What are Fake Influencers and How Can You Spot Them?

As consumers, we’re often swayed by the opinions of people we consider as experts in the field. We seek out reliable review videos and blog posts from influential figures as we research products or services. A study by Olapic even found that 31% of respondents have purchased a product or service after seeing it in an influencer’s social media post.

So it’s no surprise that brands have been embracing the power of influencer marketing to increase brand awareness and trust. But like all good things, influencer marketing too has its own set of risks and drawbacks, with influencer fraud being one of them. Influencer fraud involves working with fake influencers and can be extremely damaging to your campaign.

Having no actual influence over a real audience, these fake influencers deliver no real results. In fact, they can set your campaign back several steps by damaging your brand reputation and draining your marketing budget. So if you want to avoid being a victim of influencer fraud, you need to learn how to spot fake influencers.

That’s exactly what you’re going to discover in this post. You’ll learn all about the risks involved in working with fake influencers and how to spot influencer fraud before it even happens.

Who are fake influencers?

Before you can learn how to spot fake influencers, you first need to have a clear idea of exactly who they are. This will help you spot the characteristics that differentiate them from real influencers.

Fake influencers are social media users who, by all appearances, seem like influencers. They post high-quality images that are not much different from those of a real influencer. But the major difference is that their following mostly comprises of fake accounts and bots. In other words, they do not have meaningful influence over a real audience.

In a lot of cases, there may be a group of people behind a single fake influencer. This would usually involve creating a fake account of a person that doesn’t exist. They would use stock photos or hire a model to pose as the person. They would also buy followers and engagement to make it look like the person is influential.

The team at Mediakix even conducted an experiment to see how easy it was to become a fake influencer. They created two fake influencers–@calibeachgirl310 and @wanderingggirl. Although these accounts no longer exist and were created as experiments, they helped prove how easy it is for people with malicious intent to commit influencer fraud.

Source: Mediakix

In a lot of cases, however, there will be real individuals behind these fake influencers. But that doesn’t make them any more genuine because their audience isn’t genuine. Fake and bought followings are the main defining factor of a fake influencer.

The impact of influencer fraud

Being a victim of influencer fraud can be harmful for your brand in a number of ways. One of the biggest impacts is on your brand financials. Fake influencers can bleed you dry while generating no significant result. A Points North Group analysis even found that one brand ended up spending $600,000 on impressions that were either not seen or seen by fake followers.

This kind of loss may not be completely destructive for a large and established brand. They may be able to quickly recover their losses in a couple of months without any long-term impact. But for smaller businesses and startups that have limited resources, it could represent a major hit to their marketing and brand budget.

This is a double loss considering how a brand could’ve spent that money on generating actual impact. On top of this, there’s wasted effort as a marketing team spends hours trying to develop a strategic influencer marketing campaign and coordinate with an influencer who turns out to be fraudulent. These fake influencers cause brands to waste valuable time and resources on a partnership that doesn’t yield any significant result.

Influencer fraud can also damage your brand reputation and break the trust that you’ve worked so hard to earn. Naturally, fake influencers aren’t very well-known for their credibility. If people learn you teamed up with an account that turns out to be fake, they may doubt your credibility.

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How to spot fake influencers

Now that you understand what we mean by fake influencers are and what kind of damage they can bring to your business, let’s get to the most important part. Here’s how you differentiate fake influencers from genuine ones:

1. Look for unusual follower-to-engagement ratio

Since bots and fake accounts make up a majority of their follower base, fake influencers typically have an unusually low engagement rate considering their massive follower count. They may be able to buy thousands of fake followers, but those fake followers aren’t going to engage with their content.

In addition to this scenario, some other warning signs you might be able to take away from follower-to-engagement ratio include an excessively high engagement rate spurred by low-quality false engagement – read on to find out more about how to identify this. Another situation you might encounter with a fake influencer could be consistently identical engagement rates across posts due to buying a certain type of engagement on each post.

Either way, to gauge authenticity, you need to know how to compare their engagement rate against their following size. The basic steps for calculating average engagement rate are:

  • Divide the total number of engagement within the last 30 days by the total number of posts during the same time frame.
  • Divide the amount by the total number of followers.
  • Multiply the result by 100 to get a percentage amount and you’ll have the average engagement rate during those 30 days.

But this manual process can be time-consuming and complicated especially if you have to assess multiple influencers. You can use tools like Influencer Fee to calculate the average engagement rate of influencers on Instagram. While there aren’t a lot of tools to calculate engagement on other social media platforms, a fake influencer on Instagram is likely fake on other platforms as well.

