Business, beware: The influencer scam

luxury hotel influencer

There was a time not too long ago when influencer marketing was hailed as the prime platform for consumer engagement. The older model of passive ads on websites and blogs failed to move jaded customers, but prominent users on social media platforms – and especially on Instagram – offered businesses a direct line to ready-made audiences for their products.

Trust was perceived as higher with influencers, as followers considered an endorsement from a human being more tempting than a transparently engineered ad. Influencers – or microcelebrities – enabled businesses to reach a sizable target audience for a cost-efficient price.

However, as with so many tech trends, the first blush of influencer marketing has well and truly faded. Sponsored content, or ‘sponcon’ is so easy to spot that trust in influencer recommendations has plummeted. The lack of trust, partnered with the proliferation of paid engagement – likes, comments and inflated follower counts for a price – means that brands which partner with influencers will struggle to make an impact.

How many of those followers are actual human beings, and the target for your product? And how many of those likes are paid engagement rather than a consumer moved to action?

The influencer influx

While initially there was – and still may be – a core of genuine influencers, the performative nature of social media means that any industrious soul may simply present themselves as an influencer and solicit brand partnerships. As the influencer market becomes saturated, the value of their business proposition is eroded. Celebrities hold sway with audiences in part because of their rarity – if anyone and everyone can be an influencer, sponsored content loses its aspirational status.

Last summer, US digital marketing agency MediaKix demonstrated the ease with which digital natives can build influencer profiles and scam brands for partnership deals. The agency created two profiles on Instagram – one for travel photographer Amanda Smith (wanderingggirl) and one for California model Alexa Rae (calibeachgirl310).

The catch, of course – Amanda and Alexa aren’t real. Mediakix fabricated and posted from their personas. Alexa’s photos came from a shoot with a local model, while Amanda’s entire travel photography feed was made up of stock images. The large follower counts were largely bought and the engagement therefore fake. Yet both were offered hundreds of dollars’ worth of brand partnerships.

Even with Instagram’s attempted crackdown on paid-for followers and spam accounts, Mediakix proved that all it takes to dupe brands – and to charge for empty engagement – is a little start-up cash and some stock images.

An influencer culture

Though fake influencer profiles are bad news for business, perhaps more disturbing is the recent revelation that aspiring influencers have taken to faking sponsored content, tagging brands and crafting posts which imply a partnership. Wannabes then leverage their falsified partnerships to snag genuine payment from unsuspecting businesses. Gone is the original push to seem authentic – in its current iteration, the influencer marketing space is about seeming as polished and engineered as possible in order to craft credibility. When fake influencers miss the mark, businesses may find themselves inadvertently associated with mediocre content or questionable personalities without any control over the situation.

For brands hoping to engage a genuine influencer, they must first sift through and verify multitudes of fake sponcon posts. Even posts by genuine influencers now must compete with a glut of faked and real sponcon to grab audience attention – if that even is the end-goal anymore. It goes without saying – the flow of value is now heavily weighted towards influencers.

The backlash

Influencer marketing as a technique for businesses to reach consumers has had a steady fall from grace. There may yet be value in the practice, particularly for big brands which can afford genuine celebrities’ endorsement, but for SMEs with a limited budget, the risk of being scammed is high.

Joe Nicchi, the owner of an ice cream truck in LA, recently had his own five minutes of fame for posting a sign on his truck which read, ‘Influencers pay double.’ Frustrated with endless requests for free cones in return for an Instagram post and ‘exposure’, Joe proclaimed himself anti-influencer and inspired a wave of other small businesses to speak out.

Hotels, too, have famously had to post statements to stop influencers asking for free stays, while restaurants and retail businesses are inundated with requests for freebies. By all means, investigate what influencer marketing could do for your business, but beware: there are plenty of scammers out there.