Influence Marketing Vendors Are Letting Influencers and Clients Down

Influence Marketing Vendors Are Letting Influencers and Clients Down

Back in 2009, social media was just starting to become popular for marketers and brands to work with social media power users to promote their services and products.

Companies like IZEA saw an opportunity to attract people with large social followings or blog subscribers, and offer them money or free products for access to their audience.

Suddenly, Twitter was awash with tweets that were essentially ads, and blogs were rife with content that had been paid for. The problem was, no-one knew this because there was no legal requirement for that sponsored relationship to be disclosed. Instead, it was up to the blogger or “social influencer” to decide whether to disclose or not.

Due to the duplicitous nature of this lack of disclosure – essentially, it’s false advertising and gives brands an unfair advantage over competitors – regulatory bodies stepped in.

In the U.S., the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) published regulations stipulating paid or sponsored content had to be disclosed. Failure to do so would result in fines for brands in the region of $100,000 and up. Bloggers would be safe from this kind of fine (for now, at least).

In the U.K., the Advertising Standards Agency (ASA) is less forgiving, and sees bloggers equally as responsible as the brands they’re working for. If a blogger is found to have promoted sponsored content without disclosure, there are various sanctions they may face.

While I agree that bloggers who deliberately skirt the rules should be punished, I can’t help but feel the vendors they’re working with are letting them down. Case in point – Triberr.

Home of (Grey Area) Influence

Triberr started out as an automated content curation platform, where bloggers could join “Tribes” and share each other’s posts, the idea being to gain more traffic from the extra army of bloggers and their audience you’ve created a Tribe with.

Recently, though, Triberr pivoted and became the self-proclaimed “Home of Influencers”.

Influencer Marketing Campaigns - Triberr

To their credit, they had an interesting approach – brands would create self-served campaigns (where they themselves created the timelines, offers, compensation, etc.) and then open it up to the relevant Triberr members.

Triberr wouldn’t charge for this service. Instead, they’d take a percentage of the final payout the influencers received. Compared to the costs involved with a Klout Perks campaign, this is a far more attractive proposition for both brand and blogger. The brand doesn’t have to pay exorbitant fees, and the blogger makes a decent income.

The problem is, Triberr doesn’t seem to be doing too great a job at educating on disclosure, as per the FTC, ASA and similar governing bodies in Canada, Australia and elsewhere. In fact, disclosure seems to be a bit of a grey area.

When the Blogger Doesn’t Know About Disclosure

I recently read a blog post by a blogger I’ve been reading for a while, about a brand offering a pretty cool publishing service for new media. As I read the post, it became pretty clear (to me) that it was sponsored content.

Things like contextual keyword linking (where a certain phrase is used as a hyperlink versus the brand name itself), the way the post flowed compared to this blogger’s other posts, and the fact it simply read like a non-connected promotion. To confirm my guess, I checked the link for the contextual keyword (mobile ready) and, sure enough, the URL was clearly a campaign link.

Triberr campaign link

This would have been fine – had there been any disclosure to alert readers this wasn’t a normal post, but a sponsored one where a brand had paid the blogger to promote them. Unfortunately, there was zero disclosure anywhere.

I noticed that the blogger had more than one post about this brand, so I checked that one too. The same: contextual keyword with a Triberr campaign link, and no disclosure.

I decided to first hop on over to Triberr and see what they say about disclosure, but it’s pretty difficult to find anything if you’re not logged into their system.

I did find a blog post by Triberr co-founder Dino Dogan, that shares this advice about disclosure:

Disclosure is a hugely important part of brand ambassadorship. They don’t have to be generic and boring. You don’t have to be ashamed of being affiliated with a company. In fact, if you are ashamed, you have a choice. You can go and represent a different company.

While Dino mentions the importance of disclosure, there aren’t any guidelines in the post on how disclosure should be approached. Indeed, when referring to a sponsored post Dino uses as a great example of a campaign post, he states:

Somewhere in the middle of the article I disclose how the post came about.

This is a red flag. As per the FTC mandate, disclosures should be highly visible:

  • Prominence: Disclosures must be prominent, viewable on any device, and not buried within a web page (in the March 2013 update, the FTC stated disclosure must be at the start and end of each post). Fine print may not cut it, and prominence is even required on a mobile web page. (Source: Social Media Explorer)

The key phrases that stand out here are “disclosures must be prominent” and “not buried within a web page”. The post Dino referenced had the disclosure “somewhere in the middle of the article”.

That raises the question, if the vendor isn’t “doing it right”, how are the bloggers being educated on the role of disclosure for a Triberr campaign? Judging by their latest campaign fine print, they’re not.

