Year Ahead: Time to tackle influencer marketing fraud

Influencer marketing is still in its infancy in comparison to other digital marketing tactics. However, despite this, it is predicted that within 12 months the channel could be pulling in budgets worth $10bn – still a long way from the $178bn commanded by TV advertising, but not bad for a channel that is younger than Uber.
Despite its youth, influencer marketing has attracted a fair share of controversy, most notably Unilever marketing chief Keith Weed’s urgent call to tackle influencer fraud. Despite his recent retirement, this issue is still of utmost importance if influencer marketing is to meet this growth trajectory.
What’s clear is that the industry needs to crack down on fake followers and ensure that brands are working with the right influencers with the right level of engagement. However, this isn’t easy. The problem is you can’t just say “anyone with fake followers or bots is a bad influencer”, because you can’t stop bots from following someone’s account.
Indeed there have been a number of cases in which influencers have been ‘gifted’ followers or likes by outlets to encourage them to make a purchase.
So the question is – how else can you determine the credibility of an influencer?
For a long time now, the focus has been on the downside – trying to work out how many bots or fake followers there might be on an account and how this compares to accounts of a similar size. But this doesn’t always yield accurate results.
There is, however, one metric that cannot be cheated: reach. As the industry matures and most influencers have made the switch to business accounts, they are able to see the total unique views on any of their posts. This metric will tell you a lot more than any fake follower report. It reflects how visible the influencer is on their followers feed.
The question is not if the follower is real or not, but if they can actually see the influencer’s post. The follower might not see the post for various reasons, they might not be very active on Instagram, follow more accounts than they can digest when scrolling through their feed, or indeed be fake. The why doesn’t really matter here though. Brands should be focusing on the upside of any influencer based on their reach. Whether they bought followers or not, if the reach of their content is taken into account relative to their fee (eg looking at cost per reach instead of CPM), a true ‘like for like’ comparison of influencers is possible.
Knowing the actual reach of an influencer also allows one to derive more conclusions from their engagement, including whether or not the engagements are genuine. We tested the effect of buying likes on a number of posts and found that bought engagements don’t increase the post reach figure. Therefore, if a post receives more likes than followers reached, we can assume likes are from accounts that haven’t actually viewed the post, ie bots.
Consequently, brands need to look deeper and ask for primary analytics so they can see the demographics of an influencer’s followers and how engaged they are, and most importantly the actual visibility of the influencers posts.
Moving forward, choosing influencers to work with has got to become more of a media buy. You wouldn’t buy an ad in a magazine that didn’t have a proven readership, so why would you invest in an influencer without a thorough understanding of who they are broadcasting to and what the likely return might be?
But, again, this is not as easy as it might first appear. There are now a number of reporting tools available on the market, but when you compare them they all produce different results. Some report on all followers, some only look at engaged followers and others only consider followers who ‘like’ or comment and then validate whether or not that person is real.
In 2019 it is likely that we will see a convergence of reporting and an effective method emerge to show the true value of an influencer, based on a combined assessment of followers, engagement and, above all, reach. Ultimately this will improve the health and transparency of the industry, which in turn will serve to improve brand confidence, leading to greater investment. Focusing on influencer reach in addition to the currently most popular metrics of followers and engagement, is really the key to channel growth in 2019.

Caroline Duong is chief executive of Zine

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