Local influencer Wendy Cheng (Xiaxue) launched a new video spot examining the statistics found on social media analytics site Social Blade. This led her to speculate which influencers are buying followers on Instagram to bolster their numbers. The video guest starred radio DJ and YouTube personality Dee Kosh (whose real name is Darryl Koshy), and examined inconsistent or unusual spikes in the influencers' follower graphs.
In a conversation with Marketing, Cheng said she was notified of the Social Blade service by a friend in the PR field. She explained that many of the popular Instagram pages she came across had "pretty girls who take nice pictures" and high followers, and it was in most cases totally believable. “I checked every popular account I could think of and was so surprised. Many people were dropping followers (like me) and many who weren’t appeared to have very suspicious [looking] spikes,” she said.
Cheng added that she wanted to garner awareness to how “artificially inflated many influencers' Instagram followers are” and yet nobody seems to be talking about it.
“This is a huge problem for marketers who decide to hire or sponsor largely based on popularity, which is defined by the amount of followers. Even if they looked at engagement rate (amount of likes/comments) it can still be bought,” she said.
[This] industry is shit and full of dishonest try-hards. They need to be called out,” she added.
Since its posting on YouTube on Friday, the video has led to the release of statements from some of the influencers mentioned in the spot. This includes Cheesie, who came out in full disclosure of what happened with her following. The video also sparked a conversation surrounding the issue of fraudulent behaviour such as buying fake followers on social media. Meanwhile, some of the known faces that the video mentions are Jianhao Tan, Brad Lau (Ladyironchef), Melissa Koh, Yoyo Cao, Naomi Neo, Nicole Choo, Yutaki James and Bong Qiu Qiu, to name a few.
Unfortunately, the issue of buying fake followers and likes is not new to the influencer/marketing community.
Tan Sze Wee, chairman of ASAS, said that marketers need to thoroughly audit the quality of the publisher’s traffic when publishing a campaign. He told Marketing that:
Advertising should be a space that can be trusted for advertising, and those who purchase likes undermine that trust and in the long run ruin their own marketing credibility.
Tan also quoted the “Guidelines on Interactive Marketing Communication and Social Media” that were released last year, which form part of the Singapore Code of Advertising Practice (SCAP), under point 3.6 on the use of social engagement tools.
“Social media uses tools to encourage, measure and trace user engagement. Marketers must not boost the user engagement of a website, a social media channel or their content through fraudulent means,” the code read. Examples include the purchase of bulk “likes”, the creation of fake accounts and the use of programmes that generate page views.
Whose responsibility is it anyway?
However, with marketers constantly being time starved, it is not unusual that some checks fall through the cracks. Many often rely on their social media partners to ensure that they aren't being duped.
Lee Nugent, regional director APAC, Text100, said everyone involved in the chain, including the marketer, has a responsibility for ensuring the legitimacy of followers.
Moreover, there is a need for influencers to be ethical and understand that if they are called out for not being transparent, it can potentially destroy their credibility. While there are plenty of tools available that help identify fake followers, there is also the need to apply intelligence to mapping influence in the first place, Nugent explained. As such, marketers need to look out for influencers who have gained unusual spikes in follower numbers over a very short period.
Influencers with legitimate followings will usually (although not always) exhibit smoother, organic growth in followers.
Phil Adrien, general manager of dentsu X Singapore, too emphasised that marketers need to do their homework before engaging in influencer marketing.
“As much as the social media platforms themselves are combating bots, fake accounts and paid fans, influencer marketing is about much more than just working with paid influencers, who can resort to such tactics to artificially boost their perceived reach,” Adrien added.
How marketers can better safeguard themselves
Agreeing with them both was Prantik Mazumdar, managing partner at Happy Marketer, who added that the onus of checking the legitimacy and credibility of the influencer lies on the client, and the agency partner who is hiring the influencer. Mazumdar outlined three ways marketers can safeguard themselves.
Post click metrics: The first is a greater focus on broader post-click metrics such as time spent on site, click-to-lead conversion rate, acquisition rate and cost per acquisition. This is to mitigate the risk of any kind of click fraud – be it in influencer marketing or programmatic campaigns.
Define your influencer: Next, with regard to influencers, clients and agency partners should first define who and why someone is considered an influencer. This should be based on brand relevancy and affinity, rather than size of the influencer's follower base.
“On many occasions, partnering relevant micro-influencers work much better than just signing up ‘influencers’ who have a large follower base, irrespective of them being real or fake,” Mazumdar said. He added:
At the end of the day, clients should prize credibility, authenticity and relevance more than random reach.
Do your due diligence: Lastly, once clients identify their objectives, metrics and the corresponding influencers for the campaign, they should check on their influencers. This is not just in terms of the scale and credibility of their follower base, but also assess the efficacy of their past campaigns in terms of reach, clicks, conversion and cost per conversion.
“Clients must be very clear about the objective of influencer marketing programs, what metrics to use to measure success and do some due diligence to mitigate their risks,” Mazumdar added.
Meanwhile, Nugent added that brands need to examine how the blogger is engaging with their community; and how that community is engaging with the blogger in return.
“While there are tools out there to determine the presence of fake followers, they are not a substitute for having a real person look at influencer content and assessing from there. But if this proves too time-consuming, brands would be well advised to engage the services of an experienced marketer or agency with a solid track record in running influencer campaigns,” Nugent said. These partners may better understand how to identify and quantify engagement and is able to prove they can not only identify relevant influencers, but they can also vet them for legitimacy, he added.
For dentsu X’s Adrien, rather than looking at the stats of individual influencers, marketers and agencies should look at how they can build action-orientated KPIs for the brands around the totality of their engagement and influence.