Traversing the minefield of influence: helping the beverage industry spot the fakes and optimise their online spend

In 2019, the number of social media users worldwide tipped 3.5 billion. Social media penetration rate reached a global average of 45%, with some Western nations reaching as high as 92%. Alongside this explosion in social media use has come a remarkable growth in influencer marketing, the industry is on track to be worth $15 billion by 2022. But all is not well. Studies suggest fake social media influencers will cost companies $1.3 billion in 2019. If brands as big as the Ritz Carlton and L’Occitane have been duped, what hope do individuals and organisations, large or small, in the beverage industry stand? Well, hopefully I can help …

To make clear my position from the offset, I am not an advocate of publicly ‘outing’ people, I find this witch-hunt style approach problematic. Being unaware of each persons individual situation, being responsible for the impact of this approach is not something I would be at all comfortable with. That being said, I am passionate about wine, and by default the businesses at the heart of it. As my own platform has grown, my exposure to the platforms of others has in turn increased. With this increase in exposure I have become aware of, and come in to contact with not only a significant amount of activity which many would likely not only deem fraudulent and deceptive, but also more debatable underhand, conscious or unconscious, influencer activity geared toward fudging figures.

In this article I hope to lay out a range of observations and checks, constructed from both research and personal experience, which those in the beverage industry may want to adopt/utilise when deciding where to spend their money. Performing these checks and observations may (there’s no bulletproof method) reduce the likelihood of choosing an individual who may have either fudged their figures or be involved in underhand tactics, thus hopefully improving the effectiveness of their marketing spend. So, here goes …

Encourage transparency, request the metrics. First thing first, Instagram does a fair bit of work for you. If an influencer is honest, and keen to work with you, with the intent of building a lasting relationship, they will have no issue with transparency. Instagram provides ‘business’ pages with a set of metrics, these metrics are not adjusted by purchasing likes. So the impressions and reach shown by Instagram Insights will not be inflated by purchased likes and comments, the metrics will give you a pretty clear sign. If an individual receives a high number of likes, for example 1000, but has a relatively low reach and impressions, alarm bells should be ringing, something ain’t right.

Ensure alignment of yours, or the brand’s which you are representing, goals and ethos with that of the individual, or individuals, you have shortlisted. Numbers aren’t everything. It may prove difficult to resist the allure of sheer numbers, thousands of likes, followers and comments. However, think about your message, think about how you want your brand to be portrayed. Consumers pick up on an influencers personal ethics, if they see this person as pay per view, someone who will promote anything for payment, they will rarely see the products they share as genuine or valuable, it is unlikely that lasting consumer relationships will be formed, making it difficult to sell a product or idea. Attempt to assess an individuals goals and ethics, if they don’t seem to align appropriately, look elsewhere. Remember, this is wine, not teeth whitening and detox tea, narcissism won’t sell wine.

Size isn’t everything; explore micro-influence. Influencers with 1,000 followers generated 85% higher engagement than those having 100,000 followers. With a smaller number of followers, micro-influencers audiences tend to see themselves as peers opposed to fans. Interestingly 84% of consumers say they trust recommendations from peers over advertising. Higher engagement rates with these micro-influencers mean they’re an active advocate for your brand, not simply posting something and letting your product disappear into their feeds. Tune in to an influencers interaction with their audience, are they a peer or an influencer? Think about how you want an individual to convey your brand, you may find a Burgundy expert with 2000 followers that has incredible engagement rates with likeminded Burgundy lovers, this kind of person is obviously far more valuable to a brand focusing on Burgundy-related products and/or services than a generic wine influencer with 20,000 followers.

