Before we get too squeamish about the size of influencer fraud let's take a look at how legacy media has gamed its audience size.
Television viewing figures are audited by BARB, the broadcasters' Audience Research Board. Radio listening figures are audited by RAJAR, the Radio Joint Audience Research. Newspaper print circulation figures are audited by ABC, the Audit Bureau of Circulations. Digital news unique visitors are audited by ComScore.
Social media has no equivalent. Perhaps it should, influencer fraud is certainly the phrase of the year. The term hit the mainstream in January with the New York Times expose of Devumi. Influencer Fraud really gathered momentum when Keith Weed, CMO of Unilever, with a marketing clout of €7 billion a year delivered his three commitments to fight fake followers on the opening day of Cannes Lion.
One-in-eight UK-based Instagram influencers showed signs of having bought influencers according to CampaignDeus. Earlier this month Social Chain launched Like-Wise putting the level of purchased engagement by influencers either historically or currently at one-in-four. InfluencerDB puts the size of influencer fraud at $500m.
It's not the old days! No, we might well be better off now in terms of audience transparency.
Influencer fraud: legacy media
Yes, TV viewership and print runs are audited. But before we get too squeamish about the size of influencer fraud let's take a look at legacy media. In the newspaper business inflating circulation figures is a well-worn practice. A large percentage of many major mastheads are given away. More still are sold to airport lounges and hotels at near no cost. Newspaper copies not picked up at the end of the day still contribute towards circulation figures.
In the 24 months prior to April 2011, the Wall Street Journal European edition sold copies of its paper by the truckload for as low as €0.01 a copy. 41% of the WSJE's total audited circulation was inflated via this scheme according to a Guardian article.
European titles are not alone. Circulation figures for USA Today for the six months to March 2011 shows just over half (53%) or 973,000 of the average daily circulation of 1,829,000 came from the hotel programmes – according to a Poynter article.
Gaming news sites audience size
It is not just the dwindling newsprint industry which has historically been loose with its methods for calculating audience size. Their online counterparts have their own version of ‘influencer fraud’ too.
In May 2018 The Press Gazette reported that The Sun now claimed to have overtaken Mail Online to become the UK’s biggest online newspaper brand. ComScore audience data was used as evidence. The figures gave the Sun and its extended brands a total digital audience of 30.2m unique UK visitors across April 2018. Here "and its extended brands" is a key phrase. The Sun’s ComScore figures include associated websites such as Dreamteamfc.com and Sun Bingo. Attracted by games or other tricks, people flock to these associated sites. Bounce rates may be 100%. They might visit one page once a month for five seconds. It doesn't matter. These casual digital visitors count towards unique visitors without having to read a single story on the hub news site.
Even the auditors have not been immune to controversy. In 2014 ComScore agreed to pay $14 million to settle claims that it violated panel members' privacy by collecting a trove of data about them according to MediaPost reporting at the time.
Why game the system? The same reason that influencers mistakenly try to game the system. News sites want to appear more popular than they are to attract more advertisers and to charge more for that advertising. Same-same.
Human DNA to game the system
Humans are always on the lookout for ways to beat the system. It’s in our DNA. A year ago I wrote Influencer marketing is gaming itself to death. Here’s how to stop it In the article I reasoned that some influencers are gaming influencer marketing. But only because brands and creative agencies allow them to.
Unscrupulous influencers game their reach with bots automatically following other users one day - then unfollowing them the next. They game the reach through buying fake users. They game it with ‘follow-for-follow’ tactics.
Then, one day, brands and marketeers had an epiphany. An epiphany helped by Instagram’s change in algorithm. Suddenly it’s not JUST about reach. It’s about engagement, too.
So, influencers started to game the level of engagement on their posts. Unethical influencers gamed engagement with click farms, they gamed engagement via Insta pods.
It’s all-too-easy to dismiss influencer marketing because of a few less-than-ethical influencers and marketers. But, exploiting ‘the system’ is not unique to influencer marketing. There will always be those who work at the edges of acceptability in any walk-of-life.
Take accountancy - more specifically tax planning - a profession seemingly as far-removed from influencer marketing as is comprehensible.
Tax evasion is illegal whilst tax avoidance is legally exploiting the tax system to reduce current or future tax liabilities by means not intended by parliament. Legal - though ethically questionable.
Tolley’s Yellow Tax Handbook - the bible for UK accountants, runs to 15,500 pages over six volumes. It explains the intricacies of the UK tax system. Each new edition gets longer as parliament seeks to close loopholes and remove wriggle-room of interpretation. Whilst those practising in the hinterland of acceptability seek to hack the system - hunting out and exploiting new loopholes.
Influencer marketing: lead with measurement
You manage what you measure - so make sure you measure what is important. The industry’s reaction to influencers buying fake followers pushed influencer marketing forward away from placing so much stock on measuring influencer reach. Fake engagement will have the same positive effect. Influencer marketers will be forced to place measurement at the forefront of the planning and evaluation stages of their workflow. They'll look for impact metrics rather than vanity metrics.
With increased influencer marketing spend comes a greater need to demonstrate value return on investment (ROI). Accurate data and robust, independent campaign performance evaluation, along with industry benchmarking, will become a fundamental part of the influencer marketing campaign planning process.
Influencer audiences will increasingly demand higher-quality sponsored content from the creators they follow, too.
Fail to deliver either and the business model collapses for both brand and influencer.
The influencer marketing industry should lead with measurement. A new report by Traackr & Altimeter explains “metrics evolve as a result of programs that start to focus on business impact. As such, strategies, teams and workflows adapt to perform against these desired metrics … . As influence marketing matures, challenges to measure performance decline. As brands see the impact of influencer marketing initiatives throughout the customer journey, the pressure is on to develop sophisticated, measurable programs capable of supporting large-scale strategies.
“The challenge facing organizations is to develop an influencer marketing practice that aligns with overarching business strategy while ensuring leadership has the data and reporting framework required to evaluate success and prioritize spending” [page 41: The 2018 State of Influence report].
Many nascent industries suffer growing pains as well as growth spurts. Influencer marketing is no exception. But, physician heal thyself. When legacy media attempts to call out influencer marketing for influencer fraud we should recall their own practices before striving to demonstrate that influencer marketing has a bright, profitable and transparent future.