Fake social media influencers became a real headache for marketers. Widespread and difficult to identify at first sight, fake influencers keep deceiving brands and costing them millions of dollars in wasteful investments.
Want to avoid getting scammed? Discover how to always pair up with the right influencers and generate incredible results from your influencer marketing campaigns.
Influencer marketing is booming.
Its global market size grew from just over $1B in 2017 to $1.6B in 2018, and is expected to reach a whopping $2.4B in 2019.
This means that between just 2017 and 2019, companies will have increased their spending on social media influencers by around 250%.
Sounds impressive, right?
But even though influencer marketing budgets are on the rise, not all the money is being well-spent.
In fact, a sizeable share of companies' marketing budgets goes towards so-called fake social media influencers who, in a nutshell, are people buying fake followers to appear famous. Fake influencers are also notorious for building fake interests - something we'll discuss in more detail later.
Unfortunately for businesses, fake influencers are rampant across the industry. Unilever's CMO Keith Weed claimed that an estimate of 40% of influencers have bought fake followers at some point.
This means that companies collaborating with influencers are likely losing money on users with fake following. And if you're investing in influencer marketing, you're at risk of being scammed, too.
So, how can you stay away from fake influencers?
The first step is learning who they are and where they come from.
The rise of fake influencers: Who, where, and how
Let's take a closer look at who fake social media influencers are.
Fake influencers are people or fake accounts who built a large following using purchased followers or bots.
Even though buying followers might sound like a pricey and complicated process, it's actually cheaper and easier than you think.
For example, you can use the BuzzDayz website to buy 15,000 Instagram followers with a single click for as little as $55.
You can also take building your fake image up a notch and buy fake likes - say, 250 for a mere $2.49.
Imagine you want to become a micro fake Instagram influencer with 30,000 followers and 250 likes under each of your first ten posts.
Using services such as BuzzDayz and Stormlikes, you can achieve your goal for just $134.90.
Knowing that an average charge for an influencer post on Instagram is $1,000 per each 100,000 followers, you'll be able to make around $300 for a sponsored post.
This sum is over 2x bigger than what you invested in building your profile - which explains why so many people are interested in becoming fake influencers or owning fake influencer profiles.
Now, you might be wondering how long this fraud has been going on.
It's been taking place since the first services selling fake followers and likes appeared, which is a good couple of years.
For a long time, though, the issue of buying followers and engagements was kept off the record.
The owners of fake influencer profiles took advantage of brands' lack of experience with influencer marketing and tricked them into paid collaboration. As a result, a lot of businesses ended up paying for promoting their products or services to fake accounts and bots.
A bigger discussion around fake social media influencers broke out in the summer of 2018, when Unilever announced they were cracking down on working with influencers with fake following and bots.
The company's decision put the issue of fake influencers in the spotlight and had brands question the quality of influencers they were working with.
The conversation around fake influencers happened just about time, as the problem has clearly spiraled out of control.
According to research by an anti-fraud company Sway Ops, a single day's worth of Instagram posts tagged using the hashtags #sponsored or #ad contains over 50% fake interactions.
In addition, more than 15% of influencers who sign on to create sponsored content never actually put together a post.
How is this possible? And how come brands still fall for fake influencers?
How fake influencers make up fake interests
We have already explained how fake influencers trick brands using skewed social media metrics, such as number of followers and interactions.
But there's one more trick up fake influencers' sleeve that they use to deceit brands - making up fake interests.
Fake social media influencers are great at building compelling profiles around particular interests. They know exactly how to create appealing bios using relevant hashtags, and post high-quality visuals touching on popular topics, such as fashion, beauty, or travel.
Just take a look at this Instagram profile of a travel influencer Amanda Smith:
The account looks legit, doesn't it?
In reality, though, it's completely fake.
The Wanderingggirl Instagram profile was set up by an influencer marketing agency Mediakix in an effort to demonstrate how easy it is to become a fake influencer.
