#ad or #spon? A simple guide to the rules of influencer marketing


5 minute read

Influencer marketing is one of the biggest trends in our industry in recent years and has completely transformed the way we see social media, particularly on platforms like Instagram.

If it’s something you want to build into your marketing mix, there are certain rules you should follow to make sure keeping on the right side of the law.

Why is influencer marketing so popular? It’s extremely effective and, in some cases, kinder to your marketing budget than other types of marketing, especially print. 67% of marketers believe it helps them reach a more targeted audience, with some reporting that ROI is eleven times higher than TV or print advertising.

However, it’s not a magic wand for marketing. Influencer marketing has come under criticism recently for being a murky industry. We often see brands taking advantage of the influencers they are using to promote their products, and influencers failing to be honest with their audience.

This isn’t always due to underhand tactics, but often because the rules can be a little confusing. Until recently, there weren’t any clear regulations for influencers, as it was such a new industry. The ASA (Advertising Standards Agency) has now caught up and edited the CAP Code (Committee of Advertising Practice) to help those working with influencers, and the influencers themselves.

For this post, we’ve looked at the ASA guidelines but have also taken guidance from the FTC (Federal Trade Commission) in the USA, which is much more comprehensive.

Rules for brands

The influencer generally has more responsibility than the brand, as they are the publisher. However, the ASA can still rule against a brand, so it’s important to be aware of the rules.

Key rules for brands:

  • Stop influencers from making false claims. The claims made about the effectiveness or purpose of the product must be objective. It is your responsibility to clearly explain to the influencer what the product or service does. For example, an influencer can’t say that a mattress will cure insomnia, but they can say it was so comfortable that it helped them sleep better.

  • Stress the importance of disclosure.  You should emphasis that the influencer must state that there is a relationship between them and the brand and that this disclosure (#ad or #sponsored, for example) should be ‘above the fold’ or before any social media caption is truncated.  

  • Check the campaign. You should check what influencers say about your product after the campaign has gone live, and follow up if anything looks wrong.

Approaching influencers for a campaign

The two most important parts of an influencer marketing campaign are research and briefing.

Thorough research is vitally important before you start your campaign, whether you’re running the campaign yourself or via an agency. You need to see what kind of following an influencer has (and if it is fake or not!), their style of content and how they have worked with brands in the past. Ask the following questions:

  • Do they fit with your brand?

  • Do they disclose their partnerships properly?

  • How does their audience respond to ads? Read the comments…

  • Do they have a media pack, and what does it say?

Secondly, the brief you write for influencers is very important. It should be detailed but also easy to digest so you’re able to set expectations and stay within the rules. Start with a short brief, when you first contact the influencer, with an overview of the campaign. And be mindful to ask what their budgets are for sponsored posts or ads; setting expectations early is important.

Once you’ve started a conversation you can write a full brief. Include a proper description of the campaign and product to be promoted, the number of posts that are expected and the deadlines. Key messages, dos and don’ts, payment and hashtags are important to include too.

Rules for influencers

The influencer’s responsibility is towards their viewers, ensuring the reader knows the post is part of an advert or sponsorship. An influencer must:

  • Disclose any ‘material’ connection. This means a payment, free product or service, gift vouchers or anything else in exchange for promotion.

  • Make the disclosure easily visible. It must be above the fold on a blog post and not hidden after the ‘see more’ part on a social media post. Ideally, #ad or #sponsored (or any message on a blog saying ‘this post is an advert…) should appear right at the start. This means that a viewer doesn’t have to read the whole post before they know it is an advert.

  • Avoid false claims. It is the responsibility of the influencer and the brand to make correct claims about a brand’s product or service.

Should I be using #sponsored or #ad?

This is a very common question which is simple to answer and relates to editorial control. In both circumstances, the brand provides a product or service to an influencer (and may also provide payment) in exchange for promotion.

  • #ad is where the brand has editorial control over the content

  • #sponsored is where the influencer retains full editorial control

#ad and #sponsored doesn’t relate to whether a brand provides payment or not, which is often where the confusion lies. In both cases, an influencer can be paid, or just provided with free product.

Page 15 of the CAP code guidelines contains a useful flowchart to help you distinguish between an ad or sponsored post.

Influencer marketing rules: checklist for brands

Keep this in your back pocket (browser bookmarks) when you’re running an influencer marketing campaign.

  • Write a strong brief explaining the campaign – one short, one long

  • Research influencers’ previous campaigns before contacting

  • Clearly state the claims that can be made about your product

  • Be honest about payment, deadlines and editorial

  • Emphasise the importance of disclosure often

  • Adverts give you editorial control, sponsored posts give the influencer editorial control

  • Keep in touch with influencers – check campaigns and contact them if something seems wrong

What’s next for influencer marketing?

We hope that with these clearer rules from the ASA and other bodies like the FTC, that influencer marketing will start to clean up its act. This industry was created organically, so there are bound to be hiccups along the way.

We’re now also seeing the importance of so-called micro influencers. Generally, they have smaller audiences, hence the name, and less experience. Clear guidelines like these will help them navigate the world of influencer marketing too.

Influencer marketing is a new and valuable part of the marketing mix and can be incredibly effective for large and small businesses. However, it only works if the influencer has the trust of their readers. If both brands and influencers work together to deliver clear, transparent messages then this can make the experience better for everyone.

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