How authentic is your timeline?
Social media has quickly evolved from a platform to connect with friends and family online, to yet another marketing opportunity. How often do you scroll through Facebook or Twitter and get confronted by an ad for a new car, different bank or retailer promising to make your weekly grocery shop cheaper?
Sadly, these are the most transparent ads you’re likely to encounter. Let’s take a look at the ways your timeline is being infiltrated by paid content – possibly without you even noticing.
While social advertising might still be a fairly new platform for marketers, native advertising is the most traditional way. With Facebook boasting 1.86 billion monthly users and Twitter and Instagram hovering around 319 – 600 million monthly users each – it’s a tough market to turn down if you’re trying to get your product out there.
According to social media publishing platform, Hootsuite, social media advertising budgets have doubled worldwide since 2014 — growing from $16 billion to $31 billion in 2016. By 2017, this is expected to grow to over $35 billion, which equals 16% of all digital ad spend globally. Considering that 1 million new active mobile social users are added every day, social media advertising is an effective, and often less expensive, option – especially when compared to more traditional print, TV or radio ads.
Even though native advertising is experiencing exceptional growth, the use of ad blockers and common tendency to look straight past ads has forced marketers to use another channel to get their products to the billions of social media users. According to the 2016 Influencer Marketing Report released by Chute – a user-generated content marketing solution – two-thirds of respondents used social influencers as part of their marketing strategies in 2016. The use of influencers can be attributed to the perceived authenticity that comes from a personal recommendation instead of a banner ad.
But, what about transparency?
According to the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) and the USA’s Federal Trade Commission (FTC), influencers are required to disclose any brand sponsorship or endorsement, and often do so with the addition of a #sp or #ad hashtag. A more subtle way of disclosing an endorsement is through the inclusion of ‘partner content’ in the post. Giving an endorsement in social media while not disclosing that a sponsored relationship exists between the brand and endorser is considered misleading – and likely unlawful. But, sadly, not in South Africa. Currently, no legislation exists forcing influencers to disclose paid-for content, making it even trickier for followers to discern authentic content from sponsored posts.
When social media gets serious
While a sponsored ad for a new insurance company might be innocent enough, what happens when you lose the authenticity of your timeline in more serious matters – for example, local elections? The focus on political marketing increased after the jaw-dropping $2.23bn expenditure on the 2012 US presidential election campaign.
Here in South Africa, details, discussions, allegations and denials are all still emerging from the ANC’s alleged R50-million ‘War Room’, the objective of which was to ensure the party was victorious in last year’s local government elections.
The strategy behind the ‘War Room’ campaign was twofold – firstly, discrediting the public image of political rivals, and secondly, enhancing the ANC’s presence on social media and manipulating voter sentiment through the use of paid influencers. One of the alleged influencers is author and social commentator Khaya Dlanga, who has subsequently distanced himself from all ties to this campaign.
Using influencers or celebrities in political campaigns is nothing new – looking back, it’s obvious how each side of the Brexit campaign aligned with certain online personalities to further their cause. If the ANC were to have paid social media influencers to tweet positively about their party, this would not have contravened any laws. However, the discrediting of other parties online through false information is a violation of electoral rules.
If we turn our focus to international politics, the Arab Spring was a fantastic example of a (likely unpaid) multipronged use of social media to advance a political cause. Twitter was used for mobilisation, Facebook created and nurtured a network of like-minded people, while YouTube enabled ordinary citizens to become journalists, broadcasting stories that crossed borders and became international news.
So, what now?
The social media landscape is set to become only more crowded, making it even more difficult to pick out authentic content from the rest – and, that’s before we even get started on ‘fake news’. Just as you would in any real-life social situation, a level of discernment is required when faced with the flood of information you receive when you open a new tab on your browser or open a favourite app. As a news consumer, the onus is increasingly upon us to do our own research before accepting anything as fact. It’s a scary world out there.