At the end of last year, The Atlantic published a story about influencers, ones with moderate followings, who took themselves on lavish vacations while presenting the holiday as paid promotion through a series of elaborate photos with hashtag #ads. They did that to ensure other brands would see it, and ideally, include them in paid trips in the future. It often worked.
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Perception is everything and, if you’re a hot person, it’s easy, if not slightly expensive, to make companies believe you’re influencing. According to a new study from the University of Baltimore and the cybersecurity company Cheq, as reported by the Business of Fashion, “fake” influencers—those who’ve purchased bot followers to enjoy the benefits of mega influencers like free trips and brand deals with major advertisers—are on the rise. According to the study, on YouTube $49 buys 1000 followers, while $34 buys 1000 Facebook follows. (The rate plunges for Instagram, where 1000 followers cost just $16—how convenient.)
Roberto Cavazos, a University of Baltimore economist who wrote the report, surveyed 10,000 influencers and found that 25 percent of their followers were bots. Moreover, he told the site that “50 percent of engagement levels on sponsored content is fake,” which is insane.
From the Business of Fashion (emphasis mine):
“And although there are signs of fake social media numbers, like bot-looking profiles and a disproportionate number of followers to engagement rates, brands and advertisers are still falling prey to influencers who buy their following. One study conducted by influencer marketing measurement firm Points North Group last year found that 78 percent of the followers of influencers hired by Ritz Carlton were fake, while 39 percent of followers of influencers working with L’Occitane were fake.”
I can’t speak to the marketing department at Ritz Carlton, but it’s not particularly hard to spot a fake account. If an Instagram influencer has more likes on a post than views, it’s probably bots. If there’s limited engagement but thousands of followers, it’s probably bots. If there’s a remarkably consistent number of likes and comments on every image instead of regular, human fluctuation, it’s bots. If you’re not sure it’s bots, there are many, many lengthy YouTube videos dedicated to the topic:
Part of the brilliance of the scam, however, is how influencers are getting funded. The Cheq and University of Baltimore also found that fake influencers with bot followers will cost advertisers $1.3 billion this year, a reasonable chunk of the $8.5 billion marketers will spend on influencers in general. The number is expected to hit $1.5 billion next year (when marketers are anticipated to spend $10 billion on influencers, according to the Business of Fashion.) You can call it deception, I call it an expert form of Robin Hooding... one, albeit, that benefits influencers rather than the peasants.
Listen, I’m all for scamming luxury brands. Before the marketing departments catch on, why not steal from the rich, go to Fiji, get rich yourself—the self-sustaining, influencer prophecy? It’s only a matter of time before everyone is an influencer, anyway, and the lines between real and fake become even more obscured.
Senior Writer, Jezebel. My debut book, LARGER THAN LIFE: A History of Boy Bands, is out now.