That didn’t slow down advertisers’ thirst for an effective way to covertly raise the profile of their brand in the eyes of consumers. Average payment rates only continued to soar, especially after influencers started to retain agents and managers. Today, influencers are all over social media platforms like Instagram, YouTube, TikTok, Twitch, Tumblr, and Snapchat, and sponsored content has become so ubiquitous that some platforms, like Instagram, now have built-in tools to help influencers disclose and promote their paid partnerships in Stories or feed posts.

The digital marketplace model pioneered by PayPerPost is booming, with thousands of companies now vying to play matchmaker between brands and content creators to craft the perfect #ad. Grapevine and Famebit are two of the most popular. Famebit, which connects YouTubers and Instagram users with sizable followings to companies interested in sponsored content, took off in 2016 after it was purchased by YouTube. The company has since integrated Famebit into its platform, making it easier for content creators looking to monetize their YouTube accounts to find an ad campaign that aligns with their interests. It seems like only a matter of time before Instagram attempts something similar.

The (Spon)Con Artist’s Toolbox

You don’t actually require that much genuine influence (whatever that is) to seem like an influencer. It’s more of a numbers game. And, like most things on the internet, those numbers can easily faked. A brief taxonomy of some of the top tricks:

Social Media Marketing Panels

Called SMM panels for short, these illicit engagement marketplaces sell fake views, likes, followers, comments, swipes, and more. They appeal to wannabe influencers looking to boost their presence.

Power Likes

These services claim to provide subscribers with likes, comments, and story views from Instagrammers with large followings. The aim is to trick the Instagram algorithm into thinking their account is cool enough to be promoted in other users’ Explore page.

Engagement Groups

Share a post in one of these private group chats and the other members will shower it with likes and comments in the hopes of propelling the post to algorithmically aided success

Automation Apps

These apps will send a user’s profile into an automated frenzy, liking, commenting, and following other accounts en masse in an attempt to snag them a follow back.

The Account Switcheroo

These accounts amass a large amount of followers as quickly as possible by whatever means necessary—often by engaging in some follow-for-follow type scheme—then sell their login credentials to the highest bidder so they can wipe the account clean and start posting to a prebuilt audience.

On YouTube and Instagram, product placement deals are now common, as are the use of affiliate marketing links and sponsored coupon codes. Popular YouTuber Sanders Kennedy, who chronicles drama in the influencer world, told WIRED that a brand once offered him a couple thousand dollars to place a beverage on his desk while filming a video. A 2018 WIRED investigation into the influencer marketing industry found that payouts increase if the influencer tags or shouts out the brand specifically, but covert endorsements are often preferred.

Influencers like Luka Sabbat, a model-turned-actor with two million followers on Instagram, can charge upwards of $40,000 to promote products in story and feed posts.The cost of a single promotional photo posted by Instagram influencer with a million followers starts at $10,000. YouTube is more expensive. A video from a YouTuber with 3 million subscribers will cost at least $40,000. Influencers charge up to $10,000 to $30,000 more to post a negative review of a company’s competitor, the investigation found.

Influencer payout rates have risen so quickly that advertisers that used to be some of the industry’s biggest advocates now feel priced out of the market. Marlena Stell, a popular beauty influencer and entrepreneur, relied on influencers to promote her cult cosmetics brand Makeup Geek since its launch in 2011. However, she cut back on the practice in 2018, telling WIRED that content creators had begun to regularly demand $50,000 to $60,000 per video.

These prices are a function of the fact that, online, value is quantifiable. Or at least it’s supposed to be. The worth of an idea, person, movement, or meme is based on how many likes, views, clicks, and shares it has. An idea expressed in a tweet that garners thousands of likes seems inherently more valuable and widely accepted than one with four. An Instagram user with tens of thousands of followers is assumed to have an audience of that many real people, and a YouTube video with millions of views is thought to have captured the attention of millions of actual viewers. But those interactions can easily be bought.

