Vet influencers: Much of the effective influencer marketing process is front-loaded. Here is a checklist of 19 points to consider when choosing the most appropriate influencer for your programme.
Influencers have come under fire again this week. This time in Australia by Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt. The minister has ordered an immediate review into his department's use of Instagram influencers.
The review follows an investigation by Australia’s newspaper The Telegraph into the use of influencers paid from by the public purse.
According to the investigation some of the influencers selected had previously been associated with alcohol companies and extreme dieting products. Others had question marks over previous controversial conduct.
All use of influencers has been paused pending the conclusion of the review. The minister issued a statement explaining that in order for his department to start using influencers again "there would need to be a demonstrated benefit and demonstrated suitability of any individual going forward. This would need to include a thorough assessment and vetting process linked to improving the health of Australians."
The case is not isolated. I wrote back in January about how brands can avoid another Logan Paul incident. The article referred to the top 5 highest paid YouTuber who filmed in Japan’s Aokigahara Forest aka Suicide Forest.
Three reasons to vet influencers
There are three main reasons you should spend time upfront vetting influencers to work with the most appropriate influencer for your brand:
- Increasing likelihood of positive ROI - Spending time at the planning phase articulating your communications and business objectives will help you identify your key performance indicators to measure. This will guide you on which influencer(s) are the most appropriate to work with.
- Limiting reputational damage - You want to limit your brand exposure to potential reputational damage. Identifying past traits provides good insight into future behaviour.
- Reduction of overall costs. Influencer marketing is front loaded in terms of cost (management time, contracting time, negotiating time, cost to agency, cost to lawyer, cost IM platform). Selecting the most appropriate influencer upfront will mean you don’t have to go through the same vetting process for each campaign.
How do you vet influencers?
In my 4S Filter to selecting influencers (Source, Surface, Screen, Select) I place a lot of emphasis on the Screening phase.
In this article I outline a checklist of xx areas to consider when vetting a prospective influencer to work with.
#1 Beyond audience reach
Reach and impression numbers are vanity metrics. They aren’t reliable engagement indicators. Neither are they a proxy for click through rates and conversions.
Being popular isn’t the same as being influential. Gaining large numbers of followers, impressions or visitors doesn’t necessarily translate into greater influence. A smaller, more targeted following may generate higher engagement. Yes, reach is a pillar of influence. But it plays second fiddle to other pillars like resonance and relevance.
When choosing the most appropriate influencer for your project always start with the end in mind. Ask what are we trying to achieve? Will theoretical reach help you achieve those goals?
READ: The ‘reach myth’ of influencer marketing
READ: Katy Perry at 100m Twitter followers: what impact for influencer marketing?
#2 Authenticity of audience
Unilever CMO, Keith Weed, said last week: “Fake followers and bots have been a silent issue on the minds of many in the industry - the elephant in the room. Having an artificially-inflated follower count made up of bots and redundant accounts is at best deceiving and at worst, fraud. It serves no one and undermines trust in the entire system.”
Check the authenticity of the audience. Is the follower profile made up from bought, bot or organically grown relevant fans of their work?
Influence is the ability to alter behaviour or change opinion. Bought followers are either bots or, if human, come from follower farms where the follower has no affinity with your brand.
These bots and irrelevant followers are never going to help you achieve your influencer marketing programme objectives.
One-in-eight influencers in the UK shows signs of having bought fake followers in the last six months according to data from CampaignDeus. Vet influencers to ensure their following is appropriate for your audience and authentic.
When you vet influencers check the legitimacy of their following. Is the audience comprised of fake, bought or dormant accounts?
I once met a young woman with an Instagram following of around 100k. She had worked with several iconic British-centric brands - producing sponsored content for them. However, she had only recently moved to London from Ankara. Around 90% of her following was based in her native Turkey. She produced eye-catching content for the British brands, but in terms of reach and impact: the campaigns were failures.
When you vet influencers check that the influencer’s audience maps on to your brand’s target audience in terms of age, gender, and where they are located in the world.
Accurate engagement rates provide better performance indicators than theoretical reach. Not all influencer engagement is created equal however. Influencer engagement can be divided in two:
Deliberate ‘fraud’; buying engagement or colluding with other Instagram users.
Lack of expertise or access to data on the influencer marketer’s part.
