Influencer marketing is set to become one of the key digital promotion trends of 2019, with more brands looking to maximize their reach on social platforms by utilizing the skills and knowledge of those who know them, and have been able to use such tools to build strong, engaged communities.
With algorithms putting a premium on engagement, creating effective, attention-grabbing content is key - and while most brands are working to 'crack the code' with their own posts (via giveaways, inspirational quotes, expensive graphics, etc.), platform influencers have already done this, and can connect brands with their ideal target market. But there are still some major flaws with this approach.
The biggest concern with influencers is that they might be faking it. Given the rising brand interest in the process, there's also growing financial incentive for individuals to amass a ton of followers, and to present themselves as 'influential' in order to attract ad spend. The influencers brands want to work with are those that actually see real engagement, but measuring such can be difficult, particularly for businesses which are still trying to understand the intricacies of the social media marketing landscape, and what specific metrics and factors mean.
Most influence measurements, including the now defunct Klout, have long utilized follower count as key measure of reach, but over time, we've come to learn that building a large following, in itself, is not overly difficult. If you follow a heap of users, some will follow you back. Unfollow the ones that don't reciprocate, then follow a heap more. Rinse and repeat this process for long enough and you'll surely amass a perceived audience large enough to justify influencer status - but the likelihood of any of these people actually engaging with your content is not very high.
But it's enough to dupe a lot of businesses - so what can be done, how can we improve the process to ensure that brands are not being sucked in by fakers looking to take their money, while producing little to no result?
Here are some key notes based on more recent events.
1. Digital Literacy
The first key step lies in digital literacy, and in marketers and businesses understanding what to look for when trying to identify a potential influencer.
Follower count, in itself, is nowhere near enough - if a person has 100k followers on Twitter, but they themselves are following 98k accounts, you can bet that their level of 'influence' likely won't be very high.
When assessing an influencer, you can use identification tools like BuzzSumo and the like to find people to look at, but once you've identified your key targets, ensure that you also look a bit deeper and check out their actual engagement. Tools like Followerwonk and Twitonomy can help, while taking a look through their posts and getting a sense of the actual content and engagement yourself will also provide key pointers.
Do the comments on their posts look genuine and related to the actual material? Vague, generalized comments like 'Nice' or 'I agree' may well be automated - if something seems off, if it feels like the comments are not right, they're probably not.
For Instagram, a tool like Social Blade might help in identifying strange fluctuations in follower counts or follow/unfollow practices - a graph like this, for example:
Indicates that this user has likely used the old 'follow/unfollow' tactic - which, to some degree, can be legit, but could also be indicative of an artificially inflated following.
No tool is 100%, fake follower checks and the like are not always indicative. It's important to use all the options you have to identify and double-check your potential collaborators in order to ensure that they're actually influential, and will be able to help drive results for your campaigns.
2. Third Party and Platform Verification
Given the concerns around influencer transparency, a range of third-party influencer marketing platforms are now arising to cater to the need for actual, trustworthy results.
Some of those are good, some less so - it does add an extra level of assurance when influencers are being vetted by an actual company. But the real push on this front could come from the platforms themselves, which are looking to take more action against fakes and help identify those with actual influence.
Facebook, for example, released its 'Brand Collabs Manager' tool last year, which highlights relevant influencers and gives brands access to insights about their engagement and community.
There are still some flaws with that system, but it provides relevant matches based on audience alignment, and enables businesses to view a creators' past history of brand collaborations, which can reveal a heap of helpful insight.
Meanwhile, both Instagram and Twitter are taking more action to remove the capacity for third-party tools to provide options which can artificially inflate followings.
Instagram started removing fake followers and likes gained through inauthentic means last November, while Twitter just recently cut off a range of tools which had violated it's API usage regulations in relation to "bulk and aggressive" following behavior.
And as influencer marketing grows, and becomes more relevant to each platforms' bottom line, you can bet that they'll be looking to increase their activity on this front.
As a reminder, Unilever last year said that it would stop working with influencers who'd purchased fake followers. The company has reportedly found that stance difficult to enforce, but still, with major spenders like this raising such concerns, you can bet the platforms themselves will also be taking the issue more seriously.
This is still a way off, but an interesting, recent legal case may have established a new precedent for legal enforcement of those who've inflated their following by purchasing their audience.
In a case related to the New York Times investigation into American company Devumi, which had enabled users to buy social media followers and engagement, a court ruled that Devumi can no longer operate in the same way as it had been, essentially outlawing the sale of followers and likes.
"Attorney General Letitia James today announced a precedent-setting settlement over the sale of fake followers, “likes,” and views on social media platforms, including Twitter and YouTube, using fake activity from false accounts. The settlement prohibits Devumi LLC and related companies (“Devumi”) from engaging in any of the same misconduct going forward. This settlement marks the first finding by a law enforcement agency that selling fake social media engagement and using stolen identities to engage in online activity is illegal."
That could certainly dissuade a lot of people from using similar services moving forward. Of course, this is only one region, and it wouldn't apply to those operating outside the US. But still, it's a significant step for the industry, moving closer to a form of regulation over what goes on within social platforms themselves.
Again, it'll take time, but the case shows that legal approaches are evolving, and that regulation could be coming for the social media industry. If this is used as a template moving forward, the potential fallout from buying fakes could be significant - far too significant for many who might consider such to risk.
This might also be tied into further questioning over the conduct of digital platforms in regards to data usage, and the potential for regulation in that respect. If legal precedent can be established, then laws can be developed which outlaw purchasing followers.
And given the focus on influencer marketing, you can bet that there'll be a rising push for such as more similar cases come to light.
As noted, given the rise of influencer marketing, the subsequent rise of fakes is little surprise, but its important for brands, and the platforms themselves, to provide more options to help identify areas of concern, and solutions on how to avoid such. This is happening, the movement is growing, and you can expect to see more on this front throughout 2019. That could see a lot of people presenting themselves as influencers lose face.
If you've purchased your audience, it may be time to fix your ways, or consider moving on to another space.