Brands are devoting more and more of their budget to influencer marketing: this market is estimated today at more than $1.5 billion worldwide. However, with any big trend, there are people who will want to exploit it. ‘Influencer fraud’, where fake influencers artificially increase their following and/or engagement to seem more influential has become a hot topic recently.

Unilever’s CMO, Keith Weed, stated that brands need to stop working with influencers who buy followers. “Trust comes on foot and leaves on horseback, and we could very quickly see the whole influencer space be undermined”. Weed points out a real problem for the industry. Influencer marketing is used not only to expand brand reach but also to build trust and credibility. If the general public doesn’t trust influencers, they won’t trust the brands that are being promoted.

But what is influencer fraud? and more importantly, how do we spot fake influencers?

Fake influencers can either be bots, or real people who artificially boost their following and engagement by paying for it. The goal is to create accounts that, on the surface, may be of interest to advertisers, but fundamentally, do not influence many people.

Despite the efforts of platforms to suspend fake influencers, no one escapes the deception: not even the biggest brands! According to a North Group Points study, brands like Ritz-Carlton, Pampers and Magnum have invested heavily in campaigns involving artificial influencers.

Brands with the most fake influencers and followers

Don’t get stung by paying for influencers, without any influence.

Check out the infographic below for a quick overview on influencer fraud and keep scrolling to understand more detail below!

influencer fraud

Here are 6 criteria to detect fake influencers on social networks:

1. A verified account

Instagram, Facebook and Twitter allow influential people to have their profiles verified to prove that they are really the ones who own the account. These are easily identifiable thanks to their blue certification badge.

influencer fraud - ID profiles with verified accounts

If an account is certified, you can have peace of mind: it is not a fake influencer. However, unfortunately, Instagram only verifies celebrities, big brands and major influencers. But what about major and micro influencers? We need to look further.

2. Community Growth Tracking

Following is one of the metrics brands seem to flock to when choosing influencers. The more followers someone has, the more they pay. Fake influencers, therefore, purchase followers. It can cost as little as a few pounds for hundreds of followers. Paying for likes or followers isn’t a new concept. ‘Like farms’ have been about for years. The term was created after fake Facebook pages were created and liked thousands of times by fake Facebook accounts to make a business look more legitimate.

You can easily identify farms and fake followers based on the growth of an accounts following over time. 

Influencer accounts usually have stable growth that evolves over the long term but if you notice peaks, 10,000 new subscribers in a day for example, followed by a loss of followers the following days, this would suggest someones paid for a following.

The purchase of followers can also be identified by scrolling through the subscribers of an account. If you notice lots of inactive profiles, profiles without followers, subscribers etc, this is also a sign of a fake influencer. Additionally, if your influencer has thousands of followers but only a few photos, this could also indicate a fake influencer.

3. The commitment rate

Another way to spot accounts that have purchased followers is to look at their engagement rate (likes, comments, shares). An influencer with thousands of followers but only a few likes on each post is also likely to have inflated their community artificially. 

However, interactions, like followers, can also be bought in packs of 100, 1000 or even 100,000! An unusually high number of likes or comments may be suspect as well.

According to Makerly, the average Instagram like rate is between 1 and 5%  depending on how many followers you have.  Therefore, if someone has 1000 followers, you’d expect between 10-50 likes. To calculate the engagement rate of a profile, divide the number of interactions on recent posts by the number of subscribers in the account, and multiply by 100 to get a percentage.

4. The comments

You can also inspect comments under an influencer’s posts. Very generic comments like “Awesome! “,” Love it! “Or simple emojis, are revealing the purchase of comments. This phenomenon is mainly observed with fake influencers on Instagram.

On the other hand, if the comments under someone’s photo includes conversations, people tagging their friends, and personalised comments, this is much more telling of an authentic following.

5. The real scope

The actual reach of an influencer (the number of people who really see their posts) is very significant. If an account has mostly bots and inactive users in their community, his or her posts will be seen by very few people. Using an influencer marketing platform can help to detect how many people are likely to see each post. If someone has thousands of followers but a true reach of a lot less, this would suggest they could be a fake influencer.

6. Network and interactions

Influencers are often part of common networks, they interact with each other and go to the same events.

For example, the Youtuber Norman Thavaud aka Norman FaitDesVideos interacts on social networks with three other YouTubers: Hugo Tout Seul, Marc Jarrousseau (Kemar) and Cyprien.

If an account interacts with other influential social media accounts or is mentioned in pictures of other influencers, then they are a real person, with real influence.

Save time and money by properly investigating potentially fake influencers. For a successful influencer marketing strategy, influencer targeting is key.

A version of this article originally appeared on our UK blog.