That said, knowing their engagement rate alone isn’t enough to assess their authenticity. Make sure you have a clear idea of your industry benchmarks so you know what to compare it against. Engagement rates may vary according to following size and industry so you should take that into consideration as well.

According to an Influence.co analysis, accounts with 2000 to 5000 followers averaged an engagement rate of 6%. This number gradually drops as the follower count increases. And influencers with over 1 million followers have an average engagement rate of 1.5%.

It’s also good to note that just because someone’s engagement rate is slightly lower than the industry average it doesn’t automatically make them a fake influencer. A drastic difference from the industry average is what you should be looking for.

2. Analyze engagement quality

While engagement rate tells us a lot about the authenticity of the influencer, it’s not always a foolproof method either. Some fake influencers have also resorted to buying fake engagement or participating in engagement pods to bring up their engagement rate. So a lot of fake influencers might still be able to pass the first test.

This means you’ll need to go more hands-on and analyze the quality of engagement manually. Go through the comments to see whether they’re getting tons of irrelevant comments that have nothing to do with the post. In case of fake influencers, you might notice a significant amount of emoji-only comments and generic comments that could be used on any post.

Generic comments would include comments like “nice,” “great pic,” “amazing shot,” etc. Take a look at the following list of comments, for instance. Since they don’t say anything specific in relation to the content, they are versatile enough to fit any post. There’s a good chance these comments are coming from fake followers or bots.

Authentic influencers may also get several emoji-only comments and generic comments. But in their case, there will be a good mix of relevant comments as well. These are comments that directly mention the content of the image or video. They may be appreciating a specific element of the content or even asking questions about it.

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For example, look at the comments on the following post from a food influencer. The picture is of mochi donuts and the comments are very relevant to the food being shown.

Additionally, you should also be wary in case the influencer gets tons of comments from the same group of people in all of their posts. If you notice this pattern, it means they’re likely part of engagement pods.

The need for organic engagement has led to the emergence of engagement pods. These pods comprise of people who have an agreement to engage with each other’s posts and drive up their engagement rates. While some niche Instagram pods are based around a mutual area of interest, they’re typically time-consuming to engage with and don’t necessarily connect you to a genuine audience. A large amount of engagement that seems linked to an Instagram pod is a possible red flag for a fake influencer that doesn’t actually have a dedicated following

3: Be wary of sudden spikes in follower count

Another sure sign of bought influence is a sudden spike in follower count. The spike probably resulted from all the bot accounts that started following them after they paid to get more followers. In most cases, authentic influencers will experience a steady increase in followers with a few minor deviations every once in a while.

Sometimes, these spikes may be a result of some viral content that the influencer created. But virality doesn’t come easily to everyone. And in most cases, their follower count will continue to increase gradually even after the spike. What you should look for is a sudden spike followed by a gradual or drastic drop in follower count, which are often signs of fake influencers.

Use tools like the Creator Statistics Tool from CreatorBox to analyze the follower growth rate of prospective influencers. Here’s an example of a steady growth in follower count, suggesting that the account likely belongs to an authentic influencer.

Some accounts with bought influence may even display a follower growth chart like below. As you can see, there’s a steady decline and no major increases afterward. This means you’ve likely caught them long after they bought followers and are no longer in a position to buy more.

4. Analyze audience quality

The quality of an influencer’s audience can tell you a lot about the authenticity of their influence. That’s why an audience quality analysis is another important step to spot fake influencers.

For this, you can use a tool like the IG Audit tool, which thoroughly analyzes the follower profiles of a public Instagram account. It can differentiate between bot accounts and real accounts, so it gives you an estimate of how many real followers the influencer has.

Since every social media profile is susceptible to bot followers, you can’t expect 100% real followers. If the estimate is in grey as shown below, it’s a positive sign that you’re dealing with an authentic influencer.

In the case that you’re dealing with a fake influencer, the estimate will be displayed in red. This means the account has a higher number of fake followers than real ones.

You might even see estimates that are displayed in orange. This means the account has a fair share of both real and fake followers. It’s still a good idea to stay away from these influencers because they can’t generate the desired level of impressions to a real buying audience.

How to proceed

Avoiding a partnership with fake influencers may be the first step to take once you’ve identified them. Going forward from there, you can also keep a record of the fake influencers you’ve identified. This reduces the need to go through a lengthy research process all over again in your future campaigns.

Keep a record of “blacklisted influencers” along with their social media handles, why you blacklisted them, etc. So you can easily refer to your list before launching another influencer marketing campaign.

Have you ever come across a fake influencer before? Share your experience in the comments below.

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