Influencer marketing continues to grow. Sometimes, it seems like every man and his dog is enlisting the help of an online personality to help promote a brand or business. From the good to the quite frankly bad, 94% of marketers have reportedly found influencer marketing a successful method for their businesses.
As influencer marketing becomes more mainstream, with brands outside the typical fashion, food and beauty sectors trying their luck, it’s unsurprising that cracks are starting to surface. The biggest issue currently facing the billion dollar industry is ‘influencer marketing fraud,’ which (typically) refers to fake followers, bots and “dishonest business models”, and which made headlines earlier in the year following Unilever’s calls for ‘urgent action’ to improve transparency and integrity.
Social media is riddled with bots. A bot is a made-up and usually pre-programmed account that can be used to manipulate opinions and give stature to fake, online personas. As such, they can incredibly powerful and deceptive, and were allegedly put to use during the US presidential elections.
Back in 2012, Facebook said that around 8.7% of the accounts on the platform were fake (equating to around 83 million profiles) and in 2014, this number was updated to 11%. The figure has steadily climbed as more active users joined, and it’s a similar story with Twitter, where an estimated 15% of the platform’s total user count is made-up.
These bots mostly target hashtags or keywords as this helps amplify their influence. Have you ever Instagrammed a picture and hashtagged something generic, like #photography? If you have, the chances are you’ll have received a number of follows from dubious photography accounts, an above average total of likes and comments such as ‘Nice pic! Check my page!” These are often due to bots.
The Impact on Influencer Marketing
These bots, or fake followers, are a big problem in influencer marketing. In fact, it’s been reported that up to one-third of brands’ budgets for Instagram influencers has been eaten up by bots. The extent of influencer marketing fraud can be demonstrated with Raw Sugar Living’s experience: 46% of the followers Raw Sugar Living paid to interact with were fake. They aren’t the only ones, though, as Points North Group listed the ‘top 10 fooled brands’ hoodwinked by influencer marketing fraud.
Marketers are willing to splash out as much as £75,000 for a single social media post which mentions their brand by a social influencer with over one million followers. The Association of National Advertisers found that 75% of marketers currently work with influencers, but, in the same report, only 36% said they judged their influencer marketing efforts as effective. So where’s the shortfall?
Hypothetically, let’s say you’re a gaming company looking to enlist a social influencer to promote your tournaments. You comb through Twitch looking for someone who concurrently has around 20,000 viewers. When you find them, you check out their social channels - 770K Twitter followers, 1.8m Instagram followers and 2,500,000 YouTube subs. Perfect. The impressive metrics are all there, and the prospect of that many eyeballs on your product is overwhelming. However, just how many of those followers are legitimate, active and engaged?
There are two main ways in which bots latch on to accounts:
The influencer has simply bought fake followers Not a particularly challenging thing to do, as ‘buy fake followers’ pulls up over 23,500,000 results on Google search
The influencer uses generic hashtags to gain interaction It’s not a secret that bots seek out hashtags such as #likeforlike, #picoftheday and other generic hashtags If you want to test it yourself: post a picture on Instagram and hashtag all the things in the photo individually, as well as using the above, example hashtags - then watch the ‘likes’ and ‘follows’ roll in!
So whilst someone may appear popular online, it’s worth questioning just how legitimate their following is.
Identifying Influencer Fraud
There isn’t a bonafide audit to help you identify what portion of an influencer's following is fake, but there are certain red flags you can look out for whilst searching for an authentic influencer:
Engagement rate is the average number of interactions an influencer gets per post.
The average engagement rate can be determined by adding up the number of ‘likes’ on a sample of posts (e.g. 10) and then dividing the answer by the number of posts sampled.
Take that average number and divide it by the number of followers the influencer has - if the number is incredibly low, it indicates that the followers are either fake or not at all engaged with the content on this channel.
Do the comments on the posts look legitimate, or are they questionable? E.g. “Cool pic”, “love it”, “check my account!”
Take a quick scan through the influencer’s follower list and look at their names and profile pictures. Do they have them and do they look legitimate?
The influencer marketing industry is now under scrutiny from watchdogs such as the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in the US, as well as the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) and Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) in the UK. It’s therefore becoming more difficult for illegitimate influencers and followers to con businesses.
It’s important to remember that, even though influencer marketing may be a new route for your business or brand, you need to press for results. Influencers should be able to deliver reports that demonstrate metrics that add up - engagement is consistent and the ratio of followers to interactions isn’t skewed.