In today’s social-media landscape, influencer marketing is key. Whether your brand sells luxury items or mass-consumption goods, influencers have the potential to build authentic connections with your target audience, thus becoming a strategic element of the marketing mix. But although that truth rarely gets debated nowadays, the ethics of this practice often do.
From virtual humans to the lack of proper disclosure about sponsored content, it has become imperative for brands to consider a list of best ethical practices spanning many aspects of influencer marketing. However, with consumers’ values shifting and new opportunities for influencers being introduced every day, keeping up with these ethical considerations is not exactly a walk in the park.
Although many may feel tempted to discuss the extent to which a brand is responsible for its influencers’ actions, it’s important to remember that the brand’s image is at stake either way. Every influencer serves as an authentic spokesperson that can showcase brands in a good or bad light—and with that in mind, here are three aspects of influencer marketing worth considering to stay true to your brand’s purpose.
Sponsored content: Tagging transparency
When we think about the ethics of influencer marketing, sponsorship transparency is often the first aspect that comes to mind. This is no new issue: organizations like the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in the US, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) and the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) in the UK have already released a set of guidelines regarding transparency in influencers’ posts and their relationship with brands. At first glance, it seems like a resolved matter.
However, APAC is more of a grey area, and although there are no legal obligations to do so, brands here can use these western guidelines. That said, even in the countries where these regulations do apply, studies show that less than 15% of posts meet all regulatory guidelines set out by the FTC and the CMA. Violating the rules can lead to penalties, fines and legal fees, but also to the irreversible loss of consumer trust, which is particularly detrimental for the influencer—whose entire activity is built around authenticity—but can leave a stain on the brand’s name as a result.
If the line between a paid collaboration and illegal payola is thin and depends on proper disclosure, then all brands should familiarize themselves with the current regulations and ensure their influencer partners are following them. One option is to disclose partnerships with visible hashtags at the beginning of the posted content, or to use the special ad features provided by each platform. There may not be a one-size-fits-all type of practice, but with these clear guidelines in place, any excuses for lack of transparency have no place in the current state of influencer marketing—no matter the region you’re working in.
Reputation management: The morality clause
As brands double down on purpose, they should work with content creators who reflect their values. It may sound obvious, but the reality is that with so many options to choose from, brands may skip a very important step: taking the time to study each influencer and ensure their ethical values align.
In 2020, for instance, travel influencers and their sponsoring brands in that category stood with their backs against the wall as the Covid-19 pandemic turned tourism into a selfish activity, a matter of life or death. In a situation like this, a reputational crisis can be just one slippery slope away, which is why brands need to have a strict process in place to choose influencers and rule out anyone who doesn’t speak or act in accordance with its values.
An influencer is a brand’s spokesperson, and it should be thought of as such in order to avoid any potential problems or dangerous investments. As any good influencer marketing agency does, brands should undertake sufficient research to make sure they trust the person they’re working with and find ways to increase safety—including but not limited to adding morality clauses to their contracts.
Virtual humans: New life in the expansion of AI
With the hype around AI in the tech world, it’s easy to see how a certain trend will continue to gain traction in the upcoming years: virtual influencers. These CGI humans may be fictional people, but their social media presence is anything but. Virtual influencers like Lil Miquela and Puma’s Maya have built real communities around shared values—and novelty apart, these fake humans have the potential to transform any exchange into a meaningful interaction between a brand and its consumer.
While most brands stayed away from virtual influencers in the past few years, they are cultivating more and more interest as they evolve—especially in an era when people crave digital connections like never before. But with virtual influencers come unique ethical considerations. Understanding who holds the intellectual property rights and how legal agreements take shape can be more complex than with real influencers. Anonymity behind a virtual influencer’s creator can also cause problems with today’s transparency-minded consumers, and even cultural appropriation issues can arise, like those faced by Shudu Gram’s creators.
Virtual influencers have an entire team of designers, developers, writers and content creators behind them, so even though they may radiate the same sense of proximity and authenticity as any other influencer, brands should be aware of the difference this makes for their partnership and its impact. Conversations around ethics usually struggle to keep up with the pace of technology’s evolution, but these questions must be explored nonetheless. That’s where the role of specialized partners comes in: those who are constantly monitoring new trends, insights and best practices in influencer marketing can provide the protection and guidance that brands need.
Virtual or not, influencers have the potential to build a sense of trust that allows brands to create more meaningful connections with their audiences. But as consumer values continue to shift and technological opportunities arise, these social collaborations can only have positive, lasting impacts if brands keep ethical considerations in mind and partner with content creators that reflect their values.
Sophie Crowther is senior influencer marketing manager at MediaMonks.