How we built a university on Instagram to rewrite the rules of influencer marketing.
There are 157,572 posts on Instagram tagged #celeryjuice. Tap in and you’ll find a flood of claims like ‘flushes toxins’, ‘heals high cholesterol’, ‘restores the brain’, and most outrageously, ‘cures chronic illnesses like Lyme disease, fibromyalgia, diabetes, and more’. What’s markedly absent is a single citation, source, or reference to a peer-reviewed study.
This global celery juice movement, initiated by the Medical Medium and spurred by tens of thousands of bloggers and consumers looking for answers, has inspired millions around the world to buy celery (at a pace farmers can’t even keep up with) and drink it.
How celery juice became #celeryjuice is not news. We see evangelism outpace evidence every day. The rise of wellness has ushered in a wave of enthusiasm and self-care, but has also propagated misleading messaging and hyperbolic claims. Misinformation, compounded by confirmation bias (despite the best intentions), is fueled by algorithms optimized for taps and clicks — not truth. So, what does this mean for the choices we make, how we spend our dollars, and most importantly, our health?
To be fair, #celeryjuice is a fairly innocuous example (aside from cases where proponents forgo necessary medical treatment), especially when compared to the anti-vaccination movement or climate change denialism.
It was only in the face of the largest U.S. measles outbreak in 25 years that Twitter announced a new feature “to guard against the artificial amplification of non-credible content” and Instagram implemented measures to hide anti-vaccination hashtags. Change is happening, but at the slow pace of multi-billion dollar global platforms. The next level of accountability lies with us.
We are all influencers — whether we interact with an audience of 1, 10, or 10 million, we each have the power to impact someone’s beliefs, behaviors, and actions, for better or for worse. But what happens when money enters the equation? Are we incentivized to be accountable? Will truthful information get the most likes? Convert the most sales?
It’s not a new problem — we’ve been trying to define and enforce the rules of influencer marketing for as long as we’ve had Instagram accounts to influence from. The Federal Trade Commission has continuously sent letters reminding influencers and brands to clearly disclose relationships to their consumers for legal and ethical transparency. The Food and Drug Administration faces an enormous challenge in policing selfies with pill bottles. And England’s National Health Service has criticized ‘irresponsible and unsafe’ endorsements of dubious health products, especially by celebrities.
The list goes on.
The onus of accountability is as much on us, as a company, as it is on the influencers, affiliates, ambassadors, partners, and amplifiers we work with. So we asked — could we rewrite the rules of engagement on the very platform where we peddle lip gloss, detox teas, and now even medical devices (often without disclosure, much less evidence)?
We can’t change the platform, but we can change how it’s used.
Our hypothesis: If we incentivize learning, could we inspire #accountability?
And so, @SeedUniversity was born — an education platform that requires our partners (those who influence for a living) to learn before they link, built entirely on Instagram’s Story Highlights.
Inspired by the classic textbook and updated with Internet favorites — GIFs, memes, video, soundtracks, and native Instagram gestures — @SeedUniversity is a 59-minute, six-unit course designed to make science accessible and engaging (unlike your seventh grade bio class). The course covers bacteria, the microbiome, human biology, the science of probiotics, with the final unit dedicated to translating the FTC’s Endorsement Guide — when, where, and how a partner must disclose a financial relationship with a brand clearly and conspicuously.
Prospective Seed partners are required to complete all six units and pass a final exam before publishing an #accountable #ad. And of course, learning doesn’t stop — @SeedUniversity is built to scale with a ‘learn more, earn more’ approach as course offerings expand.
@SeedUniversity launched this week, in beta. It was a collective and tremendous effort (14,994 words, 587 Instagram Story slides, and countless hours of copy, design, animation, production, and peer-review), and represents our commitment to education and the integrity of how science is communicated.
This has never been more important. Seemingly harmless examples like #celeryjuice are representative of a much larger and pervasive problem. Be it Facebook’s role in Brexit, our own 2016 election, or most critically, the continued attack of science to undermine climate change, the common denominator is our platforms and how we, as amplifiers, use them. While we recognize our very small role, we hope it offers a perspective shift that inspires collective self-regulation and stewardship of a more #accountable future.
Remember: the medium is (always) the message.
Seed is an ecosystem of scientists, doctors, entrepreneurs, and storytellers from around the world. We develop microbial innovations to improve human and planetary health and set a new standard in probiotics.
If you are a human inspired to partner with Seed — your journey starts (with learning) here.
If you are a human at a company inspired to implement an #accountable program of your own, please be in touch — we’re happy to open-source our learnings.