How should social media influencers act when faced with a moral dilemma? What is considered ethical and unethical in influencer marketing?
As I’ve previously blogged before in Who’s Your Influencer, online influencers are individuals who can “influence” the purchase decisions of others by virtue of their authority, knowledge, reputation or “likability”.
Popular influencers are usually active content producers with significant networks of readers, fans and followers on their blogs, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social networks.
Before we explore several threads on this issue, let us first look at the huge elephant in the room. Namely, the Xiaxue versus Gushcloud saga (feat. Singtel, StarHub and M1) currently rocking the social media landscape in Singapore.
Influencer Marketing Wars?
Back in December last year, I blogged about who influencers are, prompted by the Xiaxue versus Gushcloud saga which started with a blog post titled “The Big Gushcloud Exposé” by Xiaxue two days before Christmas.
Faith in Gushcloud x 2
Two websites/blogs came up during the ensuing months.
The first was Faith in Gushcloud (WordPress) – an official channel put up by Gushcloud for the influencer marketing agency to explain itself. The second – “Faith in Gushcloud” (Tumblr) – was an anonymously created website which revealed internal Whatsapp chats, emails, and other information from the influencer marketing agency.
As you can imagine, the picture presented on both platforms are completely opposite.
The Big Gushcloud Expose 2
More recently, on 14 March 2015, Xiaxue wrote a new blog post “The Big Gushcloud Exposé 2” highlighting fresh evidence against Gushcloud. Apparently, an internal Gushcloud brief for their client Singtel instigating influencers to say negative things about M1 and StarHub was suddenly leaked on the “Faith in Gushcloud” Tumblr site.
Following Xiaxue’s blog post, both Singtel and Gushcloud apologised for the incident. Two Gushcloud bloggers also apologised for posting negative competitor comments in the Singtel campaign.
Thereafter, M1 and StarHub filed an official complaint to the Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore (IDA) against Singtel. While IDA investigations were underway, StarHub contemplated taking legal action against Singtel.
Singtel CEO Apologises
Most recently, Singtel’s CEO Chua Sock Koong personally apologised to both M1 and StarHub for the incident. She also announced that Singtel has terminated both Gushcloud and the Singtel employee involved in hiring the influencer marketing agency.
Following her apology, both StarHub and M1 responded that they would not press charges.
The Advertising Standards Authority of Singapore (Asas) commented in a Straits Times story that they would draw up new guidelines on advertising ethics, endorsed by the Consumers Association of Singapore. In the same report, Alvin Lim (of Alvinology) and Wendy Cheng (Xiaxue herself) remarked that the bloggers involved were very young and should be given a second chance.
From the brief saga above, one can see that several issues were raised. Let us look at each in turn as well as other related ethical issues.
Transparency and Disclosure
First, how open should a social media influencer be when accepting a paid job? Should he or she include an “Advertorial” or “Sponsored Post” which clearly signposts that it is paid for by an advertiser?
While the answer is certainly a “Yes”, the challenge arises when an agency or client issues instructions to “mask” a sponsored post. Also known as astroturfing (see this article here to understand how it works), such practices make a post seem more “authentic” and “believable”.
What if a company gave you other benefits (like a lunch or dinner, free hotel stay, and plane tickets). Should those be declared?
Generally speaking, any type of benefit should be declared in one’s post. Readers should know that a blogger has received a benefit from a company so that they can make their own assessment.
In the world of advertising, comparisons between competitor brands are common. However, these are often done by the brands themselves.
The challenge arises when “neutral” intermediaries like bloggers or other social media influencers join in the fray. If it is known that they have been paid to favour “Brand X” over “Brand Y” while remaining silent about it, consumer trust in both influencer and brand may be eroded.
Beyond the issue of integrity, Singapore based companies need to also follow certain laws on competition. In the case of telcos, IDA has a Telecom Competition Code which spells out the rules of engagement.
Buying Fans and Followers
While most would agree that paid jobs should be disclosed, what about “investing” in growing one’s community?
Would it be ethical to swell one’s Facebook fans or Instagram and Twitter followers by purchasing them?
This also applies to engagement metrics like views, “likes” and comments. They can be bought too – for the right price.
The problem with purchasing fans and followers from click farms is that it will only sabotage you in the long run. You may want to read this article to uncover some of the perils of buying Facebook likes.
Not only is it wrong, purchased fans from fake profiles lower genuine engagement with true fans and customers. Read this excellent post on why buying Facebook fans can hurt your business.
Creating fresh original content is tough. It takes a lot of ingenuity and energy.
Now there is nothing wrong with learning from another person’s work and creating something based on that. Most of us are inspired by somebody else. What’s important though is to acknowledge your content source if you can (and link to them where possible).
