The recent news of the Epic Games Store leaning heavily on the popularity and reach of “influencers,” came with the inevitable backlash from games media, forum users, and basically anyone else bitter enough to assume the worst. “Influencer” is now seen as a dirty word, inspiring connotations of manipulation and greed. The negative actions of large influencers like Logan/Jake Paul and Ricegum, as well as Tmartn and Syndicate and others, have put a massive burden on an entire community of creators who intend to earn a living while still keeping their dignity intact. Despite the reputation they’ve garnered as a result of various media controversies, influencers aren’t inherently terrible people.
I’m in the rather unique position of having been an “influencer” (I don’t think any of us like that term), who was invited to gaming events to work on content that ultimately acted to promote a product, to then becoming a “games journalist” (not a fan of that term, either). I’ve seen how both sides function, creating content while maintaining close relationships with publishers, manufacturers, and the PR reps in between. When it comes to sponsorships, I’ve seen the landscape shift dramatically. As ad revenue from views and clicks has gone down, the need to source revenue from elsewhere has gone up. Contrary to what you might think, for most of us this isn’t about buying gold Audi R8s and becoming big in the housing market, it’s instead about surviving on a long-term basis. A big part of this, for both influencers and gaming websites, is sponsorships and embracing the fact that you are an influence on your audience. Of course, this comes with responsibility.
Until a few years ago, sponsorships weren’t required to be clearly disclosed. Despite this, some sites and personalities felt it ethical to clearly acknowledge when an article, video, post, or whatever was sponsored and therefore potentially subject to bias. They already knew the value of being honest with their audiences and didn’t need forcing to act like decent human beings.
Thankfully, those who weren’t inclined to disclose sponsorships, or were blissfully unaware that they were potentially misleading their audience, were soon giving guidelines by the Federal Trade Commission on how to be suitably transparent. The FTC stepped in when controversies surrounding Machinima and Xbox One advertisements, EA and its Ronku program, and other poorly handled sponsorship ventures suddenly brought these previously secretive deals into the public eye.
With these new rules in place, you might think that influencers who were morally indifferent or ignorant of ethics suddenly began to disclose properly, with everyone living happily ever after. Unfortunately, this hasn’t been the case, and until stricter rules are enforced, these people will keep on getting away with it. (Example: At the time of writing, Jake Paul and Ricegum’s loot box videos are still live, but the heat surrounding them has died down. Money still made, with minor headaches for both of them.)
Sometimes it’s the pressure of making money quickly, before your time in the influencer spotlight is up, that causes these personalities to abuse their audience and opt for endorsements that are clearly inappropriate. Some influencers obviously don’t care about becoming a success at the cost of maintaining a good reputation. They have no intention of stopping themselves and do not feel burdened by guilt.
With the bad, also comes the good, however. There are many YouTubers and Twitch streamers who make an effort to show respect towards their audience, disclosing anything that could potentially compromise their opinion. I’ve seen influencers list paid-for flights, accommodation, food, and free gifts, before then diving into their opinion of the product. And this level of transparency is appreciated, as often seen in the comments.
Clearly labeling sponsored content before the click/interaction is something that only the most honest of influencers do. The “#ad” hashtag is now generally accepted as clear disclosure in the title or social media post. This allows the viewer to avoid being misled into sponsored content and therefore doesn’t affect metrics by which payment is sometimes determined.
Another sign of an influencer who is doing disclosure right is using a platform’s “This contains sponsored content.” checkbox. On YouTube this results in an immediate pop-up viewable across all devices, alerting the user to the fact that a product or service is being promoted. If the platform doesn’t have its own built-in disclosure tool, then the next best thing is for the influencer to disclose the ad verbally and with text. Good influencers will do this at the beginning of the video/stream and at the top of the description, or via a constantly viewable stream graphic. Bad influencers will disclose the ad at the end of the video and bury the text disclosure at the bottom of the description.
The final example highlights a big problem with the worst influencers out there: they are often clearly ashamed of the products that they are advertising, or are afraid of the potential backlash that comes with any type of promotion. The former point can be linked to the many gambling controversies we see, as well as other products and services that aren’t relevant to the influencer’s brand. In these cases, you would think the influencer would just reject the offer, but sometimes the money is worth the few hundred negative comments. The latter point of being scared of disclosing is more understandable, I feel. Even influencers that I deem to be trustworthy still attract a lot of hate, even when it makes complete sense (a microphone for a Twitch streamer, for example), and even when that sponsorship is clearly disclosed.
Most influencers provide content for free. Donations have become an added extra on many platforms, but the base-level content is there to be viewed by anyone, at any time, and with no payment required. Sponsorships are a big reason why influencers can work by doing what they love. Unless you are backed by an army of followers on Patreon, which very few manage, or have a significant income from elsewhere, working with companies and their big marketing budgets is mandatory.
It isn’t the sponsorships or existence of influencers that are the problems here, as good people who pick the deals that make sense and disclose them clearly do exist. I think it’s important to acknowledge the morons and call them out on their greed, but to not think of the role of an influencer as inherently greedy. The advertising market for online content has significantly changed, and sponsorships are now part-and-parcel of the package as ad revenue has declined. Adapting to these changes has been the only way to survive, and those who have managed to come out on the other side still doing what they love and still being true to their audience, deserve to be recognized.