Can you really get catfished in marketing?

By
Elsie Bernaiche
,
Account Executive at ThoughtLeaders
September 15, 2020


Yes, catfishing is real and it’s not just an online dating problem. It’s becoming a pervasive issue in influencer marketing, a burgeoning digital marketing tactic that leverages social media and longform content creators to sell promotional goods and services to the masses that flock online for entertainment in the modern era. Influencer marketing will continue its takeover in 2021, as Google searches for the term grew almost 3x in the past 3 years and the industry looks to represent around $10 Billion by the end of 2020. 


Fake influencers directly result in overspending without much “lift” or measurable ROI. In fact, a study from 2017 by Influencer Marketing Hub proves that while there’s generally ROI in influencer marketing, only the top 15% of brands received a higher return, and nearly 25% of marketers reported a loss, or just breaking even. According to Entrepreneur.com, an astounding 24% of influencers have manipulated their followership and engagement numbers. Furthermore, influencers who want to break into the industry will go as far as to fake sponsored content in order to make their pages look more appetizing to other brands (please click that article, it’s an expose piece from The Atlantic and truly worth a read). 


If you want further evidence of this pesky fake influencer, look no further than this shining example by Mediakix, who actually decided to test how easy it was to create a fake influencer account. You can imagine the millions in marketing spending lost to these influencers collectively after reading this investigative piece by Points North Group from 2018 which found that brands like Ritz-Carlton Hotel (78%), Aquaphor (52%), L’Occitane (39%) and Pampers (32%), had the highest percentage of fake followers in their influencer’s sponsored Instagram posts. Another of their studies found that one brand ended up spending $600,000 on impressions that were either not seen or seen by fake followers.


If you’re looking to avoid having the awkward conversation with your boss as to why you spent $10,000 on instagrambots last quarter, we’re here to break down the signs of a fake influencer, how to avoid them, and how to go one step further and vet your creators systematically to get the most out of every marketing dollar your brand spends. 


RED FLAGS 


Fishy followers.

Did the influencer seem to acquire a bunch of followers overnight? Do they seem to have hundreds of thousands of followers but an almost non-existent comments section? Or better yet, do the comments seem a little off to you when you begin to look through and see “awesome!” “gorgeous!” and “lovely :)” repeating over and over? You’ve spotted a fake influencer account.


By all other signals, their photos, name, location, and content seem to be legitimate. It might even seem easy to glance over the comments section. But it’s well worth it, lest your fake influencer promise you 100K impressions from these non-existent followers. 


Inconsistent content.

Do they make a video per day, per week, per month? How often are they sticking to that schedule based on the dates of their posts? Fake accounts are operated and managed using bots a lot of the time and you’ll be able to tell a mis-matched date, for example a photo of a winter setting in the summertime. If an account posted a ton of content concentrated into a short period of time and hasn’t posted anything recent, it’s surely a fake. 


Dubitable bios.

Does the profile section explain who they are, what they’re interested in, or what they do? Or does their personal information seem scant and, well, impersonal? It’s probably a fake account. A “private” or “hidden” profile or bio is, contrary to your assumptions, NOT an indicator of a real person. Real influencers want their audience to know everything about them - to the point of even sharing their email and physical addresses in the description of their YouTube channels for fans to send them questions, gifts and other fanmail (as well as for brand sponsorship inquiries!). If it seems like you’ll need to run a background check on the actual person behind the account in order to confirm who they are, you’re most likely looking at a bot. 


HOW CAN YOU AVOID THEM?

As easily as there are 3 main indicators for fake influencer accounts, there are 3 main methods for avoiding them. Let’s face it, no one TRIES to get catfished, but there are better ways to avoid it in the digital world of influencer marketing. 


Paid partnership keywords. 

Influencers are required to divulge whether their content is receiving payment from a brand or not. They could be affiliates or true influencer accounts, but their content will reference the following language: “sponsored by”, “brought to you by”, “in partnership with”, “thanks to our partners/sponsors”, and a few others. Run a quick search of the captions of their content and you’ll quickly be able to verify the account. 


Crosscheck other content. 

Real influencers exist on multiple platforms, in multiple formats. Simply check for the creator name on Google to see if they also have a blog, community form/newsletter, or accompanying podcast to their main digital channel. Almost every legitimate influencer out there has a basic website to host their own branding, content archives, and upcoming notices for their fans. 


Use a 3rd party tool for validation. 

