Influencer or Fraud? Should We Name and Shame Influencers Who Buy their Followers?

Like Wise

There has been a lot of talk this week surrounding Influencers and the buying of followers, likes and comments. It’s been a tricky subject for a while, with a lot of people giving their opinions of seeing it happen first hand, yet we still won’t jump that final hurdle and name the culprits.

During my time working in Influencer Marketing, it was often easy to spot, but also quite hard. If I had my assumptions about Influencers having bought their following, more often than not, I wouldn’t recommend them for any campaigns.

But when an Influencer with a large following who we assume has paid for these numbers is receiving press gifts and working opportunities from all of our competitors, it would reflect badly on us if we didn’t work with them. Maybe they would bad-mouth us to their inactive following and others in the industry for not receiving an invite to our event. It’s a tricky situation to get involved in because although the guilty parties are being whispered about, they aren’t being confronted.

How do we acknowledge the elephant in the room? We all know it’s there, but we’re afraid to talk about it. Victoria Magrath (In The FROW) wrote a blog post about the subject this week, aligning with the release of Like-Wise; a new AI tool launched by Social Chain to scan Influencers’ accounts for fraudulent activity. And although, yes it’s great that we are talking about the fraudulent activity, we are still afraid to come out and name those who are guilty of it.

The Like-Wise tool scanned 10,000 well-known Influencers and found that 1 in 4 Influencers had paid for fake followers. This just shows how common it is, and how many of them are getting away with it. Thanks to this new tool, I hope that they won’t be getting away with it for much longer.

Like Wise

How do we spot when someone is buying numbers?

There are many ways to spot this form of self-inflation but it can be quite tricky to find the proof and accuse someone. If you’re someone working in social media, or aspiring to, you will need to learn how to spot the fakes.

You may experience it many times yourself, when you receive a follow from a large account with around 10,000-20,000 followers but they aren’t following that many people. You wonder, Why did this person follow my account? Then you have a look at their profile and maybe if you see something you like, you will follow back. 99% of the time, this account will unfollow you in the next few days. They’ve gained a follower in you, but their following count goes back to what it was. I’ve gotten used to seeing this happen in my notifications that I no longer follow back, as it’s usually a paid-for bot doing the dirty work for this person.

Other times you can spot by levels of engagement. This one is usually most obvious. Accounts with hundreds of thousands of followers yet can’t get 500 likes on an image and don’t receive any comments. There’s usually something fishy going on there… These are people who have bought their followers in bulk, but engagement rates don’t change as these aren’t active accounts. There’s also the opposite side of the spectrum for this – posts that get much more engagement than normal. 5,000 likes in five minutes? For someone with 30,000 followers? Hmm…

As I said, there are many ways to spot someone who has bought their followers, likes or comments and I will do a deep-dive post on this in the next few weeks.

How is a brand affected?

Brands used to solely look at how many followers an Influencer had. The larger the following, the greater the reach and the greater the influence – right? Wrong. We now look at whether these followers are firstly, real and secondly, whether they are engaged with the Influencer’s content. How many likes are they getting? Are many people commenting and engaging in conversation? Is the Influencer replying to comments on their posts?

This is where the buying of likes and comments came in. It is now not just about follower numbers, but levels of engagement including numbers of likes and comments.

Imagine taking an Influencer on a press trip to Bali, pulling out all the stops, spending so much money on them and then paying for content afterwards only to find out that 10% of their following are genuine accounts. Isn’t this fraud? Pretending to be someone they are not? Providing false figures? There would be minor engagement on the press trip and posts, resulting in return on investment being extremely low. The campaign doesn’t play out very well and now the PR has to explain themselves on why the press trip was worth the PR budget.

How does it impact you as a follower?

You are the intended audience of this Influencer, and the content that they produce is usually of interest to you, hence why you made the decision to follow them. But wouldn’t you feel betrayed if an Influencer had bought a lot of their followers? Wouldn’t it make you question their influence? Should they be influencing your purchasing decisions when they’re not authentic in their social media following?

There is a lot to be said for trust between Influencer and brand, but there is also a lot of trust between the Influencer and their followers. Their followers expect them to be authentic and genuine. But how can this be so if they have bought their followers and likes? Would you want to trust anything that they say after you found out? Would you unfollow them because of it? I know I would.

What can we do about it?

We can call them out for it, that’s what we can do. And not just with a subtle email, ‘Hi XX, I noticed you’ve bought a lot of your followers so we will no longer be working with you.’ We need to be voicing who are the biggest culprits for buying followers, or if the majority of their followers are fake. What influence do they really have? Can they even have the title of ‘Influencer’?

When working in Influencer Marketing, we can vet those we want to work with. Because the stats have shown that almost 1 in 4 Influencers have paid for followers, we need to really check whether an Influencer’s following is genuine and their engagement is authentic. If we want the best return on investment for campaigns, it is worth taking the time to really look into the Influencers we choose to approach.

There are tools out there that can be used for vetting social Influencers such as SocialBlade and now this new Like-Wise tool. There are also digital agencies that now offer this as a service, who do the heavy lifting for you.

Instagram will regularly conduct a ‘purge’ of fake/bot accounts and very often you can see a dramatic drop in Influencer’s followers. Sometimes they might lose 1,000 fake accounts that they have not actually bought themselves, but that just follow them through no choice of their own. But if someone loses 10,000 followers in one go… Well then we have a problem. Although Instagram are trying to crack down on this, the fake accounts are still there as a lot of them are programmed to appear active.

Why are we too afraid to name them?

Of course it’s hard to take to your social platform and say ‘JOHN DOE BOUGHT THEIR INSTAGRAM FOLLOWERS’ because fans of John Doe will not be long in attacking your inbox. This is also threatening towards John Doe’s career and can have an impact on his future working relations. And if it turns out that he actually doesn’t buy his followers, then it’s going to look even worse for you and could see your career go down the drain because of it.

So of course people are afraid to name and shame, but if we genuinely know for certain that someone has bought some form of engagement in a large matter, then we should have them investigated and put under the spotlight for the fraud that they are. If they’ve worked on campaigns and been paid for promotions, then they should also be sued.

It isn’t fair on the Influencers who have spent so much time perfecting their craft and building a loyal following to have brand partnerships taken away from them because of someone who has a greater (yet fake) following. In this instance it would be in the brand’s interest to go with the lesser followed Influencer as they will have a much more engaged and authentic audience.

The buying of followers has come to the forefront of topics within Influencer Marketing once again and I think it’s time we stop skimming the surface of the subject and finally confront those who are the biggest culprits and who are scamming the Influencer world.

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