Last year, Kim Kardashian hinted in an interview that she makes more money from her Instagram posts than from a season of her reality TV series Keeping Up With the Kardashians . This is no surprise given brands are increasingly turning to influencers to sell their products, increasing spends on star content creators whose USP is authentic promotion. After all, a social media post by the right influencer reaps more.

But it was too good to last. As lines between promotional content and user-generated content started blurring, the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) brought in guidelines to safeguard consumer interests.

From June 14, influencers will have to clearly label their promotional content for their followers. The guidelines have strict norms to ensure the labels are clearly visible across picture posts, video posts, live streams or audio posts. Influencers will also need to do due diligence about the claims made by advertisers for the products they promote.

However, while influencers have to disclose their material connection with a brand, the advertisers have to ensure that the influencer advertisement is in line with the ASCI code. Permitted disclosure labels include #advertisement, #ad, #sponsored, #collaboration, #partnership, #employee and #freegift.

Right step

Ambika Sharma, Founder and MD, Pulp Strategy, a digital marketing services company, said the guidelines are a step in the right direction to bring in transparency. She says consumers are often not aware or do not recognise promotional content on digital platforms. She feels that brands that were putting out exaggerated claims through influencer advertising will now need to re-look their strategies.

Neha Puri, CEO and Founder, Vavo Digital, a marketplace that connects brands with influencers, says, “We primarily work with nano- and micro-influencers who have a niche audience that trusts and relies on the posted content very easily; and hence the disclaimer will help in avoiding any form of miscommunication.”

She adds that the disclosures will ensure consumers understand that the promoted content is not the personal view of an influencer, as, in several cases, an influencer might not completely believe in the product they are advertising.

According to digital marketing firm AdLift, India’s influencer market is pegged at $75-150 million a year, as compared with the global market of $1.75 billion. With more and more consumers getting online, the market is expected to grow. But will the new guidelines upend brand and influencer strategies?

Grey areas

There are bound to be some teething problems and concerns. Says Sharma, “In the time that it takes to settle in, there will be less than optimal adoption of the new rules. This could lead to confusion and clouded messaging.”

ASCI’s guidelines state that material connection is not limited to monetary compensation but also whether the influencer was given freebies, discounted products or services, and even if the influencer was not specifically asked to talk about that product or service.

A senior executive with a consumer product company said, “We often send products to influencers who have expertise in the given field, just so they can experience the product, and with no expectations that they will talk about our products.” Take, for instance, a cosmetic product that an influencer may just wear without even talking about it for a post. In that case, will the influencer still need to label it as promoted content?

Similarly, in certain categories, products are also given to influencers for their unbiased view in their posts. So, how feasible will it be to include a disclosure label for such a post.

According to a social media influencer with a large following on YouTube, “There are already tools available on YouTube and Instagram to indicate paid partnerships and promotional content, which influencers are using.”

He says influencers tend to focus more on integrated content rather than dedicated branded content for a company. “But if the content starts looking like an ad, there will definitely be reduction in engagement to a certain extent.”

The guidelines state that using a platform’s disclosure tool should be considered in addition to an influencer’s own disclosure.

But Pranav Panpalia, Founder of OpraahFx, an influencer marketing firm, differs. “The guidelines will help brands garner targeted audiences. Giving a disclaimer of a brand being promoted (prior to the content) helps viewers make an upfront choice about whether they want to continue to consume the said promotional content. Continuing to consume such content simply implies that s/he indeed is interested in listening to the brand’s promotional pitch,” he stated.

While there are concerns about implementation, the influencer marketing ecosystem, too, is expected to keep evolving.

But with ASCI’s new guidelines, India will pretty much be in sync with other countries like the US and UK, and this is expected to usher in much-needed transparency.