Well hasn't it been an interesting couple of weeks? I knew these new CMA (Competition and Markets Authority) influencer guidelines would cause a stink when I first read through them and I wasn't wrong. For the record guys this isn't going to be an in depth post explaining the new guidelines because I'm sure you've been inundated with those already and whilst they have probably been very useful for most of you I don't see the point in reiterating them in my own words. This post is more so a take on my 'thoughts and feelings' (I know how you like those) on the situation and also an insight into how I work as an Influencer and what's important to me. There's a lot of talk on the topic right now and as we all know, everyone loves to share an opinion, so here goes...
When the guidelines came out a few weeks back I found out about them like most other influencers, on Twitter. I'm not going to lie, I was a bit shocked at first because I immediately noticed how they conflicted with the flow chart of guidelines released last year by the ASA (Advertising Standards Agency). However after reading them a second time, although still unclear on the exact terms to use, I realised that they were there to protect the consumer (our followers), not at all something to be scared of or resentful over.
There's currently a lot of confusion amongst both influencers and consumers because both sets of guidelines do differ from each other. They have been left open to interpretation because we haven't been given a definitive list of specific terms to use so that we're all using the same terminology, which would have made it so much easier for you guys to adjust to and know what we're all talking about. It also doesn't help that these guidelines are just for one group of countries, within the UK. So you guys are seeing some of us from the UK who are following these guidelines (or at least how we each interpret them) and influencers in the US (and other countries) who are on huge press trips with global brands and they're not disclaiming a thing. Some other countries have different guidelines again so it's just quite confusing all around, but don't worry we're all in the same boat here. There are opinions flying around left, right and centre; it's law, it isn't law it just "guidelines", you don't have to put AD, you do have to put AD on everything, you put AD at the end, The CMA won't even bother with influencers, it doesn't affect those with a certain number of followers...the list could go on. We're all doing what we think is best right now so I think we can't be too harsh on people until there is a little more clarity, unless of course they're not disclaiming anything at all which I do agree, is shady AF.
'GIFTS' - The Hot Topic
Disclaiming 'gifts' across all forms of content and all social media platforms, including blogs, is one of the main points within these guidelines. I always thought I was pretty good at disclaiming gifts prior to these guidelines but upon reflection I probably could have been better and definitely more thorough. Admittedly I assumed that once I'd mentioned something was gifted in one set of content I wouldn't need to bother again (out of laziness and fear of being repetitive) because you'd all have seen it. But the fact is that you don't all absorb every single piece of content that I put out there, and that's fine with me guys, I'm here for you to check out as and when you please. Some people just don't have the time for YouTube or maybe don't even enjoy watching it. So if I've done a YT haul and mentioned something is gifted and then posted an outfit featuring that item a week later on Instagram and blog, without disclaiming, then those people who didn't catch the haul are left thinking that I've probably bought that item myself. I did a little test on one of my posts on Instagram a couple of weeks ago where amongst my outfit details I also tagged my hair. I get my hair done at Sassoon on Kings Road and I have done for the last few years, I have a press card which means that I get complimentary treatments. Upon being given the card I wasn't told that I had to tag the brand or promote them in any way but of course every time I have a hair refresh then I do vlog the experience and I will usually post the results on Instagram tagging Sassoon and mentioning my styling and colourist. I do this for two reasons; one as a thank you to the brand because they've done my hair for free and secondly because lots of you guys will want to know where I get my hair done, what I have done and who by. And whilst I usually love the results of my hair (which is why I continue to go back to the same people year after year) some of you might have seen in one of our December Vlogmas vlogs, there was an occasion where I wasn't so sure (albeit my fault as they had done what I'd asked for), but I documented that as well. I've mentioned a few times in videos, blogs posts and Instagram posts that I have my hair done on a complimentary basis but upon writing this out in that recent IG post I saw a whole host of comments from people who had no idea. They might be new followers or they might have just missed the other times when it was mentioned, and this is why it's important and why it's now called for that this information is to be displayed in all content when tagging that brand/company (as this IS advertising). The captions in my new IG posts, as you might have seen, are pretty lengthy and admittedly I'm not always going to disclaim my hair in every single post because I don't tag Sassoon in every post. But perhaps my hair might be looking particularly fabulous in a certain post which prompts someone to ask about it, in this case I will definitely mention that it's complimentary upon giving the info about the salon.
