When it’s done right, influencer marketing connects people in a meaningful way. It provides interesting and useful content, and it benefits brands, social media influencers, and followers.

When it’s done poorly, it brings up serious ethical and legal questions. It confuses fact and fiction, and it makes social media users distrustful of the entire industry.

There is an important conversation going on right now about this dark side of influencer marketing. Last week, a New York Times article, “The Follower Factory,” investigated how widespread sketchy practices have become on social media. The article outlined how and why millions of users, including big-name athletes, actors and thought leaders, have purchased followers or used bots to automate engagement:

For some entertainers and entrepreneurs, this virtual status is a real-world currency. Follower counts on social networks help determine who will hire them, how much they are paid for bookings or endorsements, even how potential customers evaluate their businesses or products.

High follower counts are also critical for so-called influencers, a budding market of amateur tastemakers and YouTube stars where advertisers now lavish billions of dollars a year on sponsorship deals. The more people influencers reach, the more money they make. According to data collected by Captiv8, a company that connects influencers to brands, an influencer with 100,000 followers might earn an average of $2,000 for a promotional tweet, while an influencer with a million followers might earn $20,000.

It’s disturbing how common it has become to use these tactics in influencer marketing. Instead of putting in the time to build a genuine following gradually, many influencers simply take a dishonest shortcut, and buy fake connections instead. It’s also shocking that this strategy works on a lot of brands.

For all of us at MtoM, this discussion reinforces how important it is for marketers to have a process in place to vet influencers before working with them.

Here are a few of the principles we use when selecting influencers for our clients:

Look beyond the follower count.

When it comes to followers, more is not necessarily better. We look for influencers who have a strong voice, and a real and enthusiastic audience. An influencer who has 1 million followers looks great at first – but not if you dig deeper, and see that their posts are generic and many of their followers are fake. We’re much more interested in an influencer with 50,000 followers who takes the time to craft content that their audience finds valuable.

Look for real engagement.

Marketers have to do their homework here. It is easy to see the difference between a legitimate, engaged audience and automated bots – but we have to put in the time to do this research. Does an influencer have a huge number of followers, yet not many likes and comments? Are the comments thoughtful? Do they even make sense? Is there evidence that real people are interacting with the influencer’s posts?

Look ahead.

When we put together a report for a client at the end of an influencer marketing campaign, we want to demonstrate authentic and measurable results. It’s not enough for influencers to have inflated numbers of followers and likes; they have to show meaningful engagement with their users, and how it moves the needle on the brand’s goals.

Learn more about MtoM’s approach to influencer marketing

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