Influencer Marketing Maturation: Long-Term Solutions to Fighting Social Media Follower Fraud

While legacy digital ad mediums grapple with regulation, ad blocking, click fraud, cost transparency, and brand safety challenges, influencer marketing has become an effective alternative for brands to authentically connect with consumers. The channel has asserted itself as an essential part of the marketing mix for advertisers, with the industry on track to hit $10 billion in spend by 2020.

Wherever big advertising ROAS (Return On Advertising Spend) exists, big fraud is not far behind -- this proves especially true in emerging media. Traditionally, larger followings and stronger engagement rates have meant creators can demand higher prices… and the use of bots to manipulate metrics plays perfectly into this hand. Ignoring follower fraud means paying for unintegrous audiences.

75 percent of marketers surveyed by The Association of National Advertisers utilize influencer marketing. Because of the channel’s growing popularity and effectiveness, the fraud conversation has become a hot-button challenge for the industry to solve. Just ask Unilever’s former CMO Keith Weed, who declared the consumer goods company would ‘not work with creators who have fake followers and are driving false engagement.’

The Great Social Purges

The first wave of defense against follower fraud is the social platforms themselves. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and others have been purging staggering numbers of accounts and announcing it publicly.

Instagram deleted 10 million suspicious accounts in December 2014. Since then, the mass deletion of bad accounts has become more and more frequent; Twitter eliminates millions of accounts regularly. In May of 2018 alone, Facebook disabled 583 million fake accounts. Here is a timeline of the most-covered social platform purges:

The Great Social Purges - infographic

Though these efforts from the big social platforms are noble (and are by far the most effective first defense against fraud), they are not bulletproof. When the platforms suss out a new methodology and issue mass bans, the bot-makers adapt. It is a proverbial game of high-stakes whack-a-mole.

Bots remain a growing concern for the industry -- especially as influencer marketing investment goes global. While the social platforms focus on deletion, the broader third-party market is focusing on AI/ML-enhanced detection. And let me tell you, it’s getting good.

Technology-driven Fraud Detection

In an effort to develop a flexible methodology for spotting inauthentic creator audiences, CreatorIQ partnered with legendary network Fullscreen to dig deep into fake follower issues. The aim of this approach is to facilitate an easy quantitative check after several quantitative “flags” are generated automatically. Campaign managers can then vet potential content creators for legitimacy and audience integrity.

CreatorIQ and Fullscreen coined the sum of the flags the “Creator Integrity Quotient,” which is based off a variety of data points like:
  • Audience Locality
  • Audience Growth
  • Audience Engagement
“More companies are increasingly turning to branded content and creator partnerships to help drive marketing impact. It’s imperative that these companies have ways to distinguish fraudulent followings to avoid entering into costly and ineffective relationships,” said Maureen Polo, SVP of Brand Studio at Fullscreen.

“Authenticity is at the core of successful content marketing, and it is mandatory to have tools and processes that ensure legitimate influencer recommendations. At Fullscreen, we take our creator matchmaking process to heightened levels when selecting talent for brand partnerships to ensure powerful connections with both the creator and brand’s audiences.”

With solutions like the Creator Integrity Quotient handy, brands are better equipped to evaluate the legitimacy of the audiences they are reaching through influencer marketing. Some of the telltale signs of follower fraud are:

1. Many creators with fake follower issues have audiences that severely over-index in click farm hotbeds (like Brazil). Brands should identify these issues by evaluating audience composition before selecting creators.

Most creators with fake followers over index in Brazil

2. Brands should compare their creators’ audiences to established benchmarks. Generally, this can only be done via a wealth of historical data (i.e. by leveraging digital tools). Fraud flags will bubble up when pitted against dynamic benchmarks.

3. Creators with fake follower issues often have either sharp increases (purchased followers en-masse) or sharp declines (platform bot purges) in the size of their audience

4. Rapid follower growth without a commensurate bump in total engagements (and a decline in engagement rate) is a telltale sign of fraud.

5. The best way to evaluate engagement rate issues is with up-to-date benchmark data. By working with influencer marketing platforms, brands can watch out for creators who deviate too far outside of the “healthy” norm. Because these platforms aggregate mass amounts of campaign-specific social data, they’re able to generate statistically significant benchmarks against a large variety of pivots.

6. A flag on a report should not be automatically interpreted as a strike against the creator. In some cases, an anomaly may actually represent a unique opportunity for the right advertising partner.

Follower fraud is a growing problem for brands, agencies, and media companies engaged in influencer marketing. Though the social platforms are making valiant efforts to regulate the problem for advertisers, brands and agencies must proactively leverage third-party solutions for identifying and eliminating influencers with fraudulent followings.

To protect the brand and maximize campaign ROI, marketers must evaluate the integrity of their creators’ audience before entering into an advocacy relationship.

Written By Nate Harris, Director of Marketing at CreatorIQ.
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