Is paid influencer marketing ethical in the event industry?

paid influencer marketing

Is paid influencer marketing ethical in the meeting industry?

Paid influencer marketing is spreading to the event industry, and I doubt that it’s an ethical practice.

I receive a voice mail

Last week I received the following voice mail (identifying details bleeped; transcript below.)

Hi Adrian, my name is _____, I work for an influence marketing agency _____, and I’m reaching out to you this afternoon about an opportunity with _____, who is one of our clients, and I know you are an influencer in the meeting/event/conference planning sphere which is the focus of this campaign with _____  and we’re just hoping to have you involved in this campaign: involves a blog post, some social posting, hopefully a visit to the property with a bit of filming. If you’re interested in more details I would love to chat with you; my phone number is _____. Thanks, and looking forward to talking to you soon; bye bye.”

I quickly learned that the agency called other event professionals with the same pitch. One of them, whom I’ll call InfluentialEventProf, forwarded me an email with more details of how the “opportunity” would work (identifying details replaced with generic terms):

An email pitch

From: YYY@InfluenceMarketingCompany.com
To: InfluentialEventProf@InfluentialEventProfDomain.com
Sent: 9/8/2016
Subj: Paid Campaign Opportunity: Complimentary Stay at Property Z

Hi InfluentialEventProf,

Hope this note finds you very well! Brand X’s Property in Somewhere, USA is a client of ours, and I am working on an influencer campaign to help promote Property Z’s event spaces as ideal venues for conferences and corporate meetings. Brand X would love to have you–a known industry expert on event/meeting planning–involved in this campaign!

We are inviting you to come for a complimentary stay to experience Property Z during a major Industry Sector S conference during TheseDates. Brand X would like you to review the visit and conference experience on your company’s blog and promote Property Z on social media. To give you a general idea of the campaign’s scope, here are some details regarding the influencer package and campaign components:

Influencer package:

One or two (1-2) complimentary nights at Property Z (dependent on your availability)

One (1) complimentary breakfast

One (1) complimentary dinner

$500 compensation

Complimentary parking

Campaign components:

One (1) post-stay blog post highlighting the Property Z as a venue for corporate conferences/meetings/events. Ideally, this blog post would be published both on your company’s blog and on your Linkedin page.

Two (2) real-time Twitter photo posts during your stay

Two (2) post-stay Twitter photo posts

(Use the hashtags of {3 PropertyZHashtags}, and any Property Z social channel handles on all relevant content.)

Would you be interested in participating? If so, I can send you more detailed information regarding these campaign components.

We are really hoping to work with you!

All the best,

YYY

Paid influencer marketing

This is classic paid influencer marketing via social media, a rapidly growing marketing trend since 2014. Celebrities are paid big bucks to casually introduce positive experience of brands into their social media feeds. Now event industry influencers are being asked to do the same thing.

Will Brand X require all resulting social media posts by InfluentialEventProf to be labeled “Sponsored”? (Does “Sponsored” even fit into the resulting tweets?) Will the post-stay blog post include the information that the stay and meals were paid for by Brand X and that the InfluentialEventProf was paid a fee by Brand X?

Even if InfluentialEventProf provides all this information, there is plenty of research that shows that such paid marketing biases influencers to be more positive about their review than they would have been otherwise. (See, for example: High bias found in Amazon reviews of low-cost or free samples, where the provision of free or low-cost products boosted ratings from the 54th percentile to the 94th percentile!)

So, is paid influencer marketing ethical?

I think such practices are ethically questionable. The CMP Standards of Ethical Conduct Statement and Policy includes the pledge “Never use my position for undue personal gain and to promptly disclose to appropriate parties all potential and actual conflicts of interest“, and I’d argue that what is being offered here is “undue personal gain”. In addition, any employee event professional should review their employer’s ethics policy. And consider these questions to0:

  • “In what way could you justify participation to your employer?”
  • “In what way could you justify participation to your clients?”
  • “Are there ways that this participation could influence site selection?”

