The days of tagging #spon and #ad on Instagram posts may soon be a practice of the past.
Instagram is rolling out a new tool that will allow influencers and brands to denote sponsored content within the infrastructure of the app. The disclosure will operate as a visible tag on the post that says “Paid partnership with,” along with the brand name. It will be listed immediately under the account name, replacing the geotag feature for these photos. The platform announced the tag on Wednesday, in a bid for transparency. It was largely influenced by ongoing complaints from the Federal Trade Commission (the governmental agency that oversees commerce) about improper labeling of paid content on social media.
At the moment, the feature is in beta mode; only select publishers, brands and influencers — including BuzzFeed and Chobani — have tagging capabilities. The function will be accessible to all users within the coming weeks, Instagram said in a blog post. It mirrors similar disclosure protocols on Twitter and also Facebook, Instagram’s parent company, which is said to have influenced the update.
“The decision is the result of a significant shift in Facebook’s approach to the space,” said Gil Eyal, CEO and cofounder of influencer marketing platform HYPRBrands. “They used to prohibit paid content promotion altogether, now they seem to be adopting it — and for good reason. The new feature is very similar to the one Facebook introduced in its main platform, and they are already speaking about enhancing it by offering post-related analytics to brands who are tagged in the posts.”
Also among early users is fashion blogger Aimee Song, who has already tested the tag in partnership with Volvo for both a standard post and an Instagram Stories. “When working with brands like Volvo, it’s important to remember that people react to the realness of you, so Instagram’s new tagging tool will help show that my take on the XC90 is just that — mine,” Song said in a statement.
Sponsored content on Aimee Song’s Instagram account, @songofstyle (Image courtesy of Instagram)
According to a recent study by MediaKix, 93 percent of celebrities fail to label posts correctly and only 7 percent of the 50 celebrities with the most followers were under proper FTC compliance in the last month. Alexa Tonner, co-founder of influencer marketing agency Collectively, said the tag is critical to helping clear up existing confusion around disclosure practices. Though the FTC has been clear about what constitutes prohibited behavior — including passing off sponsored content as organic — it has yet to clearly delineate the proper protocol for marking something as an ad. However, it has shifted responsibility from brands and agencies to influencers, in the case of failure to comply — therefore, the Instagram update could help protect influencers from citations.
Over the past two decades, the FTC has struggled to keep up with the evolution of technology and its impact on the way brands engage on social platforms. Without strict stipulations in place, fashion brands like Cole Haan and Lord & Taylor were able to get away with failing to disclose promotional materials on platforms like Pinterest and Instagram. As a result, the organization decided to crack down, though developing guidelines across several platforms remains to be a challenge. “The FTC’s guidelines have abided by a ‘there’s no one-size-fits-all’ rule for disclosure, so compliance has been fuzzy,” Jason Merkoski, head of data at technology company TapInfluence told Glossy last month.
Within the Collectively network, Tonner said several fashion and beauty influencers have already received emails from brands asking them to use the new Instagram tool, despite the fact that many of them have yet to receive the capability. There is also underlying confusion about how specifically it will work, though Instagram alluded to releasing specific protocols moving forward.
“As we continue to learn how our community engages with the product, we’ll be able to gather important feedback. In the coming months, we’ll also be launching an official policy and enforcement for creators to follow based off Facebook’s current practices,” Instagram said in its announcement.
Though Tonner said the feature will be an important step for building transparency in the influencer market, there’s concern around how Instagram may use this to its advantage within its algorithm system. The common perception is that posts tagged with #spon or #ad rank lower in prominence, and with Instagram having a stake in the matter, it may be able to exert even greater control.
“What’s a little bit more alarming and trepidatious is that the platforms can start to use the presence of this tag as a factor in the their algorithms,” she said. “They’re seeing the opportunity to get involved in the space of brands and sponsored content. What everyone’s afraid of is this will be used to decrease ranking in the algorithm, unless brands want to pony up cash to be higher.”
Alternately, influencer tagging will likely make the Instagram experience better for regular users, who typically don’t want to be inundated with sponsored content, said Eyal, the CEO of HYPRBrands.
“The new addition will allow Instagram to regulate how often promoted posts appear in the feed, potentially reducing clutter and creating a better overall user experience,” Eyal said. “It will remove the fear that any of them are genuinely unaware that these influencer posts are being paid for.”