote sponsored content.

Trust is not unilateral

Put simply, transparent brands earn trust in non-conniving ways. And so the fundamental approach of these should be to let ‘influencers’ make their own judgements. It’s no secret that many brands today prepare content for an influencer right down to the emoji.

To fix influencer marketing then, disclosing advertisements is an important first step. Making sure messages are unrelentingly authentic is the next.

But an even less-discussed point here is that influencers must also gain the trust of marketers through greater accountability of their own.

For example, anyone with an Instagram handle or Facebook page knows that the size of a fanbase does not guarantee reach. So if a brand is coming to an ‘influencer’ for that exact reason, how much of your fanbase is actually likely to see – let alone engage with –  a piece of sponsored content?

Even Kylie Jenner does not reach all 95.4 million Instagram fans with a single photo, and so follower counts alone should never solely underpin a brand/influencer relationship. Even though many such contracts do exactly this today. Perhaps it’s better for influencers to under-promise and over-deliver.

Marketers should also concern themselves with the quality of this ‘influence’. If, for example, I suddenly appear with a pitch of reaching vast numbers of followers, then why should a potential sponsor not have the right to know how I acquired them? Case in point: a recent audit for a cosmetics brand revealed around half of a Singaporean fanbase to be located in rural Myanmar. Something was clearly amiss.

This may be a provocative point for some, but ‘fake followers’ are a serious blight on influencer marketing and one that brands and audiences need to know about. Yet many budget-holders never even ask the question.

Who’s in charge?

But perhaps the biggest challenge of all is regulation: who should keep influencer marketing in check and above board? In some countries, it may be the  government; in others, a social network.

Yet the law moves slower than an algorithm. It takes time, and so in the absence of unified standards it should be incumbent on all parties involved in influencer marketing to disclose content created through transactional agreements.

If you’re worried that slapping ‘sponsored post’ on a newsfeed will diminish authenticity or somehow make a campaign go less ‘right’, just think of what can go wrong. Imagine the legal repercussions of a misleading statement, let alone the acerbic one-liners of pitchfork-wielding would-be comedians.

The question of effectiveness

Finally, the actual effectiveness of influencer marketing suffers from a myriad of structural problems.

Chief among these is attribution: a naturally difficult issue because personal data often exists in such a grey space. There are no good tools for measuring my Snapchat activity, for example; nor does the network itself provide much in the way of even basic analytics.

Yet established methods such as market research can also be problematic. Just think of how many ‘people are more likely to buy something if a friend recommends it’ findings you’ve heard touted in marketing plans. Such claims feel right, but often take a one-size-fits-all approach to diverse geographies, cultures and preferences. And so, while we feel that influencer marketing might work, how many can prove it after the fact?

Of course there are plenty of success stories. Not many will doubt the surge of popularity for certain clothing labels during the Hollywood awards season, for example. But no brand or industry will luck out all the time, and in that sense simply asking people to flaunt something online is in many ways taking the same leap of faith as TV advertising, or a billboard. To better understand effectiveness, therefore, taking stock of the visibility we have today is key. Better attribution is the complex step that follows.

A marketer recently joked to me that working with online ‘influencers’ can sometimes feel like a “necessary evil”: a tactic that many want to engage in, but often do not trust. If we can continue to address the difficult relationship between transparency and effectiveness, that needn’t be the case.

Tim Sharp is the regional head of social media at APD Group

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