Influencer Fraud is Rampant, And Here’s How to Avoid it


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Over the past few years, businesses of all sizes have turned to influencer marketing to reach target audiences that were otherwise inaccessible through other strategies. But unlike conventional marketing strategies — which businesses themselves control — influencer campaigns involve turning over some control of your brand to an outsider. When the arrangement works, it’s amazingly effective. When it doesn’t — a brand can suffer irreparable harm.

But reputational damage isn’t all that businesses risk when executing an influencer strategy. There are plenty of things that can go wrong with an influencer marketing strategy that could backfire on a business. And among the risks associated with working with influencers, there’s one that stands out: influencer fraud.

To help businesses avoid it, here’s a guide to influencer fraud. We’ll cover what it is, the different types of fraud that are common in the influencer market, and what businesses can do to avoid falling victim to it. Let’s dive in.

Understanding Influencer Fraud

To understand influencer fraud, it’s necessary to know a bit about the influencer marketing industry itself. It’s a massive industry — worth an estimated 10.24 billion dollars in 2021 — and still growing. And although the biggest influencers in the world are somewhat well-known, the vast majority of paid influencers are people whose public profiles don’t extend very far beyond their circle of followers. In truth, that’s what makes influencer marketing so effective. It allows for a type of microtargeting that’s impossible with other methods, and the ability to reach audiences that don’t engage through other mediums.

But it’s also why the industry’s so prone to instances of influencer fraud. When you combine the massive amount of money involved with the fact that marketers can’t possibly know the people they’re working with very well, you get a situation where fraud is all but inevitable. And it’s more common than many marketers realize. On Instagram alone, it is estimated that more than half of influencers engaged in some type of fraud in 2020, and that number’s likely grown since then.

Types of Influencer Fraud

Part of the reason that the topline numbers detailing the extent of the influencer fraud problem are so high is that they’re describing a wide variety of deceptions and other unsavory practices. Among those, the most common types of influencer fraud are:

  • Pods and Other Compensated Engagement – One of the most common types of influencer fraud involves the formation of pods — groups of 30 users or more — who agree to like and comment on each others’ posts to artificially boost engagement metrics.
  • Fake Followers – Another type of influencer fraud that involves the purchase of followers to make an influencer seem like they have greater reach than they really do. For businesses, it can mean paying far more to work with an influencer and diminishing returns on their investment.
  • Comment Bots – Another variation on the same lines as pods, which instead relies on a series of bot-powered accounts designed to create the illusion of an engaged audience for an influencer.

How to Spot and Avoid Influencer Fraud

Even though influencer fraud appears rampant on today’s most popular social media channels, there are some ways for marketers to avoid it. And most of them involve adding a few extra layers of due diligence to the process of designing an influencer campaign. For starters, marketers should:

  • Examine Prospective Influencers’ Follower-to-Engagement Level – One of the telltale signs that an influencer may be using fraudulent tactics is if their follower-to-engagement ratio seems off. Influencers that have large numbers of fake followers will likely have abnormally low engagement metrics. And those using pods or bots to boost engagement will often have engagement rates that don’t fluctuate much, no matter what they’re posting.
  • Look for Low-Quality Engagement – Another sign that an influencer might be trying to defraud marketers is if their engagement is often low quality. If the comments on their posts are either vague or little more than emoji-filled responses, they may be coming from bots or other compensated comment schemes. If an influencer gets comments that are relevant and track with what they’re posting about, they’re likely coming from real followers.
  • Beware of Unusual Follower Count Changes – When influencers resort to buying followers, it’s often possible to detect that by looking at their follower counts over time. Even though most artificial follower services now try to make the increases look gradual, they’re not perfect. So, if an influencer shows signs of any sudden increases in followers — even gradual ones — they should connect with well-received posts or other perceptible causes. If an influencer’s been posting the same six pictures of their cat and is gaining followers anyway, be wary of them.

Unfortunately, not all types of influencer fraud are easy to spot. But that’s where some old-fashioned legwork can come in handy. Marketers can create accounts on their target platform and simply try interacting with a sampling of the influencers’ followers. If they’re bots, talking to them is no riskier than what happens if you open a spam email — and it can make it obvious whether or not an influencer’s the real deal.

The Bottom Line

The reality is that influencer marketing is a valuable tool in the modern marketers’ arsenal. When done right, it has an impressive ROI — $18 in earned media per dollar spent by some estimates — and that can’t be ignored, rampant fraud notwithstanding. But by learning what influencer fraud looks like and how to avoid it, marketers and the businesses they serve can unlock the potential of influencer marketing and use it to great effect. With some luck, the information presented here will help them in their efforts. And with vigilance, it’s more than possible to mitigate the attendant risks.

Philip Piletic
I have several years of experience in marketing and startups, and regularly contribute to a number of online platforms related to technology, marketing and small business. I closely follow how Big Data, Internet of Things, Cloud and other rising technologies grew to shape our everyday lives. Currently working as managing editor for a UK tech site.


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