In Defence Of The Influencer: Why Hashtag AD Shouldn’t Be A Turn Off
Last week, I posted a question on my Stories asking my followers what would be in their Top Five things that really annoyed them. I was spurred on to do this after throwing myself into a total meltdown of frenzy trying to get a sticky label off a glass cabinet I’d bought to upcycle (yes, I know, first world problems and possibly a slight overreaction), but I received a massive response. From people drinking directly from large juice cartons (Backwash City), to faulty self service checkouts (PLEASE HELP ME) through to being called ‘hun’ by someone you’ve never met before (move away), my Instagram audience found a lot to irritate them. One of my personal favourite irritations is the one cited by Dolly Alderton in her book ‘Everything I Know About Love’ - dining in a restaurant with someone who starts the conversation, ‘shall we not bother with a starter?’. I will ALWAYS, without fail, want a prawn cocktail if it’s on the menu, a fact that always infuriates my family who can never wait and want to bypass the preliminaries and get straight in there for the big event. As a result, I often end up eating my prawn cocktail alongside my steak frites, silently boiling over the Marie Rose sauce.
Anyway, my question also raised a response from an old Instagram friend whom I’ve known since the hallowed days of the chronological feed. I was taken aback to hear that top of her list was Instagram Stories, the most popular part of the platform, double the size of Snapchat and the fastest growing engagement tool to boot. How can this be? I messaged her immediately, I have to admit, fairly affronted that she should include my personal favourite function as her personal worst. It emerged that her wroth was primarily focused towards the large amount of AD’s that appear from the accounts that she follows, both on Stories and on her feed. She felt that as a long term user of the platform, it was spoiling her enjoyment of her account and her perception was that she was constantly looking at advertorial that she hadn’t asked to see.
Hmm. Facts about the growth of social media are clear. The average person spends over three hours on social media daily and up to eleven hours a day looking at media content online. Instagram alone has increased from 200m monthly users to over 1bn monthly users in the space of four years and what started as a creative platform (and still is) has developed to become a source of both daily inspiration and information. Whether you are looking for local independent stores, nail art ideas, holiday locations, motivational content, restaurants and bars, beauty products, online editorial via magazine pages, a new car purchase, a vintage sideboard or even just looking for cute pictures of cats in bonnets, it can come up with the goods. It’s a visual medium - it’s not the war of words that is Twitter, it’s not the people* checking in to the gym (*read my husband) that is Facebook, it’s not the transient platform that is Snapchat. Instagram is all giving, all singing, all dancing and it’s expanding all the time.
I admit that my friend’s view of advertorial on social media is fairly wide spread and it’s an often debated subject, albeit also much misunderstood. The other week, I saw a small business (ironically) launch a new hashtag called #thisisnotgifted with the intention of showing only products that were not, in their words, ‘freebies’. The use of words such as this and attitudes to the way in which social marketing is developing shows just how confused the concept of using advertorial on an online platform can be. Governing bodies of this process, the ASA and the CMA, are constantly updating the rules to keep up with this online boom. For content creators such as myself (I admit that the word influencer has an air of wankiness about it), sticking to these ever changing rules whilst keeping our audience happily engaged and remaining authentic to our own personal brand grows more important by the day.
So why are big brands moving over from traditional advertising methods and into what is now officially termed influencer marketing? As someone who started posting shoddy photographs of badly styled sideboards three years ago with fifty followers and who now works full time (and the rest) in this burgeoning industry, I thought I’d outline exactly what it takes to create and produce advertorial for brands and why being a content creator is a verified job that should garner just as much respect as any other role in a creative industry. In the third person, obvs. It’s more fun that way.
Let’s start with the basics. How do you work with brands?
Okay, so a brand will approach me to work with them on a campaign. This can involve anything from a few Stories to a series of Instagram posts, a blog or even an Ambassadorship (not the Ferrero Rocher type). They will issue me with a brief of what the campaign involves and which key messages the content should reflect. Depending upon the focus of the campaign, I will receive product in order to create. I then produce content to fit the brief and more often than not, send it for approval prior to posting. Finally, I send statistics across to the brand after the campaign is finished so that they can track how well the content was received and in cases of swipe up Stories, track potential sales. These are always paid campaigns.
But surely all you’re doing is chucking a cushion on a sofa and taking a photo with your phone. Easy money, hey?
Prior to the advent of influencer marketing, brands advertised primarily across print and visual media. The production and styling of these adverts that you see within these areas involve a significant amount of crew. Designer, stylist, props, photographer, production manager, make up artist, hairdresser and more - this team comes at significant cost. Once the photos are taken, then they are edited and photoshopped by another team. A social media content creator combines all of these roles into one. To create content that is reflective of the brand and it’s values, reflective of the messages of the campaign you are promoting and reflective of the quality of your own feed, represents a significant amount of work. The brand collaboration needs to hit all three points of what Dee Campling and I call the ‘Influencer Triangle’ to work well (we like to make up new things). The three points are these: The brand benefits from my content production and audience. I benefit from my association with the brand by building a relationship with them. Finally, the audience benefits in that they are seeing content that will hopefully make them happy, inspire them and enhance their social media experience. Throwing a cushion on a chair and taking a wonky shot at dusk just won’t hack it. It takes time, effort and a lot of planning to come up with something that ticks all three of those boxes and makes it worthwhile for the brand to employ me to do the job. I write an engaging caption that ties in authentically with my profile and is appealing to my audience, whilst still sticking to a brief. I spend hours styling, shooting and editing my submissions, sometimes redecorating entire rooms to fit with what the brand is asking me to do. It’s taken three years of daily experience to know what they are looking for - it didn’t fall into my lap. It’s hard work. And easy money it is not.
