Influenza: the plague of the influencer black market

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You may recognise the above painting; it reads – “ceci n’est pas une pipe,” which translates to “this is not a pipe.” The juxtaposition between a realistic painting of a pipe and the contradictory language is puzzling – but it’s a succinct interrogation on conventions of language and visual representation. Yes, this pipe is not a pipe- it is a representation of a pipe. The title of this famous painting sums it up well – images and representations can be treacherous as they capitalise off our own visual prerogatives when interpreting an image. We often make assumptions that the image is equal to the subject itself, when in reality there is a large dichotomy between the two.

In the 21st Century, the meaning behind this surrealist pipe has lended itself well to Instagram, where its 714 million active monthly users tell the story of their lives through facsimile representations. Instagram is touted to be soon the most profitable product in the Facebook portfolio, due to its sheer number of engaged users. But how exactly did Instagram come to be the primary pantomime to which we upload our lives?

Instagram exploded in part to its simple capitalisation of human psychology - the desire to tell stories. Instagram differed from its older, less-cool cousin Facebook, in that it encouraged users to creatively express themselves in photo albums, where in contrast Facebook’s status updates limited its users. The platform gives unbound creativity and empowers users to share through the visual mediums of IG stories, IGTV and posts. Uploading a picture of your lunch to Instagram has evolved to not just reflect your taste, but who you are. Another reason why Instagram is so compelling is that it gives autonomy to users to tell their own story, to build a portfolio of images that express their own digital identity.

As a visual platform, those who have uploaded aesthetically pleasing pictures have gained traction and a large amount of followers. Instagram was a key player in the democratisation of traditional media; we no longer aspire to celebrities on magazine editorials and instead look to people, like us, who seemingly lead the perfect lives told through images and captions.

The online economy of influence

In 2010, Raina Penchansky who was then Vice President of Communications at Coach, spearheaded a campaign where influencers designed a handbag collection and promoted it on their respective blogs and social media platforms. The entire collection sold out in a day. This was the tipping point Penchansky realised the sheer magnitude of the influencer economy.

Today, the influencer game has grown to become its own ecosystem, with influencers, brands and the platforms themselves making a hefty profit. The influencer economy has been valued by Statista at USD$1.3 billion in 2018, and is expected to grow to nearly twice that amount by 2020. Additionally, the number of brand sponsored influencer posts on Instagram is also expected to double, reaching over six billion in 2020. As a result, global ad spend on influencer marketing has been predicted by Business Insider Intelligence to reach between $5 billion and $10 billion by 2022. Instagram, which generated no revenue when it was purchased by Facebook for $1 billion in 2012, is now an incredibly monetised platform. Branded content, sponsored posts and stories are now ingrained into the Instagram experience and will continue to increase. All these statistics point to a booming economy with seemingly endless potential for brands and influencers alike.

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Chart by Jan-Nico Meyer for Business of Fashion.

The black market behind social media

The influencer economy has been growing at a rapid pace with agencies, brands and influencers all rushing to get their slice of the pie. But influencer marketing is not all that it’s cracked up to be. There is a dark side to social media, with a black market of fake accounts set up to boost likes, comments and followers on the popular apps. Buying engagement and followers has contaminated the industry, with a large majority of brands and influencers using these misleading practices.

In the NY Times exposé, Follower Factory, the writers bring to light the companies who sell fake likes, comments and followers on a number of social media platforms. One company in particular, Devumi, was found to have sold followers and fake engagement to celebrities, actors, entrepreneurs, marketing “experts”, professional athletes and models. Even Twitter board member, Martha Lane Fox, was found to have purchased fake followers from Devumi.

One of the most startling facts from the exposé is that one of the biggest social media platforms, Facebook, has an estimated 60 million fake accounts operating on the platform. What makes it shocking is that these fake accounts aren’t easily distinguishable from a real person – they often steal identities, like Jessica Rychly whose identity was stolen at 14 and used to promote pornography. And while social media platforms have made pledges to crack down on this black market, it ultimately is a conflict of interest as the platforms themselves profit off number of active users and global “reach.” If you analyse some big brand’s social analytics, Mercedes Benz’s followers spiked by 28,283 in one day in October 2012. This was an increase of more than 20,000%. Similarly, Pepsi bought approximately 71K followers in a single day in late 2011 to overtake Coca-Cola’s Twitter audience. Mark Ritson, an award-winning columnist and marketing lecturer at Melbourne Business School famously made a picture of his ass go viral through the shamelessness of influencer marketing.

