The role of an influencer evolves as the landscape of traditional marketing changes. We see more bloggers with a vast following partnering with large-scale corporations, and while this rapidly growing, niche market expands into a lucrative business, it prompts the question – are there rules for how influencers move through this new medium?
Well, that first depends on whether influencers are considered public figures or private citizens.
When blogging, then referred to as web logs, first became a thing in the late 90s, it created a new medium through which users could communicate their individual thoughts and opinions. It was a personal, digital diary to reflect & share. Content creation is not quite the singular experience it once was. Influencers now use their platforms to promote businesses, bring awareness to social causes, and develop their personal brand, which affords the influencer certain advantages and a viable source of income. Their sphere of influence becomes an integral part of why they are here and what they have to offer to both businesses & consumers. Blogging has transformed into a collaborative experience between brands and followers — with influencers being the bridge. The content blends into a mix of personal anecdotes and corporate marketing, leaving followers to discern whether the information they are presented with is authentic.
Influencers therefore are no longer simply private citizens, but public figures as well, engaging in business and connecting with audiences. If you are actively using your platforms to spread information, which you have a right to, you also take on the responsibility of ensuring that the information you provide is accurate. Fact should be presented as fact, and opinion should be expressed as opinion. As an active member of the digital community, you are intentionally contributing to the wider public knowledge. Are there expectations? Yes.
Here are some things to consider as an influencer:
- Compliance is a crucial aspect of blogging and I highly encourage influencers to consult with professionals on both the legal and business aspects of the influencer industry prior to starting. Yes, freedom of speech is a constitutional right in the United States and you can express your thoughts & feelings, in print or online, without recourse from the government. You can say pretty much whatever you want, but another layer to this reality is that in order to be a successful influencer, you must consider best practices in the industry. Most people are aware of plagiarism and the issues of crediting work, but influencers who do not come from a traditional marketing & advertising background may be unaware of the other ethical considerations and might find themselves in precarious situations, such as those popular influencers who received a letter in April 2017 from the Federal Trade Commission on the issues of endorsement on Instagram. The FTC’s Endorsement Guides (which you can find here) discuss the ethics of disclosure in marketing & advertising. This means that when an influencer and a brand enter into a mutual collaboration, the influencer must appropriately disclose whether the content is an #ad, #sponsored, or based on some reciprocal relationship with the brand. This is to provide consumers with all the information they need to determine if the endorsement is an accurate review or could be subject to bias. Influencers not in compliance with the FTC could face a penalty or fine. Instagram acknowledged the FTC’s warning and now flags posts with “Paid Advertisement” when a brand confirms the relationship with an influencer, demonstrating the seriousness of legal transparency. For many successful influencers, major paid partnerships amount to significant benefits and a sizable income, which may be subject to federal taxes for which they should seek professional help. Other examples of legal & ethical considerations include the relationship between professional accreditation & licensure and the role of the influencer. While some influencers do come from traditional marketing backgrounds — many do not — and some professional careers have guidelines, ethical codes of conduct, and issues with conflicts of interest that might affect the role of the influencer. It is pertinent to have a good understanding of the legal and ethical complexities of the influencer realm as it relates to you, and to continue to seek guidance from professionals.
- Transparency & authenticity are key. Good marketing does not rely on deception – it relies on strategy and unfortunately, sometimes that line is blurred. Authenticity is the basis of your brand. You are your brand, and if there are discrepancies in the way you disseminate information on your platform, there will be discrepancies in your branding — raising issues of authenticity, reliability, and consistency that could affect you personally. Beyond the legalities of transparency & full disclosure, there are best practices that speak to the authenticity of the influencer, including things like giving proper credit to sources, being open & honest about the extent to which images have been altered with editing, clearly stating when you work exclusively with a brand, or making an genuine effort to address concerns brought up by followers, just to name a few. Some tactics used by influencers today include subtle things such as reducing #sponsored down to #sp in an attempt to reduce the visibility of paid partnerships and increase the illusion of authenticity. Ultimately, it is impossible to truly know someone’s intentions, thus creating a need to be critical in the way we evaluate information overall.
- Responsibility is the foundation of the role of the influencer. If you profit from your ability to influence, you are tasked with the responsibility of understanding the impact of your influence on the well-being of those who follow you. While it may not be explicitly spelled out, it is the responsibility of the influencer, who by choice is in a position of relative power, to consider the impact of their behavior & words on their followers. The law states you can say just about anything, but should you? As a private citizen, you can say what you feel, but as a public figure, be respectful and practice mindful messaging — avoiding any discriminatory behavior, posting mentally or emotionally harmful content, or engaging in harassment or bullying. These behaviors, along with many other negative behaviors, could be damaging to your brand and business, so exercise caution and think critically about the role you want to play in the digital space. Unfortunately, while you as the influencer may be mindful of these things, others may not, and you may get negative comments. What they say is on them, how you respond is on you. You can use the opportunity to educate and correct, or ignore it, but ultimately it is your responsibility to take ownership and set forth a positive example. The influencer is not obligated to speak about social or controversial issues any more or less than other users — especially if they are not equipped with the credentials, or the premise of the platform is unrelated (i.e. beauty & fashion bloggers). However, if you decide to use your platform to bring awareness to issues that are important to you, it is necessary to handle these topics with sensitivity. Again you have a right to speak on any issue, however there are best practices due to the complexity of social activism and civic engagement in the digital space. One of the prominent issues today is the rise of disingenuous social activism. Followers are constantly playing the “Fake or Not Fake” game and can often tell when a certain influencer is being genuine in their approach to raise awareness, or if its a publicity stunt. As an influencer, consider the following questions when discussing controversial issues:
- Why is this issue important to me? Am I, or the people around me, personally impacted?
- Is my intention to add value to the discussion in a positive, constructive way, or is my intention to demonstrate my own knowledge or values?
- What am I attempting to gain by putting this information out there?
- Am I seeking validation or attempting to further a movement? If both, how do I organize my beliefs from the facts and present the information in a transparent manner?
- Am I in an appropriate position to speak on this issue?
- Do I come from a place of power & privilege in a situation where I am attempting to speak for individuals who do not benefit from my same advantages due to systematic constructs and injustices? We may not be aware of how our social status and privilege is perceived by those we attempt to speak for/about. While it is not required, it is best practice to be sensitive and receptive to feedback in how you approach social issues.
- What is my course of action for after I put this information out in public? If my intention is to further a cause, am I prepared to take additional steps to do so such grassroots efforts, protests, and funding or am I only comfortable with posting?
- Have I made up my mind on where I stand and thus choose to speak on the issue to illustrate my beliefs, or am I looking to create an open discussion to expand my understanding of the issue?
- How will I approach criticism? If I am confronted with information that challenges my personal beliefs, am I willing to resolve that incongruence or would I rather not be confronted with conflict at this time? (If you are not prepared to be confronted with conflict when discussing controversial topics, or if you anticipate severe backlash, perhaps it’s best to wait and better understand the situation before you post)
While the list of considerations for influencers can go on, these are a few points that I believe are of importance. The influencer market is an innovative space with great potential for creativity and has changed the way producers and consumers interact. The mediums through which we communicate are constantly evolving, as do the constructs which ensure a space that is equal and fair. The better we understand our role in this new digital space, the better we can adapt & improve for a more inclusive, ethical, and safe environment for success.
*The thoughts expressed in this piece are my own. For further information about legal, ethical, or business practices, please seek assistance from a professional.*