That's the dubious honour that belongs to influencer marketing after the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) launched a probe into social media influencers who are not coming clean on financial arrangements behind tweets, pictures and posts.
The marketing authorities could not be clearer and have been pushing the marketing niche to ensure that those who take money for posts are up front about it, most easily achieved with the addition of #ad or #sponsored. I was chatting twith my kids about this the moment the news broke that the sector was being investigated. Their answer was quite startling. Apparently, they are completely used to stars flogging "merch" (merchandise) and bigging up the brands they like without hashtags making it obvious the content has been paid for.
They are also getting used to celebrities and influencers putting a dozen hashtags at the end of the post with one in the middle that is hidden away admitting it's an #ad. Perhaps more worrisome, several influencers they are aware of are starting to use their own tags. Apparently, #sp is being used by some which, we presume, is short for "sponsored"?
The point is, all of this is designed to cover up ads as natural posts. It's not just influencers who do this -- publishers are notorious for it. In fact, I complained to a local paper just the other day that a sponsored article didn't make it clear that it was sponsored until readers clicked through. This is, of course, against every IAB UK and Content Marketing Association guideline ever laid out which suggest clarity on native advertising. The feedback I got was that the editorial team in question agree they should be following these guidelines but the bosses at HQ still need some convincing. They presumably prefer the better click-through rate when a piece of content with a strong headline appears to be editorial, rather than advertorial.
When it comes to influencers, it must also be pointed out that brands are ultimately the ones to suffer because people who listen to influencers begin to disregard their posts and so they are paying money to promote to a highly suspicious audience. In addition, of course, many studies have revealed that some influencers that buy audiences often tend to be nothing more than "bots." Either way, brands are let down on both counts. They are either paying for a smaller human audience than they thought, or they are not getting much bang for their buck because a 'sell out' influencer hasn't admitted, again, they were paid to hold up that can of beer and extol its virtues.
It makes you wonder, who is influencer marketing actually serving? Brands can get duped by the size of audiences, and engagement. The public can be conned by thinking an influencer really does love brand X, and they're not just being paid to say so.
Even the influencers can lose out. If they keep on pumping out messages about their favourite brands, the following they have built will drift away and take future posts with a pinch of salt.
One can only imagine that this niche needs clearing up with brands insisting #ad is adding to posts, or the influencer doesn't get paid. Same thing from the influencers themselves. They need to only take part in promotions that are clearly labelled.
I suspect that today's quick-fire campaigns, as brands test the waters, will be replaced by longer-term engagements that will allow brands and influencers to work together more transparently, and that work won't be the cause of embarrassment about #ad or #sponsored confession because they are part of a long-term partnership. Whatever happens, influencer marketing seriously need to be cleared up before it implodes.