The hard truth is that a lot of huge companies are spending huge budgets on influencers who are guaranteed to give them a lot of attention on social media. They are either guaranteed because they have a huge following of engaged people or they have a range of bots that can make them appear to have a lot more clout than they really do.
It's not too surprising to see that the proclamation by Unilever's Keith Weed that the company would no longer work with dodgy influencers has gained a lot of attention. One recent study showed that a couple of household names had suffered at the hands of rogue operators, with the majority of social interactions gained through an influencer programme coming from bots.
So it strikes me that companies really need to get better at spotting the difference. I think we all have an idea what a bot looks like because of the occasional "follow" on Twitter from an odd-looking account that is doing the rounds, trying to appear like it has friends so it can grow and soon look like any other regular account.
It turns out there are quite a few extra signs too. I caught up recently with an expert in the field -- Ryan Detert, CEO of Influential. His company has programmed computers to rank and score influencers so brands can make a more informed decision about whom to work with to reach a particular demographic. This has made him very attuned to what a bot looks like. He put these into three camps -- political, conversion and vanity. One spouts a repeated message about politics, the other will try to get you to click on a link to buy products and the third will try to trick a brand in to thinking an influencer has a lot more friends than they really do.
Fortunately, Ryan shared his seven-step test to spot a potential bot, just in case you are wondering whether a potential influencer really is as hot as they look or it's all hot air.
Unusual post activity - We all know there is an arc for a popular post as people share it and their followers check it out. Posts that instantly have lots of likes and comments or which at some stage have a sudden massive spike in popularity might well be a sign of bots being programmed to do the poster's bidding.
Lots of activity, few comments - Likes and retweets are easy to fake, but bots find it difficult to leave comments that appear to be from a human. So if there is a lot of activity but very few comments, it could be a sign of bots at play.
Spike in followers - Getting a lot of people following an account at the same time is often a sign of bought bot followers.
Follower origin - If much of an influencer's following appears to come from the same region or have turned off geographic tagging, alarm bells should start ringing.
Follower bios - If these still have the default egg photo, perhaps with nonsensical or minimal bio information, it could well be a bot that is following your influencer.
Recent followers - Just like any spike in followers, if someone has had a recent massive spike in popularity just before they or their agent suggests they are the influencer for you, it's time to listen to those alarm bells.
Retweet test - Apparently this is something Ryan has come to learn through years of spotting fakes. Take a look at retweets from an influencer, not just their own posts. If they have virtually no engagements on a retweet it's a sure sign that they normally pay for traffic and likes. The fact they pay to have their own posts liked but not those originating from someone else shows up by the huge drop off in engagement on retweets.
These tests take a bit of time and a lot of research but they could save you a fortune in wasted budget. The big issue is that social doesn't have the metrics and safeguards that are used in digital display to help advertisers spot fraud and viewability issues. Talking to Ryan, it seems clear that the reputable guys in the industry know they need this and they will come one day. However, it is never a bad thing to be able to know the general telltale signs that the guy you're about to pump a lot of money into is acting fraudulently.
A good rule of thumb, according to Ryan, is that anyone famous or a micro influencer is going to have around 5% of their following from bots because they are going to pick them up through their daily activities without meaning to. Bots just follow big accounts to make themselves look normal, and so they are unavoidable. However, when someone has a far higher proportion of bots in their following and shows some or all of the above signs of being a fraudster, it's best to just walk away and find someone who isn't.