Can India's PR system fix the fake influencer problem?

A few years back this journalist was at a sit-down dinner for communication professionals addressed by an Asia level marketing communications lead from a global IT major. He revealed that their research showed that the influencer with the most impact for one of their new products was Kim Kardashian! But, the executive shared that their firm would never go in for a Kardashian endorsement. The brand values don't match.

In India, even two to three years back, there was a bit of a spray and pray attitude while engaging with influencers. But as the system matures a combination of technology and changing brand priorities around engagement.

Spotting fake profiles and influencers

In 2018, Twitter took measures to weed out fake accounts, some of them automated, some whose owners could not be verified. After this purge, President Trump famously lost 300,000 followers overnight.

Fake profiles and influencers are the bane of the influencer marketing system. Himanshu Raj, India lead-PR & marketing communications-Zeta and global communications lead-Flock, suggests pulling out reports on influencer partners’ Instagram “Follow” and “Unfollow” graphs to assess if they're genuine.

Prateek Thakker, one of the founders of Unkrate -a site that curates stories on food, travel and technology explains further that, "Tools like Social Blade and Klear can be used to see spikes in the accounts of these influencers. A fake influencer’s profile will show unreal spikes in the number of follows and unfollows on a daily and monthly basis. Social Blade also shows how good the engagement is."

Raj agrees saying "Marketers can remove artificial influencers by reviewing audience engagement on social media posts. i.e FB/ Insta posts and stories. What counts as "very low" varies by platform, but if the audience is consistently inert, it probably includes a lot of fakes."

Madhupriya Sengupta, senior account executive Genesis BCW, points to another way of checking for genuine influencers. 

She shares that "Some influencers feature products in their posts with hashtags and description that show they are part of some brand campaign where they have been given those products. Sometimes that’s not the case. For that check out the brand page as well, if they are mentioning that particular influencer or sharing their content. Apart from that free tools like hypeauditor.com , socialstats.info and paid ones like iconosquare can give correct analytics insights."


Managing Fake Influencers 

Recently on  PR focused WhatsApp group IPRF there was a spirited discussion on gatecrashing influencers at an event. Some of the members felt strongly that there needs to be a blacklist of such influencers. Other PR professionals felt that having such a list can be used to target individuals if not handled properly.

Raj supports the idea of a blacklist, "Back in the day we had a list of blacklisted or fake journalists. Similarly, there should be a banned list of influencers as well. Though they generally tend to crash a lifestyle event rather than a corporate event."

Thakker says a blacklist would help pointing out that, "There are these specific influencers from Bangalore who have a criminal case for hacking into another influencer’s personal accounts and stealing data. They continue to work and scam brands with their fake followers. One has 185k followers on his page and yet gets just 6-10 likes on his posts."

Thakker adds that "It is not all bad. There are gems too who are very understanding and also understand their role as an influencer well. They have strong ethics and they deliver what they promise."

 Deepan Dasgupta, journalist turned communicator, says, " When a tech brand brought in a Michelin chef for the launch of a food site, he went to the extent of physically helping the crew with the change of a backdrop. Normally, star performers and lifestyle biggies are thought to be full of themselves, ego-centric, vain et al. The Michelin star proved otherwise."

    Shudeep Majumdar, co-founder Zefmo Media Pvt. Ltd.,  believes gatecrashing will change as the influencer market matures. He says their " India Influence Report 2018 report reveals that 40% of marketers are focusing more on the engagement of influencers to promote and distribute content. Therefore, we firmly believe that as the industry matures as an integral marketing channel, such incidents will disappear."

    Rahat Beri - MD and founder Blue Ocean IMC, says the way ahead is to work smart, her firm solves the problem by sending out personalized invites with a specific code for every influencer. 

    Beri adds that "It is time the industry adopted a scan code for the influencers who are registered with the agency. This will, in addition, ensure that only those that are invited attend the event."

    Role of brands in developing the influencer ecosystem

    Communication professionals say that brand expectations play a crucial role in weeding out fake influencers.

    Raj says there are excellent data management systems in place to target influencers such as Traackr, Upfluence, VUroll.  He says, "The real problem is that brands expect influencer marketing campaigns to directly impact metrics like conversions and sales which rarely happens. I personally believe that the objective of these campaigns should be to purely create brand awareness and engage with the audience, nothing more."

    Majumdar agrees that coordination between brands and influencers is a big challenge. He says, "There are times when it becomes hard to make influencers understand the brand messaging so that they are able to draft effective content as per their genre and this usually creates major problems for the agencies to follow influencer guidelines. We have also realised that the fault is sometimes at both ends, brands and even some influencers are often unsure of what they have to disclose when and how to do so.

    Beri feels, "The ecosystem should also reduce the pressure on the “How many followers you have” syndrome because that is where it all originates. If the brands start focusing on the quality yet creative content that brings in sincere engagement, we will eventually see the fake influencers disappearing from the scene."

    Sengupta says in regional centres such as Kolkata, " Somehow national brands think it is okay to bypass any sort of investment for influencers in Kolkata. They think Kolkata influencers’ landscape is still evolving as there aren’t many verified Instagram influencer profiles from this city. But, that’s not the case. When it comes to micro-influencers and regional markets, brands need to understand limiting themselves only to influencers with verified profiles and a large number of followers is a mistake. There are many mid-level Kolkata influencers with great content and organic reach."

    Sengupta further elaborates the challenges regarding the influencer-brand relationship in regional centres. She says, "As a PR person during big events I have seen there is a tremendous lack of communication happening between brands' team and their event agency on crucial things like influencers’ reserved seating arrangement, plus one coupons, the cap on food and beverage which I had to often sort out."