The recent explosive New York Times article revealing the depth and breadth of the problem of fake followers on social media has had marketers – ahem – atwitter about how to address the issue in their influencer marketing strategies. We know the issue of fake followers is nothing new. As long as influencer marketing has been around, influencers, celebrities, and wannabes have been buying not only fake followers but also fake engagement to drive up their engagement rates.
Although most people are aware of the problem, it appears that this behavior is commonly tolerated or not taken seriously enough. But tolerating or accepting that an influencer may have used artificial means to boost their follower count or paid for fake engagement can be damaging for brands, who invest their marketing budgets in those apparently successful influencers. So how are brands approaching the topic of fake followers and engagement when planning their marketing strategy?
Many brands view fake followers as a threat to the practice of influencer marketing. “Generally, we would always advise influencers against increasing their reach and engagement by buying followers,” said Caroline Reimer, communications manager at GLOSSYBOX Germany. “It is really sad to see how those black sheep damage the industry and aren’t even aware of their responsibility. In the worst case, this leads to the point that a company might discontinue investing in influencer marketing as the return on investment is too low.”
The beauty brand launched their product in 2011 and began using influencer marketing in their overall strategy right away. With more than seven years of experience in influencer marketing, the brand has worked with influencers for many different campaigns and knows how important it is to choose reliable influencers and establish long-term relationships with them.
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“Checking for fake reach and engagement has become part of our routine, for both incoming influencer requests and for those that we want to actively contact,” said Reimer. “Especially for bigger campaigns, this takes a lot of time, as fake followers often can’t be identified at first glance. Unfortunately though, this step has become inevitable for us, as from our experience the amount of influencers with fake reach has increased drastically in the last year,” she said.
But how can a brand detect if an influencer is buying fake followers? Purchased followers are usually either bots or real accounts that have been inactive for awhile. Using either or both of these, an account can add any number of followers.
Reimer says checking the graph of an account’s growth is a first step in detecting fake followers. An overnight leap of 1,500 or more followers should serve as a warning sign. In addition, these fake followers usually unfollow the account after a certain time period. Therefore, marketers should keep an eye out for suspicious irregularities in follower growth.
However, a closer analysis is important since a jump in follower growth could have other explanations.
“We have a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to fake followers, but of course we know that a rapid increase in follower numbers can also be due to shout-outs or contests,” Reimer told us. “We started asking influencers directly, how an irregular burst of growth came about. That way we want to give them the opportunity to explain themselves but also show them, that we see those irregularities and that this could be the reason we decide against a cooperation.”
Example of irregular but organic follower growth of an Olympic athlete after the beginning of the Winter Olympic’s 2018
Often, accounts who buy followers purchase fake engagement as well. Engagement refers to the interaction between an influencer’s account and their audience. This includes likes, comments, and sharing of posted content. When buying followers, users have the option to purchase bots that will like and comment on the posted content.
According to Reimer, this is something brands need to be aware of and act on. “A really important aspect for us is the engagement of the followers – are they interacting with the actual content of the posting or are there many comments with rather generic content?” she said.
Reimer said that one indicator of fake engagement is comments that don’t really relate to the content and often consist of short, very generic sentences like “That’s great!” or “Awesome!”
Example of followers commenting on the actual content of Leonie Hanne (formerly known as @ohhcouture)
Using data and management tools have become the main way that GLOSSYBOX guards against working with fake influencers. “We note down everything – inquiries, send-outs, cooperation,” said Reimer. “We also include influencers with fake reach, so we don’t spend time checking them again. We want to focus on influencers that are promising to us, and spend as little time as possible on those black sheep.”
Fake followers and fake engagement are becoming a bigger challenge for brands that invest in influencer marketing. And even though this problem is well-known, social media platforms are still struggling to find a reliable way to detect and deactivate accounts that are actually bots.
The New York Times’ report showed once again how important it is to look beyond great follower counts and examine an influencer’s account carefully before entering into a collaboration.
Marketers also need to keep in mind that follower count is not the only aspect that can be manipulated. Inexperienced marketers are at particular risk of falling into the trap of trusting high follower numbers only. In response to these issues, influencer marketing experts like Reimer stress the importance of using data-driven tools when evaluating influencers. These tools can offer vital information on metrics like follower growth and engagement rates and are the key to successful influencer campaigns.