I’ll start off with a disclaimer: the majority of influencers are doing great, honest work. That being said, a couple bad eggs who continually ‘play the system’ can ruin it for the rest of the bunch, so this issue needs to be addressed while influencer marketing is still on a meteoric rise.
What makes influencer marketing so effective is also what enables it to be easily abused. It’s new. It’s novel in the eyes of the consumer, which makes it immensely under priced and under-regulated.
The good news is that with each passing day, influencer marketing grows a day older, allowing for more lessons to be learned and all the wrinkles to be ironed out.
Shady Influencers: Lifting the Veil
Here are a handful of ways influencers are ‘playing the system’.
1. Buying Instagram verification.
Recently, Kerry Flynn of Mashable reported, through sources who wanted to remain anonymous, that some Instagram employees were allegedly selling verification badges (blue check marks) to suitors for as high as $15,000.
From the information in Kerry’s in-depth piece, this underground market is allegedly alive and well, giving any brand or influencer with the right amount of cash an opportunity to be given ‘public figure privileges’ on Instagram.
Sure, this may appear like nothing more than a harmless way for folks to get more Likes on their beach selfies. However, the underlying principle here is this: even at some of the world’s most well-known companies like Instagram, sketchy things are happening behind closed doors.
The main takeaway? Don’t believe every blue check mark you see.
2. Using influencer Facebook Groups to exchange clicks.
In these groups, influencers will explicitly ask other influencers for clicks and shares, taking away from the authenticity and organic value that makes influencer marketing so effective and unique.
Important Note: Keep in mind that not all of these groups should be deemed unethical. Many are legitimate support networks, and should be treated as such if discovered.
3. Paying for social media ads.
Whether it’s with Facebook Ads, Instagram Ads, LinkedIn Ads, Google Ads or ads on StumbleUpon, some influencers are buying advertisements to drive traffic to their sponsored content in attempts to garner more engagement and clicks.
4. Using click farms.
Click farms are businesses (typically located in developing countries) where low paid workers are hired to drive traffic to a customer’s piece of content. In some cases, influencers will use such click farms on their sponsored posts to give the illusion it’s performing better than it actually is.
5. Buying followers.
Some influencers will also use third party services to buy followers. In most cases, these followers are nothing more than bots.
Here’s what you can do about it:
Alright, now that we have that out of the way, what exactly can you do as a business owner to avoid wasting money on shady influencers?
Here’s where to start.
1. Pay influencers what they’re worth.
Let me be real here. Money is a great truth serum. If an influencer is receiving pennies for their hard work, by nature, they’re going to be more likely to cut corners.
Influencers who are 100 percent ethical will cut corners by spending a smaller amount of time creating content for that particular campaign. Influencers who aren’t 100 percent ethical might seek out other ways to cut corners, such as those mentioned above.
2. Inspect the track record of an influencer prior to working with them.
If you have the time to do so, scan through a prospective influencer’s social channels. Have they been a part of influencer programs before? Did they create great content on those programs?
History is the best predictor of the future, and that principle doesn’t stop at influencer marketing.
3. Use Social Blade to see if an influencer’s followers are real or fake.
If an influencer has 20,000 Instagram followers and averages 30 Likes on their posts, that’s a huge red flag worth taking a deeper dive into. Free tools like Social Blade allow you to see how many followers were added to a specific social account day by day. Thus, if an influencer who typically gains 200 followers per day randomly gains 15,000 new followers one day, there’s a high chance those new followers are bots.
4. Keep an eye out for discrepancies.
If the second you begin working with an influencer, a disproportionately high amount of your website’s traffic begins to come from southeast Asia or India (places notorious for being click farm hubs), that could be a sign the influencer is using a click farm.
You don’t have to monitor every single thing an influencer does, but keep a watchful eye on the higher level metrics to make sure everything is legit.
5. Be sure they’re following FTC guidelines with their sponsored content.
The FTC (Federal Trade Commission) is cracking down on influencer marketing. If an influencer who’s aware of FTC guidelines is blatantly not abiding by them, then what’s to stop them from breaking rules elsewhere?
6. Most importantly, build relationships with the influencers you know and trust.
By building trustful bonds with influencers you know and love over time, you’ll better position yourself to never get duped. Treat your ‘go-to’ influencers like you would a contractor, consultant, or someone else who’s affiliated with your team.
When used appropriately and strategically, influencers can provide your company (no matter the size) with amazing business results. Don’t let the shady ones scare you off. Do your homework, bookmark this article, and you’ll be just fine.
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.