Unilever Says No More Fake Followers and Bots. Influencers Cheer, and Question the Future

The brand declared it won't work with people with inauthentic followings

Animation: Yuliya Kim; Sources: Getty Images
Headshot of Diana Pearl

Unilever’s CMO Keith Weed kicked off Cannes with a big announcement: The company would make an effort not to work with influencers who had fake followers or used bots to grow their accounts. But the reality of working with influencers whose followings are authentic may be trickier than just making a proclamation like that.

Neil Waller, CEO of influencer marketing company Whalar, said he hopes more brands follow Unilever’s lead and help eradicate unethical practices in the industry.

“If a publisher reported an audience number that wasn’t true or a magazine pretended that they had more readers than they actually do, that would be really wrong,” Waller said.

The reason fake followers and the use of bots have become such a prevalent issue in the community, he said, is that for many brands, follower count and likes has been the primary—and oftentimes only—metric used when selecting which influencers to work with. Not only does Waller believe it encourages inauthentic padding of an influencer’s follower list, but the practice can also be to a brand’s detriment.

“You often seen scenarios where a brand is working with influencers who are less suitable but are paid more just because they have more followers,” he said, “as opposed to the traditional magazine idea of what is the suitable publication to work with? What is the right audience? What’s the message you want to put out there?”

“The industry is putting follower numbers above all else,” he said. “It’s slightly ludicrous when there’s just so much more to it.”

Influencer Tif Nichols Fannin noted that until now, there’s been very little crackdown on fake followers, and influencers with inflated numbers are still getting work from brands, likely because of the phenomenon Waller pointed to: follower count being prized above all other factors.

“Brands continue to work with influencers who engage in these tactics, so it’s like they’re being rewarded for their fake engagement,” she said. “An influencer may have huge numbers at first glance, but if those numbers are inflated by fake followers and bought engagement then the brand is not getting what it hoped to out of the bargain.”

For many influencers, Weed’s statement was cause for celebration, but also caution. Cathy Peshek, the creator of the fashion blog Poor Little It Girl, said she worries that the practice of buying followers is much more complicated than simply paying for bot accounts to follow your own. And if a brand isn’t putting in the effort to dig into an influencer’s following, it’s easy to skate by unnoticed.

“It is hard to track,” Peshek said. “Some brands are looking at a number, and that’s really it. They’re not taking the time to really follow that influencer, see their growth and see their engagement. There’s no website that you can go to called IsThisBloggerCheatingOnInstagram.com.”

“Sometimes the tools used to gain these fake followings are really subtle,” Monica Dutia, a microinfluencer who writes an eponymous blog, said. “Brands must be willing to invest time into identifying the bots and fake followers; they should essentially be doing some kind of vetting before spending hundreds or thousands of dollars on marketing via an influencer.”

There are also many ways for an influencer to grow their follower count, some of which not everyone would deem authentic. A practice some influencers point to is a “loop giveaway,” which sees Instagram users host a giveaway with a number of other influencers. To be one of the giveaway’s “hosts,” influencers must must pay a buy-in fee. Participating often means a major boost in followers, as those entering must follow the influencers who are hosting.

“If you’re spending money to buy into a large giveaway to get followers who otherwise would not be following you, I count that as buying followers,” said microinfluencer Alyssa Loring, who writes the blog Feathers and Stripes.

In the end, the fake follower phenomenon can be traced back to one thing: the desire to grow their businesses and everything that comes with it. “Why would you do something if there isn’t a financial gain from it?” Waller said. “Brands have painted followers and likes as the No. 1 reason to work with an influencer.”

Working as an influencer often means a person’s follower count has a direct impact on their income. More and more influencers are quick to blame platforms like Instagram for a lack of organic growth. The social media giant has born the brunt of criticism from influencers and social media users for its ever-changing algorithm, which many complain makes it more difficult to grow than it previously was.

However, Peshek said, “people blame the algorithm because it’s an easy out. No one wants to blame themselves.”

This could all lead to a chance for the microinfluencer, typically considered an influencer with less than 100,000 followers, to really grow. As many of the original influencers have soared to seven-figure follower counts, their lives have become nearly as aspirational as celebrities. Microinfluencers are something of a return to what an influencer is at its core: a relatively normal person consumers feel they can really connect to.

“As a consumer, I want to see sponsored posts from people who really use the product in question,” Loring said, “not just from influencers who have 500,000 followers or more.”

Unilever’s declaration may signal a change to come overall, and Waller said that’s to be expected. Influencer marketing is less than a decade old and still has some kinks to to work out.

“It’s gone from being a toddler to a child to a teenager,” he said. “Now it just needs to grow up and become an adult.”

@dianapearl_ diana.pearl@adweek.com Diana is the brand marketing editor at Adweek and managing editor of Brandweek.