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Recently the Department of Consumer Affairs (DOCA) rolled out guidelines for social media influencers and also added virtual influencers to the list, in what many believe is the most comprehensive set of rules announced for influencer marketing in the country.

What is new about DOCA’s guidelines is that it advises all endorsers to make disclosures in both audio and video formats, apart from the platform disclosure tools, for any paid/collaborative/endorsed content or post, and warns about strict measures – ranging from fines to barring endorsements- if one fails to comply with the same.

The influencers under the new guidelines are also required to establish material connections in terms of benefits - including monetary compensation, free products, hotel stays, media barters, etc.

The guidelines have received widespread support from the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI), influencer marketing agencies and influencers themselves. The entire ecosystem has lauded the move as until now there were regulatory guidelines in place for minimising the scourge of misleading advertisements on social media, but there weren’t any prescribed penalties for violations which made it a toothless tiger.

Manisha Kapoor

ASCI CEO and Secretary General Manisha Kapoor, said, “ASCI welcomes the endorser guidelines issued by the Ministry of Consumer Affairs. We are happy to note that they are aligned with ASCI’s Influencer Guidelines, 2021. Influencer violations comprise almost 30% of ads taken up by ASCI, hence this legal backing for disclosure requirements is a welcome step.”

“The Ministry had been in touch with ASCI to review the various global guidelines on influencers,” she added.

How are influencer marketing agencies perceiving the DOCA guidelines?

Preety Singh

In the views of Preety Singh, Co-Founder and Managing Director, Boomlet Media, “This step from the DOCA will make the Indian influencer ecosystem more organised while weeding out the misleading information. The guidelines will empower consumers in making their purchase decisions in a more informed manner as they will be able to identify paid content on social media platforms.”

Singh also went on to point out that the clutter of information on social media platforms often confuses a consumer, but once they know the type of content available they can make more informed decisions.

“All influencer marketing agencies should ensure that each of the influencers that they are associated with is informed about the new guidelines and encourage them to implement them. Adhering to these instructions will give more legitimacy to the influencer content for which they put a lot of effort in making these brand integrations. While ideation, the influencers and content creators will now have to come up with campaigns that are more authentic and engaging for their audience,” she said.

Shahir Muneer

According to Shahir Muneer, Founder and Director, Divo, “With ASCI guidelines in place, we have seen brands and influencers alike already keep disclosures prominent and active. I think there is close to 70% compliance at least in the top spectrum of top influencers and celebrities. But with the government further issuing these guidelines, and in relation to the Consumer Protection Act, there will have to be more diligence on the same.”

“I also foresee influencers and brands facing the risk of consumers filing litigation with more awareness if influencers or brands fail to instil this. Brands and agencies will have to ensure they comply, as a lot of influencers in the market are not legally savvy to know all these compliances, and will need their support to ensure they also do not fall into such risks. Process-oriented brands and agencies with compliances will definitely implement this, even likely include this as part of their audit, agreements and furthermore,” he added.

Samiksha Mehta

In the opinion of Samiksha Mehta, Business Development Manager, Pollen (Zoo Media), “This honestly doesn’t come as a surprise because these guidelines were already in place. However, the government has made them more stringent by levying a fine on those who don’t adhere to these guidelines.”

“It’s a flat rule for everyone - whether it’s the smaller nano influencers or the macro influencers or even upcoming digital and AI avatars of influencers which makes it a set procedure. This standardisation makes it easier for influencers to follow. The challenge will mostly lie with the smaller influencers who are doing small-value deals and barters,” she added.

Deepak Sakhuja

Deepak Sakhuja, Co-founder, Ripple Links, said, “We welcome the Indian government's guidelines on influencers. This will provide an overarching regulatory framework to a nascent industry that has become an essential tool in brands' marketing mix and has redefined the marketing ecosystem. Content creators are passionate creative digital and social evangelists who make a great effort to create content to convey messages to their niche target audience.”

