Instagram has unveiled a number of new features that will allow influencers to clearly signpost paid for content and share campaign metrics directly with brands, in a move to “increase transparency across the board".
The first tool, which is being described as a ‘paid partnership’ tag, is rolling out to a select number of global creators – ie influencers, publishers and business pages – over the coming weeks.
The feature is designed to help content creators communicate to Instagram's some 700 million users more clearly that they are working in collaboration with a business. It will signpost content as paid for above images in the Instagram feed as well as within the Stories section of the app.
The launch comes just months after government bodies like the UK's Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in the US issued reminders to brands and ambassadors, saying they are prepared to clamp down on social media campaigns that mislead consumers.
Instagram is initially launching the tool with a small group of creators, including blogger Aimee Song, who is currently collaborating with Volvo, and BuzzFeed Tasty, which has been posting sponsored content with Greek yogurt brand Chobani.
Charles Porch, the firm’s head of global creative platforms, told The Drum the tool was developed internally after discussions with the Instagram community in response to seeing the “ecosystem grow and mature,” noting that it’s a “first step” in ensuring transparency around paid partnerships on the platform.
Porch was clear that while Instagram is developing the feature internally, that creators should still defer to guidelines and rules from their local associations on the best practice for tagging and flagging content.
In the coming months it’s understood the tagging feature will be opened up to a broader group and that Instagram will release more details about who qualifies for its use.
A game of whack-a-mole
Policing influencer marketing has been described as being akin to a game of whack-a-mole, and Instagram’s move could help kickstart a race towards standardisation for the platforms involved in the process.
Until now, hastags like #ad, #sp, #sponcon and #partner have been the go-to method of signposting paid for content on social media, however the rules around best practice vary from market to market. Without legal requirements, enforcement remains a challenge for advertising and marketing groups.
Speaking at a recent event, Guy Parker, chief executive of the UK's Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) said the watchdog was aware that there are still occasions of "no labelling or inadequate labelling", adding that the latter issue in particular was something that needed to be dealt with.
Earlier this year the British Committee for Advertising Practice (CAP) unveiled a series of updated guidelines for brands and influencers around the disclosure of affiliate commercial partnerships. Advice included making followers aware upfront that what they were about to watch or click on was an ad, and being aware of the "technical quirks" associated with different platforms.
CAP has not commented on Instagram's new tool specifically but a spokesperson told The Drum it welcomes any steps taken by media owners to improve transparency.
"While this sounds like a positive initiative, the onus is still on creators and brands to ensure they stick to the Advertising Code and our guidance," the group added.
Across the Atlantic, the FTC demands that ads should be signposted with a clear tag such as #ad, and that these should be featured high up in the post, and not cut off in a caption, for instance. Tagging the brand is not acceptable, it has previously said.
What is clear, however, is that Instagram isn't positioning the new tools as an alternative to established guidelines, but instead as a way to bring clarity to what it recongises is becoming an integral part of users' experience.
Nonetheless, Matt Donegan, managing director of influencer marketing agency Social Circle, which works with the likes of Heinz and Renault, said it was "about time" Instagram made advancements.
"With the profusion of influencer branded content on the platform, we are delighted that Instagram is finally facilitating this trend," he mused, noting that his business "constantly" witnesses poor practice where influencers do not declare sponsored content.
"Audiences are getting more and more savvy and an increasing number of brands are working with influencers – there’s no space for inauthenticity anymore and we’re glad Facebook and Instagram are finally doing something about it. In our opinion it’s long overdue, and a reflection of this ever expanding market."
Need for honesty
Brands and influencers using the 'paid partnership' tag will also be able to track and share insights around a partnered post in tandem. Both parties will have access to metrics to track exactly how their branded content posts and stories are performing; a clear move from Instagram to ensure transparency is fostered within the partnership itself.
Measurement is one of the biggest challenges for marketers when it comes to influencer marketing, so such a feature is likely to come as welcome news to brands who are increasingly plugging money into the medium.
According to eMarketer, $570m was spent on Instagram influencer campaigns alone in 2015, and Elie Adamson, head of client services at We Are Social, believes that Instagram's latest shift signals it is on the path to becoming a more sophisticated media channel.
"Likewise, influencers are increasingly professional, with brand partnerships becoming more commonplace every day. Because of these factors, there's a need for honesty around commercial arrangements, and Instagram is helping make this easier for consumers to recognise when money has changed hands," she asserted.
"This is ultimately a positive move - transparency in advertising is important, and with ad revenues increasingly moving from traditional channels to digital and social ones, they should be held to the same standards."