I’m not going to apologise for talking again about the outcomes of Prizeology’s recent research into influencer marketing. The research produced some fascinating data and for me the most significant revelation was probably that 60% of the UK public say their perception of a brand improves when the brand is transparent about its use of product promotions.
I think the influencer industry secretly believes that if brands and influencers are open and honest about their commercial relationships it will damage the industry and reduce the impact of influencer marketing. Although I’m a compliance crusader, I’ll admit that part of me bought into that, too, but when I first read the above stat I had a moment of epiphany and realised that – it’s blindingly obvious really – people want brands to be open and honest. People don’t want to be lied to, they want disclosure.
So if you’re a brand working with an influencer, or perhaps a small to medium-sized company with a fairly niche product line working with a micro-influencer, how do you disclose? It’s actually very simple. You don’t need a magic formula or a complex incantation. All you need is three characters – #ad.
Under the CAP Code, which, as I know you know, regulates promotional marketing in the UK (and I should stress I’m talking about the UK here), if there is a financial transaction between a brand and an influencer, and if the brand exercises ‘control’ over the messages disseminated by the influencer, then the communication is classified as an ad and #ad must be used. In this context, ‘control’ covers any agreement, even if it’s informal, on key messages, general content, specific hashtags, visuals, timings, approvals and so on.
Of course, there are occasions when #ad isn’t necessary. You don’t need a disclosure hashtag if you’re publicising your own product. Similarly, you don’t need one if an influencer with whom you have no commercial links spontaneously evangelises about your brand – just enjoy the free promotion. However, if you then approach that influencer or they approach you (and beware wannabe and fake influencers – but that’s another post) and a business relationship subsequently develops, disclosure hashtags will almost certainly come into play.
A product sent to an influencer for review can seem problematic in terms of disclosures, but if you dispatch your lovingly produced item with nothing more than a wing and a prayer, and the influencer is perfectly at liberty to file your product in the round bin should they so choose, then hashtags aren’t needed. It’s polite and customary for the influencer to tag you or make a point of thanking you, but it’s not a regulatory requirement.
You also don’t need #ad if you’ve paid an influencer and have no explicit or indeed implicit agreement with them about what they will do with that funding. That’s because this type of activity is better described as sponsorship, which means could be more appropriate for the influencer to use #spon. However, the ASA isn’t overly keen on #spon, partly I guess because it’s the advertising regulator and is funded by the advertising industry, and partly because #spon doesn’t give consumers sufficient clarity about the brand/influencer relationship. In fact, there are very few instances where #spon is exactly the right tag, so in this situation adding #ad will also cover you if the nature of your agreement, or indeed your lack of an agreement, were it to be challenged and it will keep you on the right side of the laws protecting consumers from unfair trading (which is also another post).
If you gift product to an influencer and have no agreement, again explicit or implicit, about whether the influencer will showcase or talk about your product in some way, #spon might also be a suitable tag, but this is very close to sending a product in the hope that it will be reviewed, so, arguably, under the CAP Code any content produced by the influencer doesn’t need a tag at all. On the other hand, if you gift product on the understanding that the influencer will post about it next month and highlight specific features, then you’re exercising control and the influencer should definitely use #ad. I think it’s fair to say there are still some grey areas around gifted product and perhaps as an industry we do need to develop and agree a more nuanced set of disclosure hashtags (but that’s a subject for yet another post).
My experience is that prize draws or other promotions that are supported by social media influencers are very effective. If you don’t have the control you don’t have to use #ad, but I would always advise clients to ensure that #ad is used to disclose a commercial relationship, precisely because as a brand you actively want that control to ensure the success of your promotion. I mean, why would you not want control and a formal agreement which makes it absolutely clear what the responsibilities of each party are, including what disclosures must be in place? It’s not embarrassing. It’s not shameful. It’s not giving away trade secrets. It’s three words – open and honest – and it’s just three characters.
Hopefully I’ve managed to demystify the basics of disclosure for you. Prizeology specialises in influencer marketing compliance, so if you’ve got a question then do feel free to ask.
Sarah Burns is Prizeology’s Chief Prizeologist. With 300 followers on Instagram, it’s unlikely she’ll be asked to promote something for a brand anytime soon.