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In the nascent field known as “influencer marketing,” brands have grown increasingly eager to shell out for sponsored posts by social media influencers, sometimes paying Instagram-famous individuals tens of thousands of dollars for a single ad. Hot as it is, this corner of the marketing world isn’t without its problems, including the practice of inflating one’s stats by buying fake followers. It’s a bit like doping in sports, but with fewer repercussions.
Until now, maybe. Unilever, the parent company of brands like Axe, Dove, and Vaseline, is using the power of its $8 billion-plus marketing budget to crack down on that. On Monday, it committed to never work with influencers who buy followers and to never buy followers for its brands. Unilever, which reported sales of €53.7 billion ($62.3 billion) in 2017, is also asking social media platforms to increase transparency and “help eradicate bad practices throughout the whole ecosystem.”
Though buying followers isn’t generally viewed as great behavior — and though the emergence of “micro-influencers” has proven that one doesn’t even need to be the biggest name on Instagram to land sponsorships — some influencers say that doing so can kick-start a career on social media. Racked has witnessed people’s interest in buying followers firsthand: A 2014 story about the practice is one of our top 20 articles of all time and continues to pop up in our monthly traffic reports like clockwork.
“With all this money flooding into the influencer space, there’s a lot of temptation to buy followers because you can raise your rates $100 [per post] for every 10,000 followers you have,” says James Nord, the founder of Fohr, a company that connects brands and influencers. “There’s a direct benefit to an influencer, as they see it, to buy a few here and there.”
Corporations like Unilever can work with marketing agencies and social media platforms to ferret out influencers who buy followers, looking for big spikes in follower counts or geographic discrepancies as clues. Fohr, which has worked with some Unilever brands in the past (Nord declined to share which), released its own influencer verification tool in 2017, which used platform-wide benchmarks to determine the likelihood that a given user had boosted their numbers with fake accounts.
The issue for brands, of course, is that they’re paying for an influencer’s follower count and level of engagement; when that influencer’s sponsored post fails to perform as expected, they’re pissed.
Now, with a massive global company like Unilever giving influencers an ultimatum — and leaning on social media platforms, which depend on advertisers like it — one might wonder if we’re about to witness some kind of sea change in the business.
“I’ve always said that the industry could get rid of this problem in a few months if every brand said, ‘We’re no longer working with these people,’” says Nord. “I think there’s going to be a bit of a reckoning for influencers. They should be held responsible for the performance of their posts.”
Nord doesn’t think that buying followers should be a deal breaker in brand-influencer relationships, though, since bots and fake accounts are hard to eradicate once purchased. Instead, he envisions brands only paying for worthwhile followers, cutting out of the deal fake accounts as well as real but inactive users, which make up a portion of any Instagram user’s follower count.
The summer of 2017 brought some degree of regulation to the world of Instagram influencers. On the heels of a report that 93 percent of celebrities’ sponsored posts failed to follow the Federal Trade Commission’s disclosure requirements, Instagram introduced a standardized “paid partnership” label to make it abundantly clear to users when they were looking at an ad.
It’s telling that though the FTC already had guidelines in place, Instagram still needed to encourage celebrities to adhere to them. But while some influencers still make use of that paid partnership tag — Gigi Hadid used it in March to promote the watch brand Movado, for example — plenty have reverted to simply spelling it out in their captions, among them fashion blogger Danielle Bernstein (#sponsoredbyifit), DJ Hannah Bronfman (#AmexAmbassador), and model Karlie Kloss (with a @Liptonicetea #ad).
The reckoning, clearly, comes in fits and starts. In 2014, Instagram initiated what was known at the time as “the purge”: a clearing of bots and spam accounts that resulted in wide reductions to users’ follower counts, and in some circles, was viewed as a big reveal of who had been buying followers. Obviously, it didn’t last.