Influencer marketing, which has emerged at the forefront of social media brand promotion in recent years, may already be losing its trust factor. Blame it on the ease with which the influencers inflate their number of followers, likes, and comments inorganically.
Thousands of brands are increasingly betting top marketing dollars on social media instead of traditional platforms like print and television. And profiles with huge followings are prime picks in such a mix.
For instance, Instagram influencers’ market value is projected to more than double globally to $2.38 billion (around Rs16,500 crore) in 2019 from two years ago, according to the influencer-marketing firm Buzzoka.
Some of the biggest brands in India are already heavily dependent on influencer marketing. These include online apparel retailers Myntra and Jabong, social commerce website Wooplr, retail store chain Fabindia, sportswear brand Adidas, hospitality chain Ritz-Carlton, and FMCG majors such as Hindustan Unilever and ITC.
In 2018, companies in sectors such as e-commerce, fashion, hospitality, and consumer goods spent close to 15% of their overall digital marketing budget on influencers, some estimates say. This year, 73% of the firms plan to increase their spends on this category.
“But there is a huge challenge for brands to weed out elements that are gaming the system by inflating the number of followers they have. They do it through bots sitting in several click farms dotted globally,” veteran adman Ambi Parameswaran, said.
A thriving business
Almost 40% of Indian Instagram influencers use third-party apps to inflate their numbers and get noticed by brands, said Salman Moin, co-founder of digital marketing firm Social Booth.
Also, almost all active users on social media have at least 8% bot followers, mostly unknowingly, according to Pranay Swarup, CEO of influencer marketing agency Chtrbox. And for people who buy followers, this can range from 20-70% of their total following, he added.
For just Rs1,500, a social media user can buy about 20,000 followers with the flexibility of using them for multiple accounts.
So, becoming an influencer in India is much easier than one would think.
A simple online search throws up innumerable websites offering easy ways to boost followers and likes. Some portals like iDigic and BrainPulse Technologies offer 24X7 customer support and online payment options, too.
“We have maintained an excellent reputation over the past few years by delivering Instagram likes and followers through high-quality profiles. All the profiles have profile pictures, posts, and bio information. They look realistic and probably nobody will figure out that you have purchased likes and followers,” iDigic website reads. The company claims to deliver results within 30 seconds after the payment.
The result, apparently, is so convincing it “doesn’t have the potential to cause a negative impact on your business.” But the impact is nowhere near positive for the brands spending huge sums of money in promoting their products online through influencers.
An Instagram fashion blogger Quartz spoke to recommended several other options—buy_followers_2020, followersbuy_india, and buy_followers.india—as “credible” apps to buy likes and followers.
“They provide all sort of social media services for a very low price,” she said, requesting anonymity. “They provide full-time customer support. Also, followers are permanent. They charge very less for bulk orders. The payment method is through Paytm, PhonePe, or bank transfer. They are trustworthy and you can check the feedback in their profile.”
Those who provide such services are not necessarily large companies with a lot of employees.
Navdeep Singh (name changed), a techie based in Bhopal, is among the many minting money by “helping” social media aspirants become influencers. Using a palm-sized tab, Singh operates more than 3,000 Instagram bots and has about seven paying clients. When his propriety algorithm sees a new post, it logs into each of the 3,000 accounts and uses them to boost likes.
Small-scale businesses such as Singh’s are part of a booming cottage industry manipulating online algorithms.
The concerns with influencer marketing are not limited to India.
Recently, Unilever’s chief marketing officer Keith Weed made a public call for a change, announcing that the Anglo-Dutch consumer goods giant will no longer work with influencers who buy followers.
Large firms were among the top 10 companies knowingly or unknowingly promoting influencers with fake followers, according to a 2018 study by Points North Group, a third-party influencer marketing measurement group. Procter & Gamble was listed twice in the top 10 of Points North Group list for two of its brands, Olay and Pampers. The Ritz-Carlton was ranked first with 78% fake followers.
The report also stated that up to 20% of the total mid-level influencers (5,000-10,000 followers) are likely to be fraudulent.