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Closing in on influencer fraud

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The influencer marketing industry is under increasing scrutiny amid growing concern over the prevalence of fraud. And, in the absence of firm action being taken by regulators, trade bodies are taking steps to address the issue of many influencers not being all they claim to be – buying up followers, likes, and views to artificially boost their profiles in a bid to attract lucrative endorsement deals from brands looking to reach their supposed audiences.

These fakes are costing companies dear. Marketing agency Mediakix estimates the losses could be up to $100 million a year.

It claims the influencer market could grow to be worth $10 billion by 2020, in what the agency’s CEO and founder Evan Asano describes as a “gold rush.”

In the wake of revelations in recent months over the sheer scale of the problem, comms trade bodies are demanding urgent action to combat fake influencers.

The lines between advertising and traditional PR have become “blurred, with most PR and communications agencies employing earned and paid media strategies,” according to Francis Ingham, director general of the U.K.-based Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA). “Therefore, the PR and communications industry should act in order to crack down on this issue. Brands and agencies have a responsibility to educate themselves about influencer marketing and share best practice.”

Taking a lead

The PRCA is looking at this issue as part of a wider piece of work addressing ethical standards and digital communications – Ingham says “more will be announced in this area shortly.”

A major problem facing the wider marcoms sector is a lack of leadership when it comes to whose responsibility it is to crack down on fake influencers, with clients, agencies, and regulators all having an interest.

Over the past year, Mediakix has exposed just how easy it can be to cheat the system, by creating totally fake influencers who secured brand sponsorship deals and offers of free stays at hotels and meals at restaurants.


PRWeek has previously revealed how this kind of fakery has been aided and abetted by companies that provide Twitter followers, targeted Facebook likes, Instagram followers, and even YouTube views.

Influencer advertising is regulated, but the fundamental issue of whether influencers are even real, or what they purport to be, is not.

A persistent problem

The problem is not confined to Twitter and Instagram. YouTube has indicated to PRWeek that billions of views each year are fake. The Google-owned video-sharing platform would not disclose a precise figure, but says, “Our teams work very hard to manage spam views to less than 1% of all views.” In the U.S. alone, that 1% equates to more than 5 billion views.

In the U.S., a new trade body – the Influencer Marketing Association – was recently established in response to the threat from fake influencers.

And clients are increasingly concerned about being deceived by influencers.

Keith Weed, chief marketing and communications officer at Unilever, drew a line in the sand earlier this year. He announced in June Unilever would not work with influencers who buy followers, its brands will not buy followers, and the business will prioritize partners who “eradicate fraud and support increased visibility and transparency.”

The number of followers or likes an influencer has should not be regarded as a reliable measure of success, according to industry experts. Other factors, such as engagement and ROI, should be considered.

Facebook is taking steps to “increase authenticity and transparency” of pages and announced in August it will force those with large followings to go through a new authorization process to “make it harder for people to administer a page using a fake or compromised account.”

Instagram is poised to introduce similar features and said these will allow people to see more information about accounts with large audiences.

Quantity versus quality

Recent studies have highlighted the extent of the problem.

Research done by HypeAuditor for PRWeek analyzing more than 7,000 U.K. influencers reveals about half the followers of influencers with up to 20,000 followers are “low-quality,” due to the inclusion of mass followers, bots, and other suspicious accounts in their followers’ ranks. It found more than four out of 10 engagements with this group of influencers are “non-authentic.”

Companies should check out prospective influencer partners in the way they would when taking on a member of staff, according to Scott Guthrie, an independent strategic adviser on influencer marketing.

“When selecting a new employee, you undertake background checks, gather references, and check qualifications,” he notes. “You do digital due diligence. You look through the candidate’s LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter accounts. You check that nothing potentially damaging sticks out, and the person is who they say they are. You do it because this candidate-employee would be representing your firm. Influencers are representing your brand, too. So ,you need to check an influencer’s appropriateness for working with your client.”

It may be daunting, but there can be no delay in dealing with fake influencers. As Unilever’s Weed has remarked, “We need to take urgent action now to rebuild trust before it’s gone forever.”


This story was excerpted from an article that appeared on


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