Influencer fraud and collusion
It’s easy for influencers to artificially inflate their engagement rates. At first glance this looks impressive for brands, but fake engagement fails to provide brand impact. There are four main ways unscrupulous Instagram influencers bloat their engagement:
#5 Buying engagement
Instagram has started to cleanse the photo and video sharing platform of fake engagement marketplaces. There remain many places online where you can buy thousands of likes and video views for a few dollars, however.
Buying 10,000 Instagram likes will set you back $30. Whilst paying for 10,000 Instagram video views will cost you $35.
#6 Engagement collusion
Fraudulent Influencers don’t always buy engagement. Often they collude through instapods and by using #like4like hashtags.
#7 Outsource engagement to a bot
Some Instagram users opt to outsource all of their outbound engagement to bots. The automation software trawls through Instagram posts leaving generic comments and ‘auto liking’ posts in the expectation that, like the #like4like hashtag, the user receiving the engagement will reciprocate in kind.
Lack of expertise by influencer marketer
Of course, not all engagement is fake, bought or colluded engagement. Influencers are influential because of their ability to nudge their following into taking action. Influencer engagement rates are (usually) calculated as the sum of engagements divided by the follower count. These numbers are often problematic for the following reasons:
#8 Conflating organic content engagement and sponsored content engagement
Brand sponsored engagement rates are lower than the average organic engagement rates across all sectors on Instagram except Parenting. These are new findings by CampaignDeus, an independent influencer marketing benchmarking, measurement & reporting data company.
The Travel vertical commands the greatest organic content engagement rates at 4.3%. Sponsored content for the vertical falls 14% on average to 3.7%.
To effectively vet influencers separate their engagement rates by both sponsored content and organic content.
#9 Treating engagement rates across all verticals the same
Not all verticals within Instagram elicit similar engagement rate levels. Influencer performance varies across verticals and sub-verticals. The CampaignDeus Influencer Index illustrates the point. The Fashion and Style scores the highest average branded engagement rates at 3.8%. The Fitness vertical comes last in the verticals with an average branded content engagement rate of just 3.1%.
To effectively vet influencers understand the average engagement rates by social media platform and by industry vertical and sub vertical on that platform.
#10 Insufficient sample size
An engagement rate is a crude (mean) average. It can become inflated by a few very popular posts and may not give a realistic forecast of what sort of future engagement rate the influencer is likely to achieve on a new campaign.
It is tempting to limit the sample size to the last couple of months when working out an engagement rate for an influencer. Averages over a handful of posts will usually be insufficient to provide a robust, defensible engagement rate, though.
#11 Engagement by content theme
Vet influencers against the content theme the prospective influencer produces and its compatibility with your product. Selecting a fashion-industry influencer with a track record generating high engagement rates when she produces images which focus on bags rather than on a pair of shoes won’t work, for instance if you represent a shoe manufacturer.
To effectively vet influencers use data to get granular with identifying the content themes which resonate the most with theirs (and so your) audience.
# 12 Engagement sentiment & reciprocity
Take the temperature of the comments. What type of comments is the influencer receiving on their content? Are the comments the equivalent of digital grunts? Is the comment section crammed with Emoticons and phraes like: ‘Love it’ or are the comments more substantive? Is the influencer, in turn, engaging with those leaving comments? Are they nurturing their communities?
Key takeaway: To effectively vet influencers check the quality of comments their content elicits along with the quality of interaction from the influencer with their audience.
# 13 Quantity of brand collaborations
Gia Kashyap is an Instagram influencer with 111k followers. She has worked with over 200 brands in the last four years but speaking with the Economic Times recently she explains:
“In the past one year, there is a huge difference. Brands want to now work with only four-five influencers, not 30 like they used to,” said Kashyap. “They also make sure you don’t work with multiple competing brands. It’s just not about number of followers anymore. They look at quality of content, past brand endorsements and so on. They are much smarter now.”
An influencer’s audience realises there is a financial need for the creator to produce sponsored content. Without these collaborations influencers are often not able to keep on creating organic content. But the ratio of sponsored to organic content has to make sense. Look for a ratio of under 1:3 sponsored: organic. More than three sponsored posts by 10 published is a potential red flag.
To effectively vet influencers look for a small number of brands the influencers works with. Check the ratio of organic to sponsored content is under 1:3.
