Many debates have been sparked about the effect of fake news on the 2016 U.S. election. While not every American voter was exposed to fake news, the misleading posts certainly made an impact. Political scientists from Princeton University, Dartmouth College and the University of Exeter found that more than 27 percent of U.S. voters, or 65 million people, visited a fake news website during the closing weeks of the campaign.
A Cornell University study found that fake news audiences were carefully targeted using data just like that sold to advertisers. These targeted campaigns sought out initial believers who would engage with the fake news content, leading it to spread it like wildfire.
As Bloomberg’s Mark Buchanan says, “We’ve unwittingly engineered a social media environment that is inherently prone to fake news epidemics. When marketers use information on surfing habits, opinions and social connections to aim ads at people with just the right interests, this can facilitate beneficial economic exchange. But in the wrong hands, the technology becomes a means for the precision seeding of propaganda.”
Marketing as propaganda
Marketers have reason to be concerned. In 2016, a U.S. federal court and the Federal Trade Commission determined that LeadClick, an affiliate marketing network, participated in making sites sharing fake news about weight-loss products. Determining that the network had the authority to control the deceptive content, and even including real news sites’ logos, a federal judge ordered the company to pay nearly $12 million in fines.
The FTC also brought a case against Lord & Taylor, claiming that the brand’s Design Lab clothing label paid for objective-seeming articles without disclosing that they were native advertisements. The brand paid 50 influencers, gave them clothing to promote in their posts and preapproved the influencers’ content without disclosing any of it.
What all of this means is that companies can—and will—be held liable for any messages shared in association with their brand. In his book, Performance Partnerships, Robert Glazer, founder and managing director of affiliate program management agency Acceleration Partners, said, “Brands are demanding transparency—it’s no longer OK to pay a lot of money to a partner and not know what they are doing.”
He explained, “The early years of affiliate marketing were plagued by a lack of transparency. A lot of large affiliates refused to disclose their tactics. They claimed that this was for proprietary reasons, but it’s clear that a lack of transparency increases the chances of questionable, or even fraudulent, behavior … In a performance partnership, you know what your partner is doing and how they’re doing it.”
Whether brands are leaning on affiliate marketing, influencer marketing or a combination to reinforce their internal social marketing efforts, it can be hard to ensure that the messages being conveyed are consistent (and congruent). Companies should take a few steps to protect themselves and ensure that their performance marketing efforts are truly high-performing:
- Regularly monitor FTC disclosures: Staying updated on what the FTC is currently recommending—or what others are confused by—is an easy way to stay compliant. Some prefer to keep their head in the sand, thinking that the relatively new nature of blogs and social media must mean that there’s minimal enforcement. Truth in advertising has always been the FTC’s focus, though, and that now extends to social marketing. Being able to point back to a regulation to explain why a brand took an action can protect the company, its customers and its public-relations efforts.
- Work directly with affiliates or influencers on the importance of disclosures: Misrepresenting where endorsements have come from is a disaster waiting to happen. Clearly communicate to affiliates, bloggers and influencers what their disclosures should look like. Send them explicit examples and instructions so that there’s no confusion regarding their role. Reminders can be a brand’s savior, from broad affiliate program newsletter reminders to individual emails to those not in compliance.
- Perform frequent audits of your social network: Glazer’s Acceleration Partners team audits its programs on a quarterly basis, randomly selecting affiliates from each program to serve as a representative sample. Team members review the content on each selected affiliate’s site promoting a particular brand, checking for disclosures and ensuring that they’re presented as they should be. All of the audits are logged for record-keeping purposes, allowing the team to see whether a specific affiliate has struggled multiple times to disclose properly. Glazer also recommends using an affiliate grader to objectively rate affiliates’ work.
- Pledge to only work with networks and partners who are aboveboard: It can be tempting to bring on an affiliate or an influencer with a lot of clout or a significant following, but the payoff of that person’s influence may not justify the fallout if he or she fails to represent the brand in a compliant manner. Furthermore, associating with less-than-credible networks or partners can scare off successful, trustworthy partners. It’s just not worth the risk.
Truth in marketing is more important than ever. 91 percent of consumers say they value a brand’s authenticity about its products and services, and they reward these brands with their business. Social marketing gone awry—through a missing disclosure or a lack of honest information—can sabotage even the best-laid plans. To avoid claims of “fake news,” brands must ensure that their networks are as trustworthy as their products.
Keeping your brand top-of-mind as “trustworthy” with today’s fickle consumer set is crucial if you want to continue growing your market share tomorrow.