How Influencer Fraud Can Damage Your Brand’s Reputation

Bagging a social media influencer can make or break a business, especially one that is on the cusp of breaking out and just needs that last push from a recognized brand to make good.

The latest research has found that influencer marketing has generated about $1 billion for businesses, which makes it an attractive strategy.

Influencer marketing has soared over the past few years, and it’s not just about a business hooking a celebrity. In fact, a recent study found that 70% of Millennials are more likely to pay attention to a non-celebrity influencer.

Social media is clearly the place where audiences engage with influencers, with Facebook and YouTube ranking as the most popular and persuasive platforms that impact buying decisions.

There’s little doubt that influencers with a large social media following and a recognizable brand name can generate the type of interest and persuasion necessary for increased website traffic and conversions.

But there are some cracks beginning to show.

These cracks are the result of an increasing amount of influencer fraud, which is negatively impacting how audiences view influencers and the businesses they endorse.

What Is Influencer Fraud?

Reputable influencers have spent years building a credible following through targeted content on platforms like YouTube, Pinterest, Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.

These influencers use their time, money, and sweat equity to provide their audiences with relevant information in entertaining ways that take advantage of their unique personalities.

Over time, influencers gain followers that like their content, and more importantly, engage with the influencer on a personal.

That authentic connection between the influencer and the audience is what makes influencer marketing so valuable, and why so many businesses solicit influencers to endorse their products and services.

Unfortunately, the influencer industry has spawned frauds, people who want to take shortcuts to build the kind of authentic brand that takes years to achieve.

Influencer fraud occurs when these newcomers decide to buy followers, or worse, use bots to generate comments.

According to a recent study, a single day’s worth of posts tagged #sponsored or #ad on Instagram contained over 50 percent fake engagements. Out of 118,007 comments, only 20,942 were not made by bot followers.

Fraudulent influencers engage with brands on social media campaigns, presenting themselves as genuine influencers with hard-earned followers when in reality their followers are bought instead of being organically built.

For example, let’s say your business sells skateboards, and you target an influencer with 200,000 followers. You agree to work with that influencer to promote a social media campaign, believing that the influencer’s audience aligns with your marketing objectives.

What you don’t know, however, is that more than half of those followers are bought, which means that you’re not getting access to genuine, motivated followers. Instead, you’re paying an influencer that has generated fake followers that can’t do anything to advance your marketing goals.

In other words, you’ve been conned out of time and money.

What are Types of Influencer Fraud?

The most common types of influencer fraud include:

  • Bought Followers – This means that an influencer has paid people to become followers to a social media account. That also means that those followers aren’t genuine believers in the influencer’s brand, and aren’t likely to post comments (although that’s available for a price as well). Most fake followers are added gradually, to help disguise the fact that they’re not real.
  • ‘Bot’ Comments – Follower comments are one of the ways that influencers build their brand, but ‘bot’ comments aren’t made by real people. Instead, they are made by services that sell automated ‘likes’ and ‘comments’ to make audiences believe that an influencer is generating a positive reaction to posts, images, and videos. Although platforms like Instagram are beginning to shut down some of these automated services, hundreds more crop up daily, ready and willing to sell fake likes and fake comments. In fact, one study found that bots generated 40 percent of the comments on 500 sponsored posts.
  • Pods – Pods are groups of people on social media that form alliances to provide positive comments and ‘likes’ on each other’s posts. Instagram pods have become the most famous example of this. To form an Instagram pod, 30 Instagram users work together to increase engagement with each other’s posts. Some influencers build their brand by making deals with these pods, which calls into question how genuine these alliances are since they aren’t built on real, organic interest.

How can you Detect Influencer Fraud?

Now that you understand how influencer fraud works, you need to know the warning signs so that you don’t use a fraudulent influencer in one of your campaigns.

These signs include:

  • Sudden Spike In Followers – If you notice that the influencer has a sudden spike in followers that isn’t explained by another factor like a major event, it could be a sign that the influencer has bought new followers. Major events that could organically boost the number of followers include a live streaming session, a recent appearance at a fan get-together, or a popular video that went viral.
  • Unequal Ratio of Likes/Comments to Number of Followers – If an influencer has a relatively low number of followers and a very high number of likes and comments, that’s a red flag that those likes/comments could be auto-generated. Conversely, an influencer with a solid number of followers with very few likes and comments may be buying followers, and not smart enough to also buy the automated comments that would prevent fraud detection.
  • Comments Don’t Align With Posts – You may notice that comments on an influencer’s social media platform don’t have anything to do with what that influencer posted. For example, the influencer posted a video of a dog eating his lunch, but the comments talk about an entirely different subject. This is a sure sign that those comments are fraudulent.

What Steps Can You Take to Avoid Influencer Fraud?

To avoid the perils of influencer fraud, you can take the following steps before making a decision about engaging with an influencer on a campaign:

  • Track the Influencer’s History – How long has the influencer been active? What’s the evolution of the number of followers, comments, and likes? What is the tone of the influencers posts, and have those posts remained consistent with that influencer’s brand?
  • Track Campaign Performance Analyze the influencer’s prior social media campaigns to determine the quality of content and overall performance. If the prospective influencer has little or no history of social media campaigns for other brands, it’s probably time to move on to someone more credible.

Stay Vigilant With Influencer Marketing

Influencer marketing can still reap benefits for your business, but it’s important for you to vet your targeted influencers before you commit your money and time to a campaign.

Genuine influencers that believe in your products and services are always the most effective at communicating your brand message to your target audience.


The author Jon Clark is the founder of Fuze SEO, a boutique digital marketing company in New York. He writes regularly providing thought leadership on SEO and social media best practices. When not working or writing, Jon enjoys documenting his travels on his travel blog 1 Way to Wanderlust. You can follow him on Twitter @jonleeclark.

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