It’s either a brave new world or the wild wild west when it comes to social media. Or maybe it’s a little bit of both. The platforms, popularity, and algorithms seem to change on a daily basis. Not only does that make it difficult for those working in influencer marketing but it makes it more challenging for influencers to sustain a business in this space.

As a result, influencer fraud is rising almost as quickly as influencer marketing popularity. Although most marketers will agree that influencer marketing is an effective strategy, it becomes an increasing challenge to navigate the waters around influencer fraud. 

What is Influencer Fraud?

Fraud exists on every social platform out there and varies by degree. At an extreme, you’ll find entirely fake social media accounts. From names to photos to followers, the entire account is a complete fabrication.

Fake-Instagram-Influencer-Account-Wanderingggirl
As an experiment, Mediakix created an entirely fake Instagram account – that was successful! Credit: Mediakix

More common are accounts with inflated follower counts, which can  be outright purchased or acquired in more subtle ways like international giveaways.

As more and more brands are focusing on engagement in addition to follower count, fraudulent influencers are also buying engagement (in the form of likes and comments), or creating false engagement on posts.

Why and How Influencers Do It

With influencer marketing spend in the billions, it’s fairly easy to figure out why influencers fabricate or inflate their accounts: money. 

Micro influencers (generally those with 10-50k followers) can command at least $1000 per post while Mega influencers (with 1M followers or more) can see that number rise to over $100,000 per post.

But as brands are starting to look beyond follower count at metrics like engagement rate, influencers are finding ways to inflate that data as well. And when Instagram shifts its algorithm to reward naturally engaging content, influencers find ways to game the system as well.

Here’s how it’s being done.

Buying followers

For years, buying followers was as simple as making a payment and watching your account inflate virtually overnight by thousands of followers. Unfortunately, many of these followers were bots. This resulted in high follower count and low engagement. So follower services got smart.

When you Google the term “buy followers,” you’re instantly given a list of services offering “100% real followers.” Many of these companies exist in foreign countries where people are paid to log in and follow an account.

These services are getting more advanced and will now trickle out followers so that influencers see a steady growth curve as opposed to a jump overnight.

Loop Giveaways

Loop Giveaways are one of the latest techniques to come under scrutiny. While they aren’t as prevalent as they have been, it’s still a fairly widespread technique for increasing a following.

Typically a foreign-based company will provide a high value prize (like an iPhone)  and create a giveaway for the prize. In order for someone to enter the giveaway, they have to complete a series of steps, including liking a photo, commenting on a photo, and following multiple Instagram accounts.

There’s nothing inherently illegal about these but giveaways are usually attract “sweepers” or those that create accounts simply for the sake of entering a contest.

As a result, follower counts go up but the quality of the followers is inconsistent. 

When evaluating the following for an influencer, you should be considering the following:

  • Are these organic followers?
  • Are they genuinely interested in what the influencer is posting?
  • Will you get a return on investment simply because this influencer has the numbers?
  • Will you see the type of engagement you’re looking for?

But engagement is something that can be managed as well with activities lik comment pods.

Comment Pods

Engagement can be bought as easily as followers. Whether it’s likes, comments, or views, everything comes at a price. But a more common practice is the use of Comment Pods.

Comment pods are groups of influencers that work together to like and comment on each other’s posts regularly. The idea is to “trick” Instagram into thinking they’ve created a highly engaging post which will then show the post to a larger audience.

While the result may be desirable, this skews true engagement numbers for a particular post.

How Serious Is Influencer Fraud

According to CBS News, at least 15% of advertisers’ spending on influencer marketing is lost to fraud, costing them $1.3 billion annually.

After researching a study from cybersecurity firm, Cheq, they surmised the root of the matter:

“Brands typically pay influencers based on their reach, as measured by their number of followers. The snag, however, is that influencers sometimes buy fake followers, or continue to count followers who no longer engage on a given platform, meaning brands pay for eyeballs that essentially don’t exist.” 

While research continues to show that influencers garner a much higher level of trust than celebrities and even a brand’s own advertising, the presence of rampant fraud is likely to erode trust in influencers, by both brands and consumers. 

What You Can Do About It

If you’re looking for brand exposure on Instagram, consider what your goals are before you seek out the most populated accounts with the highest price tag. Often, a smaller, more authentic, more engaged influencer can bring more value to your brand than an elevated number of impressions. And you also want to make sure that the influencer reflects the values of your brand.

Once you’ve determined the list of influencers you’re interested in, you can check out their growth pattern with a free tool like Social Blade. But you have to know how to interpret the data. This article gives five metrics you can look at to help spot influencers that may be less than what you’re looking for. 

A suspect growth curve for an Instagram influencer
A suspect growth curve for an Instagram influencer
Desirable growth curve for an Instagram influencer
Desirable growth curve for an Instagram influencer

It also helps to work with an agency that is skilled in influencer research and vetting. At Blissful Media Group, we review influencer content and also use software platforms, like Julius, to help us review growth curves for follower counts, overall reach, and engagement rate. We pride ourselves on helping deliver authentic influencers that are aligned with a brand’s marketing strategies and goals.