The potential pitfalls of forging commercial relationships with vloggers was placed into sharp relief by the ASA ruling against the Beauty Recommended YouTube channel, run by Procter & Gamble-owned cosmetics brand Max Factor. The video, featuring vlogger Ruth Crilly giving a make-up tutorial, was banned by the advertising watchdog for not making it clear it was sponsored by the brand.
Traditional and new media channels have more in common than one might think. Just as rival broadcasters have form for reporting perceived transgressions, P&G was shopped to the ASA by a rival blogger.
Moreover, Max Factor is not the first brand to fall foul of ASA guidelines. In November last year, Mondelez found itself on the end of a landmark ruling from the ASA, relating to a campaign for Oreo. The video in question, which featured a host of YouTube stars, was not clearly labelled as having been paid for. The ASA ruled that video bloggers are breaking the law if they fail to tell their legions of fans that they have received a payment for content. In a damning ruling, the ASA stated: "It pays to be honest."
Yet while it is tempting to declare that vloggers need more guidance and regulation, in reality this fast-growing industry is simply facing the same challenges as traditional media channels. With this in mind, here are five marketing lessons to take from the ruling:
1. Don't buy into the battle of old vs new media
It's all too easy to criticise marketers and vloggers for failing to make clear when a commercial message is an ad; the market is, by its very nature, self-regulating.
The industry must beware of attempting to shoehorn new media models into old media templates.
Marketers should not be trapped into believing that this generation of vloggers represents a 'Wild West' when compared with the established media brands. Let's be clear, advertorial content presents just as many issues for traditional publishers and broadcasters. After all, the notion that the walls between advertising and editorial are sacrosanct has been challenged on numerous occasions.
In fact, the meteoric rise of beauty channels, bloggers and vloggers could be seen as a direct response to what some see as a lack of honesty in traditional media channels, where large advertisers can, in effect, guarantee positive reviews for their products or services.
When vloggers trade on their names and integrity, they simply cannot afford to mislead their audience.
2. Ditch the myth of paid, owned and earned media
In a bid to shore up increasingly outdated business models, media agencies have been guilty of selling brands the myth of 'paid, owned and earned' media. It is a framework that singularly fails to understand the new media landscape and hence distorts it.
All content is not created equal; with brands operating in 'rented' spaces such as Facebook or YouTube, they must accept this is an ecosystem outside their control. Ultimately, as a greater volume of content sits in that increasingly grey area of 'advertorial', brands have to embrace new rules of engagement.
The notion of 'earned media' – that brands can effectively get something for nothing, or more for less – is simply not sustainable or ethical. As the rise of the 'new visual influencers' has shown, vloggers are an incredibly valuable media channel in their own right and need to be treated as such. In turn, they have a responsibility to their viewers to disclose commercial relationships.
3. Embrace the new transparency
It is highly unlikely that in the instance of the Max Factor video it was P&G's intention to mislead consumers. (The content was flagged as sponsored.) Yet as blogging, and now vlogging, has become more commercialised, scrutiny has intensified. The digital ecosystem has naturally developed a more transparent mode of operation when compared with traditional media. For example, many bloggers routinely declare when products and services have been given as gifts.
Yet, inevitably, this transition will bring with it some growing pains, meaning marketers need to take responsibility for placing commercial intentions front and centre.
4. All content is not created equal
Authenticity may be the most overused word in marketing, but it remains at the heart of successful marketing campaigns. A brand-created channel can be an effective marketing tool, but brands that win over consumers, vloggers and bloggers with stand-out products and services will always be the ones that benefit. The power of a genuine review remains sacrosanct.
Some in the industry have argued that, where context is everything, new media falls short. The reality is somewhat different. Consumers have direct and personal relationships with individual vloggers; they trust them and their opinions. A positive review of a product among competing brands is often far more powerful than a standalone piece of sponsored content.
Likewise, partnering a vlogger who won't sacrifice his or her editorial focus, or simply hand over creative control, may well be a smarter long-term brand strategy.
5. Consumers are savvy; give them the credit they deserve
It's all too easy to declare that consumers need protection from commercial messaging. Yet today's digitally driven and commercially savvy consumer will engage with, reject or circumvent any given commercial message in the time it takes to type a 140-character tweet.