Today’s generation of digital natives consume information differently. To make up for the diminishing effectiveness of traditional ad formats, brands have been forced to try new tactics to reach their customers. Fuelled in part by developments such as programmatic advertising and the rise of social media influencers such as bloggers and vloggers, spending on native advertising and sponsored content has subsequently increased massively.
People like to know when they are being sold to. But by making it hard for consumers to distinguish between brand-bought content, editorial and conventional advertising, native advertising and sponsored content raise serious ethical questions around unfairly exploiting and misleading audiences.
At Social Media Week London 2016, Fat Media and CollectivEdge will be hosting a debate that will explore how the relationship between brands, influencers, publishers and consumers is evolving in this shifting context. You can sign up for a free ticket at this event here.
To provide you with a taster of what’s to come, we’ve prepared a question and answer session on the subject with five experts, including our very own Head of Social & PR Alexei Lee, that will be joining us on the panel.
Debonita Choudhury (DC) Debonita is a fashion and travel blogger at Elegantly Fashionable, and an Instagram influencer who has worked with brands such as M&S, House of Fraser and BooHoo.
Christie Dennehy-Neil (CDN) Christie is the Public Policy Manager at the Internet Advertising Bureau UK, the trade body for digital advertising. The IAB helps publishers, agencies and advertisers to understand advertising regulation and works with its members to develop cross-industry good practice.
Carla Faria (CF) Carla is the Director of Content at The Foundry, the division responsible for commercial content at Time Inc (the UK’s biggest publishing network).
Dan Eyre (DE) Dan is a Social Media and Content Manager at UNiDAYS, heading up the global team responsible for delivering engaging and relevant content to this brand’s millennial and GenZ audience. Dan’s role includes overseeing a broad range of influencer engagement activity.
Alexei Lee (AL) Alexei is Head of Social & PR at Fat Media and his role includes overseeing planning and execution of influencer marketing and social advertising campaigns for brands, businesses and charities.
The Questions & Answers
What do you think it means to be an influencer?
CDN: “I don’t think there’s a single definition. Broadly speaking if you’re an influencer then you will have an authentic voice that your audience trusts. There is a difference I think between brands buying into a person’s influence versus ‘buying’ their audience.”
CF: “Being an influencer is much more than simply the label ‘blogger’ or ‘vlogger’. An influencer in the modern sense is anyone outside an individual’s social group, who captivates and inspires that individual (and their community) because of their authority within and knowledge of a subject matter and the ability, to some extent, to shape the mood of the moment because of who they are.”
AL: “I think the meaning of ‘influencer’ has changed immensely over the last few years. Social and the web has very much levelled the playing field in terms of who can influence and why. All you need these days is time invested into building your community and creating your own content. It means that niche interest groups get a better platform and an individual’s comments can have an instant impact and rally popular opinion quickly, which is not always a positive or constructive thing, but it does mean that influence is no longer restricted to the media, celebs and politicians.”
Do you think consumers are able to distinguish between the different types of digital advertising? Do the majority of native ads lack transparency?
DC: “Some do and consumers are getting smarter every day, but I don’t think the majority of consumers understand the difference. I think a majority of the native ads do lack transparency, however I think this is because there are no defined rules or guidelines on how publishers must label native ads, and standards of transparency vary widely from one publication to another.”
CDN: “I don’t think the majority of ‘native’ ads lack transparency – most people want to get it right. It’s important that any advertising, but particularly advertising that has the same look and feel as non-advertising content, is clearly identified. It’s not the consumer’s job to work out whether or not something is advertising. IAB UK has published good practice guidance to help marketers understand and comply with the rules around disclosure in content and native marketing.”
CF: “I think that consumers can distinguish between display advertising and commercial content. For the most part, they can also distinguish between content that has been controlled to some extent by an advertiser and content that has been created entirely by the editorial team/blogger, as ‘marketese’ typically creeps into even the most gently amended commercial content.”
AL: “There are two potential issues here really. One is that not everyone is savvy enough to understand the distinction between branded content and editorial, or understand the implications of this. Even if this is a small audience, they should be acknowledged. The other is that the publisher does not necessarily make enough effort to make this distinction.”
To what extent do you think sponsored content devalues a publisher’s reputation?
DC: “I think it works both ways. Inappropriate sponsored content can devalue the publisher’s reputation but quality and relevant content actually helps their reputation. I would say it’s the publisher’s responsibility to stick to posting relevant and quality sponsored content on their websites.”
CDN: “Good marketing content doesn’t devalue a publisher’s reputation. But to avoid undermining publishers’ hard-earned reputations, built on trust, the content needs to be high quality – relevant and engaging – and there needs to be transparency about the brand’s involvement. Consumers don’t like being misled, and it’s against the law. That is what will damage the publisher’s – and the brand’s – reputation.”
