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Fri 30 Mar 2018 12:13 AM

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Opinion: From selfie to self-employed - the UAE influencers

New regulations mean that social influencers will have to grow up fast

Opinion: From selfie to self-employed - the UAE influencers
Smile for the camera Events such as VIDXB and ITP Live show the region’s interest in influencer content creation

Last week’s ITP Live conference could not have come at a better time for reassessing what the term “social influencer” means.

The practise of building an audience on social media, and then monetising it through sponsorship, has yielded fame and fortune for its protagonists. The star attraction of the ITP Live summit, Roman Atwood, has 25 million online followers – numbers that most conventional media outlets can only dream of.

No wonder so many young people in this region are either influencer fans or are looking to become one themselves. They only need to see what Huda Kattan has achieved with her 24.9 million Instagram followers, which she has leveraged into a lucrative cosmetics line, to know that the phone in their pocket could theoretically be their ticket to the bigtime.

Follow the money

Naturally, eyeballs equal ad spend. The influencer market was worth $2bn last year and is projected to rise to $10bn by 2020. This isn’t surprising given the results of a recent research paper that found 67 percent of marketers believe influencer campaigns helped them reach a more targeted audience – and deliver more impactful results.

The reason they think this, of course, is that unlike the TV stations, magazines and billboard ads that used to be their primary means of communication, influencers offer a direct peer-to-peer connection. Trust is built and a two-way relationship is established, which is more meaningful than a remote, corporate brand that just wants to sell you something.

Or at least that’s how it has been perceived until now. Rule changes are taking effect worldwide, but let’s concentrate on our home-turf. Last month, the National Media Council announced that influencers who make money promoting brands will need to obtain a licence by the end of June.

Mansour Al Mansouri, director general of the National Media Council, also reminded users that any digital communication is subject to the principles and standards governing media content in the country. This includes abiding by the country’s strict privacy and defamation laws and, more prosaically, clearly labelling anything that is paid-for content. Oh, and they must also register for VAT, which is a whole other can of administrative worms.

Growing up fast

Taken together, these changes add up to one thing: the end of the influencer.

To explain: brands want to give money to real people who have a loyal following. But the new rules stipulate that for this to happen the influencer must become, in effect, a boutique publishing business. Accounts must be kept, paid-for posts clearly labelled, media laws strictly adhered to, taxes paid and annual registration fees dutifully submitted. This is most definitely not a hobby.

The alternative is to sign up with an agency (such as ITP Live), that can provide a legal footing. Either way, the influencer is being asked to enter the same industry as any other media outlet – with all its attending baggage.

That’s not a bad thing for anyone talented and diligent enough to consider entering the space. As Filip Jabbour, MENA CEO of the world’s largest advertising media company, GroupM, said at the conference, tighter regulations will professionalise the industry, making it more transparent to audiences and advertisers alike. Bringing these individuals inside the fold of the established advertising and media sectors will also lead to growth as the business model develops – as it surely will in this region, not least in Saudi Arabia where the opportunities are massive.

And for brands wanting to connect with an audience, social media interaction via these individual brands will be a vital part of any well thought-out marketing plan.

So let’s not pretend that these phone-wielding, selfie-taking, brand-sharing “millennials” are about to usurp the established norms of the advertising or media industries. They have just became a part of them.