The rise of influencers posting fake sponsored content to appear more lucrative to brands is just the latest fraudulent activity to hit influencer marketing, and it should encourage marketers to reassess how they choose partners.
From purchasing fake followers to using engagement and follower apps, the term ‘influence’ today can, unfortunately, connote inauthenticity and fraud in its most negative form.
It’s a concern echoed by the industry, with a recent survey by Influencer Intelligence showing marketers rank fake followers and bots as their greatest concern relating to the practice within the industry.
The profitability for individuals in an industry where an Instagram post can attract a five- or six-digit fee has inevitably attracted opportunists wishing to cash in. And in order to quickly reach a position that is alluring to brands, some individuals have resorted to unethical and illegal methods.
Calls to clean up the industry by rooting out fraudulent behavior have resulted in brands exercising due diligence and deploying fraud detection analysis to identify fake followings, as well as the platforms themselves attempting to tackle the infinite task of continuously removing fraudulent accounts.
However, where there is a will there is a way. And despite attempts to counteract fraudulent activity, new methods to enable individuals to monetize this booming industry unlawfully will inevitably continue to emerge.
This has been demonstrated by the latest trend in unethical practice: fake sponsored content.
Several influencers have openly admitted to creating non-sponsored content that appears as a paid endorsement would complete with brand terminology and hashtags, in order to appear more in demand by brands than they actually are.
The expansion in types of fraudulent activity suggests further action is needed to prevent the problem escalating further. Because while there is opportunity for unlawful behavior to occur, it will.
Building better partnerships
To purify the industry, brands needs to remind themselves of the genuine definition of influence when making decisions about partnerships.
Instead of focusing primarily on followings and engagement, the deciding factor on who to work with needs to be based on the individual and their ability to really influence a consumer into action.
Love Island, which dominated headlines surrounding influencer marketing during its two-months on TV, has driven contradicting headlines. These range from exposing the fake follower volumes on contestants’ social accounts to the huge remuneration winner Amber Gill is likely to receive from brand endorsements. This is despite the fact Gill herself has been accused of purchasing large sums of her to her 2.7 million Instagram followers.
This is a perfect example of the grey areas surrounding influencer marketing and the controversies that tarnish the industry. There is no denying Love Island can be lucrative if a brand is looking to push product for a quick win, but this isn’t true influencer marketing.
The celebrity isn’t using knowledge, talent or values to help persuade an individual to purchase that product. Instead, a brand is buying access to an audience on a platform to showcase their product. This, in essence, is influencer advertising and not influencer marketing.
True influencers don’t need to buy followers, employ bots to increase their engagement or appear in demand to brands.Sarah Penny, Influencer Intelligence
That’s not to say that this technique isn’t successful for the right type of brand and objective, as it has proven over decades through methods of product placement.
For example, no one has ever questioned the authenticity of ET’s affinity to Reece’s Pieces, or the Stranger Things gang’s frequent proximity to a Burger King. That’s because advertising doesn’t rely on recommendation or affinity by an individual, it is focused on the brand’s message to an audience. It is within this space of the industry that there is the ability for fraudulent activity to operate.
By contrast, influencer marketing should drive value from the influencer’s recommendation and expertise that aligns with the brand. It means working with real influencers and thought leaders who possess an expertise and talent that has attracted their following. If Instagram closed tomorrow, true influencers wouldn’t feel the effect. That’s because they have an existing talent, expertise or profession and have built their community around this voice, rather than having an audience that is built as a means to work with brands with no defining value or belief set.
It is this method that will ensure brands see the most return and protection for their reputation. Is there a more authentic brand message than a credible chef incorporating a food or drinks brand into a dinner party menu; a vegan activist creating content for a vegan beauty brand, or even an esteemed fashion journalist creating a capsule collection for a clothing brand because they actually believe in it?
This is where the USP of influencer marketing lies.
This, in turn, will organically minimize the risk for brands to create inauthentic content and be associated with those that are engaging within fraudulent activity.
True influencers don’t need to buy followers, employ bots to increase their engagement or appear in demand to brands. Any collaboration that comes their way is as a bi-product of their talent or expertise, and it is this that brands should be mindful of.
For those brands conducting influencer marketing to its true potential, the issues with fraudulent activity and authenticity become redundant, because influence itself is impossible to purchase or fake.
Sarah Penny is head of content at Marketing Week sister title Influencer Intelligence, the platform for brand and talent partnerships.