By Michael Jabri-Pickett
As social media influencers increasingly demand attention in the GCC, questions of transparency and brand relationships have become more pertinent. ITP Live’s first Influencer Marketing Summit put many of the best in the business on stage together to unravel the intricacies of the emerging industry
The biggest issue facing the world of social media influencers is transparency. Should the person with 100,000 followers on Instagram (or 5.4 million followers as the keynote speaker, Joelle Mardinian, can boast) announce that she is being paid to promote a product?
The inevitable tangents to the four hours of conversations tried to answer the question: what constitutes an influencer (or a content generator as one panellist suggested all influencers should be called)?
Also, how should success be gauged (the number of followers versus the number of comments on a social media post). And, finally, what is the most effective means to measure that success? These were the topics that held the attention of the dozen speakers as well as the more than 400 audience members who attended the first ITP Live Influencer Marketing Summit.
ITP Group chairman Andrew Neil moderated the event on a chilly morning at Grosvenor House on February 20. Mardinian — the social media superstar, television host and founder of cosmetic clinic Clinica Joelle — started the conversation and shared her philosophical approach behind her popularity on social media.
Despite more than a decade on TV, Mardinian was only able to break down all barriers that existed between herself and her fans with the invention of today’s social media platforms.
In the GCC, there is no paparazzi per se, but Twitter and Instagram helped her reach her fans like never before. She was able to live the public life she chose, not one that was going to be thrust upon her and her faithful fans as told by any media outlet. “I became addicted to showing my fans what I liked,” she said. “They found my life inspiring.”
Mardinian recounted some of her earliest experiences in great detail, and explained that her influence comes from her decision to live her social media life as though she has nothing to hide. She believes that the honesty of her posts makes any public declaration about being a paid spokeswomen irrelevant. Her policy, which has a tremendous impact on her success in the world, is simply to reveal all.
“I have nothing to hide,” she said, and then told in intimate detail how she came to promote Gillette, for instance. “I am a Lebanese woman, which means I am hairy,” she said. Embracing the importance of regular shaving sessions as part of her beauty regiment made her accessible to her followers, she said. Explaining why waxing doesn’t work for her, and by revealing to her millions of fans that she has shaved her entire body helps her remain genuine.
It is this honesty, she said, that makes her so fascinating to her followers, and also so believable. By the nature of her posts, she is transparent, she argued. As a result, stating that a particular product is a paid-for ad is not necessary. She knows her audience, and they know her, so stating the obvious is redundant, she argued.
On the flip side, the agencies that procure talent and the brands that look to work with social media influencers or content generators argue Mardinian’s style of ‘openness’ is not sufficient, Tanaz Dizadji, founder and CEO of Insydo, said.
In the US and the UK, there are laws in place that require content generators to include “#a” in the caption of any post that includes a product for which they are being paid to promote. In the GCC, there is no such regulation, which is why the issue of transparency in the world of influencers is such a hot-button topic.
Some social media influencers want to maintain their organic growth and face the transparency issue in much the same way as Mardinian. Other influencers as well as brands and agencies suggest there is a better approach, a transparent way that would require everyone to operate above board.
The members of the day’s third panel (titled ‘How brands choose influencers’) spoke about how transparency also involves measuring results. There is an “educational process” that everyone will need to go through, said Saleh Al Braik, Dubai Tourism and Commerce Marketing consumer to consumer marketing manager.
Part of the panel discussion revolved around trying to answer the question: ‘What is a social media influencer?’ Is it the number of followers a particular account may have, or is it all about engagement, as Amr Aboelinin, who is head of digital marketing and content at Al Tayer Retail, suggested? To this question there was no conclusive answer. What was agreed, however, is that the industry is in its infancy, and there is a Wild West mentality in the GCC.
“Invest in engagement, not in vanity,” was Dizadji’s argument while trying to determine the best approach when a brand or agency wants to find the most appropriate content generator to promote a particular product.
