Earlier this summer in Cannes, Unilever’s CMO Keith Weed announced their push for greater transparency in the influencer marketing space. This marked the highest-profile answer to recent media attention around influencers who have paid for vast hordes of their followers.
Fraud is the strong, but arguably suitable, term used for this situation. Influencers paying for huge numbers of fake followers makes it near impossible for businesses to measure real impact and create better experiences for consumers in the digital ecosystem.
No matter the media storm, those within the influencer marketing space know that this is no new discovery. We have already been pushing for better influencer transparency for some time, practically since the inception of social media influencer marketing.
However, now the issue has hit the big time, we are likely to see a number of parties pointing fingers and burying their heads in the sand. With a little help with some excellent answers from @InfluenceHour, we explore who has a role to play in increased influencer transparency and how they should be doing it.
It appears, at least on the surface, that the major villains here are the influencers. Padding out their follower counts with fake followers in order to get more attention from brands and getting deals based on their perceived reach.
But how guilty are they really?
As Unilever put it, these influencers are effectively selling a fake product at a premium price. Whether that is in monetary terms or otherwise, brands are investing substantial resources into working with influencers and their reach is undoubtedly part of that investment decision.
In marketing themselves with fake followers and fake engagement they are failing to be accurate, decent, truthful and honest. As I understand it these are some of the yardsticks by which @CMAgovUK measures the validity of advertising in the UK #influencehour #Influencermarketing
— Scott Guthrie (@sabguthrie) July 5, 2018
But let’s not forget, if brands put less value on reach and more value on the real benefits of influencer collaboration we would likely see much less in the way of vast fake audiences.
In addition to this, fake followers don’t necessarily mean purchased followers. To penalise influencers based on a factor which is effectively out of their control is ludicrous.
If they’ve bought them, yes. But you can’t stop bots following you, and I’d say potentially 10-20% of all followers will be bots and spammy accounts, so you can’t blame them for that. However, if they’ve knowingly done it, it’s miss-selling and that’s a fraud issue #influencehour
— MrMarkDandy (@mrmarkdandy) July 5, 2018
Are influencers at sole fault for this issue? Certainly not. But they are the source of it. Responsibility lies with them for eradicating the purchasing of fake followers as well as limiting the number of suspicious accounts that follow them.
We have already established that brands are in no way guilt free when it comes to the fake follower issue. In fact, the whole situation was arguably started by the importance put on figures such as reach and engagement by brands in their marketing campaigns.
A2: I also think it's their responsibility – it's a responsibility to their shareholders (that alone should motivate them). It's also a responsibility to their employees to make sure the brand reputation isn't negatively affected by partnerships with bad actors. #InfluenceHour
— Ariel Dekovic (@arieldekovic) June 28, 2018
Of course – these figures matter. But when brands make their decisions purely based on these, is it any wonder that influencers turn to dubious methods in order to boost their numbers and make themselves more attractive?
Instead, brands should focus on the wider picture. Including various metrics and KPI’s that make up a fuller picture of the benefits of influencer marketing. These should range from expert content creation through to Earned Media Value – depending largely on the wider business and marketing goals.
That's absolutely correct. As we study EMV across industries, we find far deeper value in certain metrics for certain industries because they lead to either engagement that will get to a conversion or deeper engagement for future opportunity. #influencehour #influencermarketing
— Eric R. Burgess (@erburgess) June 28, 2018
Agencies & Consultants
Agencies and consultants deliver on behalf of brands. However, a large part of their role is education.
This then goes to show why they too are responsible in large part for the development of influencer transparency. However much shade we throw on brands for pushing ridiculous measurements of success, the majority of these brands will have been advised on these measurements by an influential external party.
In many ways yes. They hold influence over the industry in large…many businesses will follow. However, big businesses will also be influenced by demand from consultants, agencies, influencers etc…it's a two way street!
— Owain Williams (@ojawilliams) June 28, 2018
IM Software Providers
So, the influencers have a big part to play in improved transparency…but will they all play ball? It’s unlikely.
That is where the role of software providers come in. In theory, this is less a responsibility of these providers and more an opportunity for them to add increased value to the industry and their customers.
As the go-to places for influencer discovery, campaign and relationship management, offering both information and data on influencer audiences will go a long way in helping agencies, consultants, brands and even influencers understand fake follower percentages.
Yeah, totally. That's why we already working on Instagram Influencers top that will be free for all https://t.co/OkozuzNpf9 . And our tool is free for bloggers because we believe that transparency and trustful relationships should be the essential part of the market.
— Aleksandr Frolov (@aleksandr4bd) June 28, 2018
As the land in which influencers live, should social media platforms be playing a role in influencer transparency?
Arguably, as a duty to real users of their platform, social media platforms should be aiming to clean up any accounts that are fake or suspicious in nature. This allows them to create a worthwhile community where people can ‘socialise’ without interruption.
On the flip side, is it really their responsibility to monitor and control the actions of influencers that operate on their platform?
In my opinion – no. Put it this way…Are car manufacturers responsible for the policing of bad drivers? No. Are breweries responsible for policing the drinking habits of their customers? No.
No because the platforms want to make their own money. To be fair to the platforms, they are just the tracks the trains run on. It’s not up to them to police influencer behaviour. It’s why we as an industry exist to be honest. #influencehour
— MrMarkDandy (@mrmarkdandy) July 5, 2018
HOWEVER. Social media platforms are likely to take an interest in influencer transparency, purely from a self-preservation standpoint. Although these platforms arguably do not make money directly from influencers (yet), they are major content creators that attract repeat use of the platform, indirectly impacting profits.
This may be, in large part, why we have seen Twitter’s latest announcement that they are purging vast numbers of fake accounts from their site.
With the word ‘fraud’ being bounced around in tandem with this issue, we can argue that government bodies should be stepping in to police and offer guidance on the matter.
We have seen little guidance (UK) so far on this matter, rather seeing a focus on transparency between brands and influencer to their audience (#ad etc).
As marketers, we would like to see government agencies including the ASA and Trading Standards stepping in to offer guidance and police the issue of fake followers.
— Simon Burrell (@InfluencerScout) July 5, 2018
I think it’s an issue for Trading Standards to be honest. It’s a form of mis-selling. It’s almost like advertising. ITV doesn’t kick advertisers off the media roll if the breach rules, the ASA steps in asks them to change it. #influencehour
— MrMarkDandy (@mrmarkdandy) July 5, 2018
Clearly, all those operating in the influencer marketing space have some responsibility or vested interest in helping to develop influencer transparency. Although we are likely to see a period of finger pointing, all those involved should be working together to make this happen. The exclusion of even one party in this process will likely lead to failure.