For brands, partnering with influencers can be a savvy marketing move in a world increasingly exhausted with traditional advertising. But when brands are paying out hundreds of thousands — or even millions — of dollars to reach influencers’ audiences, it’s vital they make sure that reach is legitimate.

That’s why top YouTube network Fullscreen and influencer marketing platform CreatorIQ are today releasing the results of an in-depth investigation into what brands can do to protect themselves from influencer fraud. The No. 1 conclusion is that brands must take a more thorough, data-driven approach to vetting influencers. Fullscreen and CreatorIQ say knowing baseline norms for things like follower counts, follower locations, and ratio of impressions to engagement is essential, since creators whose numbers are outside these norms will be noticeable.

Fullscreen and CreatorIQ’s investigation revealed that in 2018 alone, advertisers are forecasted to lose $19 billion — up to one-third of their budgets — to partnerships tainted by falsely inflated follower, impression, and engagement counts.

Tim Sovay, CreatorIQ’s COO, said that as the influencer marketing industry has exploded with growth, it’s become an “essential channel” for brands to reach consumers — particularly younger consumers. (Another recent Fullscreen study showed 37% of Gen Zers and millennials are more likely to trust a brand after seeing an influencer post about it.) But with that growth has come increased “impression fraud” by creators looking to pump up their numbers so they can ask for higher per-post prices, Sovay said.

Brands need to be proactive when it comes to detecting influencer fraud, added Maureen Polo, Fullscreen’s brand studio SVP. “It’s imperative that these companies have ways to distinguish fraudulent followings to avoid entering into costly and ineffective relationships,” she said. “Authenticity is at the core of successful content marketing, and it is mandatory to have tools and processes that ensure legitimate influencer recommendations.”

Brands intending to work with influencers should investigate potential partners for a few hallmarks of fraud. They should look at how quickly an influencer’s following has grown, checking for unnatural growth spikes that could indicate the influencer has gained bot followers. Sometimes this is because the influencer has purposefully purchased bot followers, but not always. All told, Fullscreen and CreatorIQ found that 20% of many Instagram accounts’ followers are bots.

A good number to bear in mind, they say, is 5,000. If an influencer has less than 5,000 followers, chances are they’re not buying bots. But considering brands usually want to work with influencers who have much bigger followings, they should check sites like Social Blade or use CreatorIQ’s influencer audit to look for sudden gains or drops — the latter of which can indicate a site has purged fake followers.

Brands should also investigate where the influencer’s followers are located, because many click farms — which inflate engagement numbers by hiring people to interact with links — are in southeastern Asia, South America, and eastern Europe. For example, Fullscreen and CreatorIQ note that in most cases, about 1% of a U.S. influencer’s social media followers will be from Indonesia. If 5% of a U.S.-based influencer’s followers are from Indonesia, that’s a red flag. And, of course, if an influencer has an unnatural engagement ratio that differs significantly from other creators within their space, that’s a red flag too.

More information is available on Fullscreen’s Brand Thinking blog, and the full study can be read on CreatorIQ’s website.

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