Triberr campaign blogger

As highlighted by the red box at the bottom of the campaign, it shares milestones and content expectations – but nothing about disclosure. I reached out to Triberr on Twitter a couple of days ago to ask about their disclosure policy:

With no response, I then contacted a blogger I knew to be working with Triberr to ask about their understanding of disclosure from Triberr, and this was the response:

Should bloggers know to do this? For sure! However, there’s an intense likelihood a writer has never been hired. Ignorance is naiveté in this regard. Companies using Triberr to reach influencers need to assume bloggers are unfamiliar with legal rulings.  Triberr needs to write influencer guidelines for sponsored campaigns (their current “rules” are sketchy). Companies need to add their influencer guidelines to the mix. Bloggers need to both read and adhere to a disclaimer with approved language and positioning in each published piece. No one wants to grapple with the law or be fined due to a simple inclusion of a disclaimer. Each of us needs to do a better job of protecting the other — bloggers, influencer networks (like Triberr) and those hiring and executing campaigns.

So, bloggers seem to be in the dark around what should and shouldn’t be posted. Perhaps this isn’t surprising – there really is no easily found disclosure area for bloggers to reference. The closest I found was from this FAQ sub-post (click to expand):

Triberr declaration post

While it mentions a Declaration Post sets off a relationship with transparency, any visitors to the blog that are only reading the sponsored post and are unaware of the Declaration Post will still be unaware of the content being sponsored, thus leaving the FTC guidelines unaddressed.

But bloggers aren’t the target (at least not for the FTC – the ASA would beg to differ). Instead, the FTC is more concerned about brands – so how does Triberr educate its brand partners?

The Non-Existent (Public) Disclosure Education for Brands

To find out, I created a dummy campaign on Triberr using the self-serve campaign creator. I simply entered some “Test” copy for each of the campaign areas, and clicked through each next step until I got to the point where I could review my campaign before setting it live.

At no point did I receive any advice about making sure I was aware of disclosure rules and guidelines. Nor was there any copy provided by Triberr that I could use for my Fine Print area (where Disclosure would be a prime candidate for inclusion).

Instead, I simply had the opportunity to insert my own fine print, and then set the campaign live.

Triberr for brands

Because this is a self-serving campaign, the brand (me) would be putting themselves in jeopardy by not stating upfront that partner bloggers need to disclose in any content they share (and not just blog posts – social updates, too, if they link directly to the brand).

With fines of up to six figures, this is an expensive oversight on the part of Triberr. There needs to be clear and upfront education, advice, copy, etc., that pinpoints the requirement of disclosure and how to make sure your blog partners are aware of their responsibilities in this area. If that is currently there, it’s very difficult to find (I couldn’t, after an hour of going through various links).

ftc disclosure   Search Results   Triberr Knowledge Base   Help Center

Without this, Triberr’s bloggers are short-changing their readers through no fault of their own. Worse, the clients using Triberr’s influence marketing service are essentially breaking the law, and if a fine isn’t bad enough, the hit to their reputation could be.

I’ve reached out to Dino Dogan for the Triberr take on disclosure and how they’re educating and enforcing (if at all). I’ll update the post accordingly if I hear back.

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Danny Brown
Co-author Influence Marketing: How to Create, Manage and Measure Brand Influencers in Social Media Marketing. #1 marketing blog in world as per HubSpot. Husband. Father. Optimist. Pragmatist. Never says no to a good single malt. You can find me on Twitter - Google+ - LinkedIn.
19 comments
Ivan Widjaya
Ivan Widjaya

It is a shame how bloggers rarely disclose how they are associated with a particular brand. Sometimes, readers are caught off guard. They think that they are reading an authentic review when it is really a review with an affiliate link.

Daniel Hebert
Daniel Hebert

Great post Danny! This is an issue we face each day with bloggers and marketers - every prospect we talk to, every campaign we run, and every client we work with at InNetwork knows about FTC disclosures, because we educate them about it. We've told our clients: "It's your job to make sure that bloggers you work with know about disclosures, and they absolutely have to disclose their relationship with you, for your protection." Marketers make sure that when they send out a brief or statement of work to an influencer or blogger that there's some sort of disclosure policy included. There's nothing wrong with a paid endorsement, but we all need to obey the law and move the practice forward :)

Jayme Soulati
Jayme Soulati

You've done a great service to the 'sphere here, Danny. The way you attack an issue and uncover all the nuance is impressive, and that's what makes you an influencer. If you'd like a re-blog (Triberr words!) in my house, I'm extremely happy to republish (suitably) in a few weeks to spread the word. In fact, thinking on that, I would like to do that as this is a critical piece of information. Not sure your policy on that and I've never done it before. Let me know. Thanks for being a leader.

Maria R. McDavis
Maria R. McDavis

Danny, this is such an important discussion to have--there's a huge gap between earned/paid (content creators, advertisers, vendors and brands). All of the above are forgoing their responsibility in the equation, ever pushing the envelope in their efforts. Just read an article that has a similar discussion between brands/advertisers/media publishers. Convergence is a doozy.

Randy Bowden
Randy Bowden

Insightful Danny and certainly a topic that is skirted greatly by many in the space. I like the Triberr network and utilize it. I do not except pay personally and have a discloser statement on my blog. My question is...isn't part of the law that all disclose, even the small upstarts that are promoting there product, app, service if they are writing about how it will enhance, deliver, promote, etc.?

