Fake followers and ethical concerns: Could micro-influencers be game changers for brands?

With concerns of fake followers and inflated follower counts with bots rising, brands are challenged with more ways than one to consider the implications of collaborating with such influencers. Experts discuss the issues of alignment, ethical concerns, target audience, bots, and more and share advice on manoeuvring them.

Harshal Thakur
New Update

In the age of influencer marketing, while determining an influencer’s worth and setting concrete parameters are important, equally important is determining metrics that would reflect actual efficacy and result in ROI. Notwithstanding, if the influencer a brand is collaborating with does not align with its image and personality, all the assessment about metrics and worth would be rendered kaput. 

As per a report by EY and Big Bang Social, by 2030 3 out of 4 brand strategies are expected to include influencer marketing–suggesting the sustained increase in influencer marketing in the coming years. 

While the perks associated with influencer collabs are certain to make a brand’s eyes glow, a rising concern of follower count being overblown or filled with fake followers and bots might cause brands to hesitate before engaging in these partnerships. 

In the previous story on influencer marketing, we looked at the most effective metrics to assess an influencer’s efficacy. With the considerations of engagement and reach assessed, brands are still left to tackle the implications of alignment, fake followers, ethical concerns, as well as other crucial nuances that emerge when we scratch the surface.  

Manoeuvring alignment  

Several cases might arise vis-a-vis a lack of alignment between a brand and the influencer. The influencer's audience may not match the brand's target demographic, resulting in low engagement and poor campaign performance. Further, an influencer who does not fully understand or appreciate the brand's values may misrepresent the brand, leading to a dilution of the brand's message. Differences in communication style can make the partnership seem disjointed and inconsistent, reducing the effectiveness of the campaign. 

Ensuring alignment can involve multiple elements and checkpoints. To make sure an influencer is suitably aligning with your brand, Manjul Wadhwa, Founder and Managing Director, Anagram Media Labs, says, “Brands should perform a detailed analysis of the influencer’s follower base, considering factors like demographics, interests, and behaviours, which can be facilitated by data-driven tools like Inflyx.” 

“To avoid misalignment, brands should run a comprehensive analysis of the influencer's demographics. The analysis must include metrics like age, location, interests, gender, and engagement behaviours. Employing enhanced AI-powered analytics solutions can drastically amplify a brand's capacity to identify and connect with relevant influencers, thereby optimising both strategy and ROI,” shares Himani Agrawal, Senior Vice President, Product & Analytics, Hypothesis, OML Entertainment. 

Mansi Gupta, Chief Business Officer, OpraahFx says that while an influencer may seem to have a similar target audience at first glance, the reality can be quite different, especially with mega-influencers. “It's recommended to invest time in analysing their audience thoroughly, including monitoring their comment sections, understanding their communities, geographical distribution, and past meetups to gauge audience demographics. Evaluating their daily life, hobbies, likes, and dislikes is also crucial to determine alignment with the brand's target audience,” she adds. 

Treading ethical terrains 

The exponential rise in the number of creators and influencers on social media has a flipside as well. A lot of creators have bots in their follower count which does not reflect authentic target audience. These inflated followers' lists could lead to various ethical problems for brands. 

Brands typically pay influencers based on their follower count and engagement rates. Paying an influencer with fake followers means the brand is not getting a fair return on investment. Thus, the engagement and conversion rates in such a case are likely to be lower than expected since fake followers do not engage with content or make purchases. Additionally, campaign performance metrics could be skewed, providing inaccurate data that can misinform future marketing strategies.

“Partnering with influencers whose reach and influence are not as substantial as claimed, can damage brand credibility and trust among consumers. Investing in such influencers may also not yield the desired outcome in terms of ROI,” remarks Mrunali Dedhia, Vice President, Chtrbox.  

To tackle these, Dedhia shares pointers that brands must check-off before partnering. “To navigate these concerns, brands, with the help of influencer marketing agencies, can conduct a thorough analysis to verify if an influencer’s followers are genuine and align with the brand’s target audience. Analysing the level of interaction the influencer’s content receives from their audience is crucial. To get the influencer’s performance metrics, brands must go through their engagement rates such as likes, comments, bookmarks and shares.”  

All that glitters isn’t gold

Cleverly fitting into a creator’s content and converting their organically built audience into buyers seamlessly might appear to be a lucrative proposition for brands, it nonetheless could turn into a fruitless activity if the creator’s following by and large consists of bots or inactive users. Ensuring that the follower count is not overblown, thus, becomes a key in collaborations. 

To navigate this, experts suggest a few steps that can be employed as a cautionary measure. 

“Bots often exhibit specific patterns, such as posting at consistent intervals or engaging only with specific types of content. Analyse the behaviour of an influencer's followers to identify any suspicious patterns. Analyse account behaviour, activity patterns, and follower characteristics. Genuine influencers may experience organic growth due to viral content or media exposure, but massive and rapid follower increases without post content going viral are often indicative of bot activity,” explains Varun Grover, Brand Safety BU Head, mFilterIt. 

Grover further says that extremely high engagement rates combined with low follower counts might indicate bot activity artificially inflating engagement as well. Thus evaluating the likelihood of fake or bot accounts based on factors such as profile completion, posting activity, and follower-to-following ratio becomes important. 

