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Consumer trust in social-media ‘influencers’ drops

Last year, Advertising Standards Canada began cracking down on bloggers and other social media "influencers," requiring them to clarify when they are being paid for posts about products or services.

But greater awareness of the marketing deals behind this new generation of digital celebrities has also affected how much people trust them.

That's according to a new survey by Environics Communications, which asked people to rate their trust in sources of information about products, services, brands or organizations.

Overwhelmingly, people trust themselves and people they know above all: Having the chance to sample something was seen as the best source for information, followed by word-of-mouth recommendations.

Conversely, the least-trusted sources were online ads, companies or organizations posting on social media, and bloggers that people follow.

In fact, bloggers saw the biggest dip in trust of any information sources this year, compared with last. Unlike last year, they rank lower than traditional advertising in terms of trust.

The new rules, announced by the ad industry's self-regulatory group in 2016, specified that anyone sharing opinions about a product or service (such as a testimonial or other content) has to disclose any "material connection" that could affect its objectivity.

Such connections are common in the world of social-media influencers and bloggers, but they are now required to specify any payment or other compensation they received, any employment relationship and freebies – even if they came with no conditions for a positive review attached. And the disclosure must appear prominently and close to the content.

Environics researchers speculate that the appearance of labels on online posts such as "#ad" and "#sponsorship" could be driving the decline in trust because it calls into question the authenticity of bloggers' posts – and because their followers may not have known such deals were behind some of the content.

Its definition of "bloggers" also includes those who build up a following on other channels such as Instagram.

Trust in online reviews and opinions also fell compared with last year.

There have been cases in recent years of companies caught out for "astroturfing," when employees post favourable reviews of their own companies' products or services without specifying the conflict of interest.

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