The Price of Popularity: Influencers Weigh in on Fake Followers
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Earlier this month the influencer industry got a wake-up call. In a time where a blogger’s follower count can mean the difference between charging hundreds and charging thousands per collaboration, the true price of influence was thrown into question in a tell-all New York Times exposé. The piece implicated celebrities and politicians, models and sports stars alike in the murky industry practice of buying followers and paying for engagement.
Since then, industry debate has thrown into question just how prevalent this practice is among influencers. While some see this as evidence of an influencer bubble poised to pop, others - us included - are welcoming the growing culture of transparency that sees these issues being brought to light. In an industry where regulation is still largely playing catch-up to innovation, exposing these kinds of questionable tactics helps the sector to mature and become more validated and transparent.
Some commentators have gone to the extreme of heralding this as the death of “non-strategic influencer marketing”, suggesting that this watershed moment will be the catalyst for a shift in the way brands approach influencer collaborations. Instead of seeing influencer marketing as just an advertising spend, we’re hoping this will inspire brands to take a more holistic, strategic approach to influencer campaigns: one that ensures true audience alignment, engagement and conversion.
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From the influencer’s perspective, industry tactics like this are not just frustrating for those doing the right thing: they are also undermining the trust that they rely on to sustain their collaborations.
“It’s something I've known has been happening for a while, [but] there hasn’t been the spotlight on it in a formal way, so I’m glad to see that happen,” Jane McKay from I Wear Melbourne tells Shopping Links.
“It’s frustrating and adversely affects those who aren’t doing it, and it impacts the brands and the people relying on this data being accurate when it’s not,” she says.
In an industry where popularity is social capital, the pressure for bloggers to continually grow their audience is intense, according to Jasmin Howell of Friend In Fashion.
“I think [buying followers] is a product of the environment created by social media - it thrives off popularity, so naturally there is always a drive for people to seek more and more,” she says.
A response to Instagram algorithm changes
It’s not just a thirst for popularity that has driven some bloggers to pay to boost their numbers. As Howell observes, Instagram’s changing algorithm may be pushing desperate bloggers to turn to bots when their organic reach falters.
“I think Instagram's changing algorithm really is impacting the network - for the worse,” she says.
These algorithm pressures mean it’s “harder to stand out and get noticed”, according to Howell, who sees a direct correlation between Instagram’s algorithm changes and the rise in fake followers.
“I only follow a handful of people and I rarely see 80% of the people in my followers list,” she says.
In 2016, Instagram switched from a chronological algorithm to one where the most relevant content is pushed to the top of your feed. Since then, brands and influencers have had to either boost their organic reach by encouraging engagement, or pay to be seen.
Howell observes that there is a “lot more manipulation of what you see and from who[m]” which has created a space where “quality content yields little value anymore” because audiences no longer see the content they subscribe to.
With Instagram’s algorithm tailoring which posts you see based on engagement and popularity, Howell observes that most organic engagement and authentic content now gets lost in the feed.
“Instagram used to celebrate beautiful imagery & community …now with the algorithm I see what is prescribed for me to see –the inspiration has been lost,” she says.
McKay agrees, adding that she’s “been in the same boat” as other influencers who have seen a dramatic drop in their organic reach and engagement as a result of these changes.
“Our engagement is so inconsistent and it’s frustrating and upsetting: you feel stressed when you’ve got a brand paying and you can’t guarantee a deliverable when you could have 1-2 years ago,” she says.
“People are desperate to have the same engagement they had 2-6 years ago, but with the algorithm that’s not easy.”
Engagement over Authenticity
Not only have these algorithm changes prioritised engagement over organic authenticity: they may also be discouraging influencers who joined the platform for the love of creating inspiring images.
Emily Tomini of Loved By Emily observes that the algorithm “put a lot of the bloggers doing organic reach off” by favouring accounts that were showing the most engagement – whether real or manufactured.
Tomini now sees this as a chance to drive industry change and encourage influencers who are passionate about creating content their audiences love – rather than those just looking to land the highest-paying collaborations.
“It’s good to know that the brands are noticing these type of things, brands are getting smarter, and it will make it a more equal playing field,” she says.
“I think because people are having this discussion now, the tone can change –it might turn around and become a more [organically] involved space”
Spotting fake engagement
As bot technology gets more sophisticated it becomes harder to distinguish fake engagement from authentic interactions. For now, at least, there are still a few tell-tale signs to look out for.
“You can tell a lot of their followers are random accounts when they post their photo and their likes are growing by the hundreds in a matter of seconds,” Tomini advises.
Looking to the comment sections for meaningful discussions between the influencer and their audience is also another great sign of an engaged, authentic following, according to Tomini.
“It’s important to still be engaging with your audience: people like to feel included, people like to feel that genuine connection, and that's what I would look for if I was a brand,” she says.
McKay suggests looking for abnormalities – a big spike in followers, for instance, or “the same people commenting on every photo” as indicators of bought engagement.
She concedes that improvements in bot technology mean “it’s not as easy to spot as it was 12 months ago,” but instead encourages brands to go “old-school” in assessing an influencer’s engagement: whether they’re seeing results for what they’re paying for.
“Brands should ask themselves, what have I got in return? Have I gained followers, have I sold any [products]? That’s your reassurance at the end of the day,” McKay says.
What can you do now?
Rather than seeing influencers as simply a follower count and reach metric, brands should instead treat them as partners and collaborators: valued for their knowledge of and engagement with their audience, rather than just a means of mass-distribution.
Tomini says brands should do their due diligence when selecting influencers: from understanding their content and values, to deep-diving into the make-up of their audience base.
“For brands, I would spend some time going through accounts and go through their comments to see the type of engagement they get and the type of content they are producing,” she advises.
Approaching micro-influencers with highly focused, targeted audiences is another way for brands to ensure exposure to engaged and loyal consumers. Similarly, approaching collaborations with the intention of creating meaningful, long-term relationships will help brands see a greater ROI on their spend as the influencers they work with gain a deeper understanding of the brand’s aesthetic, audience and values with each campaign.
“I think consistency is really important, as well as establishing ongoing partnerships based on results rather than one offs,” Howell advises.
If you’re approaching an influencer for the first time and want to ensure genuine audience alignment with your brand, gifting product is a great way to gauge their social reach. By observing an audience’s response to a gifted item, you can tell whether their engagement with your brand will be authentic and involved, or whether your product will be passed over in the Instagram feed.
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If you’re looking to determine the audience alignment of a broad range of influencers, then product seeding campaigns can allow your brand to reach a wide selection of targeted audiences without payment to post. From these campaigns, you can see which audiences were highly engaged with your gifted products, allowing you to compare the effectiveness of various influencers before you enter into a paid collaboration.
While these tactics will help you identify those influencers with loyal, engaged audiences, we believe that having an authentic follower base should be the industry norm, not the exception.
Shopping Links is certainly not fool proof but we personally review every influencer who applies to be a part of our network. We also integrate as many tools and technologies as we can to help identify trends and patterns that may indicate an anomaly in audience authenticity. Conversations like this also help educate our brand partners and are instrumental to the progression of the industry as a transparent, trustworthy and reliable marketing channel.
If you want to take the guesswork out of collaborating with influencers, Shopping Links can help, from choosing the right influencer from our personally vetted network of 14,000+ bloggers, to managing strategic product seeding and gifting collaborations. To request a demo, or to contribute to any of our future stories, contact us at email@example.com or follow us on Instagram at @shoppinglinks
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