What do you think?

[My thanks to InfluentialEventProf for permission given to reproduce the above email, and for suggestions that improved this post.]

12 thoughts on “Is paid influencer marketing ethical in the event industry?

  1. Okay, I’ll bite. This goes on all the time if you consider press trips to fall into this category as well. You are flown to a destination, put up in a hotel, shown around town by your handlers, wines and dined, all in the hopes you write something about them. Why shouldn’t influencers get the same treatment?
    I’d argue that it’s not the practice that is unethical, it’s some of the players involved that may or may not be unethical. There is no promise, on a press trip, that you will write about whatever the PR or sales person feeds you. You write to inform your readers and you are honest. If you’re not doing that, then the problem is you, the writer/editor.
    If there were not press trips, most our industry publications couldn’t inform their readers about different locations. They don’t have the budget to fly writers all over the place and put them up for a few nights all expenses paid.
    I guess I see no problem with this practice as long as the “influencer” is not signing any contract that promises a favorable review. The review should be honest. If they are receiving compensation or something of value that might influence their review, then they must disclose that fact. That’s clearly covered under the FTC Act.
    Once you’ve disclosed the fact that you were paid to write about the property, the question is, does your community trust you to still be honest? Will they ever trust you again? If it were me, I’d take their money (although it would have to be a lot more than $500…I’d say that amount would be insulting to any true influencer). Why not? If I’m spending time at their property I should be compensated for my time for the stay and the writing. I would just make sure I let readers know up front that I was paid to do it.

    Will the post-stay blog
    post include the information that the stay and meals were paid for by
    Brand X and that the InfluentialEventProf was paid a fee by Brand X

    Read the rest of this article at:
    http://www.conferencesthatwork.com/index.php/event-professionals/2016/09/is-paid-influencer-marketing-ethical-in-the-event-industry/

    Will the post-stay blog
    post include the information that the stay and meals were paid for by
    Brand X and that the InfluentialEventProf was paid a fee by Brand X

    Read the rest of this article at:
    http://www.conferencesthatwork.com/index.php/event-professionals/2016/09/is-paid-influencer-marketing-ethical-in-the-event-industry/

    1. Thanks Traci. It’s the payment ($500 in this case) that bothers me most. Suppose you were paid $50,000 (we can dream). It’s hard to believe there wouldn’t be some expectation that your review would be positive, or at least influenced by your payment.

      I haven’t seen a post-stay blog post (yet), but a social media post I saw that is part of the campaign contains only the hashtag “#sponsored” — it does not disclose that the stay and meals were paid for by Brand X or that the InfluentialEventProf was paid a fee by Brand X.

      1. If I read a glowing post that said the author was paid to write it, I would view it as nothing more than an advertisement. On the other hand…it would serve the payer and the payee best if the review was completely honest. Hey, these guys paid me to write about them, but I’m going to give you an honest review. People may still not believe it, but at least you haven’t totally blown your credibility.
        I just don’t think it’s unethical (if full disclosure).
        Is it an unethical practice to be paid to write a blog post for a vendor? A post that highlights a certain aspect of their product you find valuable? That’s how writers make their living after all. The way I navigate that potential landmine is I tell a client I will not write something that I don’t believe. I will not put my name on something I do not stand behind. Slightly different scenario, but there are similarities, no?
        What exactly is it about the practice you find unethical?

        1. First of all, I should make it clear that anything I read on a vendor or supplier’s website I assume is there to make the company look good. If a contracted third-party is paid to write something that appears there—no problem.

          On the other hand, no one has ever paid me a penny to write anything that appears on my blog or that I’ve published on a social media channel. Sometimes I come across a product or service that I think is really great and I write positively about it. I don’t get paid for that, and that’s OK. (Sometimes I write about stuff that sucks, and no one pays me for that either.) Over the last seven years I’ve been blogging, I’ve written over 400 posts and website traffic grew to 10 million pages views last year. I have a certain amount of credibility with my readers.