A second gifting-related guideline which might seem a little far fetched, and admittedly this is still one point that I'm not 100% in agreement with is that if an influencer has worked with a brand before (within the last year) on a paid or gifting basis and has bought something themselves with their own money from that brand, they must still declare their working relationship with them. Whilst I think this is a tad 'overkill' and unnecessary I do understand the premise behind it. Influencers rely on brand collaborations and affiliate link commission to earn their income and there's no real way of telling if an influencer might just be trying to keep a brand in good stead, therefore ensuring future collaborations, by featuring more product from that brand. Or even buying certain items of clothing from a brand with a big following specifically to get a re-gram on their account, therefore leading to a rise in following. Technically again this falls into the realm of advertising as there's no way of knowing who's doing what for what reason. It's all down to trust, and how much of it you have in that particular influencer.
Yes it's a perk of the job to get 'gifted' things from brands but as the saying goes, nothing is ever free. Brands do send gifts to influencers in the hope that we will feature them. For me personally I ask all brands to not send anything out that they haven't checked with me first, because otherwise if I don't like what they've sent then I'm going to have to send it right back to avoid it sitting in my house gathering dust and substantial amounts of dog hair. Of course sometimes things slip through the net, but again, if I don't like something and won't use it then it will get sent back (with the exception of beauty products which I donate to charity). Do I feature everything that I'm sent? No I don't, that would be impossible or at least incredibly time consuming and not particularly authentic either. A brand might send me something that I do happen to like or want to try out, beauty products are the best example here. But everyone knows I'm not a beauty blogger and I only talk about beauty products every now and then because my main jam is fashion and my personal style. You guys and brands know this by now but they continue to send out bits and bobs in the hope that they could get featured if I really liked the product. I'd imagine this could be the reverse for beauty bloggers, they might reference multiple 'favourite' foundations but barely ever discuss a blazer. I'm always honest when speaking about products, gifted or not, some brands might not like that and that's fine, but again everyone knows what I'm like by this point and if I think something is crap or if I have an issue with it then I'll tell you straight. When it comes to gifting my preferred method is a gift card or gifting allowance. That way I can pick out what I like, what I feel I need and what I think will fit in with any content I'm creating around that time. Obviously this is just how I work the gifting process, not everyone will be the same but I think it's important to be honest and open however you work it.
There are now a few threads on Twitter discussing the idea that 'Gift' is the wrong word because when is a gift ever an actual gift if it's from a brand. There's truth in that for sure, as I've discussed above, but we're all going to feel differently about these words and at the end of the day I think the opinion we should care most about is from you guys. I asked the question over on Insta Stories 'what do you prefer?' 'AD or GIFT' for a gifted item or a post that features only gifted items and no paid content and 74% said they preferred GIFT because it was more accurate. That's not to discount the 26% of you that said you actually like the word AD because it is advertising (I totally agree) but at some point we're going to have to go with a majority as we're never all going to be 100% on the same page and there does need to be some more clarity here. I think it's safe to say that the word GIFT has been used quite widely within this industry and I think that's perhaps why you guys are so familiar with it and probably why you chose that word. Yes press gifts aren't conventional 'gifts' like the pack of lavender soaps you receive at Christmas from Auntie Sandra but I think we need to give you guys more credit that you can distinguish the difference between the two, so long as we're clear of course. My worry, as I first stated in that epic Instagram post the day after the guidelines were released, is that the use of the word AD across all content, whether it be gifted, paid for, bought but have a previous relationship with the brand etc is a bit too general. Yes technically it's all a form of advertising so it's quite accurate but I think there are a few of us who are concerned that overuse of one singular word will desensitise it completely, bringing us back to square one.
