online influencers“Don’t believe everything you read on the internet,” Abraham Lincoln once said.

I know, I know—Honest Abe didn’t say that.

But online deceit is rarely so easy to spot, and rarely is it so benign.

In 2017, bot-fueled ad fraud will cost businesses $16.4 billion—about $4 billion more than in 2016.

That’s to say nothing of the armies of Russian Twitter bots that put their digital fingers on the scale during the U.S. presidential election (and, in fact, continue to influence American politics).

Online Influencers Without Influence

Believe it or not, internet traffic today is mostly bots, and that’s a major problem for brand marketers.

Brands know wordofmouth and social proof are two of the most powerful marketing tools at their disposal, and they’re increasingly using online influencers to promote their brands.

Done right, influencers produce organic, authentic content that spurs brand engagement on social media.

The reality, however, is that many of those online influencers are using bots to inflate their reach.

Bots make up millions of fake accounts.

They’re becoming more sophisticated and more difficult to discern from their “real” peers, swindling brand marketers.

Just look at Instagram.

Back in 2014, it expelled millions of bots from its network.

Justin Bieber, following the purge, found himself with 3.5 million fewer followers.

Kim Kardashian shed 1.3 million from her account.

Instagram itself lost 18 million followers.

Still, the social platform couldn’t get rid of them all.

Today, about 7.8 percent of its accounts are thought to be algorithms mimicking human users.

With 700 million active monthly users, that’s a lot of imaginary people.

Spotting Bot-backed Accounts

If your brand is working with online influencers, how can you tell whether someone has real influence?

The bulletproof way is to manually review each account that follows the influencers, but that’s virtually impossible.

As a proxy, look for large spikes in follower growth at particular time points, and spot-check those accounts.

Large drop-offs in followers during short periods of time can also indicate a bot-supported influencer.

Reviewing thousands, if not millions, of accounts takes time—more time than busy marketers have to burn.

There is, however, a more practical way to audit prospective online influencers.

Spot-check Followers

Go to the influencer’s account page, and pull up a list of his or her followers.

If most of the listed accounts have no profile pictures, very few followers themselves, or scarcely any posted photos, then there’s a good chance they’re fake.

Consider Engagement

Does the influencer have a large number of followers, yet receives little engagement?

That’s another sign that bots are at play.

As a general rule, avoid working with online influencers whose followers are relatively unengaged.

Even if they’re not bots, such a partnership probably won’t offer much bang for your buck.

Use an App

When time is short, speed up the review process with an app such as FollowerCheck.

It won’t identify bots with 100 percent accuracy, but in my experience, it’ll get it right most of the time.

For digital marketers, the reality is that bots aren’t going away.

In fact, they’re probably going to become even more difficult to identify.

They’ll like, comment, and share posts. They may even form “teams” and act like engaged groups of Millennials.

The good news is that brand marketers will wise up, too.

More and more brands are engaging microinfluencers—accounts with fewer than 50,000 followers—because they not only drive more engagement among their followers, they create communities that rely less on bots.

Another approach a brand may take is offering performance incentives that diminish payoffs for bot-ridden influencers.

Bots may still get an influencer through the door, but they won’t get much further.

The bottom line?

If you use online influencers, be sure they hold real influence with real people.

Anything else is wasting money—no ifs, ands, or bots about it.

Paul Johnson

Paul Johnson is the head of operations and co-founder of Lumanu, a marketing platform that simplifies the messy process of reaching customers via organic digital content. Lumanu’s SaaS helps marketers manage microinfluencer campaigns and tap into the power of social proof

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