“Government guidelines will provide regulatory clarity to creators. This will also make the task of all stakeholders in the creator value system smooth as the guidelines will ensure transparency resulting in regulatory compliance from each one. Consumers will also benefit as they can evaluate each content as organic or paid and will arrive at their purchase decision accordingly,” he added.

Kalyan Kumar

However, according to Kalyan Kumar, CEO and Co-Founder, Klug Klug, the entire way in which the industry is looking at the new ruling is so shallow that it seems almost unimplementable - as not all things are measurable or transactional and the tracking of it seems to be off the table.

“There is a need to bring some sanity to what are the aspects of influencer marketing that require some sort of controls or methods to make sure that it doesn't mislead consumers. Influencer marketing is indeed a very different form of marketing as one doesn’t just run a particular ad which is misleading as it happens with the media, but there are actual people doing advocacy for various forms of incentives,” he said.

Kumar also went on to add, “In some cases, this also happens out of having an aspiration or out of liking the actual product or service during the course of brands sending packages or samples to them for free. Currently, I feel not involving all the stakeholders, especially the newer influencers is almost being careless about it.”

Shalini Sur

In the views of Shalini Sur, Influencer Team Lead, Django Digital, the new guidelines by DOCA are a reinforcement to the ASCI Guidelines for influencers that make disclosures more prominent via their content, alongside adding the penalty angle if the guidelines are not adhered to.

“Influencer marketing has been witnessing an exponential growth in India in the past few years, especially from and post pandemic with businesses of various kinds and sizes experimenting with digital solutions. With Indian audiences consuming more content online than ever and making their purchase decisions accordingly, the new guidelines just help elevate the trust between customers, influencers and brands giving a more concrete structure to the industry,” she added.

What is the viewpoint of influencers on the new guidelines

Isha Borah

According to Isha Borah, a fashion influencer, “I think the guidelines will help us understand and differentiate between a paid collaboration and ones which are not. This is already mandatory in a few countries like the USA, Singapore and European countries. Anything to do with YMYL content (your money or your life) which has a direct impact on an individuals’ health, safety, or financial stability should be looked into, including fashion, if it falls under it.”

“I think the guidelines will make this industry more organised and transparent in terms of paid collaborations, focus on ownership for paid collaborations, etc. which in today’s time, we sometimes lack,” she added.

Bhumika Thakkar

Speaking to BuzzInContent.com, Bhumika Thakkar, a Beauty, Fashion and Lifestyle blogger, said, “I think it's good in a way, as an audience, because many creators in the current times are getting away with not disclosing. I have always disclosed paid partnerships and ads in my 12+ years of blogging even when we had blogs and no social media. I think it's very important, to be honest with your audience who trusts you and your recommendations.”

Shayan Roy

In the views of Shayan Roy, a musician and content creator, the new guidelines are a step in the right direction as the online content creation space was struggling to come up with some rules in the past few years. “These new guidelines will hopefully encourage more transparency, and in turn, help add legitimacy to content creators making online branded content,” he said.

“I think most content creators, including myself, do our best to comply with the rules and regulations as they’re formed. However, the lack of a real penalty definitely made certain rules difficult to implement in the past. Hopefully, this will encourage creators to go the extra mile in complying with the regulations, even if it isn’t a priority for the brand,” he added.

What could be the probable impact of the guidelines in the influencer ecosystem

As per the DOCA guidelines, any endorser who fails to comply with the guidelines can be fined Rs 10 lakh and in case of repeat violations, the penalty can go up to Rs 50 lakh in addition to a bar on endorsements for a period of six months to two years.

Upon being questioned as to how would the agency ensure that the social media influencers comply with the guidelines in cases of brand collaborations and give out disclosures in both audio and video formats, Boomlet’s Singh replied that all influencer marketing agencies should ensure that each of the influencers that they are associated with is informed about the new guidelines and encourage them to implement it.

“Providing a disclaimer to short format content in video format might be a challenge while making the script for campaigns. With time the creators will make it a habit of including it in their thought process and ideation while making the campaigns,” she added.

