It’s amazing how different my inbox changed since Monday. My first contribution to Entrepreneur in a few years goes live and suddenly PR folks everywhere want to bend my ear about this or that. It’s actually good since I’m always looking for ideas for articles here or on the podcast, too, so I don’t mind it. But wow!

Because I’m a PR guy by trade, I’m actually happy for it. So far, I haven’t had any irrelevant pitches, just a couple I’m not as interested in. I’m glad technologies exist that enable quick identification of relevant reporters and connect PR pros to them. I first came to some degree of national visibility for criticizing the media database companies like Cision and Meltwater for being complicit in PR spam. They were blindly providing contact information for new media creators like bloggers (i.e. – influencers) without either their permission or understanding of who these PR people were or what they wanted.

Unlike the journalists and editors whose contact information filled those databases, bloggers weren’t trained in the media. They didn’t know what public relations was, nor that often times these people were helpful in getting them information, guests and other content to help. So the bloggers did what they should have done—outed the bad practitioners. My finger-pointing at the Cisions and, at the time, Vocuses of the world wasn’t to defend PR people misusing the tool. It was to say the tools weren’t helping PR people realize this new audience may not be receptive to their data being used that way.

But it is now as it was then: The tool is not the problem. Now that the media databases and most of the people listed in them are generally up to snuff, we can focus on the real problem areas. When we get pissy about bad pitches, it’s because the person using the tool isn’t using it right. Their focus is too broad and they don’t do their research to track what the reporter actually writes about (or know that he also has a smaller outlet in his blog or podcast). Or, they’re using the time-tested, American PR, spray-and-pray method, which is to say the other problems on scale.

Fake Followers is a Similar Problem

A similar misdirection is happening in criticisms of influencer marketing, like those I dug into with Fake Famous director Nick Bilton on Winfluence this week. He points the finger at Instagram, Facebook and the other social networks for the problem of spam bots that pad influencer’s followers. In a eerily uncomfortable parallel for me to admit, my perspective is that you can’t blame the gun, but the person pulling the trigger.

Bilton seemed oblivious to the best practices we’ve talked about in the social media space for almost two decades now: buying followers and bot engagement is not wise, will get you in trouble and essentially makes you a liar. The fact that hundreds of companies provide the service isn’t even the problem. What’s wrong with influencers today are the thousands that choose to use that tactic to astroturf a staged audience to swindle brands, and even some real followers, into thinking they’re somehow special.

I’ve tested some services to automatically provide YouTube views over the years. I felt creepy doing it, but needed to know if it worked. It didn’t. The videos in question were penalized and the accounts in question were even put on temporary probation.

That leads me to believe that Bilton may have a point and a pathway to curbing the practice. If YouTube can sense fraudulent activity, then so can Instagram. BIlton argues there’s no motivation for Zuckerberg’s empire to do anything about it, though. The more bots there are, the more accounts there are. The more accounts there are, the more unwitting advertisers will pay to target them, not realizing many of them are not people who can buy, but code scripts that can only falsify a like or a comment.

That will work until it doesn’t.

Advertisers aren’t all dumb. The engagement rates will go up while conversion rates go down. Social ads won’t get better and brands will stop using them.

Even now, influencer marketing softwares are trying to solve for the issue. Most good platforms have some measure of “fake followers” indicator when analyzing an influencer’s online presence. Bilton’s film and my own testing prove these safety checks might pass inspection at a carnival tilt-a-whirl, but not NASA. Bilton’s Fake Famous product Dominique Druckman, who he says has as high as 90 percent fake followers, scored an 18% fake on a test I ran with one notable influencer marketing discovery tool. Bilton bought followers for his film subject until she had 250,000 Instagram followers.

Try as I might this week, none of the major influencer marketing software executives have much to say in terms of how good their tool is, or how they can make them better. (I’m still poking them, though.)

Still, as one of the clever ESPN announcers used to say, “A good craftsman never blames his tools.” Fake followers exist because greedy people and businesses who want to cheat their way to the top do. Yes, the social networks can help fix the problem, and if they care about long-term growth and revenue they should. Yes, influence marketing platforms can do a better job of helping businesses and brands identify these ethical offenders. But your business can’t wait for them to do so.

What You Can Do To Fight The Fake Famous

Point-blank asking and influencer if they buy followers won’t get you anywhere. If they have, they certainly won’t admit to it. But you can take a few steps to a smarter decision on whether or not they’re a good partner for your brand.

  1. Use the influencer marketing software fake followers gauge as a starting point – If an influencer’s count is higher than, say, 20%, then be suspicious and dig deeper.
  2. Ask for success metrics from previous campaigns – Be honest and tell them you’re wary of influencers that have big audiences, but can’t deliver on motivating those followers to take action. Ask for a brand reference or example campaign where they helped another company move the needle.
  3. Review their previous sponsored content – You can probably take one look at a sponsored post of theirs compared to the really engaging content they otherwise produce and tell who conveys genuine enthusiasm for and persuasion around the products they share.
  4. Pay attention to their asks – When an influencer starts the conversation with, “What are your goals here? What are you trying to accomplish with this campaign?” I immediately know they at least know how to play the game. The superficial ones are interested in what you can give them. The good ones are interested in how they can help give something to you.

The inflation of influencer followers and engagement is a problem that won’t go away until the social networks make it. Perhaps Bilton is right to focus his angst with them. But the blame is on the individuals—influencers or brands accounts—who decide the number beside their name is more important than the people that make up the number itself.

Just like a bad pitch is no one’s fault but the PR flack on the other end of it.

Note: Photo by Stephen Phillips – on Unsplash

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