Instagram may learn that disguising a commercial play as one of earning our trust might ultimately have the opposite effect. 


“Tag your business partner in this branded content post. Telling your followers who you’re working with makes Instagram a more trusting and transparent community.”

Mark Dandy, founder of Captivate Influence a Manchester-based influencer marketing agency noticed this new message on Instagram recently. Tellingly the words appeared alongside a piece of organic content.

He’s not alone, Natalie Giddings managing director of Australian-based influencer marketing firm, The Remarkables Group, has seen similar examples on content published on the other side of the world. 

Branded content on Instagram is still being rolled out and only available to select partners currently according to the help section of the Instagram website. It is defined by Instagram as a “creator or publisher's content that features or is influenced by a business partner for an exchange of value (for example, where the business partner has paid the creator or publisher).”

Instagram’s terms of service require “creators and publishers to tag business partners in their branded content posts when there's an exchange of value between a creator or publisher and a business partner.”

Despite its wording about trust and transparency the move by Instagram is less about transparency, trust and complying with laws and regulations and more about generating cash. The stance goes beyond satisfying regulators such as the Advertising Standards Authority or the Competition and Markets Authority in the UK or the Federal Trade Commission in the United States. 

Indeed, compliance with laws and regulations is only mentioned in the final paragraph of Facebook and Instagram’s Branded Content Policies. “Comply with all applicable laws and regulations, including by ensuring that you provide all necessary disclosures to people using Facebook or Instagram, such as any disclosures needed to indicate the commercial nature of content posted by you.” This comes after warnings against publishing pre-roll ads, banner ads, and video title cards.

Another set of newly-found warning words from Instagram drives this point about pecking order home. “If your post is a paid partnership, tag your business partner to meet our branded content policies.”

Rupa Shah, founder of Hashtag Ad, a consultancy providing advertising regulation guidance and training told me: “The ASA’s recent research into consumers’ perception of ad labelling suggests AD or #AD is the most effective way of highlighting the commercial relationship between a content creator and brand. 

"If Instagram chooses to add additional disclosure features to the platform or prompts users to use an existing tool, such as the Paid Partnership feature, the ASA does not have the power to prevent that (nor should it) provided that content creators are still able to include prominent labels such as AD or #AD.

"The issues here seem to be both that Instagram’s method for detecting undisclosed ads is flawed and the solution provided by Instagram goes beyond the ASA requirements and funnels the content creator into their “Branded Content / Brand Partnership” system.”

Paid partnership's trap

Content marked with the ‘paid partnership’ tag tends to receive the lowest levels of engagement when compared to other compliance hashtags such as #AD. Using the the 'paid partnership' tag carries a negative variance on average of 32% against organic content according to a 2018 study.

Instagram creator accounts falling engagement rates

Branded content ads

In early March this year, Instagram announced a new way for brands to sponsor posts created by influencers. "Branded content ads," are part of the service's broader strategy to connect advertisers and creators in more formal partnerships.

Previously although brands could work on ad campaigns with influencers on Instagram the posts would only reach the followers of the influencer. Branded content ads let the advertisers promote these Instagram posts just like they would any other advertisement.

The following month Instagram started hiding likes. The company line for this was that it would benefit mental health. “We want Instagram to be a place where people feel comfortable expressing themselves. We hope this test will remove the pressure of how many likes a post will receive, so you can focus on sharing the things you love,” Facebook Australia and New Zealand director of policy Mia Garlick said at the announcement. 

Policymakers rather than an organisational conscience are more likely to be the reason behind hiding likes. It is an attempt by a social media platform to demonstrate that it can still self-regulate. Further, the initiative is to show that Facebook does not need to be broken up into its constituent parts of Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger. 

Ultimately, though, hiding likes and building branded content tags are ways to nudge brands towards Ad Manager. Remember, the like function is being hidden - not removed. Whilst other Instagram users are unable to see the number of likes a post attracts, advertisers of sponsored content can via the Ad Manager. 

A recent study found engagement rates plummeted by up to 30% on posts by creators in Brazil with between 20,000 and 1000,000 followers. Branded content ads via the Ad Manager become a way to prop up ailing engagement rates. 

All businesses are in the business of staying in business. We understand that. Disguising a commercial play as one of earning our trust might ultimately have the opposite effect. 

Scott Guthrie is a professional adviser within the influencer marketing industry. He is an event speaker, university guest lecturer, media commentator on influencer marketing and active blogger. He works with brands, agencies and platforms to achieve meaningful results from influencer marketing. That tells you something about him but it's not giving you a lot of detail, is it? So, read more here.

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