Authenticity has never been more important than it is right now.

We live in the era of the ‘influencer’ – with more than 500,000 active influencers on Instagram, these powerful individuals are increasingly overtaking brands and traditional news outlets alike as the go-to trusted sources for information, guidance and inspiration. And many of us buy products because of them.

The key to influencers’ appeal is their authenticity: these are real people, sharing real thoughts, and building real communities of like-minded people by doing just that.

But all is not necessarily as it seems when it comes to the world of influencers. A recent global study found that more than half of UK Instagram accounts have engaged in some form of fraudulent activity – including buying mass followers and likes, or using engagement bots.

So if you’re thinking of embarking on an influencer campaign for your brand, be sure to choose carefully.  Be mindful of these points, and stay safe in the knowledge that your next influencer partner is as genuine as they seem.

Follower spikes

Since day one of social media – going all the way back to the early days of MySpace and the like – follower counts have been a measuring-stick for social success and online influence. And that makes sense: after all, household names and challenger brands alike are undoubtedly going to be drawn to working with influencers that have vast followings either on a par with, or eclipsing, their own.

And of course, many influencers have built up incredibly large audiences for themselves organically – through a commitment to creating fascinating, interesting, humorous, thought-provoking or aspirational content, and becoming a trusted and reliable voice in a particular niche.

But this isn’t always the case, and follower counts can be manipulated: Campaigndeus’ Influencer Index found that 1 in 8 UK influencers bought fake followers, and this remains a big issue that shows no signs of abating. With this in mind, one way to generally spot a true influencer from a fake is to look at the rate of growth of their followers.  While not always the case (an unexpected piece of viral content, or a brand partnership, for example, may lead to a big sudden surge in numbers), follower growth tends to come at quite a steady pace for most influencers.  Use online tools to look for spikes in growth and, if you can spot a pattern repeating itself, it’s probably best to steer clear or do some further digging.

Engagement rates

Bots and fake accounts abound on social media; always have, and likely always will:  Instagram may have as many as 95 million bots posing as real accounts.

One tried-and-tested way of spotting a fake influencer is if their follower base is mainly made up of bots and fake accounts. By their very nature, these ‘followers’ won’t actively engage with content in any meaningful way: so while an influencer may seemingly have a very impressive reach, at first glance, the engagement rate should tell the true story.

There’s also another sign to watch out for: engagement rates that remain consistent across posts. While harder to spot, if you spot a pattern of numerous posts receiving identical engagement, this may well be down to the ‘influencer’ buying engagement for each post at a certain level.

Online industry benchmarks are well worth exploring to get a better idea of what typical engagement rates should look like for accounts with a certain number of followers. But as a rule of thumb, engagement rates tend to drop the bigger that an influencer becomes (in relative terms).

Engagement quality

“Quality, not quantity” is an old adage that undoubtedly applies to the world of influencer marketing.

If you want to really get a sense for an influencers’ genuine ability to impact others, take a deep dive into the quality of their engagement.  This can take time, but if fake engagement is being purchased, you should soon be able to spot this: an abundance of emojis and very short, 1-2 word basic comments, all designed to artificially ramp up engagement numbers via bots, fake followers and the growing movement that is Instagram engagement pods.

Genuine influencers will, of course, attract short and sweet comments – but these will be complemented by real, emotive and (above all) relevant comments, as loyal and engaged followers will take the time to comment on the latest post and give their opinion or encouragement.

That’s when you know that you’re not only dealing with a genuine influencer, but also that their content is reaching others and making a real difference.

Highlight helps lifestyle brands and food and drink companies alike to be seen, heard and talked about through our integrated PR, content and social approach – and works closely with influencers on a daily basis to reach new audiences. If you need support to tell your story, drop us a line and let’s get started.