Noteworthy interview on new social media advertising regulations

Earlier this autumn, several celebrities were investigated by UK regulators for not labelling social media posts as “advertisements”. Given that so-called influencers can potentially sway the shopping habits of millions, the Advertising Standards Association published An Influencer’s Guide to making clear that ads are ads, to help celebs and bloggers avoid misleading consumers. But what does this guide really mean in practical terms? To better understand the world of influencers and online advertising, I’ve interviewed Nicole Ocran-Hegarty: journalist, style blogger, and Influencer Strategy Manager at Disney.

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Kelsey:  Nicole, you and I first met online about 15 years ago on the blogging platform Livejournal. Since then, we both – coincidentally – moved from the United States to London, where we finally met in real life!

Can you tell me a bit about your professional background in journalism, and what inspired you to begin your personal fashion blog, The Noteworthy?

Nicole:  I honestly cannot get over how the Internet brings people together. I remember typing away and commenting on your LiveJournal and messaging you from my childhood bedroom in Annandale, Virginia. You were constantly here there and everywhere and I was so jealous of that. Anyway, I’m already off topic!

My career in journalism started when I was 19 or 20 and a student at George Mason University. I had just started editing the Style pages of my university’s student newspaper, the Fourth Estate. It was there that I really honed my craft, my love of writing, editing of interviewing. In my junior year I became editor-in-chief of the paper: I lived and breathed the paper, and didn’t want to do anything else but be in the Student Media office. I also was interning at the The Washington Post’s free daily paper, Express.

By the time I graduated from George Mason, I started another internship at the non-profit Student Press Law Center, fighting for First Amendment rights for students across America. At the same time I applied to City University in London, and went with their journalism masters programme! It was the best decision I ever made.

In London, I got my first job in entertainment journalism at Entertainment News, and I’ve since written for the Metro, The Sun and Refinery29 UK! I decided to start The Noteworthy while I working in a job where I wasn’t really able to express myself through personal writing. When I got made redundant, The Noteworthy became a real outlet for me, as I was able to showcase my love of fashion, where I hadn’t been able to before.

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In addition to writing about style, fashion and beauty, Nicole routinely explores topics about feminism, politics, Black women, and pop and celebrity culture. Recently, she explained why she won’t shop at Topshop anymore in light of the Philip Green sexual harassment scandal.

Under the new Influencer’s Guide, bloggers only need to disclose something as an advert if: (1) they’ve been “paid” in some way, which could include receiving a freebie, AND (2) they are under some form of editorial “control” by the brand. What are your thoughts on this? Do you think most people are aware of the “control” aspect? Do you think it matters?

I have so many thoughts on this! Firstly, I think disclosure is incredibly important. We’re in an age now where not only are audiences incredibly savvy but they’re also somewhat skeptical. It’s so important to be completely honest about their gifted items, paid campaigns, free trips and so on. Especially in an age where we are just feeling terrible and comparing ourselves to everything we see online.

I’m not sure how much the general public knows how much control a brand has over content. Often it can be very clear and sometimes it doesn’t look authentic to that influencer, so it can be a bit obvious. Other times, the brand might gift the influencer a product without any expectation for them to post, so it ends up just fitting in naturally.

The control aspect is key. If a brand gifts you an item, but then expects you to post on a certain day or see content before it goes live – then this is sponsored content. Even if you haven’t been paid for it, and that must be made clear to your audience. The guidelines are in place to protect consumers, which I appreciate.

You mention “gifting” by brands. Is the distinction between “paying” and “gifting” a product an important one to make? If so, why?

To me, yes. The two mean completely different things in my mind – when something is paid, I think of brand control, I think of money exchanging hands, and contracts signed. Gifted items and freebies although have monetary value, should be made clear in a different way. I do prefer to know that an influencer hasn’t purchased that product with their own money, for example, or didn’t pay for that holiday.

Something I hear often from colleagues and friends is that advertising on social media is “obvious enough,” and that consumers don’t need the #ad hashtag or similar disclaimers. As a general rule, do you think bloggers and influencers are actually clear and transparent enough? Is there sufficient self-regulation? Or were the regulators right to step in with new rules?

There are definitely #ads and #sponcon that are extremely obvious with their advertising messaging and aren’t being declared as such – but I don’t think that should matter. The regulators are absolutely right to step in with new rules and best practice. I also think there’s been a real effort from bloggers and influencers to declare ads, but there are still a select few (including celebrities and reality stars) getting away with not doing it.

What do you think some of the biggest concerns influencers and bloggers have with making it clear that adverts are indeed adverts? Aesthetics? Independence? Credibility?

I think fatigue? I think there are a lot of consumers who feel like they are constantly being advertised to, but we spend so much time on our phones, our laptops and social media now that advertising is just becoming more obvious. It’s always been there in TV, radio and print!

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But at least for me, a lot of the bloggers that I followed before they were known as influencers, I followed them because I liked them as people (or their online personas), so I understand it can be jarring to see an ad thrown in with their regular content. But I enjoy supporting them still because I feel like I’ve been on that journey with them.

If you could speak to the advertising regulators directly and tell them one key thing about this issue, what would it be?

I do think a lot of the declaration can feel excessive, which does cause people to have to say “This isn’t an ad, I just love X”. My main issue has been the distinction between a gifted item as payment, especially as there can be a lot of influencers who receive gifted product and declaring it as an ‘ad’ or as ‘sponsored’ to me as a consumer, means something else entirely.

Finally, what have been the most challenging and rewarding things about running your own fashion and lifestyle blog thus far? What is something you hope to accomplish or participate in over the next few months?

The most challenging thing is time! I still work full-time in talent/influencer strategy, so that is my 9-5 job. Having to run my blog during evenings and weekends can be pretty tiring but also I just wish I could do more!

The most rewarding by miles and miles are the friendships I’ve made through blogging, that is what I cherish the most and is what keeps me coming back to create more content! Being able to speak to people all over the world is just a joy.

I hope to be able to get my life in order and continue to post consistently! Anything I can do to write more would be ideal, so hopefully some more freelance opportunities, or even speaking opportunities as well!

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Many thanks to Nicole for sharing her time, expertise and insight with me for this interview! You can follow her at The-Noteworthy.com, on Instagram at @NicoleOcran, and on Twitter @NicoleOcran

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