Sponsorgram

It will soon be five years on Instagram for me, and no service has given me as much joy as Kevin and Mike’s creation. It has brought many creative and interesting people into my life. It has taught me the language of visual communications. It has been a great teacher — I know of places I didn’t know before. I know of foods and cultures I wouldn’t know otherwise. Instagram has brought the joy of learning into my life — I didn’t know I liked photography till I joined Instagram. It is still the app-service I use everyday, several times a day. It still has the prime first-screen real estate on my iPhone. 

Lately, however it is losing some of its authenticity. There has been a sudden increase in the number of posts where the account owner is working on behalf of some brand or the other. While this has been going on for a while, there seems to have been a sudden increase in the number of posts such as these. Harper’s Bazaar points out that by some estimates (but unconfirmed) brands are spending “more than a $1 billion per year on sponsored Instagram posts.” According to Harper’s, a fashion blogger with over 900,000 can command anywhere between $5,000 to $15,000 per Instagram post. (Here is an exampleof their sponsored fashion content.)

The travel bloggers might not command as much money but the trend of getting sponsored and taking photos and sharing them with your followers is gaining a lot of momentum. I follow about 525 people and in the past such sponsored posts — where the brand’s account and hashtags that are tag-advertising — were few and far between. It wasn’t something that was a big deal because such “campaigns” would be so rare that it didn’t make me think twice. 

It was easy to recognize that the content was “sponsored”. Now it is sometimes impossible to tell sponsored content from non-sponsored content. I can’t even tell if the Instagrammer took those photos or not — everything is becoming blurred. You might argue that it’s no different than native advertising on news websites. And you’d be right. I have no problem with those ads, as long as they are marked clearly as being sponsored. That is why I have no issues with the the official advertising posts on Instagram — they are clearly marked as such and I can choose to interact with the ads or not.

So it might be okay for Buzzfeed to have native ads, but on a social network where I proactively follow people for their creativity, there is an expectation of authenticity and every time there is a noticeable diversion, I feel a sense of disappointment. 
For example, today I saw a bullshit faux-ad campaign that glorified AT&T, a phone company widely known to undermine network neutrality and consumer rights. It felt so out of character for the Instagrammer who put this faux-ad on her account. 

Suddenly, all the good will she had built over the years was lost. I unfollowed the account. Just like that a social bond was broken. 

*** 

A cynical part of me can’t help but shrug and sigh — it was inevitable. As something gets big and popular, you start to see it become commercialized. The blogs went through the same process (up until FTC showed up and laid down some ground rules). I imagine the Instagrammers become popular and go commercial — and try and make a living from their efforts. I shouldn’t begrudge them or anybody – and I don’t. I can’t really blame the brands – spending a million dollars on Instagrammers is way simpler and better than spending a million dollars on ads in magazines or television, where effectiveness of brand advertising can’t really be quantified.

I asked Instagram if they have any policy around this ambiguous nature of promotional content. “We think that transparency is important, and we mark Instagram ads as ‘Sponsored’. Understanding where sponsorships or endorsement deals do or don’t exist is a complex challenge for every industry – online and off. We encourage anyone in the Instagram community to follow industry best practices around transparency with any sponsored content,” an Instagram spokesperson said in an email. (When I asked FTC about their responses, they pointed to these two links that lead to tips and policies around endorsements.)

Perhaps it is time for Instagram to officially come out with their policy. Most of the ambiguity exists because the company has been less than forthcoming on this issue – a fact reflected in their statement. AdWeek magazine recently reported on a campaign by Lord & Taylor’s that was a hit but it skirted the rules as no one – 50 Instagrammers and the retailer never disclosed if the posts were sponsored or ads. 

Creators need to make money to feed the beast with photos, and brands need to find new audiences — it is a story as old as the Internet and it is why we are seeing the rise of middlemen. The New York Times in an article last year pointed to the rise of services such as Popular Pays which connect influencers on Instagram to brands. Someone with as few as 10,000 followers can qualify. Refinery29, a women oriented publication recently shrugged its shoulders and said that now all this is routine and part of the business. 

*** 
The irony is that one of the key features I love about Instagram is the ability to see and follow brands, follow their story and the creative process. It is a great long term way to build a relationship with the brand. Even now, I follow the brands I like — most tend to be small and upstarts, like UK-based eyewear company, Cutbits, or US-based luggage company, Frank Clegg Leatherworks, or shoe brands whose shoes I already own. They are small and don’t have huge marketing budgets and Instagram allows them to tell their story in a creative and unique manner. 

As a consumer on the network, I feel that I have to make extra effort to discern what is real and what is sponsored content. Surely, I can’t be the only person who is getting frustrated by seeing sponsored photos from people I follow on Instagram. This does come with a downside though. These days, I simply unfollow everyone who is just sharing sponsored posts. Today alone I unfollowed about 15 people (one of then being Christoffer Coflin, a swedish photographer I have recommended in the past with a million followers) just to purge my list of the nonsense posts.

Of course this also means it is time to follow more interesting and newer accounts — ones that aren’t tainted by these paid content Instagrams. With over 300 million accounts, one isn’t starved for choice. And for those who have provided me with a joy over the years — while it is nice to make a living from your creative efforts, and you should, it is also important to consider how much is too much. 

A letter from Om

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