This black market heralds a new digital age where the treachery of images have become an increasingly prominent issue. But it sells. And therein lies the problem – mediocrity can be photoshopped into good content, fake followers can be purchased, and engagement can be manipulated all with your credit card details. It’s an unregulated black market where influencers, the social media platforms themselves and sellers of bots are complicit. It’s a USD$1.3billion global market propped up on what is in essence, fraud. While there are much more stringent laws applying to disclosure and paid advertisement online, the black market of bots which can simulate “real” engagement and followers operate in a grey area where current legislation cannot grasp. These metrics, which are often the KPIs for both influencer and company is dangerous, pointing to a greater problem where “success” can be bought and easily obtained.

The Chief Marketing Officer of Unilever, Keith Weed, recently implored the need for a three-pronged approach to the influencer economy. He cited misleading engagement, dishonest practices and a clear lack of transparency as key issues facing the industry. Unilever has since pledged not to work with influencers who buy followers and to prioritise partners who increase their transparency and “work to eradicate nefarious practices throughout the digital ecosystem.” With Unilever’s $7 billion global marketing spend, Weed hopes to lead the industry by example.

Unilever isn’t the only company to catch onto the malicious practices shaping the digital landscape - many brands consider verification of influencers via a 3rd party an essential step in their digital marketing strategy. The birth of 3rd party influencer analytic tools such as DoveTaleSocialBlade and Sylo has been borne out of the prevalence of fraud on social media.

Changing consumer preferences: do influencers actually influence?

With the ever-increasing saturation of branded content peddled by bots and influencers on the world’s biggest social media platforms, we’re seeing a dramatic change in consumer attitudes. Research undertaken by Jan-Nico Meyer for Business of Fashion suggest that 60% of Americans find it difficult to trust information online; 64% believed that fake news cause immense confusion; 23% have shared fake political stories themselves; and 81% agree social media has increased accountability for business practices. Consumers are demanding greater transparency and authenticity online, and are becoming increasingly discerning to the presence of fake accounts. The Cambridge Analytica privacy scandal was a massive blow to consumer trust in social media and will be incredibly difficult for brands to win back. Distrust in Facebook, Instagram and associated influencers and brands is at an all time high.

Instagram has responded to changing consumer preferences through trialling the removal of likes on the platform, in a pioneering move that signals a shift away from what many marketers consider key success factors and instead a move towards “real” engagement - such as how many seconds did a follower hover over your post; whether they shared it on their story, swiped up or clicked “read more” on the caption. How consumers interact on social media is changing, and Instagram’s move to put content and storytelling at the forefront of interaction instead of superficial likes is a step in the right direction.

The future is: Groups

In this digital wild west of privacy infringements, fake accounts, fake news and fake bots, what does this foreshadow for the future of social media? Gone are the days of trust in the authenticity of social media - it has instead become a battleground. Consumers are searching for spaces to express themselves online while fraught with distrust for platforms and brands.

Consumer attitudes towards the influencer economy and more broadly, social media, has taken a significant nosedive. The booming influencer economy which is propped up on fraud, the privacy scandals combined with oversaturated branded content, has repulsed consumers and propelled them to cling to what is “real” - the connections they have with family and friends.

As a result of this change, Facebook has seen a resurgence in the popularity of its Groups function, which provide closed, safe spaces for consumers to communicate. Within 1 year, membership to Facebook groups has risen exponentially at 40%. In response to these changes, Facebook has enabled brand pages to create and moderate their own Groups, ushering in a new era where Groups enable users to connect via shared values. Fostering meaningful communities has become a strategic goal for Facebook, which will dramatically shape how people interact with brands and each other digitally. It’s not about global reach and number of followers anymore - it’s about marketing to Groups.

At Groupify, we see this change that is happening all around us. Brands are striving for communities and groups. We’re working on enabling online shops to become a safe platform for your customers to interact with each other, and putting your brand at the forefront of this exchange. Groupify equips your business with the technology to facilitate groups and communities centered around social shopping. If you’d like to learn more about social shopping, you can do so here.

Written by Natalie Elizabeth.