Now, whilst you're all here I'd like to shed a bit of light on how these gifting relationships are formed because there seems to be a huge misconception that influencers will just take any old free shit and promote it and that's not the case, not for me and many others anyway. My entire brand and business is built around 'Organic Relationships' with the brands that I work with. You guys might have heard this term floating around a lot, I even spoke about it in my Blogging Tips videos over on YouTube. An organic relationship with a brand basically means that you bought from that brand and loved them before any kind of business partnership was formed. I'll use Topshop as an example. I remember going to 'big school' as my mum called it (aka secondary school) and all the older girls had these black Topshop trousers on as part of their school uniform. They were tight fitting, especially on the bum and flared at the bottom because we were in the era of The Spice Girls. They were made from what was probably 99% elastic, they made an odd sound as they rubbed together and after 3 washes these little white worms of elastic would start to emerge from the fabric, but my god I wanted those trousers so badly, they were all the #SchoolTrouserGoals. Up until that point I'd never shopped in Topshop before, I was 11 and still a child and Topshop was more of a teens to grown-ups kind of shop. I was used to my mum taking me shopping in Tammy Girl (Throwback!) and C&A (Clockhouse anyone?) but I was growing up and I needed these butt-hugging trousers in my life. This is the very start of my relationship with Topshop, aged 11, getting my first pair of 'big school' trousers. From then on I continued shopping with Topshop, it's where I'd go with any birthday money and Christmas money and it's where my current obsession with their denim has stemmed from. Their jeans used to be £20-£25 and they were called MOTO, anyone else remember those good old days? Fast forward 22 years and now I have a working relationship with Topshop on a regular basis, each contract I receive is for a period of 3 months and I will be required to post one IG post and 3 stories for each month. I get to choose what items I want to feature because they know it's all about my personal style and these posts are always tagged on Instagram with the 'Paid Partnership with' function so that you guys know I've been paid to promote them. Anything further from those posts is just my continuing love for a brand that I've grown up with. I spend my own money in Topshop on top of any gifting I receive, sometimes I even just go in there to browse to kill some time because it's somewhere that's familiar to me. Granted not all of my brand relationships are this 'deep' and not all of them span as far back as Topshop but I'd say 98% of my gifting has come from an existing organic relationship and has often lead to paid partnerships from there. And you better believe I'm so bloody proud of that.
Integrity - What's Important to me as an Influencer and a Person
I have always seen myself as a Blogger/YouTuber/Influencer with integrity, I'm going to toot my own horn here because I'm damn proud of it. However, I'm no angel, and I have had a couple of slips over my 10+ years of being in the industry. For example the time I went and sat in a car in a showroom, had my picture taken, posted it on Instagram with all the relevant hashtags and car brand info etc and then went and got myself a Five Guys to celebrate that in doing that I'd just made enough money to buy myself a new designer handbag. I have previously called that instance (which was about 4/5 years ago) a regret but actually we learn from our mistakes so I'm glad it happened. I was pulled into the Instagram hype over a particular designer handbag, everyone had them so I wanted one, doing that collaboration got me that handbag, which I no longer own because I don't think I ever truly liked it, oh the irony. I didn't have many of these slips but it does go to show what a powerful tool Instagram and other social media platforms can be, even when you are a part of the industry, and this power isn't always for 'The Greater Good'.
I started my blog back in 2007 when there was no Instagram, when bloggers weren't paid and we didn't have use of affiliate links. There was zero revenue earned from blogging, it was all for fun, just another hobby. My blog remained as such for around 5 years, I didn't earn a single penny so I still had my full time job as a retail manager in order to pay my bills. However, I think this has actually worked in my favour, because 5 years is a long time to settle into something, I was used to earning nothing and doing it for fun. But as with a lot of digital industries it grew and I was able to start making a living from sharing my style with you guys, and for that I can't thank you enough! It took me a long time to reach the point where money came into the equation but these days, it's a much faster turn around. As I started to earn some revenue I found it quite overwhelming especially when I never thought this could earn me anything at all. This whirlwind period is when my mistakes happened but as I said, I'm glad they did because they made me become more conscious and aware of what I was doing and the effect is had on others. A few years on I was earning enough to enable Simon to leave his job so we could do this together and in turn start YouTube. Again we both owe you all a massive thank you because it is down to you guys that we can spend so much time together doing something we both love. By this point I hadn't made any slip ups or jeopardised my integrity in at least a couple of years, I'd made myself a little motto or a rule to go by when working with brands; "If I don't spend my own money on this brand, or wouldn't be willing to then don't even go there...no matter how much they offer you". When Simon and I started working together we stuck to this rule like glue. In fact I remember him asking me when we had our first 'meeting' together (Cuuuuuute!) "Do you want to make shit loads of money and have loads of stuff or do you want to be selective?". I knew what he meant by that, neither of us are the most eloquent of speakers but he was basically saying; we have an opportunity to make a lot of money here, do you want to take it or do you want to keep your integrity and followers' trust? It's a simple fact that I think a lot of people are aware of these days, being an influencer can (not always) make you a pretty decent living, it can make you 'rich' in some cases. If you're reading this and you're not an influencer, just imagine how tempting that would be? It's like thinking about winning the lottery, you start to plan what you could do with all that money, imagine what kind of life you could live. Did I ever consider the option of working with every brand that came my way in order to buy a bigger house (that I would fill with even more dogs), have a fancy car (that I'm not even interested in), always fly business class when we travel and any other luxuries that I could think of? Yes, of course I did, I'm human, by nature we're tempted by money and fancy things, ok not all of us but I think if we're all honest with ourselves, we can relate to that statement in some way. The truth is that this lifestyle is thrust upon us by celebrities, influencers etc every single day and now more so than ever this is what makes us crave it.
