Much of the success of influencer marketing is due to the quality of the influencers utilised. As we all know, not everyone with thousands or even hundreds of thousands of followers on social media is actually influential. Like all marketing industries, the influencer marketing industry has a dark side. There are thousands of fake influencers who purchase their followings and are ready to take advantage of marketers.

As an influencer marketing agency, we have always seen it as our duty to make brands aware of the issue and to guide them in identifying true influencers with genuine followings. In fact, in early 2017 our influencer Chromo-Analysis vetting process disrupted the influencer marketing industry and has led us to develop the reputation we have today.

Our unique approach to vetting influencers sees us rate them against 46 Chromo-Factors (factors we have found to impact sales). Genuine influencers with genuine followings provide exceptional results for the brands who work with them. But, as mentioned there are people out there, which are posing as influencers. They purchase their followers, they automate their engagement and ‘look the part’.

Don’t let that scare you though. The genuine influencers are identifiable. They meet the most obvious requirement of being an influencer – they can actually influence people in their decision-making. Some so-called “influencers,” however, try to take shortcuts and do not deserve to be called influencers.

fake influencers influencer fraud

The Danger of Influencer Fraud

Genuine influencers do not grow their following overnight. Unless they have already gained celebrity status through offline activities, influencers begin with a small following, like everybody else. They create their influencer status through the quality of the material they share. They gradually build up a reputation to the point they gain authority status. The fans of real influencers look forward to new content from the influencer. This is as true for a successful YouTuber, as it is for a famous blogger.

You can’t buy followers and expect similar success. Therefore, any business that pays a fake influencer has no chance of generating the successful returns of true influencers.

As we previously reported, influencer marketing can generate up to eleven times higher ROI than traditional forms of digital marketing. Businesses receive $US7.65 on average for each $US1 they spend on influencer marketing. However, there is one caveat to these statistics. Only genuine influencers with real followers can generate you such returns.

Key Statistics Relating to Fake Influencers

In 2017 anti-fraud company, Sway Ops released some eye-opening influencer fraud statistics. They surveyed one day’s worth of Instagram posts tagged either #sponsored or #ad. Sway Ops discovered that more than 50 per cent of the engagement on these posts were fake.

There were 118,007 comments in that engagement. Only 20,942 could be proved to be made by real people. The remaining 97,065 were fake – made by AI-powered bots.

Other researchers have conducted similar studies of UK Instagram posts this year. Nearly 700,000 Instagram posts analysed were determined to be posts that involved influencers had bought ‘bot’ followers.

Research by the University of Southern California and Indiana University found that up to 48 million Twitter accounts – 15% of all those on Twitter – were fake bot accounts. Luckily, Twitter has removed many of these accounts recently.

Points North Group has studied a range of brands and the influencers they work with. They recently published a list of the brands whose sponsored posts have the most fake followers. Ritz-Carlton topped that invidious list in March 2018. An astounding 78% of their sponsored posts were delivered to fake followers.

As horrifying as these statistics may sound, it is important to remember that we are really just looking at the rotten end of the market here. Most influencers are genuine, reliable, and authentic people. However, you do have to do due diligence when selecting your influencers.


A Dark Industry – Selling Fake Followers to Fake Influencers

It is surprisingly easy to find websites willing to sell you fake followers online. A simple Google search will find you many such sites.

The New York Times published an expose on the issue last January. They focused on Twitter and found widespread sales of fake twitter followers. There was little effort made to hide the activities.

The New York Times reported on the case of Jessica Rychly, a Minnesota teenager. She is a genuine teenager with real social media accounts, including Twitter. However, at some point, somebody skimmed all of her details and created another Twitter account in her name. It used her name and details and even her photo –slightly modified so it would avoid detection by image comparison.

The main difference between the two Jessica Rychly accounts was the type of content shared. The real account shared the kind of content you would expect of a teenage girl. The fake account, however, promoted a wide range of products, including Canadian real estate investments, cryptocurrency, a radio station in Ghana, and the inevitable promotion of pornographic sites.

This looks like a clear-cut case of identity fraud, yet as the New Your Times discovered, an American company, Devumi, carried it out. Devumi made its money by selling Twitter followers, likes, and retweets to anybody wanting to become a fake influencer.

Devumi no longer exists, probably due to the New York Times publicity, but there are still plenty of companies in the business – not just for Twitter, but Instagram, Facebook and other social networks as well.

Most Fake Accounts Are Unsophisticated

Surprisingly, accounts like the fake Jessica Rychly are by no means the most blatant fake accounts that fake influencers buy. Indeed accounts that attempt to appear genuine are merely the pinnacle of this murky enterprise. The bulk of fake accounts on Twitter are far less subtle. They typically have no profile picture and a username that is just a random mix of letters and numerals.

Hootsuite’s Experiment in the World of Fake Influencers

Hootsuite carried out a test to see whether a firm would benefit from buying fake followers. They created a dummy account, called @fruitless.strategy, and bought 1,000 “quality” followers for $9.95.

They had 1,000 new followers by the next day but received no engagement on any posts they made. Hootsuite found the new followers to be “a bizarre mix of teenagers posting shirtless selfies, accounts with no posts at all, and more than a few bots peddling webcam porn.”

An investment of $9.95 might not seem like much, but it brought absolutely no benefit. Moreover, if Hootsuite had been running the account seriously, they would have risked damaging their reputation.

Unilever Has had Enough of Fake Influencers

Large consumer goods company, Unilever, is well aware of the fact that brands will never succeed if they work with fake influencers. They have been burned before, investing in fake influencers, who had merely bought their followers.

Unilever spent $9 million on marketing 2017 and influencer marketing still remains a large part of that spend. However, it became clear that a selection of their influencers was not producing the results that you would expect for their follower numbers. It was not hard for Unilever to dig deeper and discover why.

This lead Unilever to declare war on fake influencers.

Unilever does acknowledge that they had taken a too simplistic view when engaging in influencer selection. They made their influencer selection based solely on comparative follower numbers. This clearly advantaged those who had artificially boosted their statistics.

Unilever now looks at a broader range of metrics when deciding which influencers to use, and establishing on suitable payment rates.

fake bot automation - amazon

4 Important Influencer Vetting Processes

Here are a few of the checks we conduct on influencers we are considering:

  • We conduct a deep Chromo-Analysis of the influencers we use, taking into account the small things that all make a big difference (non-verbal communication, content quality, genuine audience engagement etc.). We rate each influencer we utilise against 46 Chromo-Factors. Our large data analysis of 638 influencers led us to discover that these 46 Chromo-Factors contribute to the effectiveness of influencers.
  • Check the account has a relatively steady build-up of followers over time. Fake accounts tend to have short bursts of an increased following, then heavy periods of losing followers.
  • Look at the influencer’s engagement rates. If an Instagram influencer’s engagement rates are below 1%, it’s pretty clear they’ve either bought followers or they simply have uninterested followers.
  • Check the demographics of the influencer’s account.

Influencer Marketing – How it Should Be

It’s so important that you avoid influencers who offer no value. Some people are effectively misleading brands, and it needs to stop. Nonetheless, there are genuine influencers who have built their following organically. And that’s why vetted micro-influencers and true Chromo-Influencers™ are bringing in the results brands desire.


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