#14 Competitor collaborations
Has the prospective influencer worked with any of your competitors in the past? If so how long ago? Is there an existing agreement with any of your competitor list? Are they are under a non-compete policy with a competitor brand? Would they be prepared to sign a non-compete agreement with you preventing them from working with a competitor in the near to medium term?
To effectively vet influencers check which (if any) competitors they’ve worked with in the past. Identify the length of time the partnership lasted and when the last content for them was posted.
# 15 Competitor mentions in organic content
Has the prospective influencer mentioned any of your competitors in their organic content? If so, what is the sentiment of that post? Given the nature of the posts mentioning competitors would a tie-in with your brand appear weird to their audience? Would it smack of inauthenticity?
To effectively vet influencers check which of your competitors have been referenced in the prospective influencer’s organic content.
#16 Wisdom of the crowd
When vetting prospective influencers it’s helpful to be able to tap into the experience of others. If you work within an agency it means capturing, storing, categorising, sharing and using the information of colleagues to build a body of knowledge about the influencers.
Chris Landa, former director for talent development at MCN, Machinima has launched Transparent Influence. The start-up aims to be the ‘Yelp’ for influencer marketing by collating trusted reviews of influencers and their past work to help marketers make better decisions.
To effectively vet influencers try to find out what it’s really like working with an influencer. Have colleagues had good experiences in the past? What reputation does have in the wider influencer marketing industry?
# 17 Ease of Collaboration
Has this influencer been difficult to work with in the past? Do they always turn up on time for the creative brief session? The shoot? Do they have a good reputation for always sticking to key messages? Do they always adhere to disclosure regulations in their jurisdiction?
#18 Tone of voice and brand values
Use software to scan previous posts for swearing. The process also demands the manual consumption of past content and comments. Checking that the influencer’s tone of voice and values are commensurate with those of your brand and its audience.
How far back should you trawl through the content? It depends on the length and depth of the relationship you intend to forge with the influencer.
Influencer marketing as a discipline now recognises that long-term, mutually-beneficial relationships between brand and influencer best serve the brand, the influencer and most importantly, the audience.
Three months is the bare minimum. Best to track back at least a year. That said, the squeaky clean doyenne of the cosmetic haul, Zoella, recently found six-year-old Tweets resurfacing. The ill-judged Tweets provoked her to make a public apology.
#19 Disclosure regulations
Keeping it legal – When you vet influencers check they are both aware of and comply with sponsorship and advertising disclosure guidelines. These include the Committee of Advertising Practice Code (CAP) codes in the UK and the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) guidelines in the US.
Last month Ireland’s advertising watchdog found a social media influencer promoting makeup products to be in breach of its code. In a complaint filed with the Advertising Standards Association of Ireland (ASAI) the complainant considered the advertising to be misleading.
In her response Rosie Connoley the Irish social media influencer with 190,000 Instagram followers said that the sponsoring brand had approved the images which she had forwarded to them, therefore, the complaint should be addressed to them. However, the law says brands, PR agencies working on their behalf, and the influencer are all responsible for ensuring that paid-for content is labelled properly and that the disclosure is displayed prominently.
Vetting influencers as a dynamic process
Working with influencers is a dynamic process. The relationship doesn’t begin and end with using algorithms to identify online creators based on reach, relevance and resonance alone.
Instead, brands need to continually validate and measure influencers’ fit against the company’s values, both at brand and corporate levels. Companies also need to check regularly that the influencer is helping achieve business objectives. And sponsored content engagement rate is over performing in your niche sub vertical.
When recruiting an employee to join your work team you do background checks. You gather references; check qualifications. You undertake digital due diligence. You look through their LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter accounts.
You check that nothing potentially damaging sticks out. You do that because you want to know you’re hiring who you think you’re hiring; not a veneer. You do it because this candidate employee would be representing your firm.
Well, influencers are representing your brand, too. So you need to check an influencer’s values are in tune with yours – or your client’s.
Legendary Hollywood director John Huston once said: I relieve myself from the rigours of directing by casting the movie correctly. Casting the most appropriate influencer for your influencer marketing programme is time consuming and therefore expensive. Effective influencer vetting is crucial to help you attain your organisational and communication goals, limit reputation risk and lower costs over the long run. Consider how expensive it could be if you get it wrong.