CF: “Sponsored content does not devalue a publisher’s reputation at all, because in its most honest form, it may have been briefed by a client, but it has been produced entirely and without amendment by the editor/blogger/publisher. When commercial content is created so that it is indistinguishable from editorial, the editor/blogger/publisher will invariably feel positively about the advertiser’s strategy/product/service.
AL: “It’s really down to knowing your audience. Most people are used to and accept that media publications are commercial entities and need ad revenue to survive. The important thing is knowing how much is too much for your audience. If you saturate your site or feed with too much paid-for content, then you will lose credibility. Same goes for the type of content you publish – it needs to be in-keeping with the rest otherwise it will be seen as spam or ‘selling out’.”
What are the biggest challenges that digital advertising regulators face?
CF: “I think the current bodies are probably equipped to deal with the pace of change in the digital advertising world. However, it’s unlikely they will be able to pick up on every transgression due to the sheer number of blogs, articles, videos and social posts that are published every day. Change is possibly less of a problem than sheer volume.”
DE: “Not all brands who practice influencer marketing are transparent, so I imagine this makes it incredibly difficult for advertising regulators to make brands accountable for their actions.”
CDN: “One of the main challenges from a regulatory perspective is balancing the need for consumer protection with the ability of marketers to innovate and make the most of the creative opportunities to connect with audiences that digital advertising offers.”
How do you think influencer marketing is evolving?
DE: “I think we’ll see an increase in more sophisticated influencer outreach tools. There’s some great ones on the market, but for those brands who really want to find the right match, on the right platform at the right time, they’ll need a tool that takes an algorithmic approach when suggesting new influencers to work with. Influencer outreach is very time-consuming, even with the smartest tools on the market, so we’ll need to speed this process up as the demands on influencer marketing grows.”
DC: “We all know people respond better to content that comes from a person as opposed to a brand itself, so influencer marketing is now a serious consideration for most brands. In addition to working with large-scale influencers who have hundreds of thousands of followers, we have started to see more brands working with smaller influencers who enjoy a highly engaged following.”
CDN: “Creative partnerships are leading to innovative approaches that are allowing marketers to embrace working with influencers on new platforms and push the boundaries of digital to reach their audiences in exciting new ways. Influencers are increasingly being valued for their ability to create and produce content, and for their individuality and voice, not just as ‘channels’.”
AL: “We will see native ads and sponsored content gain pace over the next few years as people are increasingly desensitised to traditional advertising formats. The scope of how brands work with publishers and influencers will broaden as will the size of native ad networks you can deliver content through. However, content fatigue will be a real issue and there will be a plateau in the effectiveness of these formats as audiences become pickier about the content they consume. This will be fuelled by the broad adoption of automated content filtering tools. But it is our job as marketers to make sure we are coming up with new approaches, so that we are ready to adapt when this happens!”
Do you see any new commercial models forming to incorporate digital advertising, publishers, brands and influencers better?
CF: “I think that more formal alliances may start to develop between publishing companies and bloggers. Publishers are always likely to have their ‘bloggers of choice’, and bloggers may ally themselves to their favourite publishers. However, both these scenarios are less likely than brands having their bloggers and vloggers of choice; beauty brands in particular have been doing this for some time now.”
DE: “Here at UNiDAYS, we want to get to a place where we pay bloggers on a CPA (cost per acquisition) basis for every new user they acquire us. This isn’t ground-breaking but it will motivate bloggers who get some traction to promote UNiDAYS more, and those who don’t get a notable response will know that we’re not the right match.”
Where do you see the relationship between advertisers and publishers in 10 years?
CDN: “As strong as ever if we act now to address the challenges and ensure that content and native marketing evolves in a way that is responsible and respects its audience.”
CF: “The influencers I have worked with understand that there is a clear difference between blogger outreach and native or sponsored content. Blogger outreach involves supplying a product, service or experience to the blogger/vlogger and giving them the choice as to whether they want to write about that product/service or experience. Whether there is an agreement to do so between brand and influencer is less important than the fact that the influencer must be allowed the freedom to create content entirely on their own terms. This is what I would hope would constitute best practice (but I’m not an outreach/ PR specialist).”
Do you want to learn more about best practices relating to influencer marketing? Keen to understand how native advertising might benefit you?
On Thursday 15th September, as part of Social Media Week London, we will be holding a panel discussion titled: When Does Influencer Become Advertiser and Why Should You Care? This event is free (you don’t need an SMW pass to take part) but places are limited. For info on how to book your ticket, simply head over to the SMWLDN website now.