Q&A: How Brands Can Avoid the Fake-Follower Quagmire

OMD's social director says the key is valuing authenticity, not just reach

Amid debate over fraudulent followers and paid engagement, brands are increasingly scrutinizing influencers' audiences. Photo Illustration: Yuliya Kim; Image source: Getty Images
Headshot of David Griner

If you’re a brand marketer putting your money on the line, you love to see big numbers—until someone asks if they’re a little too big.

Fraudulent and bot followers have been inflating influencer fan counts for years, but they’ve come under increased scrutiny recently due to the marketing industry’s heightened concern about digital ad fraud. And now brands who partner with influencers have a new, high-profile reason for skepticism—The New York Times’ investigation into a business that sells questionable followers and engagement in bulk.

To learn how influencer marketers are responding to the growing debate, Adweek reached out to Kerry Perse, who leads social marketing at Omnicom-owned media agency OMD. The agency’s clients include Pepsi, McDonald’s and Nissan, and Perse has worked with influencers ranging from Martina McBride to Tess Holliday.

Adweek: The idea of buying sketchy followers is nothing new in social, but The New York Times’ front-page investigation of Devumi certainly seemed to spark major discussion. What were you seeing over the weekend?
Kerry Perse: The article sparked a few healthy conversations about the influencer marketplace. The first was whether the problem of fake followers has actually gotten worse or better. Has the incidence of using fake follower growth tactics gotten more prevalent, and that is why more people are taking about it? Or, due to the rise in conversations around media fraud and the increased scrutiny that influencers have faced, is the problem getting better due to greater awareness? The second debate was about which social platforms had the highest number of fake followers. While Twitter was the primary focus of the article, all platforms are struggling with this to a certain degree.

Kerry Perse

How concerned should brands be about fake followers and shares among the influencers they partner with?
It depends on how they execute their influencer programs and how they measure the value an influencer brings. If a brand partners with an influencer that creates great content, has an audience believed to be comprised of their target audience, has a high degree of influence with a specific topic or category, and puts additional paid media behind the distribution of their content—then the risk of material impact is relatively low. We still recommend doing your due diligence to ensure that the influencer has an audience made up of real humans, but you can certainly mitigate the effect through thoughtful execution.

Digital ad fraud has been a major point of industry debate in recent years. Have influencers and fake followers come up much in those conversations?
Conversations about influencers having fake followers have come up because of the pervasive ad fraud conversation, but they are still largely overshadowed by video views and digital display. The media investment allocated against digital paid media generally dwarfs the investment against influencer marketing and therefore commands that much more attention.

What are some tools or tactics that can help brands and agencies avoid partnering with influencers whose audiences are largely, or at least substantially, fraudulent?
OMD has developed a scoring system, in partnership with the influencer network Influential, that provides an indication as to the level of bot detection within an influencer’s audience. The scoring system is called OMD I-Score and is the next evolution of Q-Score, which was developed for celebrities to measure their popularity. OMD I-Score is comprised of three measures: 1. MPAA rating of content. 2. Influencer organic ER versus brand sponsored ER. And, most importantly, 3. The rate of bot followers. This tool helps our clients navigate this complicated space and select influencers for partnership that will drive meaningful—and real—engagement.

What about companies that aren’t clients of OMD, especially smaller brands and startups that might not have an agency to help?
There are sophisticated influencer research tools out there from companies like Speakr and Captiv8 that provide really detailed information on an influencer’s audience composition and also provide direct links to previous campaigns they have run. I would review the content manually to see if the comments seem bot-like or contrived. I would also keep an eye on how quickly they amass new followers. If you are researching a potential partner and they grow their follower count by 50 percent overnight, there is a large chance that they are buying followers.

Is part of the problem here that influencers and marketers alike are unhealthily focused on numbers? If so, is there anything that can change that, when popularity online is so easily and visually measurable by follower counts?
We generally guide our clients to select influencers that are the best match for them based upon a few factors: authentic love of your brand or products, quality or fit of content, and their ability to tap into aspects of culture and conversation that a brand cannot authentically do on its own. Then paid distribution can be used to amplify the reach rather that focusing on follower count alone.

What advice would you give to aspiring influencers who want to work with brands but might feel tempted to “play the game” of paying for followers and reach?
Spend your time developing your voice, being really dedicated to creating high-quality, differentiated content, building your audience by engaging with their comments and posts, and partnering with influencer networks that will provide you with the visibility you need to work with brands. Don’t fall into the trap of paying for fake followers; it will hurt your credibility in the long run.

@griner david.griner@adweek.com David Griner is creative and innovation editor at Adweek and host of Adweek's podcast, "Yeah, That's Probably an Ad."