The darker side of ‘Sponcon’ and how brands can avoid being caught out

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‘How to become an influencer’ is now searched for over 6.5k times a month in the UK. I suspect 2/3 of this traffic comes from young adults (predominantly women, since they make up the majority of Instagram’s users) looking to make a name for themselves on a social platform and 1/3 of this traffic comes from people like you and I. Taking to Google after having a tough day at work and wondering why we aren’t paid to tan ourselves in the Maldives whilst sipping a cocktail or two.

If you’re a self-confessed Instagram obsessive like myself then you’ll know about the term ‘sponcon’. If, however you’ve been living under a rock for the last five years, this is short for sponsored content, or ads in regular parlance. When done correctly, sponcon is mutually beneficial to the reader, the brand, and the influencer. With the added transparency of how much influencers can make (take a look at Zoe Sugg’s net worth, if you want to make yourself feel really bad!) it’s no wonder teenagers and young adults are intrigued by what they can do with their own social platforms.

Transitioning from your everyday Instagram or YouTube user to someone who is making money from their social media platform is hard. Thanks to the rise of the micro influencer, someone with more than 10,000, the reality of making money from a hobby seems within grasp to more people. But how do you land your first brand partnership when companies want to see examples of your past campaign work and your promotional ability?

A recent trend has seen wannabee influencers faking sponsored content in the hope of appearing more attractive to brands, therefore opening doors to real collaborations and projects in the future.

Can you really fake it until you make it?

Instagram users are openly admitting to faking sponsored posts. Palak Joshi, a lifestyle influencer with 45,000 Instagram followers, recently posted what appeared to be a sponsored post on her Instagram story promoting OnePlus. The post showed a shiny logoed white box shot from above, tagging the OnePlus official Instagram handle and featured the branded hashtag associated with the phone’s launch. The post however wasn’t an ad and Joshi had no partnership with the brand. When questioned by The Atlantic, she said ‘it looked sponsored but it’s not, they [her followers] just assume everything is sponsored when it really isn’t’.

As a consumer, how can we spot the distinction? Many users tag the brands they are wearing or using in photos, regardless of whether an item has been gifted or paid for.

Taking the idea of fake ‘sponcon’ even further, Taylor Evans faked an entire press trip to Miami when she was on holiday, paying for everything out of her own pocket. She wrote Instagram captions thanking local restaurants for their hospitality, assuming her following would interpret a brand partnership was in place.

Apart from being deceitful, what is the true impact of this dark trend? Real influencers have worked hard to ensure brands are paying for sponsored content and brand collaborations. These fake posts are providing huge amounts of free advertising to brands who are now lowering their advertising budgets or trying to not pay at all.

Urszula Makowska, who currently has 121,000 followers on Instagram commented:

“I am actually against it. I have never faked sponsored posts, but I have seen people that fake it….. I do not see a point in faking sponsored posts. I like sponsored posts as an influencer, but I am also really picky about what brands I decide to work with when it comes to sponsored posts. It’s best to be original and organic. I like to actually post things I like. I think fake sponsored content is misleading”.

Being an influencer comes with responsibility and one that shouldn’t be overlooked. The Advertising Standards Agency (ASA) and the Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP) are constantly working to update the guidelines for social influencers and brands. To familiarise yourself with the current guidelines, without reading the full 18 pages, check out our easy to digest article on why being an influencer is a real job.

Even as a regular user, it is difficult to tell the difference between fake and real sponsored content and it’s likely that brands can’t differentiate either. As a brand wanting to partner with influencers, what should you be looking for?

Before even looking at an influencer’s numbers, the most important factor is whether their personal message is aligned to your brand’s ethos. Take a look at our five top tips to ensure you don’t get caught out.

  • The easiest way to do this is by researching and checking through old posts across all social media accounts.
  • Look at previous brands they have partnered with, have these brands engaged with the post? If a brand collaboration is real, there is a high chance the brand or PR agency it was organised through has engaged with the post in some way.
  • Ensure you are fully up to date with all rules and regulations surrounding sponsored content, this way it will be easier to spot an influencer who takes their job seriously and is happy to collaborate in the correct way.
  • Engagement is a huge indicator of how interactive an influencer’s audience is with the content they are producing. Take a look at the percentage of likes and comments against total follower numbers. Although the latest Instagram algorithm is making this harder and harder, a real influencer will still achieve engagement across posts.
  • Ensure authenticity when selecting an influencer. Compelling and personal stories tend to gain the most engagement. Select an influencer who won’t only be told what to do, but someone who wants to work collaboratively to ensure mutual benefits for the partnership.

As an agency we are constantly evolving to ensure we are only working with brands, content creators and influencers who are not only aware but fully compliant with all rules and regulations surrounding influencer and social marketing. Our data-driven approach is behind everything we do, from influencer prospecting to tracking campaign success. This means we can confidently stand behind the impact of influencer marketing ensuring our clients really are working with the right people and seeing the right results.