Influencer marketing has become a wildly popular and effective strategy for brands looking to reach wider audiences. However, as influencers gone wild marketing grows, so do some of its shadier practices. While most influencers maintain integrity, some have taken things too far and gone “wild” with questionable behaviors. This article explores the dark side of influencer marketing and what brands can do to avoid getting burned.
Table of Contents
The Rise of Fake Followers and Inflated Engagement
One of the most significant issues plaguing influencer marketing is inauthentic followings and engagement inflation. Some influencers resort to buying fake followers and counterfeit engagement to appear more influential than they are.
Why Influencers Buy Fake Followers
There are a few key reasons why some influencers buy fake followers:
- To rapidly increase their follower count and appear more popular. This allows them to charge brands more money for sponsored posts potentially.
- To inflate their engagement rates. More followers means more potential likes and comments on their posts—high engagement signals influence.
- Fake followers make their accounts look more attractive to brands seeking influencer partnerships.
- They want to monetize their accounts faster. More followers means meeting Instagram monetization thresholds sooner.
The Dangers of Fake Followers for Brands
While inflating follower counts may achieve short-term gains for influencers, it poses significant risks for brands:
- Poor engagement rates – Fake followers need to engage with content. This leads to low engagement rates on branded posts.
- Low ROI – With few natural human eyes on the content, influencer partnerships with inflated followings rarely generate positive ROI.
- Reputational damage – Partnering with inauthentic influencers hurts brand reputation if uncovered.
- Account bans – Platforms like Instagram regularly ban accounts with inflated followings, rendering partnerships useless.
How Brands Can Detect Fake Followers
Brands should thoroughly vet influencers to detect inauthenticity signs like:
- Analyze follower profiles – Fake profiles often lack photos, posts, and followers. Legitimate influencers have mostly genuine follower profiles.
- Check engagement rates – Divide engagement by followers. Rates above 3% may indicate fakes. Look for influencers with 1-2% engagement.
- Review growth patterns – Consistent daily follower growth is unnatural. Look for steady organic growth over months/years.
- Use analytics tools – Services like HypeAuditor reveal the percentage of real vs. fake followers.
- Require third-party verification – Services like Social Bluebook provide verified reports on influencers.
Best Practices for Brands
The best way for brands to avoid fake follower issues is to:
- Vet influencers thoroughly and look for warning signs.
- Require influencers to provide third-party verification of followers.
- Compare follower count to engagement rates.
- Provide clear deliverables like sales or traffic vs. vanity metrics like views or followers.
- Structure compensation based on performance, not just reach.
Influencer Content Theft and Idea Plagiarism
Another troubling trend is influencers stealing each other’s content ideas without giving proper credit. While not all content theft is malicious, consistent idea plagiarism amounts to intellectual property theft.
Why Content Theft Occurs
There are several factors motivating content theft:
- I am seeing a trending post and attempting to capitalize on it.
- We need more fresh content ideas and borrowing others’.
- They are trying to keep up with competitors by replicating their successful content.
- Laziness – copying someone else’s idea is more accessible than coming up with your own.
The Impact on Creators
When their content gets stolen, it negatively impacts creators by:
- You are depriving them of potential audience growth and engagement.
- They are allowing content thieves to profit from stolen ideas unjustly.
- It discourages creators from sharing great content for fear of being stolen.
How Brands Get Burned & Influencers Gone Wild
Brands also get burned when partnering with content-stealing influencers:
- Content feels disingenuous when copied from others.
- Legal liability if stolen content infringes on copyrights or trademarks.
- Reputational damage if an influencer gets accused of content theft related to a branded campaign.
Avoiding Content Thieves
Brands can steer clear of content re-creators by:
- You are evaluating if an influencer’s content seems unique or if you’ve seen similar posts before.
- I am doing image searches on their content to check for duplicates.
- Asking influencers to submit content samples and attest they created the content.
- You are comparing engagement on original posts vs. ones with copied concepts.
- It was drafting contracts that hold influencers liable for plagiarized or copied content.
- Thoroughly vet influencers and look for copycats.
- Require influencers to submit original content samples.
- Structure contracts to penalize plagiarism.
- Monitor campaign content to ensure it’s unique.
- Value creators who develop fresh, authentic content.
Lack of Disclosure Around Paid Partnerships
Clear sponsorship disclosure remains an ongoing struggle in influencer marketing. While some progress has been made, many influencers must disclose when a brand pays for content adequately.
FTC Guidelines on Disclosure
The FTC requires clear disclosure of paid partnerships in several ways:
- You are using terms like “Ad,” “Sponsored,” “Promotion,” etc.
- Disclosing within the content, not just in hashtags or captions.
- It is placing disclosure in a location that’s easy to notice.
- Being transparent about the brand relationship, not just mentioning a product.
Why Influencers Avoid Disclosures
Some influencers intentionally avoid proper disclosures because:
- They want the content to appear organic, not sponsored.
- Proper disclosures can hurt engagement rates.
- Vague disclosures let them earn money without clearly pitching a brand.
- Lack of enforcement of disclosure guidelines.
The Dangers for Brands
When influencers fail to disclose sponsored content, it creates legal and reputation risks:
- Violates FTC endorsement guidelines, risking penalties.
- It makes the brand appear manipulative and deceptive.
- Influencers can blame the brand for lack of disclosure.
- Hurts consumer trust in both brand and influencer.
Brands can enforce proper disclosure by:
- Requiring disclosure language be clearly stated in contracts.
- We approve content and check for disclosures before publishing.
- Structuring compensation is only to be paid after adequate disclosure.
