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Published August 16th 2018

Fake it ‘Til You Make it (Or Don’t) Part 3: The Illusion of Influence

Allow us to drag you through the muddy waters of influencer marketing dark arts in the third edition of our Fake it 'Til You Make it series.

So far in our fake it ‘til you make it series we’ve explored events that boosted expectation but messed up the reality and how online stores make cheap goods look shiny to make big bucks.

In this post, we’re turning our critical gaze towards the concept of influence and how malleable online profiles and dirty tricks have allowed people and businesses to obtain the perception of it.

Influence (noun)

– the capacity to have an effect on the character, development, or behaviour of someone or something, or the effect itself.

To be influential you must have a causal effect on the world. Your actions might cause other people to take similar ones – for example, to buy a certain brand of makeup. But, as influencer marketing has exploded, in some cases the only people an “influencer” really influences are brand managers that pay them money based on an inflated follower count.

Get ready to explore the shadier side of influencer marketing.

Fake followers

In June, Unilever CMO Keith Weed said: “At Unilever, we believe influencers are an important way to reach consumers and grow our brands. Their power comes from a deep, authentic and direct connection with people, but certain practices like buying followers can easily undermine these relationships.”

The firm announced that it would not work with people who buy fake followers.

I spoke to Nick Taylor, Product Marketing Manager for Brandwatch’s Audiences (a tool that can help brands find influencers small and large). He told me he’d heard from clients how ubiquitous fake followers are within the influencer marketing field. “The biggest culprits are the ‘professional influencer’ types – people whose main thing is influencer marketing – who try to build a presence on social with the aim of making a living from it,” he said. “But minor celebrities, actors, musicians are guilty of it too.”

Buying fake followers is easy, and it’s easy to see how tempting the practice might be to a wannabe influencer looking to boost their worth. After all, a high follower count is often enough to entice a marketing team to engage in talks about possible partnerships. That said, the market appears to be wising up to the questionable value of having a large follower count, and it’s not always good – especially if many of those followers are fake.

Buying followers leaves the same kind of sour taste as video game companies who include “pay to win” mechanisms in their games. It feels unfair and undemocratic, perhaps even against the shared values of the internet.

There is some progress being made when it comes to inflated follower counts, though. Twitter recently removed a significant amount of locked accounts from the platform, meaning follower counts are now more representative of the number of real users who pay attention to that account. Twitter’s Vijaya Gadde writes:

“Follower counts are a visible feature, and we want everyone to have confidence that the numbers are meaningful and accurate… This specific update is focused on followers because it is one of the most visible features on our service and often associated with account credibility.”

Other ways one might go about creating illusion of influence

Even if your followers are real, there are plenty of ways to appear more influential than you actually are.

1. Paying writers to list you as a notable personality alongside more ‘genuine’ influencers in respected publications is one way. You can also do the same for your business.

2. Meanwhile, writing for free on fairly open platforms like the Huffington Post’s old blog system makes it easy for anyone with a keyboard to paint themself as a thought leader. Free content suits publishers for the extra visits bought in by unpaid contributors, and those contributors benefit from further exposure. Whether their content, often driven by self-aggrandizing motives, benefits the reader is up for interpretation.

3. Boosting perceptions of your own talent by using other people’s content is not uncommon on the internet, even among the social media elite. One influential photographer with 100k followers recently apologized for using stock photos on his Instagram page.

4. You could also form alliances with other influencers and continuously big each other up – not necessarily a dodgy thing to do, but questionable. You may have experienced clubs of influencers relentlessly retweeting each other in what is, if you’ll pardon the phraseology here, effectively a digital circle jerk that elevates their reach to new audience members. This might not seem too bad in social spheres like parenting bloggers, but when it comes to vast networks of “influencers” tweeting particular political messages things feel a bit murkier.

5. Another easy approach is to inflate your credentials in your bio. One author might purport to be the Founder of an up and coming (fictional) business with a vague af mission statement and scant contact details on the website. Potential followers who don’t do their homework could easily buy  into the image of them as a successful entrepreneur.

6. Influence doesn’t need to be on a big scale, either. Vice writer Roisin Kiberd interviewed a guy who used Instagram to tell the story of a life lived in luxury with private jets and fancy watches, despite the living on a deceitfully modest salary. His reasoning? Likes and female attention. “The budget return leg trips offer a service perfect for our Catfish age, where it’s all too easy to fake your own pictures: they go one step further by faking a real experience,” writes Kiberd.

Growing distrust

Now we’ve dragged you through the muddy waters of the influencer dark arts, you might want to go and wash your face. Stick around – there’s a brighter side.

While negative stories around influencers are becoming something of a trend recently, alongside it both consumers and brands are becoming more wary of the influencers they trust either with their opinions or their social spend.

There’s a line between an Instagram account that’s a genuine presentation of a person and their interests and a thinly veiled profit making mechanism, and we’re all learning to recognise it.

How to deal with influencers with brand safety in mind

There’s nothing wrong with working with influencers, but brands should always be cautious.

Influencers ought to be treated just like any other ambassador for a brand and a robust vetting process ought to be put in place. Firstly, look beyond follower count and get a broader view of the results an influencer can drive.

“The focus on ‘reach’ among marketers is driving fraud in influencer marketing, as creators are encouraged to value their own monetary worth on the basis of their follower numbers,” says Matt Donegan, chief executive of influencer marketing platform Social Circle quoted in City AM. “To make the industry more transparent for brands, the key is in measurement and changing the definition of success.”

Reach, as Donegan hints at, is often an empty metric. Find other metrics that work for your own organization.

Next up when you’re looking at an influencer is to check out their history. Historical social data can help you research whether the influencer shares your brand’s values by checking for particular online behaviours (a history of online bullying discovered after you’ve sent the cheque is probably not going to make your boss happy).

With lots to think about, working with influencers that are easy to find and have come up in previous projects might be tempting, but putting the work into finding influencers who have a genuinely engaged audience in your field of interest is so worth it.

“One of the main problems our clients told us was, while there are many different tools out there, they tend to return the ‘usual suspects.’ There’s really a small pool of these big influencers and many of them have already worked with all the competition. While these mega influencers can often have a good reach and can give campaigns some great looking numbers, the actual ROI they are delivering can vary wildly.” says Nick Taylor.

He continued: “We really want to help clients with the discovery part. By starting from the audience and looking at who they are engaged with and influenced by we are able to side-step the issue of fake followers or the ‘wrong kind of reach’. The best thing about this is you’re looking at a different metric to anyone else – so while someone might have a small number of followers (who’d be missed usually) they might actually have a high level of influence over a specific audience, especially if you’re clear about who it is you are targeting.”

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