The influencer marketing space has boomed in recent years and with good reason. The combination of an increasingly sophisticated consumer pool, massive upsurge in social media consumption and the rise in ad blockers have made traditional advertising progressively difficult. Step forward ‘influencer campaigns’, which have risen to prominence when it comes to providing a more authentic, natural brand experience that consumers welcome.

As the influencer medium has matured, so has the rise of follower fraud, which has become so prevalent it has complicated influencer marketing for brands looking to sponsor campaigns. So much so, it has created its own sector specifically for brands to choose creators with high-quality audiences for their influencer campaigns that are actually real.

The scope of the follower fraud challenge

Digital fraud is nothing new. For years advertisers have been fighting an ongoing battle with ad impressions, clicks, and viewability fraud, which spans the web and artificially inflates reporting metrics for digital ads. This fraud cost advertisers as much as $19 billion last year.

For social channels, in particular, the objective in most instances is views and in such a competitive space, the lengths to which people will go to achieve the desired target knows no bounds. In the early days of social media marketing, simple metrics like clicks, engagements, unique visitors, and followers were the sole measures of campaign success. The consequences of this type of measurement continue to affect social media marketplaces today. A creator’s reputation – and often income – are directly linked to their reach and engagement so there is pressure to boost follower counts and engagement rates by any means necessary.

According to Facebook’s first Community Standards Enforcement Report, released May 2018, there were over 583 million fake Facebook accounts in the first quarter of that year alone. To put that figure into context, that’s more than the entire US population. But Facebook isn’t alone here. In December 2017 Twitter identified and suspended 6.4 million suspicious accounts every week while around 9-15% of Twitter accounts are understood to be fake. According to estimates, many Instagram accounts have followings that are comprised of 20% bots.

Types of fraud

There are several forms of social media fraud. One of the most prevalent is automated fraud using bots – these are accounts run by software rather than actual humans. Bots can easily manipulate follower and engagement counts. For example, amplification bots automatically retweet posts made by users who have paid for services. Another popular form of fraud is human-powered: click farms routinely pay people to manually click on customers’ links to artificially boost their traffic numbers. A New York Times’ investigation in 2018 exposed follower fraud as an industry-wide problem involving ‘celebrities, athletes, pundits, and politicians’.

In the wake of the story, brand marketers called for immediate steps to combat the issue. Platforms that dealt with creator activations scrambled to address the issue quickly and the mood change was evident with both brands and credible influencers keen to distance themselves from the issue.

For instance, in June last year, only a few months after the exposé, Unilever announced it will not work with influencers who buy followers, it will not buy followers for the company’s brands, and it will prioritise partners who increase transparency and help eradicate bad practices throughout the whole ecosystem. Unilever is just one of the major organisations taking a stand on influencer malpractice that has significantly moved the goalposts for the better.

Authenticity; the key to great campaigns

For brands, engaging creators with fake followers means missing the opportunity to build relationships with real consumers who may go on to buy their products and become loyal brand advocates. It also ruins future campaign forecasting and optimisation efforts by creating unrealistic benchmarks and inaccurate averages. To combat follower fraud, brands need new ways to vet creators and their audiences before they enter into costly and inefficient influencer marketing relationships.

Identifying fraudulent followers, or rather assessing a creator’s audience integrity, is an opportunity for brands and agencies to better understand the real value of their influencer marketing partnerships. However, to date, brands have only engaged half measures to combat the problem of follower fraud. They typically vet creators with simple vanity metrics or use waivers where creators are asked to affirm that they have not paid for fake subscribers or bots. Additionally, many brands believe that working with creators who have verified accounts protects them against fraud.

However, this data can be easily manipulated and often doesn’t tell the whole story. Unfortunately, creators can lie about buying followers or may be unaware that followers were purchased on their behalf. Even verified accounts can purchase follower and engagement services. In addition, many creator fraud prevention tools in the market analyse only single social platforms, rather than providing analysis on all four major social platforms in a single dashboard. The narrow focus of these tools has traditionally made comprehensive evaluation of creators difficult for marketers.

Why a data-first approach ensures audience integrity

Taking a multi-channel, data-first approach provides a more conclusive, effective method for evaluating audience integrity. Common patterns in audience composition, growth rate, and engagement rate can reliably pinpoint when creators have engaged in follower fraud.

Evaluating a single data point can often be misleading so brands must examine multiple dimensions of each creator’s profile to flag suspicious patterns. This includes an in-depth critique of follower growth, looking at ‘normal’ growth patterns and trying to identify organic and manufactured growth spikes. The same level of analysis must also be applied to audience location, ideally with a comparison to other creators in the same region.

Finally, engagement rates must also be looked at; how do the creators’ rate of likes and comments compare to the expected rates for a particular social network? By comparing the results against industry benchmarks, brands can get a sense of how authentic their creators’ audiences might be and in turn, how well a campaign with that creator might perform.

Creator IQ’s #IMS19 workshop

Creator IQ will be hosting a deep-dive workshop at the Influencer Marketing Show this month. Attendees will unlock the best tools and tips for measuring campaign ROI and better understand how to utilise data and intuition to achieve the best campaign results.

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