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Hugh
Cunningham
hugh.cunningham@cognitomedia.com

The financial industry is being flooded with increasing numbers of self-styled influencers. While these influencers aren't the same as the hordes hawking vitamins on Instagram, there is a similarly Wild West feeling in the financial markets. From long established analyst firms to industry experts to upstart data providers, everyone wants to recommend brands in digital and physical spaces.

Recently Cognito and brought communications experts in financial services marketing together to debate the scope of permitted activity.

We defined an influencer as "individuals who have the power to affect purchase decisions of others because of their (real or perceived) authority, knowledge, position, or relationship. In consumer spending, members of a peer group or reference group act as influencers."

Allan Schoenberg, Vice President of Global Corporate Communications of NASDAQ and Benjamin Thiele-Long of Cognito arguing for expanded regulation and CEO Kamiu Lee of Activate and Editor of Chief Caleb Silver from Investopedia arguing for the current state of play.

Our moderator (and managing director) Vivienne Hsu polled the audience at the beginning and the end of the debate. Both times the majority of the audience sided against additional regulation –with an even stronger majority at the beginning of the conversation compared with the end.

For the interest of those who could not attend, let’s examine the arguments from the discussion in more detail.

The volume of content created today is massive. In the average minute there are 500,000 tweets published, 50,000 Instagrams posted, and 4.3 million Youtube videos watched. Consumers are inundated. Allan Schoenberg asked why a heavy stream of content wouldn’t be regulated. The social media industry itself is currently under heavy regulatory and social scrutiny for harmful content being pushed to the masses – why not the same scrutiny for content that could be financially harmful?

While there are existing regulations for social influencers, those specific to financial influencers are significantly less prevalent. There is generally a greater barrier to entry for financial products than typical consumer retail products.

While the average consumer can understand the potential benefit of a product like clothing or subscription food services, there is more ambiguity around recommendations for stock trading platforms or investment products, which can be branded as ‘get rich quick and easy’ tools. Regulation is ultimately all about consumer protection.

Caleb Silver stressed that while consumer protection from financial scams does exist, the standard attitude for all financial transactions has a baseline of ‘buyer beware.’ A bad investment made fairly is simply a bad investment – responsibility rests with the consumer.

This question of consumer responsibility also led to Kamiu Lee citing the idea of the self-regulating nature of a social media audience for influencers. Influencer marketing is for many influencers a primary source of their income, and it is in their best interest to act with honesty and competency. Influencers are in part successful because of the level of trust they establish with their followers, and they know how precarious that trust can be. One sub-par product can be the end of an influencer’s credibility. The court of public opinion is as harsh. Followers with a grievance can speak nearly as loud as an influencer when publicizing bad practices.

There is also the question of competence. A registered independent advisor may not be speaking only to his paid clients when tweeting about investment discussions he has or opining on his preferences for ETF products, but as an expert with a presence in his field, he is already under regulatory scrutiny for his fiduciary responsibilities. An instagram-celebrity famous for generating memes and comedic content pushing investment in a new cryptocurrency is under no such scrutiny yet still allowed to push a significantly less tried-and-true financial product that recent history has shown can be prone to quite volatile market movements to the detriment of investors.

Are these two influencers created equal under social media?

Then there are top tier celebrities – a-list actors or athletes that are being paid for the significant quantity of followers they have the long reach of their social influence. Consumers can’t really know the financial expertise of any of these celebrities, but in turn, these celebrities rarely if ever, pretend to be experts in financial services when promoting products. Financial services organizations pay for the participation of such influencer for their reach and notoriety, not their financial acumen. Existing regulations require the disclosure of paid partnerships.

So what should take precedent – an influencer’s freedom to share messages or the protection of consumers? Our Cognito debate may be over, but the larger conversation continues. Let’s hope all voices – influential or not – keep talking and contributing to the evolving dialogue.

Hugh Cunningham is a senior account manager in Cognito's New York office