We’ve tried just about everything over the years as an agency. Platforms like Tubular, Social Bakers, Magellan AI and more all certainly have something to offer when it comes to influencer content. It’s well worth investing in a similar tool that either can scan and validate a publication for you, or already hosts a healthy searchbase of creators that are pre-validated for you. 


We personally recommend our very ThoughtLeaders Sponsorship Intelligence platform, which we built ourselves to include all the features we needed that one platform couldn’t cover. Good news: we’re offering the marketing world in on the action - sign up to get a demo here. You can also find some useful tips to validating your next influencer in our latest, "How to Vet an Influencer: a performance-based approach".


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Spot fake influencers


SPONSORSHIP INTELLIGENCE IS KEY

Not only can you use a platform to verify influencer accounts that contact your brand for sponsorship, you can project performance and ROI in a few different ways. Sponsorship intelligence is essential in influencer marketing for avoiding overspending on channels that won’t perform well as well as scaling successful campaigns effectively. 


You can check repetition of brand appearances and duration of relationship with brands.

A solid influencer analytics tool will automatically identify sponsored content on a creator’s channel.You can either search for the content creator of interest and view their sponsorship history:





Or you can pull ANY likely sponsored content, filtering by YouTube/podcast/newsletter/blog:


 ...and selecting a specific content category, or searching a keyword:


For instance, we can see that there are 2816 Technology content creators on YouTube making 10,000+ How-To videos:



… but only 1041 that have a formal sponsorship relationship cited in their content:




You can see which type of content engages more of their viewers.

Once you’ve validated a content creator, you’re able to survey their entire content using keywords for the previous content that is most relevant to your brand AND the creator’s audience. Let’s look at our example Zach Star:


We can see which videos get the most views and easily click to view whether that content was sponsored or not. You can even play the full content on our platform:




You can also see which keywords get more views on average: for example, Zach has made 13 videos, mostly in 2020, generating an average of 114K views. The range is anywhere from 76K to nearly 750K! And 6 of these 13 videos about the universe were sponsored by brands like Curiosity Stream or Brilliant.org. 


On the flip side, a search of “math” shows 50+ video results from Zach’s channel and reveal mostly older content from 2019 and prior. It would be worth talking with Zach in this example about making your sponsored video about some space-related math content that isn’t directly instructionally focused based on his most-viewed and most-sponsored content. 


One last tip: you can take a peek at the promo that’s worked well for other brands on Zach’s channel. Brilliant is offering 20% off (you can even click-thru from our platform to view the brand’s landing page):



CuriosityStream was offering free access to content on their service - looks like they tried offering a 40% discount on their annual plan but switched back to the free access format:



Similarly, Wix offered a free website to Zach’s audience in their sponsorships, and Skillshare offered 2 months free. We can clearly see that a free trial is more effective for more brands on Zach’s channel than perhaps a % discount, which only seems to really be working for Brilliant.org.


You can even check how many videos you should buy for a good test according to other brand buying patterns.

With Zach Star + Brilliant.org, we can see based on the video dates that Brilliant.org bought a package of 3 videos to test that were all published within a month, Dec 28-Jan 26. Then, almost a full month later, Brilliant began appearing on Zach’s channel once a month for the next year and renewing in 2020 as well. 



Similarly, Wix bought 3 videos from Zach within a month’s span and did NOT renew, showing that a 3-video buy is typically what Zach might be offering and what brands are considering a good test of his channel. A good test means your click-thrus will indicate reliably whether your product was relevant to the audience and whether the creator’s content was able to drive engagement: one video is usually not sufficient to accurately show whether the sponsorship partnership is working or not. 



You can predict costs before contacting the publication.

Some platforms also have a calculator built-in to estimate the total cost of a typical 30-60 sec pre- or mid-roll adspot on various channels. It can be based specifically on the channel’s current price, or more generally on the industry-average CPV model (CPV on YouTube currently $0.04-$0.07 on average). 



Zach is CuriosityStream’s #7 top Technology YouTuber according to their brand trend page in our platform. You can see from 18 videos that Zach’s estimated video cost is around $5300. His profile page shows average views 114,000, so we can gain that his CPV is probably around $0.04. 



Conclusion

It might be a little ironic to talk about marketers getting scammed, but in the digital age, everyone is vulnerable to being swindled by a clever, and illegitimate, influencer channel or promo offer. 


Nonetheless there’s technology to help protect your investment and predict where you’ll see success. Tracking the ROI before you buy is a basic on the marketer’s checklist, and we can help you reduce your risk and optimize your sales funnel in influencer marketing. See how here