The Dark Side of Influencer Marketing

The Dark Side of Influencer Marketing: Exposing the Fake and Finding Real Followers

– Written by Adam Eli Bernhardt

22% of consumers active on social media aged 16–60 have purchased counterfeit goods promoted by influencers.

Remember how, as a child, your legal guardians would tell you to stay away from bad influences? That’s become much easier said than done in the age of social media. 

Before we look at the downsides of influencer marketing and how it can still be used as a force for good, let’s begin by understanding exactly what an influencer is and does:

  • They’re someone who has garnered a following in a distinct niche, one that they actively contribute to. The type of niche they’re engaged in will usually determine the size of their following.
  • They can influence the purchasing decisions of others because of their position, authority, knowledge, or relationship with their audience. 

Influencers hold immense allure as an avenue through which companies can promote their products and services with robust brand partnerships. This makes it all the more important that their followers are cognizant of the high rates of influencer fraud bolstered by bad metrics, including fake followers and engagement rates.

The Deceptive Danger Posed by Influencer Marketing Fraud

Considering the statistics this article opens with and that the annual value of counterfeit goods is estimated at $509 billion, allowing duplicitous influencers to hoodwink more people must be prevented. 

Illegal trade results in substantial losses for legitimate businesses, fueling criminal enterprises, compromising international security, and morphing into an existential threat to humanity. 

Because of products peddled by influential, murky marketers with control over a blind, uninformed audience, there are thousands of deaths each year. Be wary, as there are plenty of fake pharmaceuticals and cosmetics, substandard foods, and dangerous electrical goods sold online.

How Fake Followers F*ck It Up for Everyone Else

Social media is particularly pernicious because of the extent to which fiction and fact are blurred—a cynical amalgamation veiled behind a strong motivator of social proof. 

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Before we look at the fairer flipside of authentic influencers, let’s take a frank look at the growing facade innate to influencer marketing, starting with one of the primary black-hat practices—forging fake followings. 

1. Fake Followers and the Great Metric Inflation

Behind the Colgate smiles and endless spew of accolades, a bit of probing will often reveal a sinister commonality among fraudulent influencers—an equally fake fan base. 

These accounts comprise inactive profiles, bots programmed to mimic real users (a particularly ubiquitous issue with the advent of AI), and even bulk follower purchases from nefarious online services—have you ever heard of click farms?

By amassing a fraudulent following, influencers present the illusion of a large and engaged audience. This extends to the engagement rate they attain, as metrics such as likes and comments also become distorted. These days, bots can be programmed to autonomously like and comment, making it that much harder to decipher truth from tales. 

Fake followers are empty vessels used solely to manipulate metrics and fortify a facade of influence.

2. What Drives Influencers to Do This?

If you knew someone who bragged about having fake friends IRL and used that to augment their social standing, you’d likely find them rather sad, and you would almost certainly be disinclined to retain a relationship with them. 

The problem is that it’s a lot easier to get away with this kind of deception online than in day-to-day life, where people are more likely to require empirical proof of the claims you make.

Of course, a larger following is seen as directly proportional to influential prowess in the eyes of brands. This makes inflated follower counts a hard lie to sleep on for some influencers. 

To be more marketable, to be able to charge higher fees, and to find a shortcut to ruling their niche, many influencers have resorted to chasing bigger numbers (ironically, at all costs), which comes at the high price of inauthentic connections with an audience that doesn’t exist.

3. The Knock-On Effects of Using Fake Followers

A recipe for a domino effect of negativity, influencer marketing that relies on ballooned metrics backed by fake followers wastes much time and money.

Brands throw resources at partnerships for marketing campaigns that reach dead audiences, resulting in little to zero engagement. Consumers, constantly dodging disingenuous recommendations or being fooled by them, lose trust in influencers and their promotions. 

But it goes deeper: this affects the social media marketing landscape as a whole and down to its core as online authenticity and trustworthiness are increasingly eroded. It makes life almost impossible for genuine influencers who operate transparently, as they increasingly struggle to build lasting relationships with their hard-earned followers.

Other Forms of Influencer Marketing Fraud to Watch Out For:

  1. Data Privacy Violations: When brands start requesting large data collections, it causes security concerns for influencers and their followers.
  2. Secret Sponsorships: From misleading followers with misguided advertising to ruining brand image, reticence around sponsorship is a red flag.
  3. Cyberbullying and Harassment: Causing varying damage to the victims, using platforms to harangue or belittle others damages an influencer’s reputation, too.
  4. Promoting Harmful Products: Advertising harmful products or services, knowingly or unknowingly, makes influencer marketing a vessel of social propaganda, impacting followers’ health and well-being.

Spotting Real Influencers through the Smokescreen

Spotting Real Influencers through the Smokescreen

Forget the insanity of vanity metrics.

Other numbers can be looked at when sizing up the story behind an influencer marketing campaign’s impact. Engagement rate (likes + comments + shares ÷ follower count) is one way to obtain a clearer picture. 

A high engagement rate is often indicative of a plugged-in audience that is actively interacting with the influencer’s content

Reach, which describes the number of unique users who see the content, is also significant, especially when looking for influencer marketing that targets demographic subsets. 

When you focus on these metrics instead of fake followers, you see beyond the facade of preposterous popularity and discover authentic influencers who can market your products or services without irrevocably ruining your standing.

What a Genuine Influencer Community Might Look Like

An Active and Engaged Audience

Instead of endless likes, look for lively discussions that embody human voices. Real influencer marketing will facilitate a community where followers want to engage with content through shares, comments, and questions. 

Nothing showcases a legitimate connection quite like a two-way dialogue between influencers and their following. 

Concrete Content

Namby-pamby posts need to be relegated to the past.

Genuine influencers strive to create content that speaks to their audience. It will stink of originality and sweat their unique personality and brand voice. Moreover, it will offer unfettered value—be it informative, entertaining, or inspiring. 

Next-Level Niche Knowledge

While focusing on a wide range of topics may sound like more fun, unshakeable influence is cultivated by becoming a master of one. 

Focused communities want to follow someone with a well-defined niche—someone who completely understands their audience’s interests and needs. This also assists with creating content that is more relevant and targeted, alluding to specialization, which fosters trust and loyalty within their niche community.

Scouting Influencer Marketing for Brand Partnerships that Last

Collaboration must be the most important factor when committing to an influencer marketing campaign.

When done correctly, partnering with social media influencers can be a phenomenal method through which businesses can boost visibility and reach new audiences. 

Here are four simple questions to ask when beginning your search: 

  1. Does their audience match my target demographics?
  2. Does their content align with my industry/brand?
  3. How do they engage with their audience?
  4. What is their online reputation like?

Using Technology to Ensure Transparency

There are various online tools that can empower brands and consumers against the onslaught of influencer marketing deviants. 

  • SparkToro
  • Buzzsumo
  • HypeAuditor

These are just three kinds of software out there, but there are many more. These tools analyze follower demographics, engagement patterns, and follower growth rates. They reveal red flags and nasty narratives, such as follower surges or low engagement from a large audience, helping you identify accounts that are potentially fraudulent.

The Light Side of Influencer Marketing

The Light Side of Influencer Marketing

Don’t let the dark nature of fake followings overshadow the massive potential of influencer marketing. 

By prioritizing genuine engagement, metrics that matter, and partnering with real influencers, brands can and do achieve jaw-dropping results. For those who commit to transparency and forge actual trust, the future burns most bright

When in doubt, behave online like a friend from your youth that your mom loved the most—be a good influencer!


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