In the light of the recent furore around influencer fraud, Caroline Duong, CEO of Zine, looks at how to spot fake followers and bot-driven engagement.
Unilever CMCO Keith Weed was right when he condemned the practice of social influencers buying fake followers and using bots to drive engagement during this year’s Cannes festival.
Arguably, the core reason this has reached such problematic proportions is due to brands selecting influencers based on vanity metrics such as follower numbers alone. Our own research shows that a whopping 41 per cent of influencers are only asked to demonstrate their follower numbers ahead of a paid collaboration. With this attitude towards metrics, how could influencer fraud not become a problem?
Influencer marketing has become a lucrative business. By 2020 it is estimated that it will be worth over $5bn. This has presented a huge opportunity for fraudsters to offer would-be influencers a whole host of options to skew the popularity of their accounts.
The fake follower issue
First on the menu is fake followers. There are hundreds of outlets offering ‘genuine followers’ for a relatively small fee. These outlets vary in sophistication, with users having the ability to even specify the county of their new fanbase. So how do you spot fake followers? Here are our some things to look for:
Click on an influencers’ follower list and randomly check some profiles. Check their follower to following ratio: While ‘fake accounts’ may have a small amount of (random) content, a profile pic, and even a link to a website, they are likely to be following thousands of accounts but only have a small number of followers themselves.
High follower number/low engagement - if your influencer in question has thousands of followers but a 0 per cent engagement rate, it is more likely that they have bought followers.
Follower spikes - peaks in follower numbers are a very good indicator of purchased followers.
Follower drops - a large drop in an influencer’s following in one day may seem as a counter-intuitive indicator - but Instagram does take the issue of fake accounts seriously and conducts regular purges to get rid of those accounts. If an influencer’s fake following is hit by such a purge, their account will potentially lose a large number of their followers. That definitely takes down their percentage of fake followers - but would you want to work with someone who potentially bought followers in the past?
Location - anomalies in the location of an influencer’s following can also be an indication of dodgy practices.
So, if follower numbers can easily be faked, surely engagement is the best way to determine which influencers to use? Well, yes and no…
The problem here is that bots can be used to boost engagement. Bots are programmes used by Instagrammers to execute a number of automated actions, including Likes, Comments, Follows, and Direct messages.
There are two effects of using a bot to boost engagement and following for an account. Firstly the account using the bot, if used heavily, might temporarily look like a fake account, with a high following-to-follower ratio. Bots are often programmed to follow as many people as possible, and then start un-following the ones who didn’t follow back.
Secondly the account will get higher engagement, views and likes from users who are not actually following the account. Following someone, liking their picture or messaging them directly draws attention, so the bot-operated profile will get a boost in engagement from its activities.
So now we not only have an account with artificially increased engagement, we also have a bot or ghost follower. Therefore most public profiles will have ‘bots’ following them despite not being in the business of buying followers. It is therefore important to understand how to spot purchased engagements.
Firstly, look at what the comments say. Have a look at the content, and see who is making the comments. If comments are random words or emojis - often generic and unrelated to the content of the post – this suggests bought engagements or bots
Secondly, spot check a few of the accounts that have commented or liked. Do they look like fake follower accounts described earlier? Also, look to see if any of the content gets a sudden spike in engagement. If so, it is likely this was induced by a purchase.
Influencer marketing can be an incredibly powerful tool, but like all marketing channels, only when it is executed responsibly and correctly. To stamp out fake followers and bot engagement brands need to carry out stringent due diligence using the tips above to ensure that the influencers they are engaging are genuine.