Influencer marketing is broken, can we fix it?

Stakeholders of the influencer economy agree that the attempts to clean up the ecosystem or ‘drain the swamp’ are welcome, but not enough.

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On June 20, two days after Unilever CMO Keith Weed called for ‘urgent action’ to tackle influencer fraud, an Indian Instagram account that goes by the handle Diet Influencer began calling out influencers for buying followers. 

A month later, Twitter launched a clean-up of its platform, removing inactive and locked accounts. And now, the most-sought after platform for influencer marketing, Instagram, has started systematically weeding out fake likes and followers using an AI technology that can spot fakes. 

Diet Influencer (@diet_influencer) has called out 70-odd influencers who have benefitted from working with leading brands over the last few months. In an e-mail response to exchange4media’s questions, the administrator of the account said buying likes and followers has become more accessible and less expensive than earlier, making it easier for people to fake metrics. The spokesperson (who sought to remain anonymous) attributed the surge in influencer marketing over the past year to the ease of buying likes and followers.  

A mere Rs 50 can buy one 5000 likes and for Rs 100 anyone can acquire a following of at least 1000. This is no secret. Even brand managers and CMOs know that influencers buy likes and followers, yet their spends on influencer marketing is on the rise.

“It is counter intuitive, right!” says Karan Kumar, CMO FabIndia. Kumar extensively works with influencers to reach out to his target audience on Instagram because social media platforms offer marketers like him unparalleled reach and engagement. 

He says that while he and marketers like him cannot be sure of the percentage of fake followers on an account, influencer marketing itself is not under doubt. “None of us can actually stand up and say that all of this complete humbug! The problem is we realise that there is a certain degree of falseness to the number that is being quoted, but as long as that is in the low double digits and high single digit, it will never be enough for a marketer to pull the plug on putting in monies behind these campaigns,” he says bluntly. 

The delta that comprises fakes, which marketers are taking the risk on, is sometimes as high as 70 per cent, says Pranay Swarup, CEO, Chtrbox, an influencer marketing agency. Swarup tells us that on an average, almost all active users have a 2-8 per cent follower-base made of bots. “However, for people who buy followers, this can range from 20-70 per cent,” he adds.

Vanity Metrics

People who wish to become influencers are driven to buy followers because those are the broad metrics that brands and agencies look at and also it helps them catapult into the 10,000 followers band to unlock some valuable features. Any influencer using the Instagram account needs a minimum of 10,000 followers to access some business features like adding links in stories. “To grow to 10,000 organically will take people a very long time. So the fastest way to get there is to buy followers,” explains Prashant Puri, CEO, AdLift.

All stakeholders of the influencer economy agree that these attempts to clean up the ecosystem or ‘drain the swamp’ are welcome, but not enough. “The current model of influencer marketing is not helping anyone - neither the genuine influencers, nor the brands,” says Richa Gupta, a food blogger (@my_foodstory). 

Ankit Dhame, a photographer and filmmaker, who uses Instagram and YouTube extensively, says that often agencies themselves drive people into buying followers. Dhame (@pixelsior) says that in the interest of getting the job done and making a buck along the way, agencies indulge in malpractices and do not alert brands if an influencer has bought followers and likes. “Brands are so short-sighted that they do not care about the quality of influencers they are working with,” he adds. 

It is not just short-sightedness but simply crude implementation that also plagues influencer marketing. “Sometimes all that a brand wants is a post with some predefined content, and no real integration with the influencer’s style of content, simply based on the number of followers a person has,” says one blogger. 

According to Diet Influencer, both marketers and agencies are to blame for creating a model that is broken. “All the marketing people know that the influencer they are working with is fake! It's their own motive that prevents them from reporting the influencer.”

The influencer marketing agency makes money by charging the brands based on the number of followers an influencer has. So they will always want to quote more and use the blogger with most followers. A genuine blogger with 10k followers will fetch them 5k from the brand. But a fake 100k-influencer can even get them 30-50k. So if it was up to the influencer marketing agencies, they would never want to break this process,” says the admin of Diet Influencer. 

The clean-up by both Instagram and Twitter attack automated fakes but not fakes generated manually. Often Instagram influencers join Instagram Pods or Whatsapp groups of 15-200 influencers who share their posts on the group to seek likes and followers. 

Everything Can be Bought

Mature approach to influencer marketing is slowly kicking in. As per the India Influencer Study by Zefmo, in 2018, around 92 per cent marketers were expected to launch at least one influencer campaign. In addition, 62 per cent were planning to increase their budgetary allocation towards engaging social influencers. These brands which are looking at outcome-driven campaigns are looking for more meaningful campaigns, bloggers feel.

“Now brands are smarter than earlier. They do not look for metrics like number of followers. They want to know the TG of the influencer, the quality of interaction before collaborating,” says Nicole Concessao, a dancer and choreographer (@eat.love.dance). 

Instagram is in fact offering deeper analytics on impressions, reach, and engagement. For example, users with a business account can now access data on the number of times a post was saved, or even shared via Direct Message. However, even these new metrics can be fudged by bots, influencers say. 

“Anything and everything can be bought easily. Followers, comments, likes, views, impressions, reach, shares, subscribers, reviews, etc. So metrics will always fail to give the real picture,” says the admin of Diet Influencer. The admin says even ‘Saves’ can be bought easily and are very cheap. “Since the Direct Message feature is a relatively new insight that Instagram has brought in, no one's selling it yet. But it should be there soon. Hence, all metrics can be fudged easily,” says the admin. 

The fix?

Kumar says that first brands must stop being in denial about the problem and accept the problem to find a solution. He also says that the marketing fraternity’s expectation is that platforms will take far more serious view of themselves and create mechanisms that constantly police what’s happening on the platforms. “They cannot shirk responsibility when they have the kind of user base that they have generated. If they do not get any actions, the monies will eventually dry up,” Kumar says.  

Platforms have started the clean-up act in order to reassure brand owners and brand partners who are finding it hard to measure ROIs because of the proliferation of fraudulent practices.  

Influencers and agencies say there needs to be a change in the mindset of marketers and brands towards influencer marketing. Swarup says, “Earlier influencers were only looked at for their distribution strength and brands wanted their content to be amplified via influencers. The trend needs to be more about brands looking at influencers for content creation done with unique styles and perspectives.” 

Diet Influencer suggests that the success of a campaign should be on tangible terms like sale, conversions, sign-ups, etc. “This should be the basis of payment to the agency and they will automatically do their job.” 

Finally, third-party measurement! That’s on the wishlist of every marketer who simply has to believe the claims of the platforms or the agencies running the campaigns. Kumar says that an international body that can audit platforms and influencers and the claims they make is the perfect solution for him. Until that happens, marketers like Kumar need to trust their agencies to get the best results for them.  

 

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