Do the math, scrutinise the numbers. Assessing the number of likes received in the first hour of posting compared to overall average likes per photo is usually a tell-tale sign of fraudulent activity in one form or another. Imagine a person, after having posted an image several days ago, receives an average of 700 likes per photo, has received 500 likes (70% of the average total likes) in the first hour of posting an image, this is a serious warning sign and usually not a natural proportionate engagement rate. This likely indicates that a person is buying likes, subscribing to a site that provides purchased likes automatically upon posting or that the person is a member of an engagement group. All of these tactics generate fraudulent likes, whilst an engagement group may involve real people, this kind of homogenous engagement is not beneficial to your brand or product, this forced and unnatural activity simply does not reach new audiences the way you’d like.

Who’s doing the liking? Another good indicator, although timely to explore, of whether a person is involved in some form of obscure engagement group or the purchasing of likes through one form or another is the provenance of the likes on their content. If an influencer is from the UK or the US, and the majority of their likes are from pages originating in somewhere like Russia, India or the middle-east (these tend to be the regular culprits) it is likely the engagement is inauthentic. Additionally, the likes generated from purchasing engagement tend to share similar profile features, one such indicative feature is a a large follower to following ratio shifting in either direction, this usually indicates that the account is fake and has originated from some sort of bot farm.

Content is king, don’t overlook it. Content can be time consuming, it can also be relatively easy. The effort which an individual goes to in producing content says a lot about the relationship they wish to form with their audience. There are those who takes time to construct value-adding content, focusing on interesting topics, their own history with wine, the stories of a winemaker or specific educational content. Then there are those who prefer a selfie or beach and a bottle, now this isn’t to say there’s not a place for this, but think about this when choosing an influencer, think about which content best matches the desired audience of your product or service. The content forms the relationship, the effort shows intention.

The devils in the details, dive in to the comments. Another good indicator of both whether an individuals page, audience and reach match the desired reach of your products and whether the engagement of a page is high-quality (about more than just numbers) lies in the comments. You’re looking for quality, genuine engagement between the individual and the following, you want to see comments that show a desire to discuss and form relationships, not those intended to directly, or indirectly, dupe the metrics by sharing similar rubbish immediately upon posting on one another’s page. Look for comments like ‘OMG this is beaut’ and ‘Wow looks amazing’ usually this will tell you that this person has indirectly formed an engagement pod with a range of other users. Between them you will likely find similar comments shared post after post. In my experience, this indicates that the individual tends to be more concerned with the numbers opposed to delivering a genuine message to their following.

First they come, then they go. The follow and unfollow problem. This is a topic for debate, the jury is not entirely out on the follow/unfollow debacle. Really it must be viewed in context, you must have the data, and there is software available to give you the numbers. If an individual is unfollowing an equal, or larger, number of accounts as they are following it is likely they are following an account, waiting for the account to return the follow, and then unfollowing, this is deceptive at best. However, there is a perfectly good argument for mass following and unfollowing those who do not return the favour. This is akin to opening a new business in a backstreet, would you wait for people to come to you? No, you flyer the streets, those who take the flyer you engage with, those who don’t, you ignore.

In isolation, each of the above is simply a tool, a tool that may or may not provide required indication of wrongdoing. Combined and utilised together in order to more comprehensively assess a profile, they are a toolbox, a toolbox able to construct a much clearer picture of both the authenticity of a page and whether or not that page is aligned with your requirements.

Let’s face it, the majority of businesses prospecting influencers online are not multinational organisations with bottomless marketing budgets, mostly they are start ups and/or small to medium businesses (including, but not limited to, PR firms) trying to earn an honest buck and prove their worth. Every penny of marketing spend is critical to these companies, critical resource which once spent presents risk or lost opportunity. Maximising return on investment is critical to success, longevity and reputation. There’s no clear cut way to identify a fake influencer, no magic formula. Take your time, delve in to the data, follow the above guide and you can add a conscientious level of risk management to the choices that you make.

I am passionate about wine, about the people at its heart, and about those wanting to share it with the world. Honesty and transparency are important to me, as someone who works with PR firms I want to help drain the swamp and in turn help us all. I hope that this article does just that, assisting those in the beverage industry to find the right person for them, a person whose message helps you reach your goals, a person who will deliver a return, a person who adds value.

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