Around one in eight Instagram influencers in the UK has purchased fake followers in the past six months according to CampaignDeus. The figure comes amid a World Federation of Advertisers (WFA) study which found marketers plan to up influencer marketing budgets – with Instagram named their platform of choice.
The WFA found that 65% of multinational brands have plans to increase their influencer investment in the coming 12 months. 100% said they already run campaigns on Instagram, however there's a sense of trepidation around future budgets; with 96% of respondents listing ‘quality of followers’ as a top priority when selecting which creators to work with.
Data from CampaignDeus has highlighted how difficult it is for brands to separate the wheat from the chaff.
Gleaned by scanning 700,0000 Instagram Influencer posts between January and June this year from a representative pool of 4,600 accounts, the study found that 12% of influencers had shown signs of buying fake followers.
The influencers analysed had account sizes ranging from 5k to 5m, with an overall industry average ‘engagement rate’ of just 3.2% on Instagram.
A troubling picture for advertisers
The issue of influencer ad fraud is one that found itself under a burning spotlight when last month. Unilever’s top marketer Keith Weed called for “urgent action” to clean up the ecosystem and immediately committed to stop working with any influencer found to be buying followers.
At the time, several other brands like Samsung, L’Oreal, eBay and Diageo also admitted it had been a problem they too were quietly trying to solve.
In the WFA’s report, which was based on a survey of 34 brands representing 15 categories and approximately $59bn in global ad spend, all respondents said they currently used influencers. All of them used Instagram, with the next most popular being Facebook (used 85%) and YouTube (67%).
However, despite a willingness to spend more marketers were clear that they’d only do so where standards on transparency were met: with 93% listing an influencer’s credibility and reputation as being ‘critical’ to the selection process, just behind follower quality.
"This research demonstrates that many across the industry share our concerns. Unilever values the relationships we have with influencers, but we have made it clear we will only work with those who don’t buy followers so we can be confident we are reaching engaged audiences through strong partnerships,” said Weed.
The WFA will now collaborate with members, including Unilever, using its findings as the starting point for the creation of best practice guidance to ensure that brands of all sizes are able to make the most of the influencer space.
Matt Donegan, chief executive of influencer platform Social Circle, said in his experience fake followers were primarily, but not always, used by micro-influencers on Instagram (people with at least 3000 followers).
"In fact, it’s the reason we don’t recommend number of followers as a valid metric. Only engagement matters. We also don’t experience it as much with mid - top tier talent," he added.
CampaignDeus’ insights, then, paint a troubling picture for brands. As well as showing that it's more crucial than ever for brands to clarify follower calibre, the study found that when brands get involved, engagement goes down.
Engagement rates across all sectors, like fashion, travel and beauty, on paid for posts were on the whole lower than influencers' average organic engagement rates, with parenting content being the only exception.
As for fake followers, Donegan said the influencer community itself is quick to call out the practice because it damages the wider industry.
"It illustrates why a ‘programmatic approach’ to working with influencers is risky and short sighted," he added.
But how can brands filter out fake followers?
The one in eight Instagrammers CampaignDeus said showed signs of buying audiences were given away by a number of factors including: demographic makeup; unexplained leaps in follower count; and unusually low engagement rates given account size.
One key giveaway, said the company is when a low proportion of the influencer's audience is from the same country. So, if a UK influencer doesn't have many followers from UK consider that a 'big red flag'.
Fraudulent activity is also expected when follower counts leap up without a corresponding increase in engagement or when engagement is consistently and unusually low to the corresponding account.
Stephan Loerke, chief executive of WFA, said that while influencer marketing was becoming a key channel it would only be effective if marketers can trust that they are "reaching real people not bots."
He added: "This area has evolved rapidly and this research provides a benchmark revealing how marketing teams and their external partners are managing the new channel."
Much of the role of identification and management has been outsourced, with 64% of advertisers using external partners to find relevant influencers and 63% using them to manage the partnership.
Bots aren't the only issue
Marketers transparency concerns also extended into the way that relationships were declared to consumers, said Loerke.
71% of respondents felt the way the relationship was disclosed was an 'absolutely essential' or 'very important' part of the selection process.
It's an issue that's been probed by both the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) in the UK and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in the US, but brands had a multitude of models for making that declaration, such as: hashtags; descriptions in the post/video; paid partnership labels; or a verbal mention being used 'always' or 'very often' by 68%, 63%, 43% and 50% respectively.