Nowadays everyone wants to be referred to as an “influencer.” Social media and internet influencers range from cult industry bloggers to YouTube stars to local Instagrammers with shockingly impressive follower counts. They can all help you promote your business.

There’s a lot of benefits to influencer marketing, especially if you’re able to build relationships with influencers that your audience is already engaged with.

While it seems as easy as reaching out via a private message and inviting them to your business for a tour, product sample, or a few freebies, influencer marketing can actually be a little more complicated than that on the legal side. (source) The importance of understanding influencer guidelines is clear, but both brands and even some influencers are often unsure of what they have to disclose when and how to do so.

The FTC has clear rules about influencer marketing, as do many social media platforms. There’s also the classic code of ethics that you need to watch out for; if you’re caught pulling what your customers perceive to be cheap tricks, you can kiss the impact of your campaign (and some of the trust from your loyal customers) goodbye.

Who Counts as An Influencer?

Before we start actually discussing influencer guidelines, it’s not a bad idea to disclose who counts as an influencer.

As we touched on above, this is actually a pretty loose definition. It doesn’t help matters that plenty of people are giving this title to themselves, diluting the term even further.

Instagram influencerInfluencers don’t actually have to be a famous-for-nothing-Kardashian level celebrity, with millions of followers (though they certainly can be).

“Micro-influencers” also fall under this category and can be just as effective for promoting your business; these are bloggers or social media users who have at least 10-15k followers, but those followers are incredibly engaged. Micro-influencers are often experts in a niche field.

Instagram influencerAt the end of the day, anyone who can impact and influence others’ decisions in an area– whether due to expertise or their sheer number of followers– counts as an influencer.

If you’ve either hired someone outright to promote your product by personally endorsing it, comped them a product or service for free in exchange for a review, or are offering them affiliate sales, you need to follow legal influencer marketing guidelines.

Does the FTC Actually Monitor Influencer Marketing?

It’s easy to think that the FTC focuses on big-money advertisements like hundreds of thousand dollar commercials and product placement on shows. In reality, they actually monitor social media just as carefully.

While sure, it’s possible for some people to get away with sneaking a few things past them due to the sheer volume of content on social platforms, you should never try to. It’s a huge risk, and FTC regulations are in place for a reason.

If moral code isn’t enough for you, keep in mind that the FTC is increasing its attention on social media.

Last year, they actually ran campaigns designed to inform big influencers and marketers about the guidelines they have set in place for influencer marketing, sending out letters to a large number of individuals in both categories.

They even sent follow-up warning letters to at least 21 influencers who didn’t heed the original warnings to remind them that, yep, they’re serious, and they’re watching.

FTC Rules For Influencer Marketing

Influencer marketing guidelines need to be followed on all platforms. This includes email marketing campaigns, blog posts, and, of course, social media.

These are the guidelines you always need to be conscious of…

You’ll often see “This was a sponsored post from Fenty Beauty, but the opinions are entirely my own,” or #sponsoredpost appearing on content.

Paid Instagram endorsement

  • If an influencer is paid to review a product but had a horrible experience, they can’t say that it was wonderful.

  • Brands shouldn’t intentionally utilize influencer campaigns that don’t allow for disclosure.

Basically, things as paying influencers to publicly “like” a post are not allowed.

  • YouTube influencers must put the relationship/endorsement disclosure in the actual video.

According to the FTC’s official influencer guidelines, it’s not enough to just put it in the description because it’s too easily missed. The same is true for other video content on social media.

  • Disclosures on social media campaigns should appear before where the fold, or the “click to read more” button, would appear.

On Instagram, if you aren’t using the Sponsored Post feature, you need to make sure that the disclosure appears prominently in the first few words.

Paid Instagram partnership

  • Disclosures need to be easily noticed and understood.

Using a “#sponsored” on Twitter will work as long as it’s at the front of your hashtags instead of being buried deep, and as long as it’s not combined with other words to make it more difficult to notice like “#McDonaldslovessponsored”.

Disclose your Instagram partnerships

Facebook Influencer Marketing

Facebook and Instagram have both released branded content tools on Facebook.

This serves two purposes. It makes it easier for brands to track the impact of the influencer campaign. It also alerts viewers that the content is, in fact, a sponsored post.

You cannot use the branded content tool to tag brands without their prior consent (doing so can get your account banned).

FB branded content toolYou can request access to the branded content tool here.

Instagram Influencer Marketing

Instagram can be more difficult for influencers trying to follow guidelines, despite the fact that it’s one of the most popular platforms for influencer marketing.

It’s predominantly a visual campaign, and people don’t always pay attention to the text. Even if they do, there’s only so much room in the description before the “read more” CTA cuts things off.

So how do you make an influencer’s disclosure of sponsored content clear immediately? The Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) says that influencers can add a small text overlay disclosure on the image. This is an option, but fortunately Instagram created its own sponsored content tool to help prevent the need for that.

Instagram branded contentOnly certain influencers have access to Instagram’s own branded content tool, which allows influencers to clearly disclose the sponsorship without it affecting the aesthetics of their photo or description. It works on both Stories and newsfeed posts.

Hopefully, we’ll see a larger rollout of this tool (or the ability to request access like on Facebook) relatively soon.

What Brands Need to Do?

In some ways, businesses have it easier than influencers in this area.

If a business runs a marketing campaign, for example, that prominently features an influencer (as opposed to sharing the influencer’s content and acting like they had nothing to do with it), it’s assumed that most customers will know that this is a sponsored endorsement. It is, after all, coming from the brand; of course, it’s trying to sell something.

While this is easy, brands and marketers need to make sure that influencers are following the guidelines and rules of both the FTC and the individual platforms that they’re appearing on.

It’s a good idea to monitor the influencers and their posts about your business closely and to go over these guidelines and your own expectations long before the posts ever go up. After all, even though you may not be the one creating the content, your business can be directly and severely affected if the influencer goes rogue.

The one big rule that brands need to be particularly cognizant of is to not intentionally use unrepresentative testimonials to mislead customers.

You can’t, for example, show testimonials of three different influencers who have claimed to lost 10 pounds on your detox tea in just two weeks on your site and not make it clear that results may vary, and explain what those results may be. These testimonials, when shared on the brand’s accounts, must include the range of results that customers can realistically expect.

Conclusion

Influencers can do a lot to help your business, and being an influencer may literally be the basis of their business.

In order to stay in the goodwill of your customers, social media platforms, and even the FTC, remember to follow all influencer marketing guidelines to maintain transparency and authenticity.

Your influencer campaigns will be much more successful as a result, and you don’t risk losing customers’ trust. Once you lose it, after all, it can be almost impossible to gain it back.