Influencer Marketing Fraud: The Untrustworthy Side of Social Media

The dark side of the Web brings out negative brand perspective


Ariel Choong

3 years ago | 6 min read

The great thing about social media presence is that you can become anyone you want to be. The bad thing — at least from a brand’s perspective — is that you may not exist at all, it is all about brand building.

If your brand requires works with paid online influencers, you’re probably familiar with one of the technique’s biggest risk factors today: influencer fraud — a dilemma that occurs when paid tastemakers use artificially inflated follower numbers to increase their asking rate for engaging with their audience on behalf of a brand.

What is Influencer Fraud

Reputable influencers have spent years building a credible following through targeted content on platforms like YouTube, Pinterest, Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.

These influencers use their time, money, and sweat equity to provide their audiences with relevant information in entertaining ways that take advantage of their unique personalities and branding.

Over time, influencers gain followers that like their content, and more importantly, engage with the influencer on a more personal note.

That authentic connection between the influencer and the audience is what makes influencer marketing so valuable, and why so many businesses solicit influencers to endorse their products and services.

Unfortunately, the influencer industry has spawned frauds, people who want to take shortcuts to build the kind of authentic branding that takes years to achieve.

Influencer fraud occurs when these “newcomers” decide to buy followers, or worse, use bots to generate comments.

According to a recent study, a single day’s worth of posts tagged #sponsored or #ad on Instagram contained over 50 percent fake engagements. Out of 118,007 comments, only 20,942 were not made by bot followers.

Influencer Fraud Pexels

Fraudulent influencers engage with brands via social media campaigns, presenting themselves as genuine influencers with hard-earned followers when in reality their followers are bought instead of being organically built.

For example, let’s say your business sells perfumes, and your targeted group is an influencer with 200,000 followers. You agree to work with that influencer to promote a social media campaign, believing that the influencer’s audience aligns with your marketing objectives.

What you don’t know, however, is that more than half of those followers are bought, which means that you’re not getting access to genuine, motivated followers. Instead, you’re paying an influencer that has generated fake followers that can’t do anything to advance your marketing goals.

In other words, you’ve been conned out of time and money as what was once an isolated trend has exploded in recent years, to the point where the digital landscape is reeling from all that fake follower activity. To put the scope of the problem into perspective, up to 20% of mid-level influencers’ followers are likely fraudulent, according to a study Points North Group study.

Promoting Social Media; Pexels

And, even if you aren’t paying popular social media stars to help drive interest and increase social media presence, your content marketing activities still may not be immune to fraud and other influencer marketing pitfalls.

Social media shakedown

The magnitude of social media’s shady side is sending shock waves up and down the digital landscape — starting with the social networks themselves.

For example, a New York Times investigation recently revealed that 15% of Twitter users were likely automated accounts designed to simulate real people. Twitter responded by embarking on the “great purge of 2018,” shedding millions of locked accounts, which carried a higher likelihood of being fake.

According to several sources, including Variety, Twitter’s purge resulted in significant follower count drops for some of the platform’s most powerful influencers — including an estimated 7.5 million from its @Twitter account.

Watered-down marketing values

The realization that their faith in influencer endorsements may have been misplaced has many consumers feeling swindled by their favorite social networks — Facebook chief among them. When news of Facebook’s bot problem surfaced in 2017, it seemed likely that eroded trust would drive scorned users off the site.

Those chickens may just have come home to roost: TechCrunch and MarketWatch, have cited growth and engagement declines as contributors to Facebook’s recent market cap drop of $123 billion ­– more than most startups or public companies are ever worth.

For content marketers, follower reductions on your brand’s social profiles due to scrubbed accounts or mass exodus from the social channel can amount to millions in wasted ad spending. CMI founder Joe Pulizzi has pointed out the fragile nature of marketing on “rented” social media lands, citing the likelihood of these channels unexpectedly changing their rules and decimating the consumer relationships you’ve earned on them.

The potential for your brand to get unwittingly caught up in spambot warfare is yet another reason to follow his advice and focus on building your content audience on channels you fully own and control.

This is just the start of what we should expect from social media platforms.First, even though we think we have full control over our social media, we don’t. Facebook, Twitter, Twitch, LinkedIn, YouTube, Instagram, Tik Tok, Snap all own your connections and “your” platform- CMI founder Joe Pulizzi

Can brands tackle the issue?

If consumers’ trust in social media remains in free fall, will the rest of the marketing economy be dragged down with it? Not if companies like Unilever have anything to say about it.

As reported in The Wall Street Journal, the consumer-products giant, which spent almost $50 billion on marketing its brands in 2018, is looking to crack down on fraud by banning influencers who pay for followers or use other deceptive means to inflate their rankings.

Keith Weed, Unilever’s marketing chief, has been particularly vocal in his desire for greater social marketing reform as well as in calling for an increase in measurement and oversight to ensure that problems like this get solved.

Some platforms already do things in this area, but they have to do it at a larger scale and with more transparency, so the industry can be reassured that the influencers on their platforms are not using these practices,” — Keith Weed Unilever Marketing Chief

And, speaking of weed …

While it doesn’t involve an act of fraud, another recent story on influencer marketing partnerships has risky behavior practically written all over it: Digiday recently reported on the ways cannabis companies are enlisting influencers to help them attract new customers in places where recreational use is legal. These efforts skirt the ad bans established against the industry by Facebook and other social platforms.

For example, MedMen is using Los Angeles-area micro-influencers as part of a $4 million campaign promoting its retail outlets in high-end shopping districts.

Therefore, most influencers seem reluctant to risk the potential social media and legal repercussions of endorsing a product banned on the federal level in the United States. But this may change as the cannabis industry continues its quest for full legalization and further legitimization.

Even if your designated brand influencers aren’t tempted to work with risky businesses like MedMen yet, it doesn’t mean they aren’t engaging in other questionable activities, personal proclivities, or conflicting client relationships that could come back to haunt your brand if they come to light.

To minimize the potential for unpleasant surprises, look for influencers whose social personalities align strongly with your content strategy and mission statement, and be sure to go beyond their follower counts when researching the benefits they might offer to your brand.

If you can’t beat them, join them

If you can’t beat the bot-follower problem, why not embrace the technology enabling it? That’s a question some brands are asking themselves as the possibility of using virtual influencers — online personas fashioned wholly out of the imagination and programmed to interact as a real person would — takes shape.

As Adweek recently pointed out, working with these artificial intelligence-driven accounts eliminates the threat of a spokesperson going rogue while still tapping into the massive, engaged audience that these mecha-marketers can amass.

AI-powered bots are bound to become the new marketer Adweek

While intellectual property ownership, morals clauses (covering the creator, not the actions of the bot itself), and the ability to sustain long-term engagement are among the potential business and legal pitfalls, it’s not too far-fetched to believe that it could someday be considered a safer alternative to working with the PewDiePies of the social world.

In a world where machines can simulate human emotion, politicians’ tweets seem to be devoid of it, and a well-dressed pug can earn thousands of dollars per Instagram post, how can you tell which influencers offer authentic engagement and which ones are flashy frauds?

Therefore, social media’s power and popularity enable practically anyone to build a public-based persona, grow a following, and serve as a pitch person for your brand and its content. But if you want to tap into an influencer brand loyalty, you should make sure what they have to offer is more than an ordinary brand image.

This article was originally published by Ariel choong on medium.


Created by

Ariel Choong







Related Articles