A code of practice for online influencers will drive up the numbers

Two weeks ago I watched the Democratic National Convention in the US which was made more entertaining because I was switching between Fox News and MSNBC during the broadcast. Fox News is considered so far to the right that you have to tilt your head ninety degrees while watching to get a balanced view. On the other extreme is MSNBC which leads the pack in liberal media, and according to Fox News last week, so are a majority of the US media. Media in the West openly support presidential candidates, political parties and points of view, as a way of being transparent to audiences, who can then choose which channels suit their taste. As one philosopher opined, a biased view has more value than an unbiased one because it allows for debate which is a preferred method of uncovering truth.

In Kenya’s blogging and social media scene, it is difficult to distinguish between genuine expression and sponsored content and it is about time that we set standards around this because of the extent of influence it now commands. In traditional media, advertising and journalistic codes of practice ensure that sponsored content is clearly identified and that the rights of audiences are protected. Show’s like American Idol are sponsored by Coca-Cola which doesn’t run ads, but places products in and around the programme as a way to promote the brand. It’s not easily distinguishable, I agree, but they are announced as a programme sponsor during the show.

It gets even more complicated when watching James Bond with his iconic Omega watches, Austin Martin super cars and other brands which use product placement as advertising. We know that they pay hefty sums to appear in the movie and their appearances are written seamlessly into the script and its only at the credit roll that the sponsors are named in tiny print.

Use of online influencers by brand, politicians and NGOs is growing by leaps and bounds and the practice is settling as an established mode of marketing communications. As this happens it is necessary to develop ways of deploying it so as to protect the interests of the stakeholders and ensure that the practice stays within ethical boundaries. Industry associations such as BAKE (Bloggers Association of Kenya) should include in their list of priorities the development of a code of practice for members which consists of clear guidelines that everyone can abide by, and which can be used as reference when issues arise.

I find it surprising that many online influencers prefer to keep their services secret or on a need to know basis which they do, I believe, to create the sense that all their content is a genuine expression, thereby enhancing their reputations. It is a risky approach because there could be a hostile backlash from audiences who discover that what they believed came from the heart was actually paid for. Another problem comes from the varying rates that organisations are paying online influencers, and with lack of transparency, online influencers have the most to lose. This is especially so because of the increasing number of quacks who are selling services for peanuts, forcing skilled bloggers to drop their fees, leading to a vicious downward spiral.

Traditional media advertising rates are created scientifically with audience research at the core, and the online influences can borrow a leaf from this, laying out pricing guidelines. It could be based on reach, engagement or final outcomes of activities which can be measured and verified, building the confidence of anyone paying for the service and ensuring that only people with skill and ability to deliver results are open for business. From traditional media we have found that advertising expenditure goes up as customer confidence increases based on transparency and the ability to measure outputs and calibrate the tools.

Therefore, the stakeholders in the interactive and digital marketing sector should come together to create a code of practice that represents the interests of the influencers, the clients, government, and the public among others, and review codes from established and peer countries for comparison. It would also be worthwhile to consult internationally recognised experts who have successfully completed such work to give us a chance to create the most enlightened code of practice in the world.

Traditional media standards dictate that advertising content should be distinguished from editorial content so that audiences are aware of underlying agendas and the practitioners of each type of content have their own codes of practice. On the other hand, bloggers and social media influencers don’t have nationally recognised standards that guide their practice and the result of this is that it is difficult to identify sponsored content, which is typically presented as if it was an influencers personal opinion. It is time to establish industry standards for online and social media influencers in Kenya based on the fact that the reach now matches if not surpasses most traditional media.

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