PRmoment Leaders PA Mediapoint PA Assignments PRCA PRmoment Awards Winners North Creative Moment Awards 2024 PR Masterclass: AI in PR

The landscape of influencer fraud is becoming more nuanced, complex and sophisticated, says Matt Donegan, ceo, Social Circle

Working with influencers is fast becoming a favourite in the PR and marketing toolkit. However, when anything gets popular, so too does selling a fake version. Mediakix demonstrated last July the ease with which brands can be drawn in by large followings, when it ‘invented’ influencers from thin air and managed to get sponsorship from two major brands. Meanwhile, recent research suggests up to 50% of engagements on a post with #ad or #spon in a single day were proven to be false.

The weight of fraud developing in influencer marketing is staggering.

Whilst it’s very early days, there are some stark comparisons to be made with programmatic advertising; another part of the industry suffering from this plight.

There was once a dream that all advertising would be programmatic and ‘platformified’, and algorithms were going to be the future of the industry. Programmatic advertising, however, soon generated headlines not for its efficiency, but for its lack of transparency and brand safety issues.

And now this unpleasant side of digital media and advertising is impacting the influencer marketing industry.

The landscape of influencer fraud is becoming more nuanced, complex and sophisticated – reflecting the increasing popularity and impact of influencer marketing in general. We are now seeing up-and-coming influencers think that numbers are what matters – and not engaged audiences. It’s easy to achieve, since anyone can buy bot followers or subscribers, or even just ‘likes’ for a specific post.

The influencer marketing industry, and those seeking work in the sector, need a serious reality check if they believe that we can make the same mistakes the industry did with display advertising, without the same consequences (see: self-serve, mass buying leading to unprecedented levels of fraud). Particularly when working with up-and-coming influencers, marketers need to be conscious that influencer marketing is effective because it thrives on genuine relationships between creators and consumers, and that high numbers don’t necessarily always mean success. Fraud, by nature, builds numbers not relationships, so marketers need to be careful to avoid sponsoring it.

But how?

Look at the person you’re working with

Talk to them, ask who their followers are and agree what you want out of the partnership. Make sure you know that they are comfortable and seem to know who their followers are (it’s hard to find a unifying label for a bunch of bots). If you’re on their page, and the comments don’t seem to relate to the content, this is another sign that the comments are generated by machines, not people. 

See if their subscriber levels and engagements match up

Someone with plenty of followers but little actual engagements on their page is likely to have bought in their fans. This also works in the reverse if they are buying ‘likes’ but there’s no reason that one post will have done so much better than any of their others.

Look for strange fluctuations

Watch their follower numbers – for instance, if they seem to gain on average 40 followers a day, but suddenly gain 15,000 on another, unless their page has been shared by Kim Kardashian it’s likely not to be legitimate. 

To add complexity here, sometimes avid fans will buy their idols followers as an unwanted gift. These are the top of the top of influencers, with genuinely engaged fanbases, getting bot followers without even making the purchase themselves. However, again, this can be spotted once you know the signs to look out for, and importantly, if you know the influencer and who their audience is. Unsurprisingly, working with humans sometimes needs a human touch.

To sum up, in the same way programmatic needs to have a reality check, so does influencer marketing.

At the moment, self-serve platforms and the constant desire for ‘reach’ amongst marketers is fuelling fraud in influencer marketing, as social media stars are encouraged to value their platform on the basis of their follower numbers. However, as with any kind of marketing, the important part is how engaged the audience is, not the number of followers. Valuing engagement above all is a sure-fire way to make fraud programmes a less worthy investment for up-and-coming influencers.

After all, would you rather be listened to by 20 people, or ignored by 1,000?

Article written by Matt Donegan, CEO, Social Circle

If you enjoyed this article, sign up for free to our twice weekly editorial alert.

We have six email alerts in total - covering ESG, internal comms, PR jobs and events. Enter your email address below to find out more: