How we built a university on Instagram to rewrite the rules of influencer marketing.
There are 335,572 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 fuelled by algorithms optimised for taps and clicks — pseudoscience, not truth. Our mission to change this initially inspired our phrase “Backed by science, not hype” and that is exactly what we’ve set up to do. Eliminate pseudoscience and trends that are dangerous to the consumer. Carbs aren’t bad for you. What type of carbs you consume can be. Why? not all carbs are created equal. The same logic is applied here. Education, information backed by research-backed science and a splash of inner curiosity is key. So, what does this mean for the choices we make, how we spend our hard earned cash, and most importantly, our health?
To be fair, #celeryjuice is a fairly innocuous example (aside from cases where proponents forgo necessary medical treatment).
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”. Change is happening, but at the slow pace of multi-billion pounds global platforms.
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, behaviours, and actions, for better or for worse. But what happens when money enters the equation? Are we incentivised 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 Office of Fair Trading has continuously sent letters reminding influencers and brands to clearly disclose relationships to their consumers for legal and ethical transparency. The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency faces an enormous challenge in policing selfies with pill bottles. And England’s National Health Service has criticised ‘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)?
Our hypothesis: If we incentivise learning, could we inspire #accountability?
And so, @DoseUniversity 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 favourites — GIFs, memes, video, soundtracks, and native Instagram gestures — @doseUniversity is a 59-minute, six-unit course designed to make science accessible and engaging (unlike your seventh grade bio class). The course covers plant medicine, fungi, bacteria, the microbiome, human biology and neuroscience.
Prospective Dose 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 — @doseUniversity is built to scale with a ‘learn more, earn more’ approach as course offerings expand.
@doseUniversity will be launched in the coming months, in beta. It is currently 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, the U.S 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 recognise 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.
Curiosity is your currency. Drop us an email or say hello >> firstname.lastname@example.org
If you are a Superorganism inspired to partner with Dose — your journey starts (with learning) here.
If you are a Superorganism at a company inspired to implement an #accountable program of your own, please be in touch — we’re happy to open-source our learnings.