Blogging has become a numbers game — and one in which brands might be losing millions to bots.
The pressure is on for the blogger set, where the number of followers one has, by and large, remains the biggest indicator of the amount of influence one yields. These bloggers are expected to continually increase their social media fan bases, as high follower counts equate to inking deals with the biggest fashion and beauty brands, and deals with these brands equate to big bucks for influencers. Whether someone has 500,000 or two million followers is integral in dictating their rate, which could climb from a five-figure payout to a six- or even seven-figure fee.
But the way in which bloggers grow their followings has become a little murky, with some turning to services that allow them to buy followers and likes to get their numbers up in the form of bots. It’s certainly not a new phenomenon — Instagram had a well-publicized “cleanup” at the end of 2014 that saw followings from Kim Kardashian to Justin Bieber drop by more than one million each — but it has become a topic that brands are turning their focus to as influencer fees skyrocket.
It’s become essential that marketers see a return on their investment and, more than ever, take into account that a portion of one’s followers might be “fake.”
As a direct result of this, James Nord, cofounder and chief executive officer of digital agency Fohr Card, said his team spent the past several months analyzing the quality of followers of 20 million Instagram accounts. On average, findings showed that approximately 7.8 percent of the total followings across these accounts were bots, with some influencer followings containing as much as 20 percent fake followers.
These are pretty alarming statistics, especially when data from Mediakix projected that advertiser spend with influencers on Instagram will surpass $1 billion per year this year. This means that almost $80 million could be spent on advertising to fake accounts in 2017 – and this could have grave effects on ROI.
“We’re starting to hear more and more from influencers and brands that people don’t know if the followings [influencers] were building were authentic. You hear, ‘Oh, he or she is buying followers. How can we know that this following is authentic?’ We started looking around,” Nord said. “If you have an abnormally high number of bots following you, there is a decent chance that you bought those followers. I could see a situation where you can randomly have a bunch of bots follow you, but if it walks like a duck, talks like a duck and looks like a duck, it’s a duck.”
Fohr Card, which maintains a community of 15,000 influencers, wants to ensure brands get the most out of their investments. Today, the agency will begin to offer a new service to clients: Influencer Follower Health Scores, or transparency on the quality of followers an influencer has. An algorithm rates a blogger’s “follower health” on a scale of -8 to 8, Nord explained, noting that a -8 rating is a fake follower or a bot and an 8 means someone is an “active user” who posts photos regularly and has a follower count that “makes sense.”
“If we look at someone who has no bio, a weird user name and they are following 10,000 people and have one photo, that’s a bot. If someone is following 500 people and they have 200 followers and post once a week — they’re real,” Nord pointed out.
He said that Fohr Card will no longer charge clients for fake followers if they’re working on a paid campaign with that influencer. Depending on the number of bots, fees will be discounted. Nord wants to make sure the money brands are spending is going to tell their story to “real actual engaged consumers, instead of a lie or fake accounts.”
In addition to brands being privy to this information, influencers will be able to see their fake followers as well. In early June, a tool will roll out that lets influencers delete bots and fake accounts that might be following them.
Jacey Duprie of Damsel in Dior’s following is 97 percent authentic, according to Fohr Card, which assessed her 395,000 followers in terms of bots, active users and lurkers (users who are active on Instagram but don’t post photos). She said a typical post can garner 4,000 to 9,000 “likes” depending on the subject matter or time of day.
When someone with fewer followers than her gets quadruple the “likes” on a photo, it “raises an eyebrow” because it usually points to bots that automatically like the photos of the accounts they follow.
“I really hope that brands utilize this tool because it would be a nice pat on the back to the people growing genuine and authentic followings. It would be nice validation,” Duprie said. “They’re [brands] spending advertising dollars to create an impression on people, and when those people are not real, tangible people that can buy clothing or invest in beauty…they’re wasting their advertising dollars that can be spent on an actual audience.”
A number of tools exist to help marketers assess the followings of influencers and determine the percentage of fake followers, including Twitter Audit, a five-year-old technology that evaluates one’s Twitter following. The tool detects fake followers through an algorithm that analyzes everything from how often a user retweets versus tweets to the ratio of followers versus people they follow, according to David Caplan, cofounder of Twitter Audit, who said almost two million accounts have been audited to date.
But brands say it’s not as black-and-white as one’s followers being fake or not.
Nicole Frusci, senior vice president, U.S. marketing, at Benefit, said that the brand rarely goes solely by follower count when selecting an influencer to collaborate with. Engagement is the key metric used to determine whether or not someone might be a good fit for an activation or campaign, she said.
“When we speak to genuine consumer engagement it’s not just looking at their engagement based on likes, shares or views. It’s really about what their fans’ comments are…[and] how they’re commenting on their posts,” Frusci said.
It’s also the sentiment of the comments and how these followers react when it comes to offline activations, she added. The response an influencer gets at a meet-and-greet or an event hosted offline is a key piece Benefit considers when looking at partners.
She acknowledged that the brand thinks about the possibility of fake followers, but for the most part, it hasn’t become an issue because tracking engagement remains the focus.
“It’s a numbers game. If it’s 10 percent of one million [followers that are fake], they still have 900,000 [real ones]… But the mini [influencer] who has 100,000 [followers] and 10 percent are fake, we might not work with them. It depends who they are and how active their audience is with them,” Frusci said, noting that a small percentage of bots is not a deterrent to working with an influencer.
“Look, absolutely… All of us, we’ve only scratched the top of the iceberg with how to measure social media to be honest,” said Stephane de la Faverie, global brand president, Estée Lauder, when asked if finding out that a percentage of an influencer’s followers were fake would affect the brand wanting to work with them.
But, like Frusci, de la Faverie is less concerned with the sheer number of followers and more on engagement.
At a time when ROI is “absolutely critical” to social media activations, he said the way to determine if an influencer partner has fake followers is to track the social actions they elicit from fans, whether it’s a global or micro influencer.
He cited an in-store event last month the brand hosted in China with Yang Mi, an actress and influencer who has more than 70 million followers on Weibo.
“It’s the first time in my life that we had to physically shut down the entire mall for security reasons because of number of followers and the people who came to see her. People were lining up in the department store and outside in the rain to see her,” de la Faverie said. “Fake or not fake… it’s all about the ROI of the brand in the long term. When you see these kinds of immediate actions you know that you have an influencer that has strong engagement.”