“Influencer fraud is a big problem for advertisers”

Chris Jungjohann is Germany boss of the influencer marketing agency Takumi. His area of ​​expertise: Fraud. The young marketing channel Instagram is not only subject to many innovations, but also to Fraud’s problem – which can be fatal, especially for advertisers and their budget investments. Successful campaigns require intensive exams.

Chris Jungjohann explains in the LEAD interview which fraud issues emerge in influencer marketing, how to counteract them and why an open discussion culture on fraud is important.

LEAD: Instagram is a business – and here too there are black sheep cheating. What are the possibilities for fraud?

Chris Jungjohann: Fraud free, secure advertising environments, both at the platform level and within individual accounts, are essential for effective influencer marketing on Instagram. Basically, we differentiate between three types of influencer fraud: follower fraud, engagement fraud and interest fraud.

Follower Fraud is when users increase the number of Instagram channel followers in an unnatural way. Often, used fake followers from bot farms or # follow4follow methods are used. Here, the identification of bot followers is often still easy to accomplish – the detection of so-called follow-loops, however, represent a real challenge.

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Engagement Fraud is reflected in the inorganic increase in likes and comments on Instagram posts. Instagram users boost their engagement rate with automated software, bots, hashtag strategies or like groups.

Interest Fraud describes the miss-match between brand and interest of the followers of the influencer. In this type of Frauds, the focus is on influencer brand matching. How is it ensured that the influencer cooperation is really relevant and authentic?

Also interesting: What works in influencer marketing – and what does not

The problem with influencer fraud is that influencers are paid for according to certain metrics and, if there is fraud, the advertiser simply pays too much to the influencers for lack of transparency. It should be noted that it is not necessarily the influencers who are directly responsible for follower and engagement fraud.

A large proportion of fraud occurs because the operators of social media platforms do not act consistently enough against accounts that automatically produce engagements on posts or follow the users without user intervention. So we’re not talking directly about a “bad” influencer just because a certain amount of followers or engagements are fraudulent. Advertisers just should not have to pay for it.

Follower Purchase, Bots, WhatsApp Engagement Groups: How do you recognize or test that this is not real numbers or engagement?

A detailed examination of the possible campaign partners is essential in advance. In my view, this involves a robust and, above all, as reliable as possible process, which refers to as many different sources as possible. The manual check of certain metrics is often the first step here. It makes sense to evaluate manual samples of the followers of the influencers and the type of comments among the posts.

In addition, engagement rates and the number of comments in relation to the followers can give a good first impression about the influencer. However, where manual procedures are limited in time and personnel, AI-based analysis tools can help. They provide another source of verification of each account for suspicious activity, allowing additional qualitative selection before the contract with the influencer is established, thus avoiding litter losses in campaign delivery.

At Takumi, we subject all influencers who apply to us to an intensive review process consisting of three levels and eleven sub-steps. Our digital platform automatically verifies all measurable KPIs, the Takumi Community Team checks each account manually, and we also use data from an external AI-based analysis tool. 93 percent of the applicants will be rejected.

How can brands and influencers successfully protect against or defend themselves against fraud?

Demands for defined, comprehensible and qualitative test criteria and an increased manual and technological fake test are already becoming louder throughout the industry, as Instagram is increasingly in demand as an advertising channel and therefore the need for action for all players who want to activate influencers via this platform increases. Brands can protect themselves only through the consistent use of audit mechanisms that detect suspicious activity.

To reduce follower fraud, advertisers should consider other billing metrics than the number of followers of an influencer in order to protect themselves. The industry still pays big dividends to influencers based on the number of followers, which of course is largely prone to fraud. Here it makes sense to use other KPIs, such as billing for impressions.

To combat engagement fraud, the use of hashtags on posts and stories should be greatly reduced, as a large number of hashtags always attract bots that skew the metrics. Advertisers should address the followers of the influencers and not third parties with the cooperation. So why unnecessary hashtags?

Against interest fraud, it helps to keep track of the selection and matching process between influencer and brand. The central question here is: How is it ensured that cooperation really generates relevance for influencers and their followers?

Also interesting: The perfect influencer briefing

How do you protect yourself from investing your own advertising budget in fake followers or reach?

Basically, any company that invests budget in influencer marketing wants its products or services to be presented authentically – by an influencer who fits the brand and who reaches relevant audiences with his “real” followers, whom he credibly activates can. Cooperations that are coherent in content and fit the influencer have the greatest potential for success. Fraud-free and brand-safe advertising environments are an essential prerequisite for this.

The general brand safety involves using the mentioned checking mechanisms already in the planning phase of an Instagram campaign, with the help of which profiles are checked for suspicious activities such as inorganic follower numbers or range distorting hashtags. Such filter criteria ensure a fundamental quality.

In each individual case, it depends on the brand-safe and credible fit between Brand and Influencer. For this “match” Takumi relies on the principle of self-selection. Influencers can choose campaigns according to their own preferences and interests – and not for purely financial reasons, because the form of compensation for each campaign is based on the individual metrics of the influencer.

The influencers apply for the campaigns if they are interested in this cooperation and not because of the remuneration. The crucial criterion must be that the influencers believe that they can authentically integrate the advertising message into their channel and that the followers are also interested in this message. Because let’s be honest: no one knows his audience better than a credible influencer.

Protection from Fake Follower Reach currently offers only the consistent review and the choice of a suitable KPI as a basis for cooperation with influencers. The billing of real impressions directs the focus from the unconscious, potential reach to the actual target audience. For Marketer, it becomes so clear which type of spender provided which service, so that the impact of campaigns can be better assessed and the marketing budget can be optimally utilized.

