Social Media Platforms Need To Do More When It Comes To Fake Followers

In the current Influencer Marketing (IM) wild west the debate around fake followers continues to be a hot topic of discussion. After Keith Weed, Unilever’s Chief Marketing Officer, announced in Cannes that the company won’t work with any influencers who buy their followers, the industry has yet again been thrown into turmoil. As more resources are invested in Influencer Marketing, more questions seem to arise, and marketers need answers in order to ensure that their money will be spent wisely.

The industry appears to be at a turning point, and as of this week Unilever:

  • won’t work with influencers who buy followers
  • has promised its own brands will never buy followers
  • will prioritise partners who increase their transparency and work to eradicate nefarious practices throughout the digital ecosystem

Just a couple of months after the API changes by Facebook, another big shift in the Influencer Marketing space is just around the corner. But if you think that it’ll all be fine if the “worst comes to the worst”, you are wrong.

Firstly, we need to accept that discussing this and other issues is a good thing for the Influencer Marketing industry, the more we debate on topics like this, the better the experience will eventually be for customers, Creators and marketers. Secondly, we must accept that every influencer, just like any Internet user, is likely to have a degree of fake followers (malicious or otherwise) – and it’s the extremes and nefarious practices that we should be concerning ourselves with.

The market continues to mature and demand more transparency, which is key to its future growth. As happened in the case of the Internet, Facebook and many other major industry players, issues have driven change and have often resulted in positives for the industry as a whole. Attempting to cheat the system is not a strategy, it is rather a boomerang that can come back to haunt you when your aim is to build trust. As Keith Weed highlighted, “We need to take urgent action now to rebuild trust before it’s gone forever.”

We need to take urgent action now to rebuild trust before it’s gone forever.

Keith Weed, Chief Marketing Officer at Unilever

We need to start by addressing how Influencer Marketing has historically been perceived in the minds of many marketers. The main issue being that IM has been sold as a tool to reach a certain number of people within a target audience and often taken up as an afterthought by marketers when panicking. Naturally, the influencers with the higher reach were initially the ones that everyone wanted to work with. Then we saw the rise of the micro-influencers, Creators capable of achieving a higher engagement due to their authenticity and good reputation among their peers. Reach has continued to be traded as a commodity, while the question has shifted to “what does ”reach” actually mean?” How much of the engagement produced was from real people? And ultimately, how much of that engagement was actually related to the campaign’s content? These questions are relevant not only for stakeholders involved in Influencer Marketing campaigns, but for the social media landscape as a whole. 


The role of social media platforms

The answers to these questions remain elusive because the platforms where the activity is taking place have yet to come up with robust alternatives or countermeasures. The digital ecosystem that Weed refers to are the social media platforms themselves and includes players such as Instagram, possibly the network with the best available tech to spot fraud, among the many others involved in this game. They have more data, more power and now even more reason to take action than ever. If they want advertisers to invest and consumers to spend more time on their platforms, they need to clean up their acts and get rid of the detritus. At the end of the day, social media platforms are benefiting from the inherent value of “high reach”, whether fake or not, because they are delivering results to their customers (marketers). The higher the reach, the more likely they are to invest in repeat advertising. Now that the discussion is shifting, the issue of fraud remains unresolved.


Technology is key

At Buzzoole, we have taken several steps to tackle the issue and continue to evolve our approach to help us stay ahead as things evolve. Our stance is to go beyond simply detecting fraud, but to look at the overall health of the audience in its entirety. This is a complicated business and I’ll give you one example here…

We have developed an algorithm that can automatically spot suspicious influencer growth and fake engagement. Based on the analysis of millions of posts the algorithm will automatically identify influencers who “cook the books” by tracking reach and engagement over time, relative engagement, numerical markers and engagement cartels. Here the jargon gets complicated and you need to have some statistical know-how to manage the matter without sounding banal. To make it simple, you look at spikes and anomalies in reach and engagement. The creators that look suspicious are firstly warned and eventually banned from our platform. But what if an influencer has gone viral and gained some media exposure on a specific day? That is likely to have impact on their reach and engagement, as well as to be flagged as fraud. If 15% of Twitter accounts are fake, all of us are likely to have some fake followers. We can manually delete some followers that appear fake, but we can’t prevent new ones from following us. Twitter has cracked down on bots associated with the Russian propaganda (red-flagged by an excessive number of activities performed by a follower e.g. high-volumes of reposting) and this is a good example of a measure that social media hubs could do to tackle fraud. We can’t expect influencers to scour and manually delete their own fake followers one by one, and equally we can’t automatically ban everyone who has some degree of fake followers. As always, the devil is in the detail!


Collaboration and transparency

The gauntlet has been thrown down and the industry is finally accepting that while fraud has always existed, agreeing to passively accept it, can’t be considered a solution. It is in everyone’s interest to eliminate fraud from Influencer Marketing: platforms like ours value and want to keep working with prominent players like Unilever and Creators want to keep working with brands and Influencer Marketing platforms. Marketers want to be loyal and provide value to their customers and consumers and will not risk corroding the trust they work so hard to build. The only straightforward answer is collaboration. This conversation needs to continue. Third party agencies, research firms, associations such as the IAB and consumer unions are also crucial for this process to succeed. All players and stakeholders need to play their part in finding a solution, but with the knowledge that this is a long game and with an acute awareness, that with success will always come those who want to cheat or game the system.

At Buzzoole, we have recently launched True Reach, as part of our collaboration with Nielsen. Buzzoole True Reach is based on a proprietary algorithm designed by Nielsen to help brands and agencies understand the true reach of influencer marketing and establish a metric that can for the first time define how many users were actually reached during an influencer marketing campaign. This metric provides detailed information that brands can use to inform campaign spend and effectively measure ROI for the very first time. This combined with our approach to audience health gives us a more holistic view of the Creators that are most impactful amongst an active audience that has seen their content.

Another initiative we have undertaken is to launch the Influencer Marketing Reporting & Measurement Council, a monthly meeting with senior executives and budget holders from across the industry aimed at debating and getting out ahead of the main issues affecting  Influencer Marketing. Here we discuss the latest challenges with the people who work within the space, needless to say that the initiative, led by James Sharman, was warmly welcomed.

Transparency will prevail in the long run, that is why we want to approach the topic openly. The more questions we ask, the better the service we will be able to provide.

This post is also available in: Italian

Jenni Morrison is the US Country Manager at Buzzoole. Jenni has prior experience in the Influencer and emerging technology space having worked for TapInfluence, DubDub, Celtra and other leading AdTech companies. She is responsible for cultivating strategic revenue partnerships in the US & Canada in-line with Buzzoole’s global expansion.

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