More people than ever before are using social media to connect with others and to create and share content. Facebook has the largest share of the market with more than 2 billion users. Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, has 1 billion users. YouTube, owned by Google, has more than 1.3 billion users.
The popularity of social media has not gone unnoticed by advertisers. For years, advertisers have been shifting their spending from newspapers and magazines to digital content, including social media. This year 25% of digital advertising is expected to be spent on social media.
While there are various ways to advertise on social media, influence marketing is rapidly gaining in popularity. Marketing influencers are individuals who post on social media platforms and attract followers with interesting content. Most advertisers find influence marketing to be more cost-effective than traditional media because it is more engaging and less intrusive. Influence marketing weaves the product into the story, unlike traditional advertising that interrupts the content the consumer is viewing.
In a recent study for the Association of National Advertisers, 75% of the 158 major brands polled reported using influencers in their marketing campaigns. While Facebook, YouTube and Twitter are popular, Instagram is the fastest growing platform for marketing influencers.
Typically, marketing influencers focus on a specific area of content such as travel, fashion, beauty, food, fitness, sports or parenting. They can be further divided by the size of their following: Celebrity influencers may have more than a million followers; macro-influencers more than 100,000; mid-level influencers between 25,000 and 100,000; and micro-influencers fewer than 25,000.
Similar to celebrity endorsers, marketing influencers have the ability to influence or persuade their followers to purchase the products and services they promote on social media. In a recent study of social media users, more than 30% of users reported having purchased a good or service recommended by an influencer, and 92% of consumers trusted the recommendations of the people they follow on social media.
In exchange for promoting a product, influencers typically receive compensation in the form of a product, service or money. A celebrity influencer with more than a million followers may be paid up to $75,000 for a single post. An influencer with between 10,000 and 500,000 followers may be paid a few thousand dollars for a post. Those with fewer than 10,000 followers average approximately $180-$300 per post. Since influencers are interested in protecting their brand image, they usually sponsor products they believe will interest their followers.
Influence marketing is not without its problems. Since influencers are paid by the number of followers they have, and some have been tempted to buy fake followers to make it look as if they are more influential than they really are. According to Mediakix, an influencer marketing agency, the practice of buying fake followers is the main concern for advertisers sponsoring influencers. Along with buying fake followers, influencers can buy bots that automatically like, comment and share posts, giving the impression that their followers are engaging with the content.
According to a report by Points North Group, $102 million of the $744 million spent on marketing influencers in the United States was wasted on fake followers. Their analysis found the top three companies paying for influencers with fake followers were Raw Sugar Living, which spent more than 46% of its marketing influence dollars on fake followers, Clarins skin care (45%) and Zappos (38%). Other companies listed in the study were Kroger, Crocs and Ritz-Carlton, which all wasted 33% of their marketing influence dollars sponsoring influencers with fake followers.
Fake followers have caused some advertisers to rethink their influence marketing campaigns. Unilever, one of the world's largest advertisers, has announced it will not work with influencers who buy followers. Good intentions aside, it's not an easy task to accomplish, as Unilever's own Dove brand reportedly wasted 25% of its marketing influence dollars on influencers with fake followers.
Last summer, at Cannes Lion, the largest gathering of the advertising and creative communications industry, Keith Weed, CMO of Unilever, addressed the issue of influencer fraud and warned the ad industry and Instagram, "We need to take urgent action now to rebuild trust before it is gone forever."
Rebuilding trust in the marketing influence space requires all parties to work together to eliminate unethical practices. Instagram responded to Weed's call to action in a company post, stating it was beginning to use machine learning tools to purge "inauthentic likes, follows and comments from accounts that use third-party apps to boost their popularity." Last month Facebook addressed the issue on its website, posting, "Inauthentic activity has no place on our platform. That's why we devote significant resources to detecting and stopping this behavior, including disabling millions of fake accounts every day."
Advertisers have the most to gain by supporting ethical practices. They sponsor marketing influencers to create awareness, drive traffic to their websites and increase sales. To ensure their advertising dollars are not wasted, they should carefully research the influencers they sponsor and verify their authenticity.
Dr. Patricia Humphrey is a professor of marketing and management at Texas A&M University-Texarkana.