Dino Dogan
Dino Dogan

hey Danny, Nice post, dude. I was flattered by the depth of the article and the research you've put in it. The FTC bit is actually a piece of code that wasn't carried over in the transition between public and beta versions of the feature set. That will obviously be addressed post heist. Campaign Managers and brands start the conversation about the needed disclosure prior to the campaign, AND -perhaps most importantly- our influencers are not writing sponsored posts or doing product reviews. They are brand ambassadors. This makes them proud to announce their relationship with the brand. Relevance and congruence are hugely important pieces of the equation. Having said that, I'm sure we've screwed up in the past, and I can guarantee that we will screw up again. In the grand scheme of things, there are politicians and big-name entertainers that are not disclosing relationships with their sponsors, so it seems FTC should be frying that particular fish before coming after bloggers who arent familiar with the guidelines quite yet. I'm much more interested in your suggestions as to what solutions we could implement. Including FTC info in the fine print is a given. But what else?

Randy Milanovic
Randy Milanovic

Glad you brought this up Danny. I've had my own negative experience over at Tribrr. In my case, I unwittingly joined a tribe where the owner was able to post to my twitter stream. It took me months to figure out where the access was coming from and get it stopped.

Danny Brown
Danny Brown

Thankfully, there are now legal mandates in place to counter this. Although it does make you stop and think what type of person the blogger is, ethically, if they were happy to ignore in the first place...

Danny Brown
Danny Brown

I think that's the kind of approach that will be more common moving forward. Though, truth be told, I'm surprised when I find vendors that aren't doing it. Even more so, to see agencies that work with vendors not knowing the guidelines too, four years down the line... crazy.

Danny Brown
Danny Brown

Hey there miss, thanks. As per Shelley's comment, it seems there's still a lot of education needed on both sides (vendor and agencies), though I can't help but also feel that bloggers need to play their part too. If you're looking to move from hobby to business use (as in, be paid for views) then make sure you start Googling requirements of a sponsored post. Having said that, vendors definitely need to protect their assets (the bloggers) better. And for sure, happy for you to repost, and thanks for the request.

Danny Brown
Danny Brown

Hi Maria, Completely agree, and that gap's only going to get bigger as brand sponsorship increases (think native advertising to replace advertorial content). It's an interesting transition, and brands, vendors and bloggers alike need to be prepared. Thanks for the heads up to the CMI article, look forward to checking it out!

Danny Brown
Danny Brown

If it's an employee or third-party vendor working with the brand in question (start-up, for example), the professional relationship needs to be disclosed. In the example used here (bloggers/influencers and sponsored posts) it needs to be very clear it's a paid endorsement.

Danny Brown
Danny Brown

Hey there Dino, I wanted to make sure I hadn't done Triberr a disservice by highlighting something as not being there when it is, so took my time to go through and ensure the post was accurate. While the Triberr description may be different, if there's payment involved and a blogger is writing/creating content around a brand they weren't aware of before, and being paid to do so, it's sponsored content. Influencer, advocate, ambassador - the name can be interchangeable, but it's still sponsored/paid content promotion at heart. But I definitely agree that the FTC needs to be consistent in their implementation of who they're targeting, to level the playing field for all (although, in fairness, they do state that bloggers aren't their target, brands and partners are). RE. suggestions, the FTC have a good trio of suggestions on a post of theirs: - Mandate a disclosure policy that complies with the law; - Make sure people who work for you or with you know what the rules are; and - Monitor what they’re doing on your behalf. If brands and partners/vendors take this responsibility on, it ensures all parties are acting within the law, and helps keep influence marketing and its various facets as a trusted and effective business tool. Cheers for dropping by, always appreciate the way you get involved in the conversation, compared to some of your peers. ;-)

Danny Brown
Danny Brown

Yeah, I seem to recall that issue from a couple of friends who had the same problem as you. Although threat of legal action is a bit crazy (as Dino mentions). I'm guessing it was the Tribe leader - did it ever get resolved? That's definitely something you don't want to leave unaddressed in case others have to go through that by the same person.

Randy Milanovic
Randy Milanovic

And... when I complained about it, I was threatened with a law suit.

Shelley
Shelley

I had the exact same issue (with the same person). I was finally able to resolve it by changing my settings in the group. All is well now. Danny, appreciate the post and the knowledge you shared here. I like to think PR folks are well-versed on highlighting the distinction between paid, owned and earned media since we've been working with both editorial/advertorial for so many years. But we all need a reminder that blogs have an additional layer of legal oversight. Cheers!

Ivan Widjaya
Ivan Widjaya

That's insane. And even if they filed a lawsuit, they are the ones infringing on your rights for crying out loud. They are the ones that should be sued.

Dino Dogan
Dino Dogan

Hi Randy, Who was threatening a law suit? That sounds crazy to me.

Danny Brown
Danny Brown

Thanks, Shelley. It's a little disappointing to see not just vendors, but agencies too, struggling with this. It's not as if there hasn't been enough blog posts, articles, and examples of the FTC taking notice of certain brands, etc., to use the "We weren't aware" excuse. Hey ho, still some education needed, it would seem.