The recent exposé of Devumi in the New York Times sounded like something straight out of Black Mirror.
Influence, they showed us, is now for sale. The trusty Follower count at the top of your favourite influencer’s feed—often ranking in the thousands or millions—may well be a lie. And not one that’s easy to detect.
There is an army of bots swarming the web, multiplying exponentially every day, and being bought and sold to inflate people’s online popularity. For a modest price, they will follow any social media account and will like and share everything they post.
For follower-hungry influencers, it’s a tempting proposal. And it’s surprisingly simple to put into action. A quick google search yields plenty of sites where you can readily purchase 250 Instagram followers for as little as £2.99 (Buy Instagram Followers 365). Or, if you’re going for the big time, you could skyrocket yourself to 100K followers for only £299. That’s more followers than former S-Club 7 member, Rachel Stevens (95K); three times as many as Hanya Yanagihara (30.4K) whose bestseller A Little Life was nominated for the Man Booker last year; and well on your way to as many as Wimbledon-finalist, Sabine Lisicki (138K).
Genuine influencers build a following gradually, growing in line with the amount of content they post
Simply put, it’s deception. It skews the numbers so that, in one click, brand new accounts can join the ranks of those who’ve spent years building a follow-worthy career or online presence.
And a far more sinister consequence lies in wait. With a following of 100K, you have the potential to earn £1500 per post. The following you have amassed is, in advertisers’ eyes, a ready and waiting audience. The reach that you now represent is enormous. You gain the status of a New York billboard: promote something here and thousands will see it.
But exactly who is going to see it? As marketers and brand-promoters look to spend their company’s hard-earned cash, this is the question they need to ask themselves.
Position your product with a genuine influencer and it’ll be spread to a legion of devoted fans, likely to want to copy their favourite blogger. Money well spent. But if you don’t do your research, you risk wasting thousands of pounds getting word of your product to an army of bots. And though they may retweet it, like it, and share it, the one thing they definitely won’t do is buy it.
For all the noise they make, it’s in a robotic echo chamber.
Relying on social data to find real influencers in a world where people can buy massive audiences for a few dollars no longer works. If you’re going to spend money on having an influencer endorse your brand, you’d best be sure they’re for real.
Here are three methods you can use to make sure your money’s going to the right place.
Method 1: Do your research
First things first, run a quick background check on influencers you’re thinking of partnering with.
Use google search operators to see which names crop up frequently in your area. It might be useful, for example, to use “related:” in front of your web address to see which sites and influencers are already operating in similar spaces.
If the influencer you’re targeting has a website, check its SEO authority. Use tools such as SEMRush to check how much organic traffic it's receiving; Buzzsumo to search for their name along with your keywords to see if they’re being mentioned in the right areas for you; and Moz to check their site’s backlinks and Domain Authority. Backlinking is a particularly good sign: if others are giving them independent votes of confidence by linking to them, they’re probably legitimate - and producing good content worthy of influence.
Don't forget to search for industry power lists and rankings (most industries have them), and conference programmes to see who's been selected to speak on them. Individually you can take each with a pinch of salt, but together if you start to see patterns - the same names cropping up - it should give you confidence they have built a platform that can provide genuine influence.
Alternatively, head directly to the social media feed of whichever influencer you’re targeting. Have a scroll through their followers, looking out for tell-tale signs of bots:
- Strange Usernames: Fake accounts will often have automated-looking usernames (a random assortment of numbers and letters) or an altered version of a real username (lowercase Ls are often changed to capital Is, or number 1s for example).
- No profile picture: Fake accounts may not have a display picture, or may only have a handful of photos.
- No original content: Real accounts will have a healthy number of tweets, Instagram posts, or photos on Facebook. Fake accounts, on the other hand, will mostly be regurgitating others’ content (retweeting, liking, sharing).
- Low number of comments: Bots are mostly programmed to follow and like. An influencer buying popularity will have loads of followers; their posts will have hundreds of likes. But, since bots aren’t usually complex enough to verbally respond to the content, they will have few to no comments.
- Few followers of their own: If an account has very few followers of its own and very few posts, but an extremely high number of people they are following, more than likely, it's a bot.
Above: A very suspect list of followers. Below: Bot accounts are low on content and followers of their own.
Method 2: Phone a friend, or a customer
To influence current and potential consumers, your ideal influencer-endorser will be a figure they look up to. So why not ask your existing customer base who they respect in the area you’re targeting? You could utilise your customer service infrastructure, or perhaps your newsletter, to tap into what they’re thinking.
If you decide to go down this route, Attest offers a free service where you can design a survey and send it directly to your existing customers via your newsletter or social channels. It’s quick and easy: create a free account with us, generate your survey link and you’re away.
This is a good way to check in with what the audience you’re already in touch with thinks about the influencers in your space.
Method 3: Ask the experts
By far the most thorough way you can conduct a search into your best options for brand ambassadors, is to get as much consumer insight as possible.
Method 2 can be effective, but it comes with limitations. Firstly, it suffers from a lack of scalability: you can only reach out to people who are already actively subscribing to your brand. Which leads straight into the second problem: bias. Since you’ll be using your own social network, you’re only tapping into a pool of people who already like you.
If you’re bringing on board a brand ambassador to expand your market, launch in new areas or expand you reach, there's a danger they will only appeal to your existing customer base, not your future consumers. It might do wonders for likeability amongst your fans, but it’s not going to win you any new ones. And if you’re not winning market share, you’re losing it.
A more robust way to look into which influencers will win you new customers, would be to use a tool like Attest. A subscription with us gives you instant access to millions of real people across the the world.
And the people you’ll reach through us won’t be in your customer base… yet.
What they will be is real people who will give you unbiased insight into how to attract a new audience by working with the right influencers.
How? Simply ask them who they most trust and respect, who they’re listening to and reading, and who they’re following.
What’s more, we know these people. We know how old they are; where they live; what their income is (all in a fully GDPR complient, non-PII way). Not only will you gain access to a vast, unbiased network, but you can be specific and demanding about exactly who you’re talking to. Want to know how to get more London-based millennials into your brand? Just ask them. Even if it’s over-60s in the Outer Hebrides that you’re interested in, we can help you figure out which influencers they'll listen to.
Select your exact audience
And we think bigger than just the UK, too. If you’re on the hunt for an influencer to help you break into foreign markets, why not ask citizens of that country who they most respect in your niche? With Attest, your questions can globetrot straight to 80 countries around the world.
With all our surveys coming back in a matter of days (sometimes hours), you’ll be getting real-time, real-life insight.
So often in business, we jump into a project before we ask people what they actually want to see. It’s only after the money’s been spent that we ask, “Did it work?” But it’s true what they say, hindsight is 20:20. And there’s no reason you shouldn’t be able to have a clear, crisp view of the market before you start spending - based on real data from real people, not a bot in sight!
The allure of getting your brand out to hundreds of thousands of consumers through an influencer is strong. But, like so many things, it may well be too good to be true.
You’re much better off focusing on legitimate influencers who will truly engage and enlarge your customer base. Don’t be seduced by the razzle-dazzle of a high follower count. Talk to the people already invested in your brand; talk to the people who haven’t yet heard of you (but should).
Get a feel for who is a true mover and shaker in your industry and, when you’ve got the full picture, your money will be much more reliably spent.