You may have seen it in the news this week: Irish bloggers will now have to openly and immediately declare that content they are writing on behalf of a brand, and for which they are being paid, is in fact, an advertisement.
As the blogosphere has grown over the last few years and many savvy bloggers have not only realised their influence over a specific demographic but monetised it by leveraging their vast audience engagement capabilities with brands, it quickly became inevitable that the content we were now turning to would become as promotional as the standard ads we have started to ignore.
Digital marketing has turned inbound, meaning consumers do not want to read ads about how great a brand, product or service is, and seek out genuine, organic content that is helpful in their daily lives.
Bloggers, vloggers, Instagrammers – many have used their newfound power to position themselves as the voice, image or lifestyle we all want to listen to, look like, or achieve. They have become far more than just a new breed of opinionists, they have become influencers, and brands, as well as digital marketing agencies, have bought into this in a big way, happy to pay out for what should be the independent, unbiased, useful content that gave those online oligarchs their influence in the first place.
This practice can bring a large audience to the brand, and can generate a lot of leads from people who may not ordinarily have engaged with or even read about, a particular product, service or even subject a business is involved in.
But this poses a big problem and a contradiction. If influential bloggers gather a large following by giving an independent view on something, what happens when that independence is lost behind pushing a brand message? And worse, pushing it but trying to pass it off as genuine opinion?
You know how you groan when you see a really annoying, over the top ad on TV that claims a certain product ‘works miracles’? It’s the same for online content that is supposedly unbiased but seems to herald a brand, product or service as the best thing since sliced bread. At least the ad says it is an ad, and we can choose to switch off or change the channel.
Not every blog is so transparent, and it can be several lines, even paragraphs in, before we detect that this craftily constructed piece of content is nothing more than more advertising. The online consumer feels cheated, says good day, and is unlikely to return. When this happens a lot, the influence of that blogger dwindles, and all that money spent on paying them goes down the drain.
Steps have now been taken to put an end to this form of marketing to bring Ireland more in line with regulations already present in the US and UK.
“Advertisers seek new opportunities to engage with consumers and in some cases, although material may not resemble traditional marketing communications, because the advertisers have paid for and controlled the content, it will in fact be marketing communications.
“It is and has always been an important principle of the ASAI Code that consumers can easily recognise when they are being addressed by a marketing communication so that they can make an informed decision about their engagement with the content.”
Emphasising the point that paid for content done up to look like an independent blog is still paid for content, it outlines the following key points:
- A marketing communication should be designed and presented in such a way that it is clear that it is a marketing communication. This must also be immediately included and clear from the beginning before people read the material
- A disclaimer below-the-fold on websites, in terms and conditions, or at the end of the piece is not sufficient
- Advertisers should not exploit the credulity, inexperience or lack of knowledge of consumers
- Advertisers looking to engage with consumers through bloggers and celebrities "must fully declare their online marketing communications"
- Where celebrities or influencers are sponsored by brands or paid directly to promote a product, it must be clear these posts are marketing communications
- These guidelines apply not only to written blogs, video and images, but to social media, where a clear use of an ad hashtag such as #Ad or #sponsored is required
- Where a blogger does not receive financial gain from a brand but receives gifts or free samples, etc, they do not have to declare their content as marketing or advertising, but following the code of conduct is encouraged
So, what does it all mean for the world of Irish blogging? Well, for the majority of bloggers, very little. While the use of influencers has proven to be very lucrative for many brands, not every blogger who puts their fingers to the keyboard is in it for the money, and most get no financial gain whatsoever, as this summary shows.
Those that do make money from their position of influence have been able to do so because of the fact that in a time when the online consumer trusts and is influenced by content they see as impartial, knowledgeable, and organic, far more than they trust a brand’s own message, these content producers have been able to reach vast audiences in a way that engages with them on a human level. People no longer want a brand message shoved down their throat, they want to hear a genuine opinion or experience from someone they trust who has used a brand, product or service.
Often, they present an idealised lifestyle online consumers want to achieve, and if they are using a certain product, perhaps that consumer can achieve it if they too use that product, or so they are led to believe.
Last year saw the cautionary tale of the rise and fall of Essena O’Neill, a young Australian woman whose picture-perfect Instagram account depicted a stylish, yet seemingly natural-looking series of images that portrayed an ideal lifestyle. Yet under the weight of pressure inherent in maintaining such an image, Ms O’Neill came clean and added comments to her images outlining exactly how staged, perfected and ultimately unobtainable her ‘natural’ and ‘genuine’ lifestyle was.
Admitting the beautiful clothes she donned were worn only once, for that single, perfect picture, and the lifestyle products she proudly showed off supported a message of a glowing health and self-image that no person can realistically achieve, she brought the curtain down on her relationship with the brands that used her image to appeal to her immense audience.
It all became too disingenuous, too brand-driven, the independent voice lost amidst the push for brand recognition.
While Ireland is a small country, the global nature of the internet means that audiences are no longer restricted by geography, and bloggers and influencers here can and do reach and engage with a huge number of online consumers on a daily basis. As such, they are still highly valued and highly valuable to brands, but there is a need to maintain the independent and organic message they publish.
As with almost every digital marketing process, there is a right way and a wrong way to reach out to influencers, to work with them, and to encourage them to promote your brand.
The key thing to remember is that you must allow them to keep their independence, to stay trustworthy to their audience, and this can only be achieved by allowing them to produce content that is genuine, not brand-driven, and most importantly, honest.
If you want to pay them and they are happy to receive financial gain, both brand and blogger now need to openly show this in the content produced, but the best way to engage with their audience and your customer base is to allow influencers to stay influential. That will only be achieved by steering clear of overly-promotional content that turns independently-minded blogs into glorified ads, because nobody wants to read an ad anymore.
Allow bloggers and influencers you reach out to, to say what they truly feel so that what they produce remains organic, and doesn’t fall into the murky waters of paid for content that will now have to wave a big, off-putting red flag for any reader considering looking at it.
Hopefully these new guidelines will help to bring some more transparency and accountability to the Irish blogging scene, and will ensure that both bloggers and brands alike clearly delineate between great organic content and paid for advertising.
At Get Focused, we believe in producing great organic content that attracts visitors to our clients’ websites. Our inbound digital marketing methodology means we produce an effective marketing strategy that truly delivers what consumers want to read in order to be informed about the challenges they face, delivering an organic way to generate leads. If you want to find out more about what we can do to help your business grow, book a call, or download our free guide to lead generation.