The Drum’s social media executive Amy Houston explores the murky world of influencer fraud in the wake of recent BBC Panorama documentary Hunting the Social Media Fraudsters, and assesses the ripple effect it may have on the wider influencer marketing sector.
An investigation by BBC journalist Kafui Okpattah for its Panorama series uncovered a seedy side of social media that may take some users by surprise – fraud being touted as a lifestyle. Similarly to fashion or make-up gurus, these online stars brazenly boast flashy lifestyles and materialistic goals – with one person even self-identifying as the ‘Kim Kardashian of fraud’. The anonymous con artists steal private details and sell them on apps like Snapchat, TikTok and Instagram, with some amassing audiences of up to 150,000 followers. The marketing may be modern, but the crime is old hat.
Influencer partnerships can be extremely profitable, with many brands putting their faith (and ad spend) into the social celebs of today to promote a wide range of products, but do reports such as the Panorama doc harm relationships?
“Trust takes time to build and seconds to destroy. It’s easy to forget that influencer marketing is still a new industry that’s constantly evolving and developing,” says Mary Keane-Dawson, group chief executive of Takumi.
The volume of brand-influencer posts on social media has inclined in recent years, but it could be argued that consumer trust has declined. Takumi’s 2020 research found that 25% of all consumers are more likely to source news updates and opinions from influencers than journalists and established news outlets, but a more recent 2021 survey carried out by Clear Channel and JCDecaux found that 60% of Brits are more likely to trust a brand if it’s recommended by someone they know, while just one in five say the same for those used by influencers/public figures.
“Without trust, influencer content loses its efficacy, with potentially negative knock-on effects for achieving brands’ marketing objectives. And creator output can even cause reputational damage to brands if they are seen to mislead audiences or act fraudulently,” adds Keane-Dawson.
It’s the age-old question and one that lawmakers and social networks like to bat to and from each other: whose responsibility is it to protect social media users from being duped? “With so many parties involved, there is a growing blame game between the industry trade bodies, government, social media platforms, brands and influencers themselves,” Keane-Dawson says.
Earlier this year the UK government introduced the Online Safety Bill, which aims to ‘tackle harmful content online’, but some people have voiced concern that it won’t address the problem. In the BBC documentary Arun Chauhan, a solicitor specializing in fraud, says he thinks the bill “is not fit for purpose in the fight against fraud”.
Establishing a trusting relationship is something that takes time and needs to be nurtured. Brands that have close partnerships with their ambassadors will reap the rewards and feel more confident in achieving campaign targets. “The measure of true value is finding an influencer who has the right fit with your brand, someone who shares your values, who consumers trust, and who genuinely endorses your product over your competitors,” notes Hannah Walley, head of media and digital, Kantar.
Within the influencer marketing sector, many organizations make the mistake of working with online personalities that have the most followers but, at its core, social media’s heart lies in the community. “Stories like these can be damaging to trust in the industry,” Keane-Dawson says. “That’s why it’s so important that all parties involved take a strong stance against it and unite in fighting it. Doing so can help contribute toward repairing and recovering any damaged trust.”
Earlier this year the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) named and shamed prominent influencers on a new non-disclosure website whose content had breached rules regarding promotional posts. The Influencer Marketing Report found that there was a “disappointing overall rate of compliance” with rules regarding paid-for ads.
Regarding the new site, ASA chief executive Guy Parker said: “We prefer to work with influencers and brands to help them stick to the rules, but the first influencers to be named on this list have been given every opportunity to treat people fairly about their ads. It’s not difficult: be upfront and clear when posts and Stories are ads. If this doesn’t bring about the changes we expect, we won’t hesitate to consider further sanctions.”
In essence, trust means a firm belief in the reliability, truth or ability of whatever or whoever you place it in. Shocking revelations, such as the ones featured in the Panorama doc, will quite rightly cast a negative light on the industry, but I believe it is a wake-up call for brands to invest more care and time into having established and well thought-out campaigns based on ethics and community.
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