Unless you're living under a rock, the chances are you've heard about the power of influencer marketing. You'll be told tales of how Zoella or Tanya Burr only need mention a product and it will sell out, generating fame and fortune for the brand in question.
These stories are sometimes true. But they're only true for brands who can afford to work with influencers with such a high profile. For those brands who don't have tens of thousands to spare on a single video, the world of influencer marketing is a whole lot harder
This compelling expose of the world of fake followers is well worth reading in full, particularly to understand what motivates people to purchase followers and the steps companies go to to create armies of bots.
But what I'm more interested in is the culture that led us to a place where this is necessary. It's a culture which brands, agencies and social platforms all share responsibility for creating and it all stems from how we measure the value of online activity.
It's a problem because we're all complicit in creating a fundamentally flawed approach to digital comms. We measure based on who has the most followers and who can actually get their followers to do something.
So on one hand we're incentivised to reach as many people as possible and persuade them to click that little follow button. While on the other we're expected to then get all of those followers to do something. The bigger your base, the harder it is to get the majority of them to respond.
Luckily we found a way out. We looked at click through rates from the digital advertising industry and realised they defined doing well as getting 1-2% of viewers to click through to whatever they were advertising. So the social media machine just adopted this as our own approach. If you could achieve 2% engagement, you were doing fine.
And everyone involved has a vested interest in keeping it this way. Brand managers can show success internally, agencies don't have to work too hard and social networks can boast about over performance whenever an ad campaign generates more than 2% CTRs or engagement rates.
This is the real problem - we judge influencers based on the scale of their reach, knowing the engagement rates will never really change. So influencers aren't incentivised to build an engaged community, just a massive one.
So what? Well it's actually not that hard. When working with influencers, focus on the following three points.
1) How can you prove success in promoting a product? Not clicks or likes, but actual sales. If they can't, then ask if their audience is really worth it and then agree metrics to measure this. If they're unwilling, don't work with them
2) Ask to see analysis of their follower base - are they the right ages, the right locations and do they act like humans?
3) Does this person actually like our product? The best influencer marketing happens when fans can tell influencers genuinely care about their product and can show it in use in their everyday life - think Danny Macaskill for GoPro. If they don't share your passion for a product, don't pay them.
It's only by doing these things that agencies and influencers can restore any kind of trust in the world of influencer marketing. And guess what? It's going to be hard. We'll have to be smarter in our campaign targeting and more rigorous in our approach to measuring success. But the results are worth it. Do nothing and articles like the NYT's will become the norm.
Some critics believe Twitter has a business incentive against weeding out bots too aggressively. Over the past two years, the company has struggled to generate the user growth seen by rivals like Facebook and Snapchat. And outside researchers have disputed the company’s estimates for how many of its active users are actually bots.