Other than reaching out to a specific, targeted, already established groups of people with niche interests, influencer marketing in itself is sneaky; using individuals with a large social media presence to promote products implicitly. The explicitness of an ad promoting a product as seen in other forms of advertising, is absent in influencer marketing.

When watching TV, or clips on youtube, we are presented with pauses for ads. On YouTube you have the option to “skip” the ad, whilst on TV you can mute, switch the channel or walk away. Most of us don’t sit through ads, in fact up to 85% of skippable Youtbe ads are actually skipped. When we do avoid ads on the big screen, we shift to the small screen, only to be bombarded with even more ads. Quite frankly consumers are fed up of being bombarded by ads, instead consumers switch to their small screens, where among the selfies, quotes and funny pictures of friends, they see people they follow wearing clothes they wish they owned, going on holidays they wished they’d experienced, or eating food they wish they consumed. But look a little closer and you will realise that shifting your eyes from the big screen to the smaller screen only means that you are being exposed to more ads. Ads on the smaller screen are much more tolerable because they aren’t obvious ads. 

 

But what if social media posts, became obvious ads?

During 2016 there was a huge fuss surrounding the disclosure of sponsored posts, with brands and influencers failing to demonstrate proper transparency with their sponsored social media content. As a result the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) started calling out brands and influencers whose sponsored posts weren’t disclosed, the ones which failed to include any inkling that the posts were paid for, and were in fact ads. In March this year, the Advertising Standards Authority and CAP published new guidelines around the disclosure of affiliate marketing links by online influencers. Encouraging influencers to clearly state the links that would gain them revenue if readers clicked through and made a purchase.

Whilst influencers clearly have a moral responsibility to disclose brand collaboration, it’s the brand which is legally responsible and thus liable for any non-disclosure. Lord & Taylor were one of the first to experience first-hand, the ramifications of not properly disclosing the sponsored posts of 50 influencers they collaborated with. Consequentially settling their legal case with the FTC by agreeing to refrain from the misrepresentation of any sponsored posts, disclosing ads, making sure they didn’t seem as though they come autonomously from the influencer. The Warner Brothers were also struck with a 20-year set of conditions by the FTC after failing to disclose paid promotions with YouTubers they collaborated with.

However with some brands, actually asking influencers to not disclose their posts as revealed by 25% of 347 influencers (SheSpeaks), it raises the question as to whether a hashtag actually makes a difference in direct sales. 

 

Why disclose?

By now we know that failing to disclose a post means that the brand and influencer are both running afoul with the FTC guidelines. The FTC guidelines clearly state that whenever an influencer is being compensated in any form to post a brand’s product on their social media platform, it should be disclosed.  Social media users should have the right to know, when and if a post is sponsored so that they can draw their own conclusions regarding products. That way they can themselves consider how good the products are regardless of how much it is being pushed by the influencer or forced by the brand onto the influencer due to their agreed exchange. 

 

Reluctance  to disclose

Theoretically, influencers and brands would be reluctant to disclose their posts, even if they do genuinely like the brand, due to the negative connotation a sponsored post has. Adding a hashtag to imply that the post is sponsored, questions the influencer’s authenticity, sincerity and truthfulness of their opinions. Whether they are in fact being direct and honest with their audience, or whether it’s merely a paid for post and don’t care if the product does what it says on the label. 

 

What difference does a hashtag make?

Will knowing that a product featured in an influencers post are in fact ads, avert you from making a purchase? The whole point of an ad is to persuade you to make a purchase. Influencer marketing, however differs from the traditional forms of advertising. Unlike traditional ads, influencer marketing aims for the natural or implicit integration of products into influencer’s feeds, to avoid the explicit promotion of a product. Highlighting the fact that the influencer would have purchased a specific brands products autonomously, independent of whether the brand had approached the influencer of not. Influencer marketing takes advantage of the idea that the influencer would buy, try, use and recommend a product even if it hadn’t been gifted. The reason brands rush to influencers to help promote their products is because of the Influencers’ already established, grouped audiences, who trust their opinions and look to them for advice and inspiration. Influencers can potentially reach to thousands of individuals with niche interests within seconds. Individuals who encompass the exact characteristics of the brands ideal target market and could potentially be easily persuaded to switch into consumers.

So if it comes across naturally would disclosing a post make a difference to sale? If consumers have been following the influencers throughout the years will #sponsored post divert them? Diminish their trust? Or will it make no difference whatsoever? Then comes the other argument. Do consumers need a hashtag to let them know whether or not an post is sponsored? By now loyal followers should be able to very well tell whether a post is forced on to the influencers by a brand or not, so maybe a hashtag won't make a difference in persuading bystanders to convert to buyers after all.