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January 31, 2019

2018: The year of ‘fake influencers’

One of the biggest stories of 2018 was fake news on Facebook. But it wasn’t the only network troubled by the spread of bogus content. Instagram too faced its own challenge – ‘fake influencers’.

Whether it was influencers faking brand collaborations, photoshopping themselves into overseas destinations or even ‘scamming’ fellow bloggers into purchasing falsely advertised training courses, it became clear that this was no passing fad. So, as we settle into 2019, we have to ask – where does this leave influencer marketing?

The ‘logic’ behind faking posts

For aspiring influencers trying to make a name for themselves in an increasingly oversaturated blogging space, securing that first high-profile collaboration is tough going. More so if they don’t have any collaborations under their belt, as arguably this sends out a signal to brands that they’ve not yet made it.

In response, so-called up-and-coming influencers have started to fake brand collaborations and ‘hijack’ campaigns to get noticed and give themselves apparent credibility to both their followers and future clients. And it’s working.

Why so? Well, given that sponsored posts often follow a similar format, it’s relatively easy to duplicate the same messaging and visual identity of a campaign. So much so that it’s hard to identify what is and isn’t ‘real’. Does “Thanks to [generic brand]” and “I love [generic brand] because of A, B, C” sound familiar?

Although these sneaky undertakings won’t result in them receiving a fee for the product or service they are ‘advertising’ or the ‘free exposure’ they’re giving a brand – i.e. access to their audience – from the perspective of an opportunistic influencer, it’s deemed to be worth it.

The hope is that by suggesting a collaboration has taken place, they might, in the end, get a proper commission or two on the back of it. And although this is highly unlikely to be with the brand whose campaign they have exploited, the rationale is that other brands will sit up and take notice.

Can this be regulated?

While it’s clear that this isn’t the most professional way of landing a deal with a brand, there aren’t any hard and fast rules to penalise those that manipulate so-called social media loopholes.

For example, although the Advertising Standards Authority’s (ASA) guidelines require that all paid advertisements must be disclosed as paid ads, there is nothing preventing an influencer from captioning and styling their posts to make it look like they are collaborating with a brand. These are not, after all, ads.

Essentially, if a post is paid-for, influencers are obligated to make clear ‘that ads are ads’, with hashtags like #sponsored or #ad, for example. However, if a blogger isn’t being paid to promote a product or service, and has made one of their posts appear as if it has, then technically they’re not breaking any rules – and can’t really be reprimanded.

How to get around this

While easier said than done, more needs to be done to make influencer marketing, from the perspective of influencers, more professional. For example, establishing a code of conduct that outlines what is and what isn’t acceptable would send a strong message that publishing posts that deliberately hint at a collaboration is unacceptable. The hope is that culturally, this kind of activity becomes less and less frequent (especially if influencers and the industry at large buys into a set of standards).

Likewise, brands can also make it a lot harder for people to jump on the back of campaigns. So, instead of just collaborating with influencers on a one-off or ad hoc basis, investing in long-term partnerships, whereby bloggers become brand ambassadors, is recommended. This will make clearer who is and isn’t associated with a particular brand.

Where this leaves us in 2019

Of course, there is a lot to be said about the need for wannabe influencers to take responsibility over the integrity of their posts, however, equally so, the wider industry needs to make more of an effort to wise up to fake influencers, be a force for good and inspire the kind of change that really makes a difference – i.e. get ASA to update its guidelines. Similarly, in order for authenticity to win, influencer marketing campaigns need to be smarter, more dynamic and thoroughly put together and monitored throughout.

There’s plenty to be hopeful for in 2019 – this is still a burgeoning and fantastically creative industry and brands should definitely continue to work with and invest in influencers. However, it must be done better.

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