The problem with fake influencers

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This article first appeared in Marklives.

Hot on the back of fake news, we now, by all accounts, have to deal with fake influencers. And as PR and media relations move more and more away from drafting conventional press releases and working with traditional media, we need to be very aware of the value of working with influencers, and the danger of working with and supporting those whose value is based on falsehoods.

The local influencer scene was hit by a mini-skandaal recently, when local bloggers Leigh van den Berg, from Lipgloss is My Life, and Candice-Lee Kannemeyer, from In My Bag, set up a dodgy Instagram account designed to expose and show how easy it is to quickly build a social-media profile with an impressive amount of followers — all of which were fake. Their account, called fake_fake_fake1981, made it very obvious that it was a fake account, stating it in the profile plus the name. They quickly grew a following, buying a thousand followers for a handful of US dollars, and paying for likes on dodgy pics (one of which was just a blank white space).

The two reckon that this practice is widespread in the local blogging and ‘influencer’ community, with a good many boosting their followers and profiles by huge margins. So what is the issue with this? So what if people want to boost their egos by appearing to have lot of fans?

Lots, really. Because these people are using these stats, these fake followers, to make money. The rates they charge for sponsored posts, for covering an event or for writing about a brand or product, are based purely on the amount of followers they have and the reach of their influence. And when the stats are fake, these people, make no mistake, are scam artists taking advantage of brands and businesses.

As the PR industry, we need to ensure we’re not feeding this fire. I have seen a good few examples where PR agencies have placed features with dodgy influencers (and questionable media outlets), adding the “reach” and AVE “monetary value” to their campaign reports. The value of the agency and the work that it does is often measured on these reports, meaning that the value of the agency is based on inflated metrics, based on falsehoods.*

I have a big issue with this. The very foundation of strong PR is based on relationships and trust (whether that be with media contacts, clients or other stakeholders) and, when agencies mislead their clients by falsely inflating figures, that is a fundamental break of that trust.

So, what to do, and what should clients and PR managers look out for?

Like most things in life, if it looks too good to be true, it probably is. If a local social-media superstar has hundreds of thousands of followers, look into this carefully. (Although I would caution not to tar everyone with the same brush; many have credibly worked to build this following legitimately). Look for and ask for stats for their other platforms, backed up by credible measurement tools such as Google Analytics — if their blog or website’s stats don’t measure up to their social media ones, something is probably out.

Dig around into the followers themselves; if they just follow thousands of people, without having followers themselves, or if they have little or no content, they are likely to be bots.

Interrogate the comments and likes under posts — often bots give themselves away by posting generic comments under posts, and these may be picked out if they don’t quite make sense compared to the content of the posts.

The same goes for dodgy media publications that PRs include in their media reports. Spend a little time checking out these publications; if they’re portals that simply host loaded press releases, they shouldn’t strictly be counted as earned-media coverage, and certainly shouldn’t incur an inflated PR AVE value.
The out-take? Let’s, as the PR industry, take collective responsibility for acting in an authentic and transparent way. We, often rightly in scenarios like these, are accused of dodgy practices and spin-doctoring. Let’s not give the haters more reason to hate us.

*I am going to add another personal whinge to this, and this is the widely used practice of multiplying AVE figures for coverage placed by three in order to reach the “PR Value”. This has widely been phased out by most credible businesses, because it uses a random metric to inflate measurables, making the value offered by the agency appear more than it is. If people are going to use AVE as a measurable — and the value of that as a credible measureable is a debate be held over for another time — then it should be measured in its purest form, so as to compare apples with apples, not apples with elephants.

Emma KingEmma King (@EmmainSA) is the owner and MD of The Friday Street Club (@TheFridayStClub). She is allergic to bad grammar and ampersands, but likes working her way through piles of novels and travelling the globe. She contributes the monthly “Dissident Spin Doctor” column on PR and communication issues to MarkLives.com.