That an influencer’s potential earnings are directly linked to their reach has come as a major boon for fake engagement marketplaces, where key metrics like followers, views, and likes can be purchased anonymously online for cheap. As the influencer marketing industry grows increasingly overheated, with more and more brands getting onboard each quarter, the problems posed by rampant engagement fraud have only worsened. According to cybersecurity firm Cheq, influencer marketing fraud is projected to cost brands $1.3 billion in 2019 alone.

Which, of course, has led to the rise of influencer fraud detectors. Some companies rely on human investigators to suss out fake or inflated accounts, while others use proprietary programs designed to spot signs of fakery, but it’s largely a cat and mouse game. One of the simplest tricks used by industry experts to tell whether an Instagram influencer padded their stats—comparing the amount of likes per post to the influencer’s follower count—won’t be possible if Instagram goes ahead with its plans to do away with public like counts. (Instagram, for its credit, hopes that getting rid of like counts will disincentivize fake engagement peddling more generally, but that seems unlikely.)

A return to a less quantifiable era of influence may seem like a loss, but if anything it’s the opposite. Trust, ultimately, is unquantifiable. And perhaps in the absence of futile attempts to assess it, gooey amorphous authenticity will reign once more.

Learn More

  • Inside the Pricey War to Influence Your Instagram Feed
    When Sahara Lotti started her lash extensions company, Lashify, in 2017, she didn’t know what she was getting herself into. It wasn’t making and selling fake lashes that stumped her—she was more than prepared for that—but rather the bizarre and shadowy industry that seemed to envelop her. In interviews, more than a dozen people involved in influencer marketing expressed concerns over the ethics of the burgeoning industry, where brands routinely shell out well over $60,000 in exchange for one video review—or upwards of $85,000 to publicly disparage a competitor’s product.

  • When Influencers Switch Platforms—and Bare It All
    On Instagram, an influencer is helping sell products, essentially to add a degree of cool to, say, sunglasses or dietary supplements. On OnlyFans, influencers are themselves the product. Partnerships and #sponcon can lead to considerable paydays, but there now exists an additional source of revenue with the rise of bare-all subscription fandom. In front of a camera, and sometimes with multiple partners, they are no longer just influencers but digital sex deities.

  • Fighting Instagram’s $1.3 Billion Problem—Fake Followers
    As influencers strive for ever-higher engagement numbers, the battle between fake followers and fake-follower-detection tools is turning into an arms race. Not being rubes, influencer economy participants know that signing a contract isn’t enough to certify continuous truthfulness. Online tricks evolve like Pokémon, though, and fake followers are getting much harder to identify.

  • Colleges Need Influencers, but Do Influencers Need College?
    Colleges try to leverage the social media savvy of their students with “social media ambassador” programs that help them advertise to prospective new students, raise the schools’ profiles, and educate their current students about school programs. And for some influencers, college can be a windfall, landing them brand deals to market dorm furnishings, Victoria’s Secret underwear, and tooth-straightening solutions to their fellow students. For others, college just gets in the way of their real passion.

  • Byeeeee, Logan Paul: Brands Prefer ‘Micro Influencers’ Now
    Endorsements are no longer the sole domain of the broadly popular megawatt star. Instead, companies want to work with the smaller, more niche internet personalities they’re calling “micro influencers”—generally speaking, people with followings of about 50,000. Limiting the scope of a potential scandal is only one of the benefits of working with a micro influencer. Analysts argue that micro influencers’ intimate, engaged communities are more likely to trust and buy what the influencer recommends.

  • YouTube and Pinterest Influencers Almost Never Disclose Marketing Relationships
    Research from Princeton University indicates that the vast majority of affiliate marketing relationships go undisclosed by influencers on platforms like YouTube and Pinterest. The vast majority of disclosures that the Princeton researchers did find don’t even abide by FTC guidelines. In 2013, the agency began requiring that affiliate links embedded within product reviews include a disclosure.

Last updated December 3, 2019.

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