I like nice shit, I'm not claiming that I have chosen the righteous path by not working with every brand to offer me a hefty deal, I love a designer handbag and an expensive pair of shoes, I shop when I want to (within reason) and we now bump ourselves up to Premium Economy when flying, but let me tell you that it bothers me every time that the extra £500 could have been spent on something else (but comfort prevails for these long legs). The younger generation, and I hate to sound like a condescending old fart here, but they (again, not all but a fair few) are more susceptible to being pulled in to this world of luxury because it's being portrayed as 'the norm'. I think it's been quite easy for some girls (and guys) to see this opportunity and grab it with both hands because they haven't experienced how this industry started, what I call the innocent years. Now Instagrammers with as little as 5K followers (probably even lower) can earn money from brands and can definitely get some form gifting. Affiliate networks are no longer as selective as they used to be with accepting creators so it's all fair game, let the money and gifts roll in. Ok granted it's getting tougher to grow quickly these days because Instagram in particular is so over saturated, heck even non-influencers look like they have the grid of an influencer, so technically they are then becoming influencers in their own right, wow. But I would dare to say that it's been made quite easy to make money from being an Influencer if you choose to take certain opportunities. This industry is multifaceted so I'm not saying there are only these two types of people, there's a whole range of everything in between. There are people who have maintained their integrity and gone on to create incredible self-made brands and who have set themselves up for the future whilst being grounded and inspiring. There's also those who have taken all the teeth whitening, protein powder and skinny tea deals on the table and haven't really gone anywhere, other than to the loo with the shits. It's a real mix.
I was sucked in by the Instagram hype as I explained above (the car/handbag story) so I know full well that if I wasn't an influencer, and I didn't know all the ins and outs of this industry that I would be someone who was feeling under pressure to 'keep up'. I was of the generation that got myself into credit card and store card debt because I wanted to live like Britney, Paris Hilton and Jessica Simpson, the influencers of my time. Yeh that was me in all the Ugg boots, all the Juicy Couture tracksuits and all the Von Dutch trucker hats, ahhhh memories. What's happening now is a similar scenario but even more intense in my opinion because us influencers (bloggers in particular) are seen as "regular" people, not picture perfect celebrities, but girls (and guys) just like everyone else who people connect with, like friends. We share so much of our lives online that we do form a bond with you guys and whilst that's great I think we need to take full responsibility for what comes with that bond, as we would with any friend, we need to have your back. So going back to the new guidelines, I think they're great for this very reason that they shed some much needed light on what is actually going on, in particular for those more vulnerable people who don't necessarily know how this industry works. What's been gifted, what's been paid for, what relationships we have with brands etc etc.
Despite how kind you guys are when I do decide to write one of these epic posts, writing is very much NOT my forte. I am a creative, but I'm more of a visual creative rather than a literary one. Ask any influencer what they think about Instagram caption writing and I'm sure they'll all say that it can be a bit of a ball ache. Sometimes I can think of a really witty caption, but most of the time I'm completely stuck for words and I have to really focus on it. I wish I were like LornaLuxe who's captions are by far the best thing on the internet but alas some of us just aren't that witty. I've seen a few comments floating about the Gram and Twitter which have been addressing how these new guidelines will affect the creativity of their content. Each to their own I guess but I personally don't think it will change my creativity at all. If anything the new guidelines only add value to what I'm creating. It's not like I'm going to be writing a Haiku poem in my caption. My content is mainly about my personal style and it's become very clear to me over the last few years that all you guys want is an outfit, with tags of where things are from, links to make it easy to find those items (always displayed on my Shop page) and some affordable alternatives if I'm wearing something that's quite pricey. There's no reason I can't add a little quip or personal note under the AD statement and above the outfit specifics. I know some of you guys can't be bothered to read these newer long captions, and that's fine with me, it's your choice if you wish to have the info or not. The beauty of them is that for those who want them they're there, you just have to tap 'more' and it's displayed. I've spaced everything out so it makes it easy for you to scan each section to find exactly what you actually want to read. That said I'd still love to know if this is what YOU want to see?
