Influencers and the problem of fake followers

The CIPR’s Influence Live event on Tuesday kicked off with a fascinating interview by CIPR president Sarah Hall, with the actor turned activist and influencer, Ralf Little. Little is almost as well known now for his Twitter spat with Jeremy Hunt as he is for his roles in The Royle Family and Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps.

Clearly, he is now a serious influencer in all things NHS. He’s certainly a thorn in Jeremy Hunt’s side. He has a genuine interest in the NHS – he was at medical school and planned to become a doctor when he got his acting breakthrough in The Royle Family – and is passionate about its future.

Staying true to who you are matters on social media. Little only gets involved in things that he really cares about. The NHS debate is about the NHS, not about furthering his career, and that is clear from listening to him. Social media gives him a platform to talk about something he cares passionately about, to call politicians to account, and to influence the debate.

But he also talked about the role that a social media following has as an actor, not just as an activist. For up and coming actors particularly, who don’t have the draw of a big name, having a following is becoming more important. It’s taken into account by casting directors. An actor who can influence the success of the play or show by promoting it to their followers is likely to be more appealing to a casting director than one with no social media presence. So when casting an actor, one of the things that directors are starting to consider is how many followers they have on social media. I gather the same is true for models: if two women are up for a shoot and they are equally right for the job, the one with the most social media followers will get it.

Number of followers alone doesn’t equal influence.

Counting followers is a pretty useless measure of influence, but I’m not surprised that people use it. We’re doing some work with a new influencer technology company, ZINE, which researched 1000 influencers recently to see how they work with brands on influencer campaigns. Just 29% of those influencers said brands ask them for detailed audience demographics before running a campaign with them. Follower numbers are still considered the main indicator of influence.

So it’s not surprising that we have an issue with ‘fake’ followers and bots: people buying hundreds of thousands of followers, likes or even shares for a few dollars. Little was honest enough to say that he understands why people are tempted to buy followers. After all, if your next job depends on it, it’s got to be tempting. Little has never considered it – and he doesn’t need to now – but he knows that it is prevalent in the industry.

After the New York Times exposed a company that is allegedly behind millions of fake followers, the networks are clamping down on the issue. Millions of fake followers have disappeared overnight, according to the paper.

Most people – even the most genuine influencers – will have a few bots among their followers. But you can spot when someone’s bought their following. Audience forensics tools can spot patterns of behaviour, such as spikes in audience, changes in behaviour and odd engagement patterns.

Analysing the true impact of influencers

So instead of looking at follower numbers to determine influence, ZINE says we should look at:

  • Audience breakdown. Is the influencer reaching the right/relevant people? This should include demographics, engagement rates per channel, and age, gender, brand affinities, interests, likes and even average income of followers.
  • Engagement. A YouTube influencer may have 1.2 million subscribers, but how many people watch their videos and for how long? How many comments and likes do they get? Does the influencer engage with their audience?
  • Analytics. For influencers with previous campaigns under their belt, or a blog/website, ask for site analytics. What’s their page view to read ratio? How many people read (or act on) their content? It’s easy to click on a link and bounce straight off the site, but how many people stay?

While there’s money to be had from a large following, the problem of fake followers isn’t going to go away. And if agencies, brands, and casting directors keep measuring influence by follower numbers, we’re perpetuating the problem.

Photo by MI PHAM on Unsplash

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