Small businesses should be proud to see their fans and loyal customers representing them on social media. When you get a mention or a retweet, your customers are essentially doing some marketing work for you, for free. Sounds amazing, right? That’s a form of influencer marketing at work.
Well, yes, but there are some thorny ethical concerns cropping up in the social media space, especially for small businesses. Let’s say you’re doing great with social media but want to take it a little further – the next logical step is to identify some specific people who represent the ideal conception of your brand identity, and connect with them personally to form a promotional partnership. These people are influencers – many people watch them, and take cues from them about the things that they should buy, watch or engage with.
Influencers are aware of the sway they hold in social circles, and many of them realize that their partnerships with businesses could be a source of revenue. And so the major ethical question is: if I appear in a well-composed Instagram photo drinking a craft beer brewed by my favourite, local small business, is it a friendly shout-out or brand-supported advertising?
The line here can be very thin and hard to discern, but it comes down to one word: sponsored. If I’m getting any form of compensation from the brewing company for posting my beer photo, I am ethically responsible for disclosing to anyone who might see it that it was sponsored content, usually by using #sponsored or other hashtags. And the business is responsible legally for being transparent about its marketing efforts and enforcing guidelines about what is and is not acceptable in its influencer relationships strategy.
The ethics of influencer marketing come into question when it becomes harder and harder for observers to make the distinction between paid and unpaid content. This is especially true for more susceptible audiences such as young people, who increasingly make up larger proportions of the user base of many emergent and highly trafficked social media platforms.
Your small business can make a huge leap into its customer community by finding the right influencers to work with, but it is imperative to treat them exactly the same way you would treat any other marketing or business partner. Keep your relationship transparent and set out guidelines for the expectations of both parties, and you can win friends and influence people with ease.