Why I'm Declaring TOO Much
I think we (influencers) were all clear with the ASA guidelines that were released last year. They provided a flowchart that was super easy to understand. Those that chose to ignore it and were reported, did go under investigation and action was taken against them if found guilty of being shady. However now these not-so-clear CMA guidelines have come out, those of us who do like to play by the rules are left to our own devises trying to figure out what they actually mean and what we should be doing with them. It's caused not only confusion but tension amongst the influencer community. I would consider myself as someone who is doing more than others in terms of declaring my content, maybe I'm declaring too much but that's how I have interpreted what the CMA have said. Unfortunately some other influencers, rather than just leaving me to it, have decided to take it upon themselves to inform me that I am in fact doing too much and that it's affecting them. Earlier this week the number of DM's I received from fellow influencers about this topic reached double figures. I don't mean influencers asking me about the guidelines for clarity or advise, I've had some of those as well, but I'm referring to those people who have told me outright that I'm declaring too much and that I must stop because it's causing them backlash because they're not doing the same. These messages have been condescending, downright rude and borderline aggressive. It doesn't interest me in the slightest to cause a stir and name and shame these people, I've got better things to do with my time and quite frankly I don't want to deal with drama like that. I also must add that the majority of these messages came from people that I've never met before, and here's the best bit, 4 of them weren't even UK based, so these guidelines don't even apply to them. The simple fact is that everyone is acting like they know it all, myself included, each one of us believes we are doing the right thing with what we're disclaiming. There has been no definitive terminology or precise practise provided by the CMA with regards to 'gifts' in content which the brand hasn't controlled. The ASA states that if a post is not paid for, is not controlled by a brand, but does contain 'gifts' then it's classed as 'sponsored' content not and AD. Yes, yet another term to add to the list. It doesn't say we need to list each gifted item or any relationships we have with the brands. However we then see this conflicting statement just below, within the ASA flowchart:
"But CMA rules apply here – you must make sure content is clearly identifiable as being paid-for. For example, by using the label ‘advertisement feature’ or ‘advertisement promotion’."
The CMA states that content must be "clearly identifiable" as advertising. The consumer must know, in an obvious fashion, that something is a form of advertising. This is 100% fair, I think we're all in agreement with that. But they also say that 'gifts' are a form of payment/reward, which I know many of you agree with. I personally can't pay my mortgage with a blazer or jumper so I have a slightly different view on things, and I no longer sell any of my gifted items on, they're given away or donated to charity once I'm done with them, so I don't receive any financial benefit from a gift other than affiliate earnings (if they have affiliates)...which I pay tax on. So the problem now lies with knowing if a gift is definitely deemed as 'payment' and therefore any post containing a gift is now an AD.
I might be an influencer but I also use Instagram like everyone does, for inspo, entertainment, shopping, life, travel etc and I know full well that not everyone expands an Instagram caption. In my opinion if AD or GIFTED is written somewhere in the unseen part of the caption, that's not crystal clear, it's not obvious. This is why my interpretation of these guidelines is to mark even non-controlled posts which include gifting as an AD, because it IS advertising whether we like it or not. The clue is in the word 'Influencer'. I never set out to be an influencer and any other Bloggers from the early days will probably feel the same. I hated the word for so long, I refused to be associated with it. But one day I received an email from a brand, I'd never worked with them before on either a gifting or paid basis, in fact I'd never even been in touch with them. They said they'd sold out of a certain jumper I was wearing after I posted it on social media and wanted to thank me for featuring it. I bought the jumper myself because I liked it, I tagged it in case anyone wanted to know where it was from, it wasn't to promote that brand or to make money. There was no affiliate link so I couldn't see how many people were clicking on the retailer (swipe up links didn't exist at this time anyway) and how many people were buying it, I didn't even care, I just liked the jumper. I knew there was a lot of love for the Jumper from the comments I was getting but I had no idea that it had completely sold out and that so many people had rushed off to buy it after seeing my post. It was time to admit that I was influencing how people spent their money, even if I wasn't deliberately doing so, and with that comes great responsibility. It does seem unfair that in these cases we have to disclaim so many things which are devoid of motive but unfortunately not everyone behaves in the same way and consumers deserve to be protected.
And there you have it folks, my thoughts and feelings on this very hot topic right now. I don't even think I've covered everything that I feel about it but I've tried to jot down as much as possible. If any of you have any questions at all then please do leave them in the comments below and we can start a conversation.
I would also love to know your thoughts and feelings on the topic and I would really appreciate it if you let me know what you guys would like to see displayed on Influencers' Instagram/Social/Blog posts. What terms would you like to see, where do you want to see them, and what do you think is clear and necessary?