Taking the form of social posts, videos, photos, articles, and more, branded content is becoming a major part of brands’ efforts to reach audiences where they’re already spending copious amounts of time and consuming content. But as the line between original content and advertisements blurs with the rising popularity and quality of native advertising, it’s important for platforms and brands to make clear what’s branded content and what isn’t. So many major platforms have created tools for disclosing paid content.
When we talk about sponsored content disclosures, we’re usually doing it through the lens of FTC guidelines, which state that sponsored content on social media must be disclosed in a clear and unambiguous manner. It’s important to note that these branded content tools alone may not be substitutes for FTC disclosures, but they do provide valuable insight into the nature of the content for both users and the platform itself.
Let’s take a look at how branded content tools on some of the top social media platforms work and how they play into disclosure guidelines.
Facebook’s branded content tool is dead simple. When creating a post that’s sponsored or paid, publishers and creators with access to the tool simply tag any applicable business partners in the post. In the feed, the post appears with “Paid” displayed next to the date and clearly marks business partners. This lets Facebook users know when they’re viewing content that’s paid, but it also allows tagged partners to view post insights and add money to promotional efforts for the post.
Pages looking use the branded content tool on Facebook need to request access to it, but eligible pages must comply with Facebook’s advertising policies. According to the policies, creators and publishers posting paid content are not only required to use the branded content tool to tag businesses, but must also disclose paid content according to industry-specific or country-specific regulations. In the United States, that means that the branded content tool is not a substitute for FTC disclosures. Publishers and creators are still required to disclose the nature of the sponsorship clearly and unambiguously (per FTC guidelines).
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YouTube’s tool for branded content is similarly simple, but functions a little different.
YouTube has long requested that creators let it know when videos contain sponsored or paid content so that it can avoid serving ads that conflict the brand partnering with the channel and remove the video from the YouTube Kids app. Its feature for disclosing paid promotion is an extension of that request, but is audience-facing, rather than an internal means for categorizing content. The feature simply ads a small text disclosure that says “Includes paid promotion” just above the play controls for the first few seconds of the video. It’s simple to implement, unobtrusive, clear, and can be added to past videos without affecting view counts or other video metrics.
Unlike Facebook’s branded content tool, YouTube’s isn’t required for content that’s paid or sponsored. Though it requests notification of paid content via a checkbox for the aforementioned reasons, this audience-facing feature isn’t mandatory. Instead, it’s largely in the interest of transparency between audiences and creators.
This YouTube feature, like Facebook’s branded content tool, isn’t a substitute for proper FTC disclosures, but it’s interesting in that it serves as something of a global norm for YouTube for platform-specific disclosure. Because there are no disclosure guidelines that apply to or are enforced globally, YouTube’s tool takes a step (albeit a small and optional one) toward standardizing disclosures on YouTube.
Instagram’s feature is the newest addition to the branded content tools lineup, but it doesn’t yet function and hasn’t had any kind of “official” release. The feature appeared as a button (non-functioning) was first noticed by Moshe Isaacian and covered by Mashable, but there’s no official word from Instagram on if or when this feature might be rolled out in an official capacity.
It functions much like Facebook’s feature in that it’s a tagging tool. With the Instagram feature, posters can tag partners in the post. It’s a feature that exists externally to the “Tag People” feature, but functions similarly. The influencer marketing network on Instagram is massive, totaling over $1 billion, but with that incredible size comes a lot of sponsored content that makes it a target for FTC scrutiny but also creates an atmosphere that feels crowded with advertisements that exist outside of Instagram’s own native advertising.
Should it come to pass, Instagram’s tagging feature, like both Facebook’s and YouTube’s, would likely be aimed largely at transparency. In creating an environment where users are more easily able to determine whether or not content is sponsored without having to sift through a dozen or more hashtags to find “#sponsored” or “#ad”, Instagram might take a step toward a more user-friendly app experience.
Like the others, though, this tagging feature wouldn’t be a substitute for FTC disclosure. FTC guidelines still apply, but considering that 80% of Instagram’s user base lives outside of the United States, a feature that works toward a more universal disclosure for paid content is beneficial for the global community using Instagram.