However, we should respect another person’s intellectual property. If we cited another person’s content (even if we’ve rewritten them), it is common courtesy to acknowledge them and give them a link if possible.
What about images and videos? Well, if you do use an image and a video from a source, it is important to cite that source and consider if there are copyright restrictions around them.
Hubspot has a great post on handling content theft here. Do check it out and see if it helps you.
Capitalizing on Controversy
Controversy generates attention. It also shines the spotlight on our content and our platforms.
As humans, we are naturally wired to respond more immediately to negative or controversial news than positive news. This is why a bad news day is a good news day in the newsroom.
However, is it ethical to engineer polarising content to spike your readership and reach?
I guess this is a game of balance and nuance.
If you avoid anything contentious, you are at danger of disappearing from people’s news feeds. That wouldn’t go down well with influencers, whose influence is measured by their hits, comments, likes and shares.
However, bear in mind that there are pros and cons to controversy. It is like fire – a good servant but a bad master.
Trolling and Cyberbullying
This brings me to the next topic – trolling and cyberbullying.
Like it or loathe it, many of us are guilty of trolling. Often without knowing it.
We gleefully share content and spread news deliberately conceived to incite a reaction. Or we intentionally write something provocative to elicit a response.
However, there are limits to what we should do here. For me, I’d stop at any form of character assassination regardless of whether I feel that the person is guilty or innocent.
If you intentionally disparage and tear down another person in a personal way, you are not just a troll, but a cyberbully. This is not only discouraged but may even be illegal. You may wish to read more about cyberbullying in this blog post.
Ethics Education – The Way Forward
As I’ve previously blogged about (8 Ways to Build Online Trust), trust is an invaluable asset in the digital age. Ditto for its close cousin, reputation.
To build trust in the influencer marketing business, we need to be educated on what ethical advertising and blogging behaviours are.
This should be targeted at four different groups of people:
- Clients and advertisers
- Digital and influencer marketing agencies
- Bloggers and other social media influencers
Resources on Ethics
There are some good resources on ethical advertising available online.
The first I would recommend is the Advertising Standards Authority of Singapore’s (ASAS) Singapore Code of Advertising Practice (SCAP). An advisory council to the Consumers Association of Singapore (CASE), ASAS is responsible for upholding ethical standards in both online and offline advertising.
From a press article today, I understand that ASAS also will be convening a council to discuss ethics in social media marketing with major agencies and media players. Hopefully that will bear fruit.
Internationally, there are also some useful resources on ethics in influencer and social media marketing. Some noteworthy ones are as follows:
- Social Media Examiner’s 3 Steps to Ethical Social Media Marketing implores us to demand disclosure, encourage honesty, and monitor compliance.
- [email protected] has a good set of guidelines on influencer marketing termed the Social Media Engagement Code.
- This video from Scott Stratten of UnMarketing is also worth watching for the interviewee’s views on ethics and transparency.
The Golden Rule
Last but not least, if you can’t remember anything else, just apply the Golden Rule:
“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
In other words, imagine that you are at the receiving end of the stick. How would you feel? As a client? Influencer/blogger? Consumer?
By donning the lenses of the other party involved, we are better able to do what is ethical in the eyes of our beholder.
If we discovered that we have infringed on somebody else’s right or did something unethical (whether intentional or accidental), it is always good to apologise for what you did, and to do what you can to make things right. Singtel has set a good example here, with their CEO no less.
What are your thoughts on influencer marketing ethics? Can we build a positive social media marketing environment for all parties – brands, agencies, influencers and consumers?
[Updated Sep 2016] ASAS’s New Guidelines on Social Media
The Advertising Standards Authority of Singapore (ASAS) has just issued new guidelines on advertising and marketing communication that appear on interactive and social media. These are to be read together with the Singapore Code of Advertising Practice which I’ve written about earlier (in March 2015).
These were written in response to feedback the authority received about advertisements seen on the Internet and personal mobile devices. According to ASAS…
“…some consumers were misled by discounts and rates that were not as attractive as advertised, false depictions of products in pictures or questionable claims about product efficacy. Such mischief has the potential to undermine consumers’ perceptions of marketing communication in the digital sphere as a whole.”
To circumvent this, ASAS’s new guidelines proposes the following standards for influencers and other online advertising:
- Disclosures of commercial relationships and disclaimers should be made prominent, easy to understand and appropriate for the form that the communication takes;
- Paid reviews, testimonials and endorsements have to be clearly indicated;
- Reviews that are disguised as being from impartial sources are not permitted; and
- The use of services and methods that fraudulently boost user engagement is prohibited.
In other words, all forms of influencer marketing like endorsements, reviews, and testimonials need to be indicated as paid where possible, and not disguised (ie undercover or stealth marketing).
You may read more about this in ASAS’s full guidelines here.