Actually generated impressions are a much more valid and transparent measure of success than the number of followers, especially when influencers have been pre-screened for bot traffic using appropriate tools. Only when advertisers are able to track the impact of individual postings on a precisely defined contribution does Influencer Marketing have the opportunity to compete sustainably with other digital advertising channels.

Which concrete test criteria do you suggest?

There are four very concrete steps that marketers can use to detect and exclude fraudulent activity:

First, it is the exclusion of bot followers. First, it is worth considering the number of bots in relation to real accounts. Instagram has evolved the bot detection and is constantly working against the profiles of bot followers. Fake followers can be roughly divided into three different categories: purchased follower numbers, through exchanges such as pods screwed up follower numbers and bots that follow the accounts without voluntary intervention of the influencer. A distinction between these three categories is sometimes difficult.

The integration of analysis tools like Hypeauditor can help. These use machine learning to detect similarities between accounts and to point out suspicious behavior. Their use allows reliable estimates of the relationship between real followers and bot-driven fake followers. Thereafter, the selection of demographic and geographic variables takes place. The geographic and demographic distribution of the audience carries risks for wastage. Here an analysis tool can help to select for specific variables and display the distribution within a target group.

A best practice offers Instagram itself: If influencers have a business profile on the platform, they have the opportunity to share the distribution of their followers with their advertising partners. But even here caution is necessary, because even a screenshot can be faked. In defiance of this trend, brands in many cases still work with influencers without knowing the percentage of actual or desired followers. If these metrics are known, they can be used for negotiations and transparent remuneration of influencers.

It is also important that the posted posts are actually perceived, because not every follower sees every contribution. The orientation to the pure follower number of an influencer therefore falls short. Billing by thousand-contact price does not provide reliable information about the real campaign performance.

A reliable alternative is a model in which the performance of influencers within specific project periods is determined by impressions, that is, the billing of actual impressions. If there is little or no empirical value in the collaboration, historical post-insight data can be used to determine this. In this way, a pricing based on the impressions of a post can be performed. The customer pays thus only for the users who have actually seen the post.

Finally, the match between brand and influencer should be tested. Finally, it must be ensured that the influencer fits in with the brand and that his followers also reach potential consumers who in any way identify with the brand or product. This “brand fit” is not easy to judge and ideally should be placed in the hands of influencers.

After all, the influencers themselves know best what their followers like. Often, however, marketers rely on subjective reviews of posts as well as the personality that expresses the Instagram profile. It is recommended, however, to set up an intensive test procedure and to question the needs of one’s own brand. In platform-managed Instagram marketing, too, a detailed analysis of the campaign objective will help at this point.

Should one secure oneself in advance of a cooperation also legally?

The legal protection of cooperations is an important prerequisite for cooperation on both sides. Thus, clear goals, regulations and the framework conditions of the cooperation are regulated. However, a legal safeguard must remain realistic for both sides.

Is a rethinking of the industry necessary to avert fraud and “ever higher, ever further”?

A rethinking is at least necessary in that within the influencer industry transparent on the subject of fraud is spoken and joint approaches to be driven forward. Only in this way can the position be secured as a sustainably successful advertising channel.

In addition, the use of technologies to optimize quality and efficiency should become a constant component of influencer business – to boost the confidence of the advertising industry in platforms such as Instagram. A trend from which the entire industry can benefit in the medium term and which will contribute to further professionalization in the marketing mix.

With the consistent use of testing mechanisms, the focus is less on the selection of the right influencer partners, but rather on the creativity and authenticity of the campaigns. Therefore, for advertisers, the central question of proper cooperation shifts from “who to how” in the future. Therefore, marketers should also be open to unconventional ideas and admit to creative people, despite binding campaign guidelines, creative freedom.

What is Instagram planning to have a better and more honest platform here?

In response to recurrent scandals surrounding fake followers and suspicious activity, as well as advertisers’ demands to address them, Instagram has recently taken responsibility for further enhancing its perception as a high-quality, credible advertising environment. As learning, the recent announcements from Instagram itself are worth noting: with the plan to rigorously act against suspicious activity and a re-design of the profile presentation, the platform shifts the focus from the mere number of followers to the credibility of the content – with the aim of security and efficiency of campaigns.

A transparent and uniform advertising label strengthens the trust in the influencer – both from the advertising partners and his followers. With the paid-partnership feature, Instagram has created a kind of best-practice opportunity that should transcend across countries. Unfortunately, Instagram has still not rolled out this feature across the board, resulting in the need to work with ad tags in the description of the post. The announcement against Fraud proves one thing: The platform has understood that its most important content producers rely on revenues from advertising cooperations, which are only invested if they in turn throw off a corresponding ROI.

What do you personally think about fraud?

Influencer fraud is a big problem for advertisers. I would like to say that as an industry we finally talk about it transparently, find solutions and lead this exciting advertising channel into the future.

In my opinion, the intensive prior examination of influencers lays the foundation for a more effective campaign outcome and is currently the most effective means against fraud. For this reason, the professionalization of the Influencer Marketing discipline should also be accompanied by a comprehensive use of test criteria. With this, specialized third-party providers such as influencer agencies with a digital platform in the background can be a suitable solution. Because examining influencer fraud is a complex process that takes time and money.

Also interesting: Influencers & Companies: Data is the new currency!

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