Protect your Brand by Understanding Influencer Marketing Fraud

Influencer marketing is nothing new. Ninety-two percent of consumers say that recommendations from people they know or follow are more powerful than brand advertising, and 74% say that word-of-mouth influences their purchasing decisions. It’s also why 67% of brands plan to increase their influencer marketing budgets this year.

In our new reality, with US consumers currently sheltering in place, influencer marketing has become even more powerful. With less access to non-essential items, consumers are relying on word-of-mouth recommendations more than ever before.   

But while most influencers are reputable and have spent years building authentic connections to their followers, there’s a dark cloud hanging over the industry. That threat is influencer marketing fraud.

Last year, fake influencers cost advertisers a total of $1.3 billion. That amount is expected to grow to $1.5 billion this year.  It’s easy to be deceived if you’re not sure what to look for.  Much of the suspicious activity in influencer marketing fraud is performed via automation in the form of bots, pods, falsified sponsored posts, and fake accounts. To avoid wasting precious marketing budget on fraudulent influencers, watch for these types of influencer fraud.

Fake Followers

Bots (computer programs designed to simulate human conversation) are employing more sophisticated strategies to mimic human engagement and are becoming more difficult to detect. Look for influencers who have a large number of followers, but without the proportionate rate of engagement. A meager engagement ratecan indicate that an influencer has ghost followers.

Likewise, any significant spikes in followers or engagement can indicate bot activity.  If an influencer has 100 followers one day, and the following week they have 10k followers, this spike can mean they’ve paid a third-party to increase their following.

Also, take note when an influencer’s compensation doesn’t align with their following. We recently started managing influencer engagement for a client and found an influencer who had over 600k followers, yet she was charging a relatively modest amount per post. While most marketers would be thrilled to snag such a deal to reach over half a million consumers, it was clear that something wasn’t right. As we dug deeper, we noted that her follower list had more fake followers than real ones.

Click Farms

There are plenty of legitimate influencers in business today who provide transparency and high-quality content. But those who are just starting out and looking for quick success can be swayed to take shortcuts, like buying fake followers through click farms. Click farms are often warehouses filled with people who set up fake accounts to like, follow, and share on social media to artificially inflate engagement numbers. They can be tempting for those just starting out, as they can buy thousands of likes for only a few dollars.

Buying Comments

It’s possible to buy comments on almost any platform.  Facebook comments are perhaps the most popular and the easiest to purchase, but purchase options are also available for Instagram. These are as easy to find as a simple Google search.

Generic comments may have enough detail to pass a first inspection, but take a closer look. “I love the clothing you modeled here,” saying nothing specific about the style or brand can be a red flag. “The technique you share is appreciated,” is another giveaway comment, when neither the brand nor any specifics are mentioned.

When trying to verify the legitimacy of the comments, take a close look at the comments on several posts to ensure the comment aligns with the content of the influencer’s post. Identifying artificial engagement can be as easy as looking for generic remarks (such as “This is a nice post,” or “I appreciate the information you share here”) versus more detailed comments that are specific to the post.

Tips to Avoid Influencer Marketing Fraud

Marketers can protect themselves from influencer marketing fraud by conducting their own vetting programs to ensure the influencers they chose to engage with are reputable.

Review the Influencer’s History. Take a close look at the evolution of the influencer. How long has the influencer been around? Has their number of followers, comments, etc. increased organically, or have there been periodic spikes in their activity? Are the engagement comments specific to the topic at hand? Do the comments seem logical?  Are they consistent with the influencer’s brand and history?  Do their followers have profile photos?

Check for Legit Campaigns. Take a close look at the influencer’s previous social media campaigns. What does the quality of the content look like? Have brands engaged them regularly? Have they engaged in repeat campaigns with brands? Does their content look professional? If an influencer doesn’t have much history working with brands, it would be worth considering another influencer whose history shows a positive track record. Ensure that the influencer and their audience align with your brand and your target audience. If there is no alignment, there is no collaboration.

Last May, the Influencer Marketing Council (IMC) released its “Fraud Best Practices sand Guidelines” to minimize influencer marketing fraud by helping brands and agencies recognize the warning signs and how to combat fraudulent activity.

Some big brands have also begun to rethink their influencer marketing. Unilever has announced they will no longer work with influencers who buy followers and will prioritize working with influencers who maximize transparency.

When selecting influencers for your marketing campaigns, brands and marketers must take responsibility for engaging with credible influencers so that they are trusted by their consumers. The number of followers is not the holy grail – finding those who authentically align with your brand is.

For added insulation against potential influencer marketing fraud, consider working with an agency that has solid relationships with vetted influencers to ensure every dollar you spend goes to legitimate, engaging posts that will provide a real ROI for your marketing budget.