Under the Influence: How to Spot Social Media Violators

December 2019

Image: GettyImages

If you are on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn or a number of niche platforms, like TikTock and Snapchat, then you are likely being bombarded by brands, not just through direct marketing and digital advertising, but through brand ambassadorships.

There are laws governing how companies can market online to consumers. What hasn’t gotten as much attention are federal regulations surrounding social media users who peddle productsthrough personal posts. Many of these are non-celebrities flattered that a company wants to give them free goods and services in exchange for testimonials important to a vendor’s marketing program.

As a result, we frequently fire up our feeds to find friends and friends of friends and bona fide influencers pictured with new gear or raving about a new face wash or book or hotel without making it clear they have a business relationship with the company behind the promotion.

When we at Twirling Tiger Media consider working with a new client, we examine their social media presence and pay attention to how they promote a brand and goods through content marketing, including brand ambassadors. Last month the FTC issued updated guidelines on how people should properly disclose their relationships with vendors that provide compensation for social media mentions, either through cash, productor in-kind services.

Among the tips, you should:

  • Disclose any financial, employment, personal, or family relationships you have with a brand. This should happen whether or not you are providing unbiased information and may even apply when you “like” a brand’s posts. People should be able to circle back to your bio or profile and see you have ties to that company.
  • Make the disclosure easy to find and in multiple places, from your online profile to the beginningof a post (not just hidden in hashtags). It needs to be obvious.
  • Embed the disclosure in a picture or video if text isn’t available, such as on Instagram Stories. Do not just rely on a written description accompanying a video.
  • Use common terms like advertisement, ad and sponsored—spelled out, not abbreviated.

One reason so many fail to follow these online rules is because it’s awkward to inject language that suggests someone is being influenced, especially if it’s a pricy product they otherwise could not afford to purchase on their own. Here’s where you can look for online role models like top-tier bloggers who support themselves through sponsorships. They are bigger targets for regulations and trolls and therefore more likely to abide by rules because they can’t afford bad publicity or mass loss of followers. In the Instagram post below, note the hashtag at the start of the post. If you were able to scroll down a few more lines, you’d find this below the main copy: sponsored by @robitussinbrand (as if the prominently displayed cold medicine wasn’t enough). Go to this travel blogger’s feed and you’ll see not every photo is an endorsement – that’s important too.

Sometimes social media influencers take advantage of the awkwardness. A couple of years ago, a sponsored triathlete contracted to receive free electrolyte replacement drinks in exchange for promoting the product on her Facebook and Instagram feeds. A prolific poster, she began to creatively place a water bottle with the brand name and logo in some photos. Before too long, the bottle became a character in an ongoing storyline. It was routinely spotted on the sidelines during training sessions (kinda like playing Where’s Waldo), on a blind date with an energy drink and photobombing beautiful landscape shots.

You can tell the triathlete had fun and so did her followers. One more word of caution: Don’t accept so many sponsorships that your feed is overwhelmingly endorsements. People want to follow you, not the people paying you.

Thank you for reading this,

Anne Saita