"Vanity Metrics" is a term that's ruling (and rocking) the influencer marketing space right now. The term refers to any form of followers or engagement that have been purchased to boost one's perceived clout or influence. In other words, you can literally buy your way to social media stardom with the click of a 'BUY NOW' button.
While bloggers of all kinds are investing in this black-hat strategy, you can't help but sympathize with them. They often start out with pure intentions but once they see some of the less qualified influencers in their space skyrocket above them with fake followers, more of them start to consider dabbling in that vanity metric grey zone too. It's almost impossible for bloggers to rise above the chatter in today's oversaturated digital sphere but once they do, their blogs can start to see some serious growth.
While the fake follower strategy is going strong, brands are still nonetheless using follower counts as their main measure of influence before sealing the deal on a blogger-brand partnership. Sadly, if a blogger doesn't meet the brand's follower count 'requirement' they won't be getting contacted about a collaboration anytime soon. But from our own experience, it's those more niche bloggers that produce real results for brands. In fact, the Technorati Digital Influence Report reports that 54% of consumers believe that the smaller the community, the bigger the influence. Especially if you're targeting a very specific niche, it can be far more powerful when it comes to conversions.
While the vanity metrics topic is all the chatter among digital marketers, the trend doesn't look like it's slowing down anytime soon. Below I've outlined four ways in which influencers can manipulate their metrics.
1. Buying Followers
The easiest and most common way to buy your way to social media stardom is to purchase fake followers. While the act of paying for followers was a relatively quiet part of the social media conversation for a few years, it's now at the forefront of our feeds. That's because you can use sites like Fiverr to buy 2,500 permanent Facebook followers for $5. There are now over 100,000 people search this topic each month, so the fake follower frenzy is clearly running rampant!
The issue of buying fake followers was made known about five months ago when Instagram cracked down and deleted all of the suspect accounts on their platform. And while losing these 'fake' followers didn't necessarily mean that an Instagram influencer bought them, the accounts that got hit BIG were definitely suspect.
Blame it on the social networks for putting follower counts front and center on profiles when perhaps the focus should be on the number of people who engage with the page or influencer. But would that even make a difference in gaging real popularity and engagement?
2. Buying Engagement
Influencers feel such immense pressure to be just as popular as their peers that they're even resorting to buying engagement. Head back over to Fiverr and you can buy retweets, Instagram and Facebook likes, Pinterest pins, and comments on any of your posts across these social networks. In fact, you can slap $5 on any tweet and buy yourself 200 retweets. As an influencer competing for clout, the offer has tempted more than a few. And I can understand the temptation, given the pressure that brands are putting on influencers to live up to their more popular peers.
We are often told that quality content will get you far but the truth is that it's such a saturated market. You could spend months or even years trying to grow your following and still be outscored by the influencers that cheat their way up the social ranks. As Racked points out, "Plenty of would-be fashion internet stars could spend months creating new content without hitting any sort of critical mass of followers. Originality doesn't get bloggers noticed anymore-numbers do."
While influencers don't have it easy in this respect, brands are suffering the most. They're often choosing bloggers to partner with based purely on social engagement. What's more, they're determining campaign success based on these engagement metrics.
3. Buying (Quality) Blog Comments
Head on over to Google and search 'buy blog comments' and the results will surface tons of websites offering this service. Sad, yet true, you can buy quality comments that look authentic, making it difficult to detect even if you are reading through them very carefully for sentiment. The one site I clicked on over from Google offers 100 custom comments for just $30...but that's just the minimum. If you want more engagement you can pay your way to popularity with $225, which gets you 1,000 custom comments. Although not as common as buying followers and likes, the tactic is still out there and important to keep your eye out for.
4. Buying Traffic
One of the more manipulative yet far less common tactics for site owners to increase their clout is to buy actual website traffic. Yes, surprise surprise, you can actually buy fake 'bot' traffic on Fiverr, a tactic that really messes up a brand's ability to measure an influencer's clout as well as gauge campaign success.
Brands shouldn't have to worry too much about this tactic though, as it's not as common among the influencer crowd. However, being in the know will at least help you sniff out any unusual activity. For example, this article points out that some content publishers are fudging traffic numbers or are pulling numbers when traffic is the highest. In one of their findings, Vogue.fr took a sample of their traffic from September, when numbers are at an all-time high due to Fashion Week press coverage. This doesn't exactly paint an accurate picture of their traffic on a regular basis.
How Should We Solve The Problem of Vanity Metrics
I work with brands daily on their influencer marketing efforts so I know firsthand that they're using these metrics to gage whether or not a blogger is worth their weight in Twitter followers... or Instagram snaps...or Facebook likes.
Admittedly, I can't blame influencers for feeling the pressure. Brands are majorly preoccupied by these numbers and use them as a way to determine influence and worth. When sized up against their competition, influencers are under pressure to boost their followings. Sadly, original and quality content doesn't get bloggers noticed anymore, it's their follower counts that do. And even though these influencers have the capability to produce just as good, if not better results than their competitors, if their follower counts don't look shiny, it just doesn't seal the deal.
Instead of securing blogger partnerships based on follower counts, brands should be looking to hyper-relevant influencers in their niche and whether or not those influencers have received repeat business from like-minded brands. A large following can certainly be indicative of influence (if the fit is right) but just make sure you validate their channels for legit engagement and followers. You can always ask for a media kit with recent traffic stats and run your ROI metrics by them to ensure they can likely hit your goals.
What other indicators do you think brands should use to validate a blogger's influence? Sound off in the comments with your thoughts!