Because the region is unregulated when it comes to what an influencer must disclose, the summit occasionally became a everything-you-need-to-know-about-social-media-influencers tutorial.
Surprisingly, the approach worked. The hundreds of people who filled the hotel’s conference room to standing room-only capacity were receptive to the discussions and asked plenty of questions.
Aboelinin and Dizadji argued that brands have to approve all content. The influencers, however, believed it would be a healthier relationship if the brands allowed the influencers to tell their story while maintaining the overall image of the product. There may be the need for conversations outlining the broad strokes of what should not be mentioned on social media, but brands need to let the social influencers promote the product so all posts are consistent with the themes of the influencer. This notion, the influencers argued, is more authentic and, in the long run, is more successful.
The best way for brands to respect their social media influencer is to allow them to work on their own. But to do this, the brands must do their homework; they must research the accounts of all potential influencers. Too often, the brands and agencies do not do the work necessary to empower the influencer.
Norton Rose Fulbright technology, media and telecoms partner Dino Wilkinson spoke about social media and the law in the UAE. He stressed how the law needed to catch up with social media. He drew attention to the National Media Council’s publishing laws and said the ideal approach would involve self-regulation, and to “be aware of the risks” at all times.
The laws are not always as sophisticated as would be preferred, but it is the responsibility of the influencer as well as the brand and agency to exercise caution because the GCC is in unchartered territory when it comes to the law and social media.
Anthony Permal, known as ‘The Marketing Dude’, said “we need to have the conversation now” to set the legal framework. His concern is with the role influencers play when promoting medical products. The lack of clear and specific guidelines is troubling and these concerns cannot be shrugged off.
“What is legal”, he said, is the biggest question facing the industry. Transparency would help bring everything into the open where even more conversations could take place.
Omnicom Media Group regional executive director, specialist companies, Dimitri Metaxas, said interpretation of the laws as they currently stand can be vague. Influencers are representing brands and it is everyone’s responsibility associated with the promotion of the product to operate much like the proverbial open book.
Alex Malouf, who is a board member with the Advertising Business Group, said best practices should be adopted by the marketplace. Making the environment that much trickier, he said, is that it is “a fast-evolving space”.
The morning’s second panel looked at how influencers choose to work with brands, how the industry can measure what a content creator does and what makes an influencer a person of influence.
The panel was comprised of Alanoud Badr, founder and designer of Lady Fozaza; Khalid Al Ameri, a motivational speaker and a youth coach; Zeynab El Helw, founder and blogger at Fashion Pirate; and Omar Al Busaidy, a global shaper at the World Economic Forum and an author. All spoke about the types of relationships that work best for influencers with the brand and with the agency. The consensus is that all must embark upon a mutually beneficial partnership. What makes this relationship most profitable, according to the majority who addressed the audience, is (of course) transparency.
This panel discussed trying to shine a light on the dark corners of social media, raising the issues that some influential content generators would rather remained unmoderated.
The onus is on the brand and the agency to do the work. The effort must be put forth and the research must be done to study the influencer and to learn as much as possible about what makes that person successful. The arrangements based solely on money will not be worthwhile. As Al Busaidy said: “Brands should sit with us [influencers]. They can utilise our personalities.”
This is how it will move forward. Do the research, find the social influencer who is already aligned with your brand, get to know that person, use that individual’s ideas and lifestyle to get out the message that works for everyone. “Stick to your DNA, your identity,” El Helw said.
Remember, the social influencer is essentially a walking billboard, Wilkinson said, and it is best to treat them with the same legal guidelines. What creates the most productive relationships for agency, brand, influencer and follower is to operate as openly as possible.
Mardinian argued that being passionate about creating stories is what mattered to everyone involved. But a shift is imminent and it would soon engulf the entire industry, she said.
Influencers are building a name for themselves, and they are intent on protecting their reputation.
An agency has to find the influencer who fits best with the aims of the product’s campaign.
For it all to work, the entire process must be transparent. This is what will move the industry forward and lead to increased success and greater accountability.