With TV it’s obvious when you’re getting the hard sell on a brand of washing up liquid, but it’s not always as clear on social media.

Social media influencers – users with authority in an area who often have large followings – are becoming a vital part of brands’ advertising strategies as they look to hit a younger, engaged audience.

However, this can make it hard to know when something’s an ad and when it’s genuine opinion.

Shabnum Mustapha is media and public affairs manager at the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA). She says that there are already clear rules in place for advertisers, which also translate onto social media.

shabnum-mustapha-advertising-standards-authority

“If you’ve gone into a commercial relationship with a brand and they’re controlling what you say, that’s an ad,” she says. “If they’re not controlling what you’re saying it’s not an ad. Even if they’ve sent you a freebie or paid you it’s editorial opinion and you’ve nothing to worry about.”

Ads need to be easily identifiable to avoid followers having to ‘play detective’, says Mustapha. It’s also in the best interest of the influencers who’ve worked hard to create a connection with followers. However the ASA doesn’t get a significant number of complaints about influencers, says Mustapha. When they do get flagged the responsibility falls with the advertiser, although influencers need to be aware.

“The brand or talent and PR agencies are the ones that should know better,” she says. “But there is also a responsibility for the influencer, especially if they’ve been around a while.”

However Andrea Cheong, a luxury lifestyle blogger called The Haute Heel with nearly 23,000 followers on her @fleurandrea Instagram account, believes this is genuinely the reason some influencers get caught out.

Andrea Cheong

“Young girls start taking selfies on Instagram then get followers and realise they can make money,” she says. “They don’t go into it from a business mindset. Even for those doing it more professionally the guidelines can be quite blurry, whereas in the US the approach is always ‘just put #ad on it’.”

Cheong says what the product is and how the brand interacts with her are factors in choosing who she works with. “If someone sends something and I post it it’s because I genuinely want to,” she says.

“I’ve made it extremely clear as soon as you tell me how to photograph something or what to say that’s an ad and you have to pay, but 80 per cent of brands are happy to let me do my thing.”

The fact that many influencers will only endorse brands they already like may be one reason followers don’t mind influencers doing paid-for content. “There’s data showing millennials and Gen Z don’t care if something’s an ad because they already expect it,” Cheong adds.

Rohan Midha is MD of digital influencer marketing agency PMYB. He says there are tools coming from tech platforms that will identify when something is an ad, much like Instagram’s ‘paid partnership’ button.

Rohan Midha

He also believes being sparing with paid-for content is a benefit to influencers.

“We’ve identified a new type of super-influencer called a ‘chromo-influencer’,” he says. “They’re in the top three per cent because they rate highly against 46 different factors, including whether they endorse brands all the time. We’re after real influence – it’s not just about reach.”