The Dark Side of Influence


Algorithm changes are causing some influencers to do dishonest things in order to stay relevant. Brand marketers need to be savvier with the platform changes and be able to detect fraud influence.

One of the most popular buzzwords in marketing today is “influencer.” But what does this word mean? Some people classify an influencer as a celebrity, others as someone with a sizable social media following. Some people even classify a regular consumer as an influencer. By definition, an influencer is just a person with influence in a certain community. Therefore, these classifications above are not incorrect, but when it comes to using influencers in marketing to drive business goals, the term gets a little more complex.

Marketers want to see measurable results. We want to see direct conversions and brand lift from influencer partnerships. In today’s world, influencers now have more pressure than ever to prove their influence to brands if they want to continue to get paid partnerships.

How Influencer Marketing Has Changed

Over the last 10 years, with the introduction of social media platforms, influencers have become an instrumental part of marketing. The concept of an influencer is almost too good to be true. Influencers were historically perceived as a lever to pull to increase word-of-mouth marketing and virtually eliminate cost per customer acquisition.

In the beginning, it was indeed too good to be true. There were fewer influencers on the platforms, partnerships were paid only in product and brands to were not closely tracking return on investment. Today, social media is infiltrated with influencers. Aspiring influencers can pick any lane: travel, beauty, food, video games, cleaning, lifestyle, etc. From here, you build up an engaged following, make content and, voila, you’re an influencer.

Algorithm Changes and the Rise of Fraud

Becoming an influencer sounds easy, right? The truth is that it is not. Not if you’re a good one. Social media platforms are moving completely toward pay to play. This means that organic reach is decreasing as the algorithm changes to support increased impressions on paid content.

Influencers have been affected heavily by these changes. Social platforms began to notice influencers were making tons of money from their organic reach on these social channels, while the social platforms made nothing. Thus began a series of algorithm changes to combat this phenomenon. Even with thousands of followers, influencers are now struggling to get eyes on their content. This threatens influencer livelihoods, sending ripples of panic through the community.

If an influencer cannot prove engagement on their posts, brands will shy away from working with them. Speaking from experience on the brand side at a beauty startup, I have to be careful with my budget and only pay for a partnership that I am almost certain will yield conversion.

Unfortunately and predictably, these algorithm changes are causing some influencers to do dishonest things in order to stay relevant. Brand marketers need to be savvier with the platform changes and be able to detect fraud influence.

3 Ways to Detect Influencer Fraud

Being an influencer was once much more rare and difficult. These personalities worked their way up to be an expert in a certain field and build an engaged following that trusted their opinion. We now live in a world of spam, fake followers, data breaches and inauthentic partnerships. Both brands and consumers have to decipher what’s real and what’s fake. Here are a few things to look out for before deciding to work with an influencer:

1. Fake Followers

It is important to know which metrics are important: Look at engagement, not only engagement rate. Historically, social media marketers used engagement rate, which is defined as total engagement divided by total number of followers, to determine popularity of an influencer. Today, it’s important to look deeper to detect how authentic the following actually is.

Influencers can buy 1,000 followers for $10 in under a minute. It requires no effort or budget to look like they have influence. Make sure to do an audit of the influencer’s followers. Are the profiles real? Have they posted before, or do they just follow people? Does the demographic of the followers feel accurate to the influencer? If not, these are most likely fake accounts.

Don’t let the vanity number of followers fool you. Take the time to do the audit or else you could pay big dollars for content to be posted to no one.

2. Fake Engagement

Check to see what their engagement is like. Are they getting thousands of likes with no comments? Do the comments have substance to them?

Last year I was introduced to a term called an “engagement pod.” This is a group of people who agree to like and comment on each other’s posts to help keep their engagement rate up. If you’re looking for conversion, this type of engagement is not going to get it for you.

3. Inauthentic Partnerships

Lastly, look for red flags on the authenticity of the influencer. Are they a high-fashion influencer doing partnerships with Walmart? Go with your gut here. If the partnership does not look like a good fit, chances are the influencer is only in it for the money and not converting. It’s so important, not only for ROI, but for brand management, to work with influencers that line up with your brand values and goals.

I learned this the hard way. A few months ago, I partnered with an influencer on an Instagram giveaway right around the time when the algorithms were changing daily, and organic reach was shrinking. Long story short, the giveaway was a bust. I looked at it as a learning and was ready to move on and try a new campaign.

The influencer was so worried we would not process payment on the failed giveaway that they bought my brand followers to fulfill the goals we had set for the giveaway. Then, they lied about it and cut off all communication when I opened up the conversation about why they did it. From a brand perspective, this was a huge violation of trust. My brand’s Instagram engagement was now totally off because I had fake followers, and my authenticity as a brand was compromised. I was livid.

After processing what happened and using it as a learning, I now can empathize with these influencers. They are falling victim to the pressures of having influence and driving measurable return in the face of the changing algorithms. It does not make what they did OK, but it made me a smarter marketer. I now know what to look for in an influencer, to make sure to be explicit in agreements and how to detect fraud influence. The question now is how far will these influencers go? These deceitful actions are a symptom of a larger issue that is not going away.

Why This Matters

We’re all influencers in our own way. I am not famous, nor do I have thousands of social media followers, yet I have the power to influence my friends and family to try the products I use and love. Influencer marketing is not going away because there will always be influencers in our lives.

What we need to do as marketers is be smart about who we choose to work with. An influencer is valuable to the brand because they believe in the product and authentically want others to try it. That’s what drives conversion. We need to stop over-valuing the vanity of number of followers and start to value the actual effect these influencers can have on a purchase decision.

Colleen Garland is the digital media manager at Madison Reed. She is based in San Francisco.

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