“A good starting point is the like-to-views ratio. If a piece of content has over 100K views but barely scrapes 1,000 likes, it’s likely boosted. If the likes seem reasonable, check the comments. Genuine engagement usually means 200+ authentic comments. Watch out for generic comments like “Love this!” or “Beautiful!”—these often indicate bots are at play,” Divyansh Sharma, COO, founding member, IPLIX Creator Academy. 

Wadhwa advises that to verify the authenticity of an influencer’s engagement, brands should utilise advanced analytics tools that inspect follower authenticity, engagement patterns, and the prevalence of bot activity. He adds that high-quality comments that demonstrate genuine interaction suggest robust engagement, while a high ratio of likes to few comments may indicate superficial engagement.

“A consistent engagement rate across posts, typically between 1% and 3%, suggests real interactions, unlike abrupt spikes that are often associated with bots,” Agrawal notes. She further adds that an analysis of follower demographics can reveal much about authenticity; real followers usually align with the influencer’s content and geographic location.

The quandary of collaboration

All said and done, the decision to collaborate or not hinges on the relevance of the influencer for a brand. For this, sentiment analysis can be an effective tool to gauge potential fruitfulness of a partnership. 

“Qualitative metrics are vital as they provide context beyond numbers. Positive sentiment in comments and deep, meaningful interactions indicate a genuine connection with the audience. These metrics can reveal the true impact of an influencer’s content and its alignment with the brand’s values. They help in understanding audience perceptions, trust levels, and the potential for long-term brand loyalty. Brands should monitor these metrics to ensure their collaborations foster positive brand associations,” shares Gautam Madhavan, Founder and CEO, Mad Influence. 

Divyansh Sharma opines that an assessment of a creator’s broadcast channels could be beneficial noting, “When a creator has a strong core of dedicated fans, it's the best place for a brand to integrate because these communities are more trusted, leading to higher conversions. Beyond comments, looking at engagement on the creator's broadcast channels can also provide insight into the depth of interaction.”

“Sentiment analysis, in particular, helps brands understand the nuances of consumer reactions—whether they feel positively about the content and, by extension, the brand—which can significantly influence purchasing decisions. Such insights are invaluable for refining marketing strategies and enhancing audience engagement in future campaigns,” says Wadhwa. 

Agrawal notes that the depth of interaction is an essential metric to assess the nature and quality of an audience's engagement with content. Superficial interactions like generic comments and mere likes restricts any influencer to determine the behavioural pattern of the audience, she adds. “On the contrary, deeper interactions through an insightful comment or a personal anecdote not only enhances the quality of the engagement, but it also translates into better conversion rates, propelling the sales,” the Senior VP at OML Entertainment remarks.  

Is micro the new way? 

In the recent years, specifically after the pandemic, floodgates have opened for content creators on social media. More and more creators with niche areas of expertise and topicality have emerged and are continuing to thrive. This means that along with influencers that have a celebrity-like status on social media–often categorised as macro influencers–smaller creators from diverse backgrounds and specialities have built their unique following. 

Many of the experts seem to hold unanimity on the significance of micro-influencers and the collaboratory implications for brands. EY’s report notes that out of the total interviewed, 47% of brands preferred driving influencer campaigns with micro and nano influencers due to the lower cost per reach.

“Micro-influencers typically engage a niche audience that values their authenticity and expertise, often resulting in higher engagement rates compared to macro-influencers. This makes them particularly effective for brands targeting specific demographics or those looking to foster deeper customer relationships,” observes Wadhwa. 

Agrawal highlights the niche-specific quality of such influencers, “Micro-influencers typically operate within a well-defined niche, like gaming, local food, fashion, or another specific field. This niche proficiency allows brands to employ demography-specific marketing tactics. Brands can tap into a potential audience who will likely engage in their products or services, boosting the conversion rates.”

Besides boasting a more loyal and trustworthy follower-base, micro-creators also hold other benefits for brands. Madhavan notes, “They (micro-influencers) provide the opportunity for more personalised and relatable marketing, enhancing brand credibility. For brands with a targeted marketing approach, micro-influencers can deliver significant ROI by engaging a more responsive audience.”

Collaborating with micro-influencers can be cost effective for brands and ease potential burdens of ROI. “Engaging with micro-influencers is actually very helpful when a brand doesn't want to spend much and aims to do campaigns on a large scale. They don't have a lot of set rules and are pretty flexible in doing things as per brands and the brand’s requirements,” observes Gupta. “Micro-influencers tend to put in more amount of work, as they want to make each of their brand deals result driven and to gain their trust, resulting in future collaborations,” she adds another layer to her argument. 

Emphasising the trust and authenticity factors, Sharma says, “These influencers often have a more dedicated and loyal audience, leading to deeper connections and more meaningful interactions. This trust and authenticity resonate strongly with their followers, making them more likely to take action on recommendations.”

Grover points out another interesting element when it comes to such influencers, “Since most influencers come from regular families and are regular people turned successful content creators, their content resonates with their audience. Moreover, since this audience is gained by consistently producing engaging content, the engagement levels are incredibly high.”  

Engagement Rate ethical concerns Analytics fake followers ROI content creators sentiment analysis Brand associations