The ubiquity of sponsored content on social media, especially Instagram (being a hotspot for digital influencers) can cause some problems for anyone being paid to post or given items for free. After all, if everyone’s doing it, then it’s fine, right? In most cases, ads are a normal part of being a social media user with a large enough following, but slip-ups do happen. Just a couple of years ago, the Federal Trade Commission put out more effort in cracking down on social media influencers they feel haven’t been disclosing sponsorships properly, aiming to punish through lawsuits and educate using online guides, webinars, and communicating with other associations.

What gives? Why do some people insist on not disclosing paid partnerships on Instagram anyway, and is it that big of a deal? One reason influencers fail to disclose sponsorships is because of a perception that since their entire appeal banks on their authenticity and approachability as compared to a traditional celebrity, labelling a sponsored post might detract from that. It’s a natural logical leap: someone might be discouraged to buy a product if they see that whoever they look up to was paid to promote it. It can seem less “real.” But is that truly the case?

Why Should You Disclose Paid Partnerships

@k.els.e.y disclosing a paid partnership with Saks Fifth Avenue

If you’re part of a brand seeking to promote their products or services through social media, or you’re a budding influencer wanting to keep their options open for monetization, remember this: don’t underestimate your audience. Your followers aren’t dense—they’ll be able to tell if something seems off. According to the Content Marketing Institute, of the biggest reasons to make sure you’ve done proper disclosure is that not disclosing paid content actually harms your brand. It does this by eroding the trust audiences have not just with the influencer, but with the brand as well. They gave the example of one of Margot Robbie’s Instagram posts in 2017—she tagged a brand name in one of her posts attending the Glastonbury Festival but quickly replaced the #ad hashtag with a more generic #glasto—prompting fans to debate whether it was really a paid ad or not. Fans will find out, and for many, that’s more dishonest than just acknowledging you received an item for free.

Margo Robbie's 2017 #glasto post.

Additionally, there’s the FTC. Their endorsement guidelines state that if there is a “material connection” between an endorser and an advertiser (something that, according to them, may affect the credibility of the consumer’s endorsements) it needs to be clearly stated.

How to Disclose Sponsored Content

@bresheppard's #sponsored post for Rue 21

It’s better to be safe than sorry, so stay compliant. Most of the time brands and marketing professionals are in charge of dictating what influencers should include in photo captions on Instagram, so if you’re one of them much of the burden falls to you. Here’s a summary of the most important FTC guidelines to follow.

The most basic is to use the hashtags #sponsored and #ad in the post. That’s not it, though—many influencers and brands used to get away with tacking them on at the end, and the FTC requires they be very visible. So don’t insert them in the middle of a ten or more hashtag sequence—place it at the beginning. The FTC has also made an option for brands to create unique partnership hashtags (usually #brandname_partner).

Hashtags aren’t the only way, though. Explicitly stating it in the caption is good too. Be careful with the language you use, though, as there needs to be no room for interpretation. “I love these products from @brand!” is vague and can be misconstrued, while “Thank you @brand for sending me these products for free” is clearer. Remember that these rules apply not just to photo posts, but to Instagram Stories too!

When working with larger accounts (both users and business accounts), Instagram has also created new tools, which you can learn about in their help section. These involve accounts with access to the feature being able to tag brands in the posts they’re using and have the text “Paid partnership with…” appear on top of their posts. The tagged brands in question can also approve these tags and see their individual analytics through their own business accounts. It’s best to use this in conjunction with the other rules on hashtags and photo captions though.

Doing Instagram influencer marketing the right way means doing your due diligence. Nobody suddenly wants to be on the receiving end of a class-action lawsuit due to inappropriate business practices on social media! Both brands and influencers have a lot to gain by protecting their integrity and, yes, authenticity, by following the FTC’s guidelines and being honest about partnerships. Transparency is key, and in the world of social media, it’s a treasure.