'Evolve or die' - H+K MENA on social media influencers and the curse of 'fake followers'

Kirsty O'Connor, director of content and publishing at Hill+Knowlton MENA, says with the rise of fake influencers, the industry needs to find new ways of using influential online users without 'counting followers'.

Kirsty O’Connor, director of content and publishing at Hill+Knowlton MENA (image via MEPRA Community on YouTube)
Kirsty O’Connor, director of content and publishing at Hill+Knowlton MENA (image via MEPRA Community on YouTube)

For anyone close to the influencer marketing industry, fake followers might be old news - but now the rise of influencer fraud has a valuation attached to it; $1.3 billion, according to new research from cybersecurity firm Cheq. 

Majority of Instagram influencers engage in fakery - landmark new study

The study found that at least 15 per cent of all influencers’ followers were fake and - according to Kirsty O’Connor, director of content and publishing at Hill+Knowlton MENA - the rise of fake influencers is a plague in the region.

O’Connor told PRWeek Middle East that while social media platforms need to work to prevent a rise in online personas creating fake personas on platforms such as Instagram to inflate their fanbase, communication companies in MENA also have a shared responsibility.

"I do feel responsibility needs to sit within the communication industry too," says O’Connor. "At H+K we vet our influencers in a number of ways to ensure they are relevant, real and results-bound.

"The team have access to a number of tools to monitor influencer performance and also how they perform for clients we work with.

"We are committed to supporting influencers, too, as we feel there needs to be an education piece on both sides of the industry, to help each other achieve success in our region."

Unfortunately, says O’Connor, the pressure on influencers to have millions of followers sees large bought followings in the region.

"The issue with a bought following is they are not real, so they don’t engage with your content like a human would, giving you a low number of likes or comments on posts. Influencers then need to buy their likes and comments to keep their following vs engagement percentage attractive to marketers.

"This becomes a cycle of buying fake followers and results so brands continue to work with them and they make money.

"All of this then raises the question, are these influencers creating any impact for brands? These fake influencers, no, as the impact will be minimal. Once an influencer or even a brand page has bought a fake following, it’s very hard to get rid of it and means your insights are continually incorrect and therefore your campaign measurements are flawed.

"The amounts businesses are paying influencers are large, but how is the monetary value of an influencer decided? That’s a question which must be asked and addressed with influencers and agencies at the start of working together - what are we really getting for their fee? This should not be a list of posts and stories."

O’Connor believes no influencer should be paid large amounts of budget without sharing data on their following and being given clear KPIs.

"Page analytics is something they previously could withhold as is only accessible by the influencer in the back end of their profiles. However new tools now exist to check their following demographics and instantly discount an influencer from a campaign. No brand or agency should be engaging influencers without access to these tools - make decisions with data."

O’Connor says an interesting development in the UAE this January saw the introduction of the Influencer Licence. All social media influencers must have a licence from the UAE’s National Media Council if they are commercialising their page.

"This is a great move from the UAE to regulate influencers while also holding them accountable to local media and advertising laws. This is similar to the US and UK, where influencers have to disclose paid-for work as advertising to meet standards and protect the consumer. This currently is not reflective across the entire region, and I would hope to see this rolled out into other Middle East markets to ensure unity across influencer marketing regulation, as campaigns can be region-wide."

O’Connor also welcomed a move by Instagram to crack down on influencer fraud.

Fake accounts are banned on Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, and the company has recently started testing a design tweak that would no longer show the total number of "likes" other users’ posts had received.

Initially launched in Canada, it also rolled out to users in six more countries - Ireland, Italy, Japan, Brazil, Australia and New Zealand - in July.

"I believe this is a good move to remove the 'like culture' that our world now lives, protecting our youth and moving the focus to sharing meaningful content with each other," says O'Connor.

"For the influencer marketing world, it again points back to my belief that counting followers and likes to measure influencers is no longer viable. There should be a lot of focus placed here on how we do measure our work with influencers and also pressure on influencers and Facebook to share their data pre, during and post campaigns.

"Removing likes from posts will make it harder to spot fake followings, as this number is a key engagement metric being hidden. Emphasis on tools will become more prominent to detect this.

"I think the role of influencers is far from over, but it’s in a state of 'evolve or die'. The rise of influencers is entirely based on consumer behaviour, let’s not forget that. As long as our consumers are reading content on social platforms and seeking out influencer recommendation, influencers will continue to flourish.

"Until we can set firm objectives and results around influencer work in this region, it will continue to be a grey area on the marketing budget line. Like we did with ‘PR value’, we need to find measures which are not a number with no meaning.

"As long as we are collaborating with influencers in meaningful brand moments, which are relevant, real and driven towards results, I feel influencers have a strong future within a world where consumers now demand this."


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