Love Island contestants challenge influencer fraud claim as influencers safeguard their professional reputations.
Last Thursday (15 August) Cosmopolitan magazine issued a clarification about influencer fraud and Love Island contestants:
“On 12 August we published an article about Jourdan Riane and the use of fake Instagram followers.
We have been contacted by her representative who informs us that she does not purchase followers and has never done so. We are happy to make that clear, and apologise for any upset caused.”
Cosmopolitan has since removed from the web its original story titled: A new report details the Love Islanders with the most fake Instagram followers.
The article referenced a report from IG Audit, a service which promises to “evaluate an Instagram account's followers for free in 15 seconds.”
There are four take-aways from this incident. Together they demonstrate a direction of travel for the Influencer marketing industry. It's a journey of mixed positivity:
Influencers are professionalising
Danger with industry reports
Influencer fraud is a big issue within our industry. However, many communicators have seemingly made a jump from failing to use any third-party tools to help them identify influencer fraud to an over-reliance on these tools. Influencer marketers should embrace technology. We should be powered by data. But, we should be guided by insights, intellect and human instincts.
Anthony Richardson CEO of Q-83, a pre and post influencer marketing campaign measurement system told me “The whole eco-system that surrounds fake followers is very complex. To combat its complexity many third-party platforms use AI and machine learning to make very broad assumptions about a user’s activity to determine their authenticity”.
Mark Dandy, founder of Captivate Influence, an influencer-led social media marketing agency agrees, adding: “I don’t believe that most of the tools have been taught to analyse the right way. If you feed a tool wrong information at the start, it will continue to churn out wrong information in the future”.
Naming and shaming a group of influencers without first providing a right to reply is vigilantism by another name.
Given the heightened emotions surrounding influencer fraud it is understandable that some wish to call out wrong-doers. I get queasy about influencer fraud vigilantes though. They are self-appointed. They run the risk of calling out honest influencers in error.
How so? Tools can get it wrong. Disenfranchised influencers can ‘nobble’ their competition.
According to the IG Audit website the tool “look[s] at a random sample of followers and … estimate[s] their real follower ratio using an internal classification algorithm”. The line begs a couple of questions: Is the sample representative of the whole audience? Who knows what the ‘internal classification algorithm’ actually is. It could be based on anything from an Excel spreadsheet to IBM Watson.
RELATED: The influencer fraud vigilantes
The original Cosmopolitan story identified seven Love Island contestants and stated that “four have had an abnormal increase in followers over the last two weeks, creating suspicion that they've bought followers to increase their Insta Ad opportunities.”
Richardson, explains a pitfall of relying too heavily on sudden spikes in followers as a sign of influencer fraud: “Take Dean ("Deano") Gladstone one of the lifeguards from Bondi Rescue” - a TV show featuring the lives of the lifeguard patrol on one of Australia’s most famous beaches. “Deano’s Instagram account grew by 5,000 followers in a week. Ordinarily, such growth would have earned him a top spot on a blacklist for buying fake followers. In reality, the sudden spike corresponded with Bondi Rescue airing on Netflix in the US. The follower figure grew organically because of this outside event.”
What happens if an unscrupulous influencer wants to ‘nobble’ a rival, honest influencer? A small, but significant (and growing) number of influencers who feel they’re missing out on brand collaboration deals to competitor influencers are buying fake followers and fake engagement for rivals’ Instagram handles. It's a temptation to sabotage honest rivals and get them blacklisted or called out. It’s easy to do. Companies such as Instaboost don’t require you to verify ownership of an account to buy fake followers and engagement on its behalf.
The whiff of scandal often lingers regardless of whether the scandal was justified. We have elephantine memories when it suits our cause. Those who can't remember the past sometimes become offence archaeologists - digging into past posts and video until they find something they don't care for regardless of the evolution of that person and his atonement made for those former actions.
This takes us to our third point: the professionalisation of influencers.
As influencer marketing budgets swell so brands and influencers professionalise their approach. Influencers know their worth. They understand their audience. They have a firm handle on the analytics behind each post. They work with teams who nurture their talent and protect their reputation.
The professional services industry has spotted this professionalisation. Last year Hiscox launched an insurance product designed specifically for influencers and public figures. I was interviewed at the launch by leading influencer trade title Insurance Post to provide analysis on the marketplace.
Dandy explains the media attacks on Love Island contestants and these influencers’ shift to professionalise.“Media attacks on contestants happen every year. Previously it has been accepted as part of the industry that influencers will be attacked and not respond but this year the Islanders seem to understand the importance of their social reputation so are now sending legal letters threatening civil suits for defamation.”
And so to the last take-away offered by the Cosmopolitan article and subsequent clarification: the danger with industry reports. There are a few dangers with the media's over reliance on industry data including skin in the game, the killer stat and churnalism.
Who has skin in the game? When I read new research in any news outlet I first wonder where this research has come from, what the motivations are for producing it and how judiciously the facts and figures have been collated. I suspect you do, too. You would expect the news outlet to undergo a similar - or more rigorous - process.
We’re all chasing that killer statistic; the news hook upon which to hang the article. The industry figure that will elevate a client pitch. Often these industry reports offer such killer stats. They are regurgitated without being checked.
Dandy explains: “If you work for a publication in the marketing or PR industry, and you are contacted by an ‘influencer software’ company looking to run a story on a popular influencer who has bought followers ask yourself, what do they get out of it? Most software companies want to highlight the problem in order to offer their solution, a solution often built on sample data and questionable analysis.”
Last month the industry was told that influencer fraud is a $1.3 billion problem. The story was based on research undertaken by Cheq - an ad verification tool. The story received media pick-up in PR Week, Yahoo!, Campaign, CBS, and CNBC. Trouble is the research had more holes than a pepper pot. A quick dive into how the fraud level estimates were arrived at shows a combination of SWAGS, dated intelligence and opaque industry positioning.
Influencer marketing is both young and fast evolving as a discipline. As such, there is little in the way of independent research to replace vendor publicity disguised as data. We should do better as a discipline. As influencer marketing professionalises so too are the influencers driving the industry. As more influencers appreciate the value of their own professional reputation vendors and mastheads will have to work harder to produce accurate content.
The origins of this article came from a LinkedIn update written by Mark Dandy on Friday. After reading the update and researching the Cosmopolitan article Mark and I chatted through the story via Twitter DM & WhatsApp that evening.
Scott Guthrie is an influencer marketing strategist, event speaker, university guest lecturer, media commentator on influencer marketing and active blogger. He works with brands, agencies and platforms to achieve meaningful results from influencer marketing. That tells you something about him but it's not giving you a lot of detail, is it? So, read more here.