Safeguarding brand value: Why brands should take a data-first approach to audience integrity

2019 has been another important year for influencer marketing, as more and more brands wake up to the advantages of using influencer marketing to connect with their customers and drive business.

According to a recent study, the spend on influencer marketing is expected to reach $15 billion by 2022. The combination of an increasingly sophisticated consumer pool, massive upsurge in social media consumption and the rise in ad blockers that has made traditional advertising progressively difficult. Step forward ‘influencer campaigns’, which have risen to prominence to meet the need for a more authentic, natural brand experience that consumers welcome. 

But with every advance comes new challenges, and influencer marketing is no different. As the influencer medium has matured, so has the rise of follower fraud, which has complicated influencer marketing for brands looking to sponsor campaigns. In fact, it is now so prevalent that an entire sector has emerged to enable brands to identify creators with high-quality audiences for their influencer campaigns that are actually real. This new space enables brands to protect their value through audience integrity. A key question for brands, then, is how best to do this? 

The follower fraud problem

The problem of digital fraud is prevalent across the marketing industry. For years advertisers have been fighting an ongoing battle with ad impressions, clicks, and viewability fraud, which spans the web and artificially inflates reporting metrics for digital ads. This fraud cost advertisers as much as US $19 billion last year.

Social channels are particularly vulnerable because achieving views is their very raison d’etre. In such a competitive space, people will go to surprising lengths to achieve the desired target. In the early days of social media marketing, simple metrics like clicks, engagements, unique visitors, and followers were the sole measures of campaign success. The consequences of this type of measurement continue to affect social media marketplaces today. A creator’s reputation - and often income - are directly linked to their reach and engagement, so there is pressure to boost follower counts and engagement rates by any means necessary.

Although we may not yet have understood the true extent of the problem, the estimates are startling. Facebook’s first Community Standards Enforcement Report documented over 583m fake Facebook accounts in the first quarter of 2018 alone – that amounts to more than the entire US population.

But Facebook isn’t alone here. In December 2017, Twitter identified and suspended 6.4m suspicious accounts every week, while around 9-15% of Twitter accounts are understood to be fake. According to estimates, many Instagram accounts have followings comprising 20% bots.

Types of fraud

Social media fraud comes in several forms. One of the most prevalent is automated fraud using bots - these are accounts run by software rather than actual humans. Bots can easily manipulate follower and engagement counts. For example, amplification bots automatically retweet posts made by users who have paid for services.

Another popular form of fraud is human-powered: click farms routinely pay people to manually click on customers’ links to artificially boost their traffic numbers. A New York Times’ investigation in 2018 exposed follower fraud as an industry wide problem involving ‘celebrities, athletes, pundits and politicians’.

Brand marketers responded to this story by calling for immediate steps to combat the issue. Platforms that dealt with creator activations scrambled to address the issue quickly and the mood change was evident with both brands and credible influencers keen to distance themselves from the issue.

For instance, in June last year, only a few months after the exposé, Unilever announced it will not work with influencers who buy followers, it will not buy followers for the company’s brands, and it will prioritise partners who increase transparency and help eradicate bad practices throughout the whole ecosystem. Unilever is just one of the many major organisations taking a stand on influencer malpractice that have significantly moved the goalposts for the better. 

Authenticity; the key to great campaigns 

Creators with fake followers deny brands the opportunity to build relationships with real consumers who may go on to buy their products and become loyal brand advocates. It also ruins future campaign forecasting and optimisation efforts by creating unrealistic benchmarks and inaccurate averages. To combat follower fraud, brands need new ways to vet creators and their audiences before they enter into costly and inefficient influencer marketing relationships. 

Identifying fraudulent followers, or rather assessing a creator's audience integrity, is an opportunity for brands and agencies to better understand the real value of their influencer marketing partnerships. However, to date, brands have only engaged half measures to combat the problem of follower fraud. They typically vet creators with simple vanity metrics or use waivers where creators are asked to affirm that they have not paid for fake subscribers or bots. Additionally, many brands believe that working with creators who have verified accounts protects them against fraud.

However, this data can be easily manipulated and often doesn’t tell the whole story. Unfortunately, creators can lie about buying followers or may be unaware that followers were purchased on their behalf. Even verified accounts can purchase follower and engagement services. In addition, many creator fraud prevention tools in the market analyse only single social platforms, rather than providing analysis on all four major social platforms in a single dashboard. The narrow focus of these tools has traditionally made comprehensive evaluation of creators difficult for marketers.

Taking a data-first approach to ensure audience integrity Taking a multi-channel, data-first approach provides a conclusive, effective method for evaluating audience integrity. It does so by allowing common inauthentic patterns in audience composition, growth rate, and engagement rate to be reliably pinpointed when creators have engaged in follower fraud. 

Engagement rates must also be scrutinised; how do the creators’ engagement performance compare to the norm for a particular social network? By comparing the results against industry benchmarks, brands can get a sense for how authentic their creators’ audiences might be and in turn, how well a campaign with that creator might perform.

Finally, because evaluating a single data point can often be misleading, brands must examine multiple dimensions of each creator’s profile to flag suspicious patterns. This includes an in-depth critique of follower growth, looking at ‘normal’ growth patterns and trying to identify organic and manufactured growth spikes. The same level of analysis must also be applied to audience location, ideally with a comparison to other creators in the same region. 

As companies continue to seek new ways to realise the full potential of influencer marketing, ensuring audience integrity is essential. The influencer marketing economy depends on reliability and authenticity. Alongside recruitment and management of influencers, brands need to devote time and resources to preventing follower fraud. 

Interested in hearing leading global brands discuss subjects like this in person?

Find out more about Digital Marketing World Forum (#DMWF) Europe, London, North America, and Singapore.  

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