In the run up to the US election earlier this year, 3,000 paid political ads were purchased on Facebook by Russian-linked accounts. A reported $100,000 was spent on these ads reaching an audience of approximately 10m potential voters; that’s approximately 4% of the politically active population. Whilst this quite clearly circumnavigated the rules about no foreign investments for political campaigns, it all stemmed from one simple point; the major social media platforms (up until recently) did not differenciate between paid for content (i.e. adverts) and organic content.
Most search engines have been creating an obvious divide since 2000; there’s a very clear contrast between paid search adverts and organic listings in search results and so it’s little surprise that 16 years later, the biggest social media platform (Facebook) released its own ad disclosure solution.
The premise was quite simple; as a content creator you simply tag the marketer who is paying you to write or display the content. This is potentially seismic in the world of social media; especially Facebook. Whether you’re Lady Gaga or a small time model plane enthusiast with just a few hundred followers, the expectations are the same – you should be disclosing your adverts and sponsorship by making the post tag all the parties involved. A good example can be seen below:
So how was it supposed to work in practical terms?
In Facebook’s own words: “Publishers and influencers will be able to tag a marketer in a branded content post. The marketer can then see the performance of that ad and the option to boost or share it with their own audience.” It wasn’t quite as simple as that though! Every marketer had the option to have an “open tagging policy” or a “whitelist tagging policy”. The ramifications of either approach were pretty significant:
- Great for enabling affiliate partners to disclose paid relationships.
- No risk of fines for either publishers/influencers or marketers.
- Risk of being tagged in unsavoury posts
- Well protected from a branding point of view
- Terrible for affiliate partnerships who risk being fined if not added to the marketer’s Whitelist promptly.
- Maintenance of Whitelist is cumbersome and resource heavy.
A year later and the reality is that these guidelines are largely ignored and they are rarely (if ever) enforced by Facebook. More recently, following the ‘scandal’ of the American election, Facebook buckled under political pressure and released an update to their advertiser policy which had a bit more ‘bite’ to it.
The new policy hones in on making it clear for any member of the public, all the adverts that are being marketed by a Facebook page or group regardless of the intended target audience. For example, if Arsenal.com had posted their advert above to just 25-35 year olds it would have gone unseen by anyone outside that age range. The new updates mean that anyone can visit the Arsenal page and see this advert (and any others Arsenal are running right now). There are also plans to archive all the ads and make it clear which past adverts were run, how much was spent and how many people they reached.
These most recent updates are quite clearly a reaction to the electoral activity of the last 18 months but one must ask whether these changes will have an impact on the common day marketer. The natural conclusion to jump to is that it will, especially if Facebook does start becoming stricter about disclosing paid for advertising. We could see widescale enforcement of disclosure but that will undoubtedly leave marketers asking whether they should run an open or a whitelisted Facebook group.
In this author’s opinion, any marketer running an affiliate programme should definitely be operating an open policy as it not only helps protects their affiliates from Facebook fines but it also enables complete transparency of commercial relationships and allows consumers to understand the motivations behind the content that’s been created.
Even in this scenario though, the increase in potential work for publishers/influencers is potentially crippling for some. Take for example an average voucher code publisher pushing multi-marketer posts out every fifteen minutes. The expectation to tag every marketer being featured in their posts would be cumbersome and overbearing. One would expect consumers to already understand that there is commercial relationship between a voucher publisher and a marketer and it’s a reasonable question to ask if disclosure is really needed in such circumstance.
Facebook has undoubtedly reacted to political pressure but it must now carefully think about how widespread they make their disclosure changes and the impact on all the content creators that utilise their services.