As you can see, the profile looks neat and put together. This is largely due to the use of free stock images, which is a common practice among fake influencers.
Thanks to the selection of free stock images, fake social media influencers are able to create professional-looking profiles around specific interests.
This practice enables fake influencers to get brands' attention and strike lucrative deals - like the ones earned by Wanderingggirl whose worth totalled over $1,000.
But that's not all.
There's one more way how fake influencers use fake interests to decept brands.
Some fake influencers create profiles around specific interests, but they don't manage to generate enough engagement.
So, to artificially inflate their interactions volume, fake influencers post content that's unrelated to their usual area of interests, but that helps them boost their engagement rate.
How does it work in practice?
An influencer might post content around the topic of skateboarding that doesn't resonate with their audience. So, to earn more interactions, the influencer occasionally publishes posts about a newly released computer game which is a hot topic on social media.
As a result, the influencer's overall interactions volume goes up, making brands think he or she is a really popular skateboarding influencer.
Clearly, leveraging fake interests is a powerful tool in the hands of fake social media influencers.
UPDATE: Since this article was first published, media reports brought to light yet another type of influencer marketing fraud: fake business deals.
Many influencers post fake sponsored content using characteristic hashtags, such as #ad, and tagging brands, even though they've never made any business deals with the brands they're promoting.
Influencers claim they follow this practice to increase their value as potential business partners. They believe that a large portfolio of commercial involvements helps them land more campaigns which, naturally, translates to more money.
But if fake influencers are armed with phony metrics, interests, and business deals to deceive brands, can marketers even fight back? And, if yes, how?
Let's take a look at some tactics.
How to spot fake social media influencers
Knowing how to identify fake influencers is absolutely essential to make influencer marketing work for your business.
It will help you use your budget on the right influencers, meet your influencer campaign objectives, and deliver ROI.
Here are seven proven tactics on how to spot fake influencers:
1. Measure the influencer's engagement volume in relation to their audience size
One of the most effective ways of identifying fake influencers is calculating their ratio of interactions to followers.
If an influencer has a large audience, but only few interactions, there's a chance he or she has fake followers.
This chart shows an Instagram profile that has an unusually low volume of interactions and suspicious gaps in engagement, despite being followed by over 70,000 users.
To be able to evaluate an influencer's engagement in relation their audience size, look at their number of interactions per 1,000 followers. This metric will not only help you immediately understand an influencer's engagement rate, but also easily compare the effectiveness of different influencers.
2. Check the influencer's strength of interests
As we said before, the overall volume of interactions isn't a reliable indicator that the influencer is real or that they're a good match for your audience.
To make sure you're pairing up with a legit influencer that's the right fit, look into their strength of interests. In other words, check which interests they're getting the majority of their engagement on.
Let's say you're on the lookout for a travel influencer. You find one who collected a great number of interactions, but only on posts about makeup products. Such influencer surely isn't someone you should work with.
They're not receiving interactions consistently on topics that matter to you, meaning they won't be effective for your business.
If you want to make the most of influencer marketing, always choose influencers who are generating interactions on relevant interests.
3. Look into the influencer's posting consistency
Fake social media influencers will often publish several posts when they're first setting up their profile to make it look credible. After that, they either publish content at rare, irregular intervals, or stop posting altogether.
Authentic influencers publish content on a regular basis to engage and grow their audience. That's why the lack of posting consistency on the influencer's profile is a major red flag showing they're either unprofessional or fake.
There's something wrong with this influencer's Facebook page - between August and October 2018, he or she only published 10 posts. The publishing frequency is off, too.
4. Check the influencer's follower growth over time
Looking at the influencer's follower growth over time can be very telling. Genuine influencers will have a steady follower growth as they consistently build their audiences over time.
This chart shows a suspicious increase in followers number between August 28th and September 4th. You can also see that a lot of users unfollowed this account right before this period - all of which is alarming.
