The term influencer used to mean someone who wielded great power and authority over their audience to the point that they could appear at an event and excite the audience into a sharing or buying frenzy, helping to increase a company’s market share overnight.

For example, you might have been a journalist, analyst, or author with credentials to justify why you’re onstage. These could include spending years toiling away at a well-established media outlet or having a book published.

Today though, the lines have blurred to the point that it is difficult to distinguish whether someone has the qualifications to back up their claims. While it is true that we are all influencers in our own right, “influence” can be dicey. As a result, it is important for companies and brands to know how to do it right.

Anyone can start their own blog thanks to platforms such as WordPress, write a lot of content, guest post on other blogs, and use services to get featured on top publications on the web, even if it’s only a 200-word snippet.

So, How Do You Gauge Real Influence?

From there, they can buy a social media following by paying for cheap, untargeted Facebook Page likes or straight-up buy Twitter or Instagram followers to make themselves seem like an overnight success – which can produce fantastic results and voila, you have a bonafide influencer or do you?

If you decide to buy your social media following rather than build it, beware, there are consequences. Some of them include damaged credibility, diluted marketing data, getting dropped from the news feed because of low engagement, or banned because buying an audience goes against the terms and conditions of nearly all social media channels.

With such a low barrier to entry, how do brands gauge real influence from fake? Let’s take a look.

Why You Need to Vet Influencers

As previously mentioned, the appearance of influence can be bought thanks to a demand for an audience. Unfortunately, this gives people the impression that anyone can build influence overnight. Couple that with the “fake it ’til you make it” attitude that many people have and you’re left with a recipe for disaster.

Many PR folks put faith into being able to use social media to quickly identify who the right influencers are. Often pressed for time, they rely on good faith that because someone has a large online presence, they must have influence.

Things don’t always work out that way though.

Even agencies such as Getty Images and Zuma have been tricked by a fake war photojournalist (with 120,000+ legitimate Instagram followers). He went undetected for years before his ruse was discovered, leading him to delete his online presence and disappear.

We might never know who Eduardo Martins is, but the companies who fell for his ruse were left red in the face. Like many of us, they assumed that his online presence and the “proof” that other reputable companies worked with him meant he was everything he purported to be. Problem is, everyone took shortcuts certain the others were vetting their influencers.

Identifying Influencers For Your Business

As it gets more difficult to spot real influencers, ensuring your company doesn’t fall victim is paramount to your strategy. Here are things to try.

1. Look for Mutual Connections

On Facebook, you can see whether you share any mutual friends. If you do, ask your friends about the person in question.

2. Chart Their Growth

Another way to vet someone’s influence is to look at their social media channel growth over time. Did they join Twitter a week ago and all of a sudden, have an audience of 5,000 to 10,000 followers, seemingly out of nowhere? This should be a sign that you need to keep digging. Building an engaged audience takes time.

3. Build Relationships with Influencers

Take the time to cultivate meaningful relationships with influencers. This way you build a reliable network of trustworthy people you can go to.

Josie Capazzi, from Jersey Mike’s said this about staying on top of influential trends across social media.

“You need to understand what’s happening outside the walls of your office. If you wait, something bad or good is going to happen and you’ll be the last person to know.”

While she was referring to staying on top of influential trends in social media, you can also say the same thing about identifying people with real influence.

Sometimes you need to get out of your office to help you see the bigger picture around a person’s influence.

Remember, even if someone appears to have a large following on popular websites, it doesn’t guarantee that they do. We mentioned it before, influence isn’t only about the number of followers, it’s about engagement with the followers you have. It’s a noisy world out there and it is getting more and more difficult to distinguish who has real influence. Fortunately, you know where to look to make smarter, more informed decisions when working with influencers.