What Every Marketer Needs to Know about Influencer Marketing and Buying Followers

Online influencers are an increasingly popular marketing tactic. Although marketing firms suggested that 2018 would be the year of the influencer, they’re not just referring to celebrities. Rather, everyday opinion leaders are the driving force. Brands increasingly seek out these voices to create content and build awareness around their products and services.

Paid influencer marketing, commonly identified by disclosures or hashtags such as #ad or #sponsored, grew by almost 200% in 2017, composing more than 1.5 million Instagram posts worldwide.

In response to this opportunity, some influencers are buying followers to boost their perceived reach and improve their opportunities for working with paying brands. This practice has invited criticism about a lack of transparency that can deceive consumers, and brands are now boycotting influencers who purchase followers. For example, Unilever recently called on the marketing industry to stop working with influencers who buy followers, and it laid out steps to distance itself and its brands from such accounts.

Working with trusted partners is key to engaging influencers who are legitimate, have trusted followings and can successfully promote a brand or campaign in a meaningful way. Understanding this trend is key to helping marketers and communicators make informed decisions about which influencers are the best fit for a brand or campaign.

To better understand the trends in influencer marketing and gather insights into perspectives from both sides, influencer marketing agency The Motherhood and research corporation Westat fielded two surveys in August 2018. One went to influencers and one to marketing professionals.

More than 400 influencers responded to the survey, with 90% reporting that they have never purchased followers. However, 18% said they have considered doing so for two main reasons:

  1. Brands told them they needed greater reach before they would be eligible for partnership.
  2. They knew other influencers were purchasing followers and felt it was the only way to compete effectively for opportunities.

One influencer said, “An influencer company and PR company that I worked with on a regular basis suggested [that I purchase followers]. Their words were, ‘It’s not a big deal, brands don’t care, they just want numbers. They no longer focus on the content, which is what matters. We suggest this to everyone with excellent content but a small following.’”

Every surveyed marketer agreed that they would pay influencers more if they had a higher level of reach and/or engagement, further incentivizing influencers to purchase followers.

These findings demonstrate the anxiety that influencers, their agencies and their representatives feel to meet brands’ rising expectations in the still-fledgling field of influencer marketing.

For marketers without a reputable agency partner, Google can help identify whether an influencer’s following is organic or purchased. However, making that determination can be a time-consuming process. The Motherhood uses a multistep eligibility review, which includes an analysis of engagement rates to ensure a level of interaction that’s appropriate for the number of followers an influencer has. To be eligible for campaigns with a network like The Motherhood, influencers enter a contractual relationship with the agency. The agreement includes integrity clauses.

While reach can be a contributing factor to campaign success, vetting should consider other factors as well. To showcase how the quality of an influencer can be more powerful than his/her reach, consider the following case study:

In partnership with an at-home fertility aid brand, one blogger, who had the lowest reach of all participating campaign influencers (fewer than 5,000 unique monthly visitors), generated more than 5,000 unique website visits in the final month of the campaign. More than 16% of those visitors caused online retailers to sell out of the fertility aid devices within 24 hours.

In contrast, a team of nine elite-level influencers with a total blog and social media reach of more than 100,000 unique visitors each generated total impressions, earned media value and ROI significantly below the average performance of mid-tier influencers when partnering with a consumer packaged goods brand.

Influence can be effective at any level, whether an individual has 100 followers or 1 million. However, as brands have recognized that they can tap into that influence to educate, build awareness and encourage sales among their target audiences, the emphasis on reach above all other considerations has grown.

This near-exclusive focus on reach as a partnership criterion and success metric has incentivized influencers to purchase followers and is proving problematic for brands in the long run. Unilever’s announcement about avoiding partnerships with influencers who purchase followers was a step in the right direction.

All brands should take one additional, necessary step to look at influencers from a well-rounded perspective when considering a partnership, rather than zeroing in on reach alone.


About the Authors | Erin Olson, Cooper Munroe and Amelia Burke-Garcia

Erin Olson is the vice president of client services at The Motherhood. She has specialized in developing strategy and creative campaigns in the influencer marketing space for nearly a decade on behalf of organizations ranging from start-ups to Fortune 500 companies.

Cooper Munroe, CEO of The Motherhood Inc., is an award-winning influencer marketing expert with 30 years of experience in public relations and marketing for agencies, consumer brands and non-profits. She currently serves on the board of directors of Fred Rogers Productions and UPMC Shadyside Hospital Foundation, as well as on the advisory board of Mums Village in Kenya, Africa.

Amelia Burke-Garcia, Ph.D., is Westat’s senior director of digital media and director of the Center for Digital Strategy & Research. She has nearly 15 years of experience in digital, social and mobile media. She currently leads the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities’ digital communication and branding work.