How brands can navigate the challenge of fake followers

1 in 4 Instagram influencers purchased fake followers last year - equivalent to 15% of their total followers. It’s time brands stopped overpaying for bots…

Sarah Penny, Content & Research Director at Influencer Intelligence, offers her expert insight and advice on how to identify the right influencers for a brand campaign.

Many people, namely brands and marketers, recognise an influencer’s value. This explains why a report found that 73% of marketers in US, UK, and Germany have allocated more spend to influencer marketing in the last 12 months than any other marketing channel.

But as influencer marketing has ballooned in the last five years, so have concerns about ‘fake influencers’ - who are quite literally inflating their influence.

Recent research LINK  has found that a huge 49% of Instagram influencers have committed so-called “follower fraud” - with buying fake followers the most common example.

If brands are unknowingly collaborating with fake influencers, then this could have detrimental consequences for their reputations and budgets.

Why do influencers buy followers?

The logic follows that the more followers an influencer has, the more people they’re reaching, which will in turn increase awareness for the brands they partner with. And, the more followers an influencer has, the more they get paid – with social media specialist Tribe revealing influencers with 3-10k followers earn between £50-100 a post, compared to influencers with 100k+ followers that earn over £350 a post.

The benefits of having a bigger following seem evident. As a result, many aspiring influencers are prepared to buy followers to access these bigger, more lucrative brand deals. But therein lies the tension between genuine impact versus just reach. Without measurable engagement or sales impact, follower numbers are, after all, just a number. The rise of fake influencers in the sector has meant brands now face several challenges when it comes to engaging in influencer marketing.

The challenges fake influencers pose to brands

Working with fake influencers can impact a brand’s bottom line. According to recent research, Instagram fraudsters are conning brands out of more than $200m a year. If a brand is investing in a campaign with a fake influencer who doesn’t have a genuine following, then any branded content the influencer creates is meaningless and unlikely to yield the desired results. In essence, phoney influencers diminish a brand’s ROI.

Alongside this, brands are investing heavily in social commerce. Our whitepaper revealed that 62% of marketers agree that social commerce is going to be the most popular objective for influencer marketing campaigns within the next year.

Marketers’ social commerce campaigns will fail if they’re working with fake influencers - fake followers (aka bots) obviously aren’t going to spread brand messaging via word of mouth or make purchases...

Brands also risk damaging their reputation. If a brand works with an untrustworthy influencer that has bought their followers, then it’s likely they could also end up misrepresenting the brand, and their bad image could ‘rub off’, as well as making the brand look like they haven’t done their due diligence. How to navigate these challenges Brands need to do their due diligence and ensure they’re identifying and working with real influencers that really help, rather than hinder, their chances of campaign success.

Social media platforms are starting to tackle the issue at a platform level, initiating platform wide clean-ups of fake bot accounts.

Bot-detecting tools, such as GRIN, are also starting to emerge. These tools identify and track suspicious or unusual follower behaviour. Although it’s promising to see that measures are being put in place to eliminate fake accounts , brands should be aware that each tool has varying levels of reliability meaning that some are better than others at detecting fake followers.

An approach we employ is firstly to offer a unique bot-detection proposition to brands, as well as influencer audit services. These services use a clustering algorithm to locate bot farms and map their clusters. Through this, more fake followers or fraudulent engagement can be discovered. Rather than use technology alone to detect if an influencer’s bought their follower, brands could also look at an influencer’s follower engagement. If the influencer receives a certain number of likes/ comments per post that’s proportionate to the number of followers they have, then it’s unlikely they would have bought their followers.

However, if an influencer has a lot of followers, yet hardly any follower engagement, then this is a red flag and brands should avoid engaging in a partnership with them. Finally, brands should do their research.

As a rule of thumb, working with creators that have a passion, expertise or represent a particular consumer niche are more likely to have attracted highly engaged – if often smaller – audiences.

Fake followers are on the rise and pose a serious issue to brands if the vetting process and brand value alignment is properly probed.. If brands recognise these challenges and equip themselves to navigate them, then they’re likely to develop successful influencer-brand partnerships that deliver the best campaign results.

By Sarah Penny

Content and Research Director

Influencer Intelligence