Brands want influencers with organic followers, but how can they know?

A recent report released by Points North Group claims that big brands are spending large portions of their advertising budgets on influencers with fake followers. The study is clearly designed to draw attention to Point North’s Instascreener tool, which claims to solve the problem, but the stats alone have attracted a fair bit of coverage. According to the report, in 2018 over 50% of some big corporations’ influencer budgets were wasted on fake followers.

Worldwide, most of this money is going to users of Facebook-owned Instagram, which is part of 93% of social media campaigns (Facebook and Youtube each get about half that). In Vietnam, the stats are a bit different: Facebook gets more attention due to its over 60 million users, making up nearly two-thirds of the country and ten times that of Instagram. But Instagram’s high growth rate in recent years and younger user base should ensure that its share of the social media influencer market continues to rise.

The Unavoidable Insta-fake

In Summer 2018, Instagram made changes to its algorithms from merely chronological to emphasizing “interest, timeliness, and relationship” in users’ feeds.  With these in mind, is the continued furor over fake followers justified, or are they an inevitable feature of any social network that places a value on follower counts?

The fact that sites offering Instagram follows at low rates continue to thrive would seem to be evidence for the latter – obviously there’s still a demand. The accounts these services use are generally dummy ones created just for this purpose, whether automated or centrally managed, which charge extra for likes and comments. More advanced “amplification services” login as their clients themselves and employ bots to search for and engage people with similar interests, theoretically enlisting real followers.

Despite their limitations, for a would-be newbie influencer these services may be their only viable entry point. People are more likely to follow an account if it has other followers already, so an investment in fake followers at the start can grant one the illusion of credibility, leading to an influx of real followers. Back in 2014, The Guardian linked this trend to the innate human tendency to follow the crowd – so-called ‘social herd theory’.

Of course, the problem for social media marketers is that fake followers aren’t going to buy their products or spread their messages, and the presence of fakes means that follower count is an unreliable measure of an influencer’s reach. Knowing this, they may use engagement rates as a better metric; an influencer with fewer followers may be a more worthwhile investment if their engagement rate is high.

The Micro shift

The shift in priorities has led to the rise of micro-influencers, one of the big marketing stories of 2018. These influencers have smaller followings and consequently less reach (barring a potential viral post), but they are perceived among their fans as offering more genuine endorsements. This perception, combined with dramatically lower cost, frequently results in better ROI as well as higher engagement and conversion rates – up to 20%, by some estimates – as long as the product these micro-influencers promote is on-brand with their usual content.

As the previous Guardian piece pointed out, popularity has an inevitable peak. After a certain point, an influencer’s rise stabilizes and fans start falling off or at least paying less attention (accelerated if they go through a scandal). Increasingly, the voids they leave behind are not being filled by other celebrities, but by a plurality of micro-influencers. Of course, even among these smaller personalities concerns remain about the authenticities of their followings. After all, the smaller they are the closer they are to the early days when paying for followers is most tempting. It’s hard to argue that a famous person everybody knows isn’t actually famous, but less difficult to say that a niche is smaller than it seems.

So what’s the solution? A change in conventional wisdom, for one. Various guides have popped up to help people improve their followings organically and actualize their accounts’ potential. Tips to attract attention include posting on popular topics (and using hashtags strategically), using a variety of networks and media, connecting to more popular users, and paying attention to post times to catch audiences at their most active.

These strategies may be even more relevant since Instagram claims it is cracking down on both fake accounts and those who employ fake followers, using machine learning to detect amplification services and deleting hundreds of thousands of accounts by late 2018. Whether this will pay off for them – and what it means for social media marketing as a whole – remains to be seen, but with the industry evolving at its current speed we won’t likely have to wait long.

By Derek Wells, an International Relations Associate and Copywriter at @EloQ Communications (formerly Vero IMC Vietnam).