Influencer Marketing Fraud: What Is It and How Can You Avoid It?


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In today’s digital marketing landscape, the term ‘influencer’ is as commonplace as the social media platforms with which their content is shared. No longer do social media platforms solely exist as a medium to communicate with friends. Unlike the position of traditional celebrities, the simplicity of creating and uploading user-generated content on platforms like YouTube, Instagram and most recently TikTok, has allowed individuals to build a dedicated following. Everyday individuals have been able to become influential and turn their specialist hobbies into monetizable career avenues.

Currently, an estimated 50 million users worldwide consider themselves influencers. While this number is extensive and its exact accuracy is uncertain, it does reflect the perceived achievability of becoming a social media influencer and attaining that lifestyle. Unfortunately, this has led to some aspiring creators partaking in unethical practices to achieve this status. While certain techniques like video and photo editing are in the grey area of acceptability, the practice of influencer fraud and the purchasing of social media followers and/or engagement has become an increasing concern for marketers and social media platforms.

Why Influencer Marketing?

Before looking at the impact of this influencer fraud, it’s important to note just why influencer advertising is so increasingly pursued as a marketing strategy and why it has grown to a value of £15 billion as of 2022.

Well to state the obvious, social media influencers have organically built ‘influence’ over the followers that have been able to build. By creating unique user content with a relatable personality at the forefront, influencers create an unmatched sense of authenticity and subsequent trust in their audience. As such influencers command far greater content engagement than traditional one to many content channels.

For marketers, the use of an influencer channel enables direct access to reach a relevant and engaged audience. As such any advertisements and promotions can be presented through the trust and authenticity of the influencer. One such example is the success of Dunkin’ Donuts US campaign partnership with TikTok creator Charli D’Amelio to create a limited-time drink called “The Charli.”

Given that 62% of social media audiences trust influencer product recommendations over celebrity marketing and 37% completely trust influencer word of mouth over traditional brand marketing, it’s clear to see why influencer channels have become such a prominent tool in the marketers’ toolkit.

Marketing impact of Influencer fraud

Equally, the potential to boost brand credibility, trust and engagement is the reason why influencer fraud can be can have a large impact on influencer marketing strategy.

Influencer fraud is the process of individuals purchasing an artificial following through online services. This is all in the hopes of either being perceived as a social media influencer or gaining enough of a real following to organically grow the channel further. The unfortunate impact of this is that 1 in 4 influencers have been suggested to have bought fake followers with the hopes of attaining the seemingly reachable influencer lifestyle. What’s more, while a practice on all platforms, influencer fraud predominantly occurs on Instagram, with 49% of Instagram influencers suggested to have participated in some form of follower fraud. Interestingly many that engage with this practice are already established as micro and macro influencers.

As such, influencer fraud can be damaging for an influencer marketing strategy. Unlike organically built influencers, fraudulent influencer’s either don’t have the established audience trust and meaningful influence that are the basis for effective influencer advertising, or in the case of macro/micro influencers purchasing additional followers, have a potentially large false following.

If marketers accidentally partner with one of these accounts, then they are potentially haemorrhaging the budget on an individual that has minimal influence. To compare it to another aspect of marketing, it’s like sending your paid ads to a 404 page and expecting the targeted audience to see them. Similarly, if micro or macro influencers are discovered to have paid for engagement then the lost trust and authenticity also has the potential to damage the brand in a comparable manner.

How to Avoid Influencer Fraud

While the presence of fraudulent influencers can seem like a reason to avoid influencer marketing, the extensive benefits of the marketing practice highlight its potential within a brand’s marketing toolkit.

Here are a few key tips and tricks you can take to research a prospective influencer and ensure you don’t have to worry about this issue.

Firstly, look at the quality of a prospective influencer’s audience engagement. Are they receiving many likes? Comments? While plenty of comments alone by no way defines a fake influencer, by looking at the specific engaging accounts you can gauge the authenticity of those commenting. Similarly, if the influencer has user comments on their posts, what do they say? Most fake engagement will consist of more generic comments across each post which can be a potential indicator of the practice. Finally, the consistency of engagement can be a key indicator; as is the case with marketing paid advertising, influencer content will rarely have complete engagement consistency.

Another key indicator of fake influencers is a spike or consistency in follower count. While many fake follower services attempt to provide followers and engagement in a more organic timeframe, analysing distinct follower pattern increases can be a good determination of a prospective influencer’s authenticity. To simplify this process, I’d recommend tools like Social Blade that allow you to view the analytical history for any account on prominent influencer platforms (e.g. Instagram, YouTube, TikTok). This includes a follower timeline for an account as well as the previously mentioned engagement rates.

It can also be beneficial to look at the accounts that influencers are frequently engaging with to avoid a practice called influencer podding. This essentially sees prospective influencers come together into a group ‘pod,’ engage with each other’s content and trigger the social media platforms algorithm to feature their content more frequently. While not necessarily an issue if working with larger influencers, prospecting influencers will likely have a lower quality of engagement and traffic due to this artificial boosting of their content in the algorithm.

Influencer marketing in the long term

All-in-all, the power of the influencer voice in marketing practice has clearly grown to become a key strategy for many brands, both mainstream and niche. This is in part due to the malleability of what an influencer is. While the channel has grown extensively in terms of its use and potential for marketing teams, it has also created a seemingly achievable and desirable lifestyle for everyday social media users. With some quick research around a prospective influencer however, the types of influencer fraud mentioned above can easily be avoided.

Regardless, influencer marketing is still very much in its infancy. Universal industry rules around influencer advertising and practices like hidden advertising are only recently being formulated. Similarly, the digital landscape and trends surrounding influencers are constantly changing and developing, increasing the potential options for influencer marketing strategy in the future.

This makes influencer advertising one of the most intriguing, exciting and unknown developing marketing channels currently available.

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