While fraud is something that certainly exists, I’d argue that advertisers are primarily to blame for creating it.
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Given recent headlines such as “Unilever to Crack Down on Influencers Who Buy Fake Followers and Use Bots” and “Influencer Marketing Fraud: The Shady Side of Social Media,” you might think that all digital influencers are pumped up by millions of bots and fake followers. You might even think that there is no value in influencer marketing and that the influencer economy is going to collapse like a house of cards under the weight of this outright fraud and deception.
You’d be wrong.
The star chasing mentality of brands wanting to work with the biggest influencers as opposed to the ones that are actually the best fits for their brands has created an ecosystem that incentivizes “vanity metrics” (i.e., follower count numbers) over the need to build real communities. While fraud is something that certainly exists, I’d argue that advertisers are primarily to blame for creating it, and they’re too stupid (or lazy) to identify it when it is happening.
Follower count is the metric that most marketers use when identifying what influencers to work with — it has become a proxy for the value of an influencer.
Unfortunately, this singular focus upon one metric creates an easy incentive for fraud. It reminds me of the importance of Campbell’s Law, an adage developed by social scientist Donald T. Campbell: “The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.” Essentially the more one metric becomes the focus of a decision, the more likely people are to warp its use.
So, how can marketers ensure that they’re working with influencers that have “real” fans and followers? There are a number of companies coming up with technology solutions to help solve for this, but the reality is it’s pretty simple.
First and foremost, do you know your target audience? Who are they following and talking about on social? Too often marketers are quick to project their own wants and needs on their audiences, and cognitive dissonance allows them to write off (or simply not explore) the influencers that are actually good fits for their demographics.
In working on our campaigns with brands, we generally implement a five-phased approach in establishing who we work with. This has helped us to navigate the influencer waters and create campaigns that ensure we’re meeting client goals and avoiding any influencers with fake followers.
So, what’s the process?
1. Define success.
Nail down what you want to accomplish and define success. Put simply: Create a brief. I’ve seen many marketers ask for an influencer campaign and in the same breath say they want to work with whoever the biggest influencer is at the moment. Defining your goals and target demographic is critical.
2. Develop influencer criteria.
Once you’ve got a clear brief, develop a big idea and strategy for influencers.
For example, if your goal is to get 18- to 24-year-old men to purchase a car-based video game, maybe the idea you’ll want to execute on is to bring car gaming influencers on YouTube with that demographic out to drive the cars in real life (for great content) and compare to the game itself so they can talk about how realistic the game is. Note that the idea itself is simple, straightforward and is not contingent upon a single influencer.
3. Compile influencers.
Based on your target demographic, the brand aesthetic, platform, engagement metrics and your goals, develop a clear influencer criteria/filter and build a list of influencers who pass through that filter.
In compiling our influencers, we build out Google docs and look at engagement rates, how long influencers have been content creators, and develop overall views and engagement averages to establish whether or not the influencers have real, engaged communities. We closely review any outliers within the category (i.e., those that have unusually high or low engagement rates compared with the category average) as a way to cull any influencers who may be botting their accounts.
In researching influencers, there are a number of free and paid tools which can come in handy (but remember, nothing is a replacement for good old-fashioned labor and reviewing accounts individually). An algorithm should not be the deciding factor as to whether or not an influencer is a good brand fit. Some tools that I recommend include:
- For influencer identification and research: SocialBlade, SocialJunction, Tubular Labs, HYPR Brands and Influence Co.
- For engagement rates on YouTube: VidIq
- For Instagram engagement rates: CloutHQ
- For influencer engagement rates: WeFind and Woomio
4. Vet influencers.
Once we’ve compiled our list of influencers (mutually agreed upon with the client) we reach out to the influencers, set up phone calls and have conversations with them. We like to share the program and brand that we’re working on and hear from them what their thoughts are.
Is this a project they’re passionate about? Do they have their own ideas that they want to bring to the table? Do they have a personal history or connection to the brand? Are they available during the campaign? What is their budget/scope? What is going to resonate with their community and how do they think this campaign is going to be received? And, if anyone has odd engagement rates, but are unsure if they’re botting we ask them if they’re willing to share their first-party data and demographic information.
5. Select partners.
Once we have estimates and have talked to all the potential influencers, we then enter all of their prices and deliverables into a spreadsheet. We review estimated output (e.g., views, engagements) and compile a final list of who to work with. We take into account both the tangible items (e.g., costs and deliverables) as well as the intangibles (e.g., how excited they are, if they proactively brought ideas to the table), and if they showed a real passion for the brand and understanding of their audience.
Regardless, in going about identifying influencers in this fashion, we are able to avoid working with influencers that have fake followers as well as avoid countless other pitfalls that marketers often fall into. You get a deeper understanding of the creators, whether they’re a brand fit, as well as what the category relevant to your consumer is like. You establish baseline engagement rates and get a feel for how well the creators know they’re audiences. All this helps create more robust campaigns as well as avoid any fraud that may be out there.