- They are threatening to terminate partnerships over lack of disclosure.
- She publicly comments on influencers’ posts to ask for disclosure if needed.
- Make disclosure part of contractual obligations.
- Pre-approve all sponsored content.
- Withhold compensation until disclosures are satisfactory.
- Be vigilant about checking posts for proper disclosure.
- Take action if influencers fail to disclose appropriately.
Bribing for Reviews and Rankings
Influencers often have the power to drive product sales through reviews and recommendations. However, some influencers exploit this power by soliciting or accepting bribes for positive reviews.
How Bribery Works
Bribery schemes take different forms but often involve:
- Brands offering free products, cash payments, or other incentives.
- Influencers making overt requests for payment for coverage.
- Quid pro quo arrangements (positive coverage for compensation).
- Affiliate commissions tied to sales influenced by reviews.
- Backroom deals for preferential treatment.
The Deception of Bribery
When bribery is involved, the deception impacts consumers in several ways:
- Product reviews and rankings feel less objective and honest.
- Ranking manipulation distorts product search results.
- Affiliate links incentivize influencers to maximize sales by providing honest recommendations.
- Consumers get steered towards potentially inferior products.
- It’s harder for superior but lesser-known products to gain visibility.
Legal and Reputational Risks
Both brands and influencers face significant risks if bribery comes to light:
- Violates FTC guidelines around incentivized endorsements.
- Brands face reputation damage, lawsuits, and destroyed consumer trust.
- Influencers lose credibility by showing they can be bought.
Avoiding Bribery Schemes
Brands should be proactive about avoiding bribery by:
- It never offered any form of compensation for guaranteed positive coverage.
- I am disclosing affiliate relationships and limiting affiliate commission incentives.
- They are contractually prohibiting influencers from requesting bribes for coverage.
- We are requiring objective product reviews based on actual use and experience.
- I am avoiding preferential treatment of any influencers.
- Institute a zero-bribery policy.
- Disclose affiliate relationships.
- Contractually prohibit bribery requests.
- Require objective reviews based on actual use.
- Never guarantee positive reviews in exchange for compensation.
Manipulating Results and Fabricating Engagement
While outright fraud remains relatively rare in influencer marketing, some influencers go to extremes to falsely exaggerate campaign results. Tactics like faking sales figures or fabricating engagement metrics erode marketing integrity.
How Influencers Manipulate Campaigns
Some of the shady tactics used to juice campaign metrics include:
- They are making false claims about sales or conversion-driven.
- We are fabricating promotional codes to take credit for unrelated sales.
- We use tricks to generate fake engagement, like automated bots or services.
- You are misrepresenting audience demographics and campaign reach.
- It is knowingly selecting performance metrics that inaccurately portray success.
Damaging Effects on Brands
When influencers exaggerate or falsify results, it harms brands by:
- You are distorting campaign performance data used for budget and strategy decisions.
- I am paying influencers higher fees based on inflated metrics and claims.
- Developing a flawed understanding of which influencers drive real ROI.
- We are creating unrealistic benchmarks for future campaigns based on fake metrics.
How Brands Can Detect Fraud
Brands should watch for these warning signs of manipulation or fabrication:
- Engagement metrics that seem suspiciously high.
- Sudden fake-looking spikes in sales or conversions.
- Code misuse reports from affiliate networks.
- Follower actions that don’t match influencer audience demographics.
- Changing stories about how many sales or actions were driven.
Enforcing Campaign Integrity
Maintaining marketing integrity requires brands to:
- Audit performance metrics and dig into data outliers or inconsistencies.
- Verify sales and conversions driven through first-party observation.
- Structure compensation based on verified metrics, not claims.
- Include contractual clauses prohibiting fraudulent activity and allowing termination if discovered.
- Verify performance data – don’t just trust influencer claims.
- Structure compensation based on verified metrics only.
- Include anti-fraud clauses in contracts.
- Develop direct tracking and observation of sales/conversions.
- Watch out for data inconsistencies as a warning sign.
Strategies for Avoiding Bad Influencers
For brands looking to steer clear of questionable influencer marketing practices, the following strategies can help:
Vetting potential influencer partners is critical to avoiding issues down the line:
- Review engagement rates, followers, content, disclosures, and audience.
- Conduct image searches to check for copied or plagiarized content.
- Require third-party verification through services like Social Bluebook.
- Check with other brands on past experiences working with the influencer.
Rather than vanity metrics like impressions or reach, focus on clear deliverables tied to business goals:
- Sales are generated from a unique promo code or link.
- Site traffic from a specific swipe-up or URL.
- A branded hashtag or link drives app installs.
- Email list sign-ups from a call-to-action.
The most effective way to keep influencers honest is to tie payment to actual performance:
- Pay a bonus for sales or conversions exceeding a threshold.
- Structure payments in stages based on meeting pre-defined goals.
- Withhold a portion of compensation until metrics are independently verified post-campaign.
- Outline consequences for failing to meet performance requirements like lower pay.
Clear Legal Contracts
Well-crafted influencer contracts minimize risks by defining clear rules and consequences. Be sure to:
- Outline FTC disclosure requirements.
- Prohibit fraudulent metrics, bought followers, etc.
- Establish your right to terminate contract breaches.
- Include clauses to recover compensation paid if fraud is uncovered.
The dark side of influencer marketing presents severe risks for brands. However, careful vetting, performance-based incentives, clear contracts, and verification can help mitigate these risks. Maintaining high standards keeps partnerships productive and prevents unreasonable expectations on either side. With the proper safeguards in place, influencer marketing can deliver tremendous value.