But when I see AD, I just scroll past. I don’t want to be sold to.
We are sold to in every avenue of our lives. On the train, on the television, even those weird billboards on the roundabout when you’re trying to concentrate on not cutting someone up on the bend. When you read a newspaper or a magazine, you’re bombarded with it. I’m not just talking about pages of promotional adverts. Ever read a holiday destination or restaurant review in a magazine? That’s a business transaction. It’s promoting a service in return for content. It works for the magazine and it works for the property - mutually beneficial, but it’s still an AD. However, if you didn’t read the review, you wouldn’t know what the holiday destination or restaurant was like - indeed, you might not even have heard of the holiday destination or restaurant. But you read the review and now you do and you might want to visit it. Or seen an interview on Lorraine in the morning with a celebrity with a newly launched cook book? You like the celebrity, you like cooking, you see the cook book - you’re now very likely to buy it. There is no difference. Instagram works the same way. I NEVER work with any brand whose product I don’t like or believe it. I wouldn’t do it, I couldn’t do it. I turn down campaigns all the time if I don’t feel that the product suits my demographic or that it wouldn’t interest the people who follow me (see Dee and I’s Influencer Triangle). I’d like to think that the people who follow me do so because they like and trust me and therefore will know that I’m working with a brand because I truly believe in the product or service that I’m talking about.
So how do I know it’s a bonefide AD? What should I look out for?
The ASA and CMA rules state that any obligational agreement between a brand and an influencer that content will be produced and tagged should be classed as an AD. That’s really all there is to it. The AD needs to be placed clearly at the beginning of the caption, even if the influencer has the Paid Partnership tool. It makes no difference whether the collaboration is paid or not - it’s the AGREEMENT TO POST that is the key here. The same applies to Stories. If the influencer has been sent a gift and they’ve agreed to post a Story tagging the brand who sent them the gift, then that is an AD. If there is no agreement and no obligation or request to share anything, then it’s not. If I am sent a gift that I was not expecting and I Story it, I will say verbally that I have been sent a gift and that there was no obligation to post. That makes it clear for everyone. The majority of ‘gifting’ isn't gifting, btw - it’s a business transaction. Clear and simple. The same applies to ‘freebies’ (a word that makes me want to cut off my own head with a rusty saw). Generally, you’re not sent stuff because they really, really like you and want to give you a present to show it. Much as that would be nice, obvs.
What about when Influencers don’t declare that it’s an AD clearly enough? That REALLY pisses me off.
Yes, it pisses me off too but probably for different reasons than you. A good influencer should be transparent and authentic - trying to hide AD in the hashtags almost looks like they are trying to ‘fool’ their audience into thinking it’s not an AD in order to gain more likes and follows. Which is basically what they ARE doing. I can see why that is frustrating and a turn off. Or worse, when it’s blatantly obvious that something is an AD but the influencer has decided not to tag it so. That would make me feel as if they think I’m stupid and won’t notice. From an influencer perspective, it’s hugely frustrating when I see people not following the ASA and CMA guidelines. Social influencing is still fairly new, unknown territory with no benchmarks as yet and the only way to grow an industry that is respected is to have standards that we all follow. One influencer not following the rules can then tar all influencers with the same brush and basically fuck it up for the rest of us. It’s annoying and disrespectful to everyone - the follower, the community and also the brand. Of course, don’t forget that you can always press the unfollow button if you don’t feel that they are declaring the advertorial correctly and you’re feeling misled. It’s your feed, your decision.
Still a bit irritated. Are there not enough advertising locations in the world without using my feed?
Okay, so again, advertising is everywhere. However, in the majority of cases, there is no way of determining how many people have viewed these adverts, no way of translating into sales per view. You can stick an advert in a newspaper and you’ll know how many people buy the newspaper but you won’t know how many people have actually seen and engaged with the advert. I have 140k followers - this is more than a magazine circulation but with the added benefit that I have a distinct, set demographic and age group. This means that the content I produce can be specifically tailored to the people who follow me, making it relevant and interesting to them so that they are not bombarded with inappropriate services and products. I only work with brands that I know my demographic will relate to, whether that be a High Street homeware store, a supermarket or a national drinks company. From a brand perspective, they can track actual sales via the swipe up links (particularly for influencers who use affiliates) and the engagement statistics which means they can drill down into what their audience really loves and wants to see. So long term, you are seeing advertorial content that actually is relevant to the way you live and will enhance your feed rather than drag it down. It’s a positive step rather than a negative one.
Give me another positive step.
I started posting my home on Instagram three years ago whilst working as a part time transcriptionist, because I got a massive buzz from creating my own content and I still do. There’s nothing better than posting a well curated shot, not least because usually my home looks like an utter shit heap and having those perfect squares on my feed reminds me that it can look like that when the kids are at school, the dog’s asleep and I’ve had the Hoover out. For me, being able to create authentic content for brands that I have loved for years as part of an actual career is a total dream. Social media has brought us many things - new ideas, new friendships, new networks, new opportunities - but the most rewarding impact is that it’s empowered women in particular to forge new careers in areas that they are passionate about. Now that IS a positive step.
So the next time that you see someone that you follow marking their post with AD, please look twice. Please don’t swipe straight past. Think about the time and thought that they’ve put into creating good, solid and authentic content that they think will inspire and please their audience. They’ll appreciate it. Personally? I’d rather see a well thought out, well produced piece of creative content from a respected influencer that I know and trust representing a brand, than a generic advert. Wouldn't you?