In addition to earning a commission on every sale resulting from their social media posts, influencers who complete the Seed University program have access to scientists and experts to pose questions, and to future Seed courses, networking opportunities, and of course, limited edition Seed University swag. The company says its inaugural class included actress Sophia Bush, model Karlie Kloss, and BeautyCon founder Moj Mahdara.

Learning before linking

The US Federal Trade Commission’s “truth in advertising” mandate prohibits unfair or deceptive marketing in any medium. The agency has been particularly attentive to health and wellness claims on social media and requires all sponsored posts be clearly tagged and disclose the terms of endorsements (pdf.)

But unlike advertising on traditional channels like radio or TV, policing selfies and personal testimonials from the growing corps of influencers across myriad social platforms poses an enormous burden.  The character limit on social media posts too also makes the lengthy disclosures or explanations harder to enforce.

At the same time, social media channels are increasingly shaping the services and products we buy. A recent Sprout Social study suggests that over three-quarters of American consumers today consult social media to guide purchasing decisions, with influencer marketing surpassing print advertising and traditional celebrity endorsements, according to the Digital Marketing Institute.

“Science has a real communication problem. Most people feel it’s too cold, too clinical, too complex,” observes Katz, who is an alumna of the MIT Media Lab’s Center for Future Storytelling. “This is why marketing messages, particularly around health and wellness, are more palatable when they feel intuitive and make claims. Unfortunately they’re usually in conflict where the science is.”

Education certification programs like Seed University, which encourage “learning before linking” are one attempt to give the $10 billion influencer marketing industry the credibility and ethical standards it desperately needs.

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