Written by Fabrizio Perrone, CEO and founder at Buzzoole
Bots are a fact of internet life. Not only do bots outnumber humans on the internet, many of those bots are designed to game social networks.
According to a report from New York Magazine everything on the internet is fake — the people, the businesses, the metrics, the content. Everything.
To further demonstrate the scale of the problem, Facebook removed more than 750 million fake accounts in Q2 2018 and 800 million in Q3. Social networks are starting to recognize and combat the impact of bot traffic and fake profiles, but, perhaps it’s time we accept fraud — in one form or another — as part of online life.
Unfortunately, fraud is a particular hazard for influencer marketing, where trust and authenticity are both prized and exploited. In fact, there is a parallel market with players who undermine consumer trust by buying and selling fake followers, comments, likes and views — calling into question the credibility of the entire influencer marketing industry.
A Credibility Crisis
2018 became a flashpoint in which influencer marketing pros had to face the fraud problem, and take action to fight back. Early in the year, the New York Times published an exposé on social media’s so-called black market, detailing the rise of fraudulent social media activity intended to inflate vanity social metrics.
A few months later, Unilever CMO Keith Weed put out a statement demanding the influencer industry clean up its act. He called influencer fraud “a deep and systematic issue, an issue of trust that fundamentally threatens to undermine the relationship between consumers and brands.” He went on to say that Unilever would no longer work with dishonest influencers, and vowed not to work with platforms that create division.
Weed’s statements became a call-to-action, challenging the industry to commit to a maxim of transparency. Today everyone within the influencer marketing ecosystem is getting involved in the fight against fraud: From Facebook and Twitter deactivating fake accounts; to creative influencers committing to ethical behaviors; and industry gatekeepers (agencies, media companies, and platforms) insisting on high standards and verifiable performance from creators.
How to Spot a Fraud
The most common method of fraud is buying followers and engagement. This practice was easy to track before simply by analysing the performance data of a given account. However, engagement and follower farms have become more sophisticated, offering staggered delivery, making detection more difficult. Some companies set up botnets — or a network of fake accounts — to perform programmable actions. There are even people who allow their accounts to be used in botnets for a small fee.
The problem with these accounts and the paid-for interactions is that the engagement isn’t a real indication of interest. When brands work with creators with fake audiences, they are paying for a bogus interactions that add no real value to the brand. And brands are starting to wise up, asking for better data and metrics on creator performance in order to improve transparency, and ensure authenticity.
It is incredibly difficult to root out fraudulent activity without the help of technological support. The process involves scrutinizing every single influencer and all of their followers for certain red flags. Some of these warning signs include accounts:
- Missing or generic profile pictures
- With only a few posts on an account
- Following far more than it has followers
First-Party Performance Data
While the fraud detection methods above have proven effective, they’ve also forced the engagement fraud industry to become more sophisticated. As a result, brands and gatekeepers need to become ever more more vigilant, insisting on access to first-party data — or real performance data from creators and their social media channels.
With changes to the Instagram API last year, many of the apps used for tracking influencer performance became practically useless. Now, content performance data is only available to the person who owns the account, and the only way for marketers to get that data, is from the creators themselves. Creators who really want to inspire trust from brands will provide access to all of the social media accounts, blogs, and Google analytics, in addition to Facebook Insights and Instagram Graph API.
There’s even technology that can help pull all of that data together in one place, enabling creators to analyse their progress, improve performance, and identify their best content. Brands and campaign managers can also use the data to get a complete picture of which creators might be best suited for specific campaigns, along with comprehensive performance data following the campaign. And with the new in-app purchases available on Instagram, brands that have access to first-party data, could track influencer content and campaigns all the way to the point of sale.
All About Relationships and Trust
Remember: influencer marketing is just another form of word-of-mouth. As such, it’s all about the relationships and the trust between consumers their communities; between brands and trusted creative influencers. Influencer fraud erodes the foundation of these relationships, invalidates campaign results, and damages the reputations of both creators and the brands they work with.