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When It Comes to Influencers, Fake Engagement Is Only Half the Problem

Instagram announced it is developing tools to battle the acquisition of fake followers and engagement on its platform, but these tools fail to reveal an important metric for advertisers.

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If you've been dreaming of finding a cheap way to build a large following on Instagram, you might want to hurry. Instagram recently announced it plans on shutting down the most cost effective way to generate a large list of followers or create some artificial engagement around your social posts.

Emilija Manevska | Getty Images

Related: 7 Marketing Tips to Help Grow Your Brand on Instagram

While this may be disappointing to the typical 20-year-old hoping to impress his college classmates with how popular he is on social networks, it's big news for the influencer marketing industry, which has been plagued by fraud, with some claiming as much as 50 percent of the engagement around promoted posts is fake. This means big financial losses for the advertisers in the now multibillion-dollar industry.

What exactly is Instagram fighting?

There are places in the world called "like factories" where tens of thousands of phones are programmed to generate fake engagement on social networks. These same factories create fake comments, recommendations, likes and shares. Perhaps you need to see it to believe it. These places have made it so that anyone with $1.99 can easily boost their online followership or engagement significantly without effort.

A simple Google search shows how competitive the space has become, with dozens of companies offering the services at extremely low prices. The really bad companies simply create fake accounts that follow you. The more sophisticated ones follow other accounts and then unfollow them later -- generating a way of "follow backs" to the customer. They claim that this is a way to get "real followers," but it's hard to argue that these followers are not what advertisers are looking for.

These companies put influencers in a true bind. They're so accessible and cost effective that many influencers use them to boost their stats, making it tough for influencers who play by the rules to compete. Brands often aren't sophisticated enough to dig deep and evaluate influencers based on how big their audience is. If they're taking an extra level of caution they'll average out the influencer's engagement rate on their latest posts. As a result, influencers often have no choice but to bend the rules if they want to stay competitive. It's a little like the Tour de France. If some cyclists use performance enhancing drugs, the others might risk taking them as well or they won't stand a chance in the race.

Related: 11 Ways to Make Your Next Instagram Marketing Campaign Dazzle

What can social networks do?

It's a tall order, but the fact is that a large amount of social network members aren't active, or are just barely active. They never engage with most of the people they followed, and often don't even log into the platform. That's the real metric marketers need to see.

Do 10 people with 1 million followers each all have the same strength? Obviously not. Some of them have an incredibly strong and engaged following, while others have a declining audience base that no longer cares about them. Think I'm wrong? When was the last time you checked out Rebecca Black's YouTube channel?

Social networks should go a step further and reveal whether a user's relationship with his or her audience is strong, and more importantly, whether that audience has actually logged onto the platform recently. If 70 percent of the audience hasn't been active on the platform for three months, can an advertiser really count them as part of the audience that might be exposed to their content?

Related: The Content Strategies of 13 Instagram Icons

What should advertisers do?

As influencer marketing becomes a revenue generator for social networks that benefit from the presence of influential people on their platform, brands need to be clear. We need transparency, which starts with a real understanding of audiences. If brands work with influencers on the platform, they want the tools to understand how many people the company will end up reaching and who those people are.

Advertisers should refuse to work with influencers who are unwilling to disclose all the information they have from the social networks. They should install tracking solutions that evaluate the actual performance of each influencer in order to ensure that the engagement is real. More importantly, they need to take a stance -- like Unilever has -- and announce they will not work with influencers who modify their own statistics.

Influencers should expect extreme scrutiny in the near future. Technological solutions will break apart their audience and recognize fake followings and fake engagement instantly. This is only part of the problem, because these solutions will also expose the inactive audience members and allow advertisers to easily evaluate which of them actually have real influence, and which are just instafamous.

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