Similarly, Pollen’s Mehta also said that adhering to these guidelines has to become a part of the process right from the get-go.

“When getting an influencer onboard at Pollen the deliverables expected of them will be clearly called out and it’s here when we mention these guardrails for them to adhere to. When it comes to the scripts and content, the creative team will mention the same in the concept, and ensure it’s been complied with during the quality check,” she said.

She also went on to emphasise that because with more power comes more responsibility, it becomes the responsibility of agencies and brands to ensure that they aren’t misleading their audiences.

“In the aftermath of the new guidelines, influencers who don’t adhere to them will soon start getting blacklisted by brands as well as agencies and will stop getting brand collaboration opportunities,” she pointed out.

Django’s Sur also went on to point out that with the new guidelines in place where the influencers need to give both visual and audio disclaimer of the partnership through their content, chances are that it will affect their reach and the views might also riddle down as branded content already garners less reach comparatively.

“The benefit of this will be that with all new regulations in place the brands will now get access to a far clearer and accurate data of their actual reach through the partnership made via an influencer as with such clear disclaimers only audiences with interest in the certain product or service will be viewing the content by choice unlike the previous times where a lot of branded content used to gain humongous default viewership through minor brand plug-ins,” she said.

Furthermore, Sur also emphasised that Django Digital follows a strict onboarding and execution process with influencers where the influencer executives keep a thorough check on every influencer content piece that goes live.

“There is always a mention of penalty for failure of any terms mentioned in the agreement, which helps us to make sure that all terms and conditions are followed to the tee. It's rare that influencers fail to abide by guidelines as they’re now accountable for their actions. Most of the renowned creators in the industry prefer to set the disclaimer in the beginning even if that costs them reduction in their reach,” she added.

As per Klug Klug’s Kumar, while bigger influences may find this easier to implement because they have transactor firms who can implement these rules, but the smaller influences might feel restricted in cases where they haven’t been making money or would have probably just begun making money as they have been clubbed in the same zone of violation as the bigger ones.

“There has to be a difference in violation involvement, who is big and who is small and who are they enabling because it might stifle a lot of the long tail of small influencers - micro influencers, nano influencers - who want to get on with their life in the content creators’ space and do influencer marketing engagements, but they would be trapped in declarations, paper works and all things red tape that seems to be emanating from this,” he said.

He also went on to emphasise that this might become an opportunity for the watchdogs to either harass people as there doesn't seem to be any clarity or a mutual agreement of what influencer marketing is.

“It seems that only the transactional nature of influencer marketing seems to be of interest for these regulations right now. So, it needs more thoughtful deep conversations with all stakeholders and how to make sure that things are done well,” he added.

Striking a similar tone, Borah also went on to point out that the penalty under the new guidelines may be a bit too much for nano and micro influencers who may not be making a lot of money through brand promotions.

“I think it should be based on their total earnings through paid collaborations rather than a flat sum,” she added.

Commenting as to how this move can impact the engagement of a particular influencer’s content - since the audience generally tends to shy away from engaging with paid or partnered content - Thakkar said that even now the audience knows if something is paid or an ad, and even platforms have the paid partnership tag which many brands insist on using, thankfully, that won't change much.

Similarly, Roy also went on to add that he doesn’t like the notion that simply being a paid promotion means a content piece will have significantly reduced views.

“While I do think that there’s at least a noticeable difference in engagement between paid and organic content, I also feel that there is always scope to make really smart, engaging paid content for brands as well,” he added.

Furthermore, Kumar also pointed out that the onus of determining that a certain product is good or bad should not be on an influencer but the brand or the retail outlets because the influencers are merely using it to generate some engagement against what they say and there’s no way that they can verify the claims of quality and misleadingness of a product.

“I think the brands need to take the role here of being the implementers and being above board in what they want an influencer to claim versus an influencer, because it’s not fair to an influencer to be capable of telling how good or bad a product is beyond wearing a product say for example a jacket or a shoe, which is not the case for face creams, serums, makeup, etc.” he said.

Content@BuzzInContent.com