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The Year of Living Dangerously in Influencer Marketing

Published on August 22nd, 2022

This article, written by Carmichael Lynch Relate director of social engagement Katy Tenerovich, originally appeared in the Minnesota PRSA’s Perspectives blog.

Influencer marketing. It’s a go-to strategy for many of us in the public relations, communications, social media and advertising disciplines. In fact, it’s an industry expected to reach $16.4 billion (right, billion with a “B”) this year. We know it, and we love it. We frequently use it as a way to help our clients or our own businesses and organizations reach and engage with core audiences through authentic content.

But with this growth comes challenges that we have to navigate. And top of mind for me right now are the FTC’s proposed updated guidelines, reflecting heightened scrutiny of endorsements and digital advertising via social media platforms. It’s welcomed and anxiety-inducing all at the same time.

The proposed changes to the FTC’s Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising outlined in May 2022 would build on and expand previous guidance in several ways:

  1. Expanding the definitions of and extending liability for endorsers, intermediaries and social platforms
  2. Addressing the ways in which companies incentivize and publish/amplify consumer reviews
  3. Offering new examples for disclosing sponsored endorsements
  4. Demonstrating the FTC’s interest in addressing advertising that targets groups of consumers like the elderly and children

Most of the proposals should come as no surprise to those of us who specialize in social media, influencer marketing and the like. Some of them warrant special attention, and frankly, one in particular worries me and many in my network.

While past guidelines have made it clear that both brands and endorsers could be held liable for misleading statements, the proposed updates would expand that language to include all parties involved.

The FTC is now proposing that in addition to being potentially liable for false or deceptive statements made through endorsements or for failing to disclose material connections between themselves and their endorsers, advertisers may now be liable for false statements made by an endorser even if the endorser themselves is not.

Furthermore, agencies (advertising, public relations, influencer marketing) as well as other intermediaries can now be held liable for any role they have in distributing what they knew or should have known to be false or deceptive endorsements. These entities can also be held liable for hiring or directing endorsers who fail to make necessary disclosures, which means that the onus to review, monitor and remedy endorsers’ content mostly falls on these entities now, rather than the brand or endorser. It’s a potential recipe for finger-pointing.

Many in the industry feel that this is a much-needed change and suggest that agencies are often the ones trying to skirt FTC guidelines about disclosures or other rules and regulations in their never-ending quest of making content seem more “authentic.” These days, it’s the brands that seem to be overly cautious and require endorsers to use multiple hashtags to ensure their connection with any given endorser is crystal clear – even if the plethora of hashtags negatively impacts the performance of a post. Better safe than sorry, right?

So how can brands and the people who run them protect themselves? By doing their due diligence. The number of agencies or other companies that provide influencer-marketing-related services grew by 26% in 2021 and, spoiler alert, not all of them have your best interests at heart.

Here are my tips for brands and clients to consider when vetting an influencer marketing agency partner:

  1. Ask for case studies: Find out who they’ve worked with (both brands and endorsers) and how they vet influencers and evaluate the efficacy of their work. Make sure you’re selecting an agency with a strong track record of successful and legitimate work.
  2. Review your chosen agency’s influencer/endorser contract terms: Ensure they outline adherence to FTC guidelines adherence and their process for handling endorsers who do not follow requirements

The saying that “everyone’s an influencer” rings true every day. It’s still an amazing strategy to tap into, especially with the right knowledge, skills and abilities in hand. Just remember that the key to a successful influencer strategy is finding the right partner agency that will ensure your influencer activities adhere to all rules, regulations and guidelines.