Fake influencers, on the other hand, are characterized by unusual changes in their audience size. They can experience huge follower surges or dips after purchasing a bulk of fake followers or using mass follow apps.
5. See if the influencer engages in conversations with their followers
The main goal of real influencers is building a loyal, engaged community around a shared interest. That's why they often engage in conversations with their audience and actively reply to questions and comments from their community.
If an influencer stays silent and doesn't ever respond to their audience, it's a warning sign showing they might be fake.
6. Make sure the influencer has a Business profile on Instagram
If you're planning on collaborating with Instagram influencers, make sure they have a Business profile.
An Instagram Business profile allows influencers to monitor their key metrics, such as profile visits and engagement, and present them to brands interested in collaboration.
An influencer who doesn't have a Business profile on Instagram is unable to prove their effectiveness. It is also likely that they're trying to hide their poor performance from brands.
In any case, an influencer not monitoring their own performance is untrustworthy and it is likely that he or she is fake.
7. Research the influencer on Google
Researching the influencer on Google is a great way to check whether they've been involved in any campaigns in the past.
Just type in the name of the influencer into the search bar, and see what kind of results pop up. Can you see their sponsored posts, articles describing their involvement in advertising campaigns or interviews? These are all signs that the influencer is likely authentic.
PRO TIP: For a quick overview of brands that have previously worked with the influencer, use Emplifi Influencers. You will be able to see all the companies who have mentioned the influencer on social media as well as brands mentioned by the influencer.
There are two things you need to pay attention to when researching the influencer on Google.
One: the influencer might not show up in the search results if they're not famous or followed enough.
Two: always verify any information about the campaigns the influencer took part in. This is critical, as previous commercial involvement doesn't rule out the possibility that an influencer is fake. There are brands who wasted lots of money on influencers with fake followers.
In short, Google can give you tons of information about the influencer. But it's always better to also look at the metrics mentioned above to verify your findings.
How to find authentic influencers for your business
Now that you know who fake social media influencers are, how they operate, and how to spot them, it's time to answer the most important question:
How do you approach finding authentic influencers for your business?
Use a tool that will allow you to discover influencers, track their performance metrics, and check if they engage their audience on topics that are relevant to your business.
With the Emplifi influencer marketing platform, you have access to a vast database of influencer profiles. You can also refine your influencer search by using hashtags and mentions.
For example, let's say you're a restaurateur looking to work with food influencers using a popular hashtag #freshfood.
By typing the hashtag into the search bar, you'll get an instant overview of influencers tagging their content with #freshfood.
Once you filter out influencers that best fit your needs, you will see their profile cards with key metrics.
As you already know, these metrics are especially important to understand whether the influencer is authentic or not. There are two criteria that will help you immediately spot fake social media influencers: their number of interactions per 1,000 followers and number of posts.
And that's where social media analytics comes into play. Analytics allows you to track the influencer's performance metrics more in-depth. For instance, you can monitor their follower growth, posting frequency, evolution of interactions, sponsored content or most successful posts - all of which will paint a more complete picture of the influencer's activity and effectiveness.
Most importantly, however, analytics will give you the ultimate confirmation of the influencer's authenticity. It will also enable you to invest in collaborating with the right people, so you don't waste precious time and resources on fake social media influencers.
Last but not least, make sure that the influencer is generating interactions on content around interests that matter to you. This way, you'll be able to choose your influencer with confidence and know they're for sure going to be successful with your audiences.
Influencer marketing is a great strategy to promote your business to new audiences.
So, don't let fake social media influencers stop you from achieving this goal!
By applying the tactics discussed in this article – such as looking into the influencer's performance metrics – you will be able to easily spot the fakes, and always collaborate with genuine influencers that will bring tangible results to your business.
Editor's Note: This article was originally published on socialbakers.com. Any statistics or statements included in this article were current at the time of original publication.