One Tag, Three Characters, Say it and I'm Sold: #ad

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There's a paradox to connectivity: as much as we're now tuned into each other's lives through social media, they are the lives we want to showcase and not necessarily the lives we already live. Users follow the stories of influencers and social media personalities for their expertly curated visual aesthetic, backed by the assurance that the human on screen is an opinionated and decision-making being. Whoever this person is, he or she may juggle a growing family resembling one's own, or supplement a witty fashion blog with a collection of daily outfit photos. Someone's wildly adventurous, sepia-toned life is addicting to look at during my morning commute and dull moments in conversation; this is the world of influencers.

When given the opportunity to work with brands, influencers have a certain level of autonomy. Does this product align with an influencer's personal brand? What about the expectations of the loyal cohort of followers?

In a recent study, June Macon of the University of Illinois at Chicago studied user interactions with User-Generated Content (UGC). When presented with sponsored influencer content that tagged @company_handle, users were more likely to perceive that post as an advertisement than if posts were accompanied by #ad, #sponsored, or #promoted. Some didn't even notice that the content was sponsored, and once this fact was revealed, the credibility of the post itself remained unquestioned.

What we unintentionally realize is that influencers, like us, are conventional consumers too. Social media personalities must go to a grocery store or a mall and actively decide what products to include in their mostly unbranded content feed. In the case of the companies that can afford to use a beloved celebrity as a spokesperson, there's an understanding that this person is making a large sum of money to endorse this product. Therefore, whatever he or she has to say about this product's life-changing qualities is taken lightly.

There is more at stake for influencer partnerships. The product must be a fit for the influencer, just as the influencer should be a fit for the product they are promoting. UGC simplifies a choice that an influencer would ordinarily make. If a fashion blogger can still find pieces at X department store that are in line with their style or if an Instagram foodie can use Y brand of almond milk in their overnight oats instead of other non-dairy milk competitors, brands have successfully and authentically incorporated their products into choices influencers would have already made. If there’s a disconnect between the product and the personality, these partnerships won’t work.

The caption carries with it a continuation of this concept. An influencer partnership is consistent with an ordinary decision, just as a caption should be consistent with an influencer's voice. In the case of the department store or the almond milk, followers expect consistency from an influencer. Tagging @brand_name distracts from the illusion of autonomous content control. Before a reader reaches the end of the caption, he or she senses that the once witty and cheerful voice of a blogger is tainted with the deafening screech of ecommerce. And so we keep scrolling (and probably don't reach the end of the caption).

The scenario studied by Macon analyzes the graceful alternative, #ad. The elegant three character hashtag is understated and honest, situated at the end of a caption unencumbered by a glaring marketing scheme. It is a subtle finish to a photo and a few short words which, before the hashtag and according to Macon, were all believed to be independent choices. Furthermore, perhaps part of the reason viewers don't recognize the tag(s) is because the content was on-brand with the influencer, in line with a decision they would have ordinarily made. This person appears to be someone who is benefitting from the brand they have built for him or herself, unlike the spokesperson blindly promoting the highest bidder.

Works Cited: Macon, June, User-Generated Content: An Examination of Users and the Commodification of Instagram Posts (Summer 2017). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2944502 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2944502