          Such credibility would be lessened if I now started writing pieces about products and services on my own blog or on social media for pay. Even if I fully disclosed everything I received, I am still likely to be influenced by receiving payment from the vendor, as the link in the main article illustrates. (It’s the same principle where doctors swear that receiving free drug samples and meals from attractive reps makes no difference to what they prescribe. They’re wrong, and there’s research to prove it.)

          So that’s why I won’t take payment to write about commercial products and services on my blog.

          Regardless, I repeat what I say above: Full disclosure is not adding [sponsored] to the post. FULL disclosure means saying: I received from Brand X complimentary A & B, reimbursement of expenses C & D, and payment of $E for publishing this post. No one, to my knowledge, ever does this! If you’re not prepared to provide full disclosure, it’s unethical to be publishing under these circumstances. That is what is unethical about the case I describe. In the wider world, that is why Public Citizen, Commercial Alert, the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, and the Center for Digital Democracy are asking the Federal Trade Commission to strengthen its rulemaking for what appears on Instagram (see http://associationsnow.com/2016/09/advocacy-groups-ftc-regulate-influencer-marketing-instagram/).

          1. Amen to that, Adrian! In a sense, not only does FULL disclosure never happen, if it did, it’d take away the entire message and would be rendered useless (an ad in essence). A similar issue I see is with bar promotions here in NYC where “promoters” are invited to show up at a bar to make it more hip and attract other people. Same ethical issues, if you ask me.

          2. I agree with you in that once you’ve taken money to write about something you lose your credibility with your audience. When you post I received x, y, and z in exchange for an honest review (I agree “sponsored” doesn’t cover it or even mean the same thing), you’re not fooling anyone. I think my head would explode if I ever saw that on your site.
            Most destination writers I’ve talked to admit they are expected to write a fluff piece when on a press trip. For some it’s because they feel bad about bashing something when they’ve been wined and dined for two or three days. Others come right out and admit it’s because their publisher wants that destination to advertise. In fact, I would bet that if you’re being honest in what you’re writing you’ll never be invited on another press trip again…there goes the entire travel publishing industry since they operate mostly on pay to play. (I’m saying travel industry as many of the meetings destination magazines fall under that category) which is why you never see anything bad written about a property or location. Every venue is perfect and every location is the ultimate meeting destination.

      2. Adrian, I blogged about venues every week for 4 1/2 years. I have never been approached with an offer like that. When you raised it during an eventprofs networking hour it was the first time I had heard of it.

        I don’t think anyone would ever disclose “I was paid x and given free accommodation for x nights to write this post.” That would undermine the entire campaign. The key here is whether or not someone provides an honest review. If the brand agrees that the review is to be honest and the fact that the review was sponsored is revealed, I see no issue with it. If the review is dishonest and unbalanced, then it becomes an issue.

        I am curious, what do you see as the difference between the approach you described and the hotel or resort hiring a blogger to write a post for their own website?

        1. Anne, does the argument that it would “undermine the entire campaign” if a blogger disclosed “I was paid x and given free accommodation for x nights to write this post” mean that it’s ethically OK for bloggers to do what I’ve described? No, it doesn’t. To me it means that bloggers shouldn’t introduce positive experience of brands into their social media feeds when they are being paid to do so—unless they are prepared to disclose how they are being rewarded.

          As I said in an earlier comment, I assume that anything I read on a vendor or supplier’s website is there to make the company look good. If a contracted third-party is paid to write something that appears there—no problem. The ethical line is crossed when an influencer publishes a review that was paid for by the reviewed on their own social media channel, without fully disclosing that information.

  2. You make a really good point about paid influencer campaigns conflicting with the CMP standards of conduct; in this context, I’d say that paid campaigns are definitely murky water when it comes to event planners. That said, unfortunately, despite the FTC rules about disclosure, the whole concept has become a joke since FTC doesn’t actually enforce them and nondisclosure is rampant. It’s like now that the genie’s out of the bottle, there’s no way to really get it back in with regard to disclosure.

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