Fake Followers Are the Latest Data Fraud Issue Hurting Brands

Opinion: Legitimate data providers and agencies are also affected

How many followers? How many files? Ooh, tell me more! pepifoto/iStock

Data-driven marketing has a problem.

Unilever chief marketing officer Keith Weed set off alarm bells recently when he called for “urgent action” in response to the problem of fake followers of supposed social media “influencers.” Given Unilever’s $8.4 billion marketing budget and hundreds of consumer brands, those comments carry tremendous weight.

Beyond social media, third-party data also is coming under increased scrutiny. Bot fraud is estimated to have duped client companies out of $6.5 billion in 2017, according to the Bot Annual Baseline Report.

The truth is that the fake-follower problem is part of a much larger data fraud problem plaguing the advertising industry. Fake email responses, poor data hygiene, old data, data acquired without user consent—the list goes on.

The data problem not only is hurting brands—it’s also tainting the reputations of legitimate data providers and agencies that strive to do their work ethically and truthfully.

And the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation should serve as a warning to the U.S. and elsewhere: Restrictive government oversight is a very real possibility for markets where consumers ultimately demand regulatory solutions.

A major contributor to the data debacle is that far too many brands continue to farm out the chore of acquiring consumer data to third-party providers without seriously vetting them. These arrangements are a bit like the sale of an automotive sound system at a flea market—don’t ask too many questions because the answers might make you feel a little dirty.

The same wink-and-nod attitude applies to social media follower numbers. Too many influencers are using bots to buy followers and very few are being held accountable. More followers are better, marketers have rationalized, so why worry?

Cheers to Unilever, however, for its very public commitment at Cannes to avoid social media influencers with fake followers or bot-driven audience growth. Other advertisers should take heed.

I suspect that many of them won’t, though. They’ll stick with the usual: “What’s that you say? You have 2 million followers? You guarantee a 10 percent open rate on every email campaign? You’ve got 25 million more people in your database than exist in that country? Sign me up!”

It’s truly amazing to see that scenario play out over and over, whether the subject is a social media effort or an email campaign. I’ve actually had big brands tell me that unless my company can guarantee a 10-percent open rate for an email campaign, they won’t even talk to us. They say this with complete awareness that they are spending huge sums of money elsewhere on data they know is sheer fraud.

But outrageous claims are irresistible catnip. How many followers? How many files? Ooh, tell me more!

And the funny thing is that the data providers guarantee response rates irrespective of the quality of the creative and the strength of the offer. It makes no sense, but some marketers just don’t seem to care. Nor do they seem to wonder how a 20-something on Instagram went from zero to 100,000 followers practically overnight.

Fraudulent data providers often work quietly, behind the scenes, for a reputable agency or data provider. So, the marketer is shielded from the dirty business underneath the hood. But all parties involved—the providers, their partners and the marketers themselves—should be ashamed of themselves. And the Federal Communications Commission should be on their case.

For those who do care, however, a few simple criteria can fairly quickly sift out the countless shady data providers:

  • Make sure the company has a website and physical address. By extension, salespeople should use company email addresses.
  • Determine whether the company has a page on LinkedIn. It’s a good sign if it is updated on a regular basis.
  • Look for testimonials from reputable companies, especially testimonials with real names attached.
  • Honest data companies will not guarantee specific results from using their data. There are simply too many variables, such as ad creatives, for guarantees.
  • Ask where their data comes from. Reputable companies will be able to share their methodology for collecting data.

Vetting social media influencers is trickier.

“It is hard to track,” Cathy Peshek, creator of fashion blog Poor Little It Girl, recently told Adweek. “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.”

She is absolutely right, but we have to start somewhere. The time is long overdue for the marketing industry to get serious about cracking down on bogus influencers with suspicious follower numbers.

The data fraud problem, in all of its forms, comes down to this: If it is not corrected soon, and if our industry fails to police the problem itself, then the government will step in and do the job.

We should all think long and hard about which option we’d prefer.

Ajay Gupta is founder and CEO of data-driven marketing services company Stirista.