Will Influencer Marketing Survive Increased Scrutiny?

Quality, Not Quantity: A Shift is Underway in the Way Brands View Influencers

In a year where online ad platforms have come under increased pressure, it’s no longer just Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube that are under the microscope, but also the community of “influencers” that exist on those platforms.

Whether or not you are engaged in influencer marketing, it’s a trend you need to be paying attention to. According to AdWeek, influencer marketing represented a $2 billion industry in 2017, with projections rising to $10 billion in 2020.Influencer marketing is paying a social media user with a wide following for a post about a product, brand, or issue. A recent study from Rakuten Marketing found that prices for a single post can range from around $2,000 to almost $100,000 for an influencer with over a million followers or fans.

However, a shift seems to be underway in the way that big brands view influencers. Last week, Unilever’s Chief Marketing and Communications Officer called out widespread fraud in the industry, joining a growing list of large companies with a declared skepticism in the influencer space.

The problem stems from the widespread practice of buying followers, in particular fake accounts known as bots. As one former influencer recently told Digiday:

“Everyone knows it; some people admit to it — everyone buys [followers].”

The scale of the fake follower problem is huge. In January of this year a New York Times report analyzed Twitter data to expose a vast network of bots employed by various influencers to rapidly grow their following. Facebook recently admitted to disabling nearly 1.3 billion “fake” accounts in just the past six months. For influencers who sell access to their following, fake accounts have proved an easy way to increase the value of their product. And with little to no regulation the practice has been hard to police.

So, has the tide turned on the influencer marketing industry? Despite the fake account epidemic the appeal is still clear. In an online world where attention is at a premium (and ad blocking is rife) having your content introduced to the user through a familiar and trusted voice has real power – and this is unlikely to change.

However we should expect greater skepticism form brands wondering if an industry that felt like the Wild West is actually closer to Westworld. For example, L’Oréal’s Chief Digital Officer has said that the company has “stopped viewing influencer marketing as a “transactional” media buy, and instead sought to forge long-term relationships with a number of cherry-picked creators by using a data to identify the most relevant people to appeal to a particular brand’s audience.”

There is also a coming squeeze on the source of fake accounts. This week Twitter announced that new accounts would have to verify and email address or phone number and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg called tackling fake accounts “by far the most important action we are taking.”

For now the best advice for those considering the world of influencers, both for influencer marketing and the organic outreach more familiar to political and advocacy campaigns, is to focus on quality and not quantity. Spend time asking the question “who” rather than “how many”, and try to really understand how their audience matches up to your targets. Where possible, don’t begin by looking at the influencer, but instead examine your eventual targets, identifying the common follows and widely shared content. You will find that the real influencer is rarely the one who charges $100,000 per post.

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