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  • Gio Palatucci

Social Media Influencer Fraud: Key Red Flags

Vacation planning was once a meticulous process of flipping through Lonely Planet and Rick Steves books, or sitting down with a travel agent to finalize regimented tours. Today's social-focused guests learn more about potential vacation prospects with a swipe of their finger, whether searching for unique tourism locations, food options or beautiful hotel lobbies. Some even go as far to find the perfect Instagram-worthy vacation photo opportunities.

Social media has thinned the line between elite travel businesses and consumers of all travel means and ambitions. In 2017, 87 percent of millennials said they looked at some form of social media for travel inspiration; two-thirds visited a destination after seeing it on Instagram.

The rise of social media has fundamentally changed hospitality. It's important to not just embrace the continued influence of social media, but to also keep up with the demanding fingers of potential guests scrolling through their feed, looking for their next travel-inspiring post. Today, simply posting a photo here and there is not going to pass as a social media campaign for any hospitality brand.

Millennial travelers in particular, seek out content from users they feel they can trust, whether it is a peer or celebrity. Yes, developing strong video and photo content, and understanding your targeted audiences through appropriate social media analytics will certainly help raise awareness, but one of the most influential ways to deliver the message of your hotel's amenities and overall offering is to develop a comprehensive, inviting and well-thought "influencer" program to tell your brand's story from a third-party, or "outsider" view.

If you have read any social media tactics article or participated in an influencer marketing conference recently, a key term you will certainly come across is "authenticity." It is what marketers love and value about influencers-the genuine conversation and engagement they generate from their captivated and impressionable followers. A social post from a trusted account can feel more authentic than a review in a magazine, and is more substantial than word of mouth.

The formula of a social media influencer is something the hospitality industry is all too familiar with - a social media personality, with perfectly posed Instagram photos will seamlessly highlight their favorite location, event, or place to party/relax, while maintaining a certain authenticity and reaching the perfect audiences.

You may now be thinking to yourself, "Haven't there been incidents where fake or poorly chosen influencers resulted in negative headlines for our industry?" Yes, a less-than-comprehensively managed influencer marketing campaign can bring to light a range of unfortunate results, from rogue content to social media attacks and damaging PR meltdowns.

The issue of fraudulent influencers is nothing new, but marketers are finally talking about it openly to put these potential negative brand representatives on notice. Declining organic reach and constantly evolving algorithm changes place influencers under the same pressure as brands to keep their numbers from plunging. Additionally, social media platforms have been cracking down on follower purchases and engaging in comment pods, which many "influencers" rely on for a false sense of credibility.

The influencer industry is not going away anytime soon, so it is more important than ever to keep your brand safe and in the eyes of your target audiences. Influencer marketing disasters are a result of poorly chosen partnerships. Keep an eye out for the following red flags to help you search, recruit and manage influencers for a positive campaign:

1. Significant Changes in Follower Counts

"Influence" is relative in today's social media space. No longer will vanity measurements, purchased through Instagram-banned "black markets," reflect the actual reach of a potential influencer. An influencer's total follower count is not enough to determine their true reach and impact. Any potential influencers should demonstrate steady audience growth over time. Do not be fooled by unusual spikes in followers or a newly launched account with a significant number of followers. When a social user purchases their followers, their influence doesn't address the actual audience you're looking to reach.

2. Inconsistent Engagement

Aggressive fluctuation in an influencer's engagement rate is a prime red flag when investigating fraud. Of course, there are instances where posts may go "viral," but that is an unusual occurrence as organic engagement across platforms continues to trend downward. Take a deeper look in your influencer's engagement metrics, beyond those vanity numbers of total likes and comments. Are spam accounts or bots taking over as top commenters? This is a sign that the influencer is a participant in "like pods" or manufacturing engagement by purchasing it from a third-party source, which social media platforms are tirelessly trying to stop.

Take a look at likes during the first few moments of a new post. Are the numbers too good to be true in the first minute? Click to see who liked the image and see if those "fans" are even following the influencer. If a majority of engagement comes from users who aren't following, or are irrelevant to the influencer's beat, they are purchased.

3. An Overload of Sponsored Posts

Brands love influencers for their authentic storytelling with a "real" point of view. But what types of content and stories is this influencer willing to post? Investigate further into the influencer's posts-not just in the last week, but last month, or even last year. Do you see a string of back-to-back sponsored posts? Do the sponsorships clash as a conflict of interest? If so, these could be red flags that the influencer does not vet their partnerships, and may post anything for top dollar. Instead, find influencers who vet their partnerships as carefully as you do. Building partnerships with influencers who deeply share your brand values will deliver stronger, more authentic messaging that reaches and impacts your target audience.

4. Off-brand Views

There is always a risk when taking on an influencer to represent your brand. Of course, you want this person to tell your story through their own personal views and unique voice, validating your brand without the harsh look of an advertisement. Before you sign, take a look at past posts on news, politics, competitors and other issues. Have they ever expressed an unpopular opinion that caused a stir; maybe an unwanted headline? Has this influencer ever turned against a partner and talked negatively about them? Unpredictability can result in tremendous negative coverage.

5. Absence of a Media Kit

No matter how you structure an influencer program, it is extremely important to remember that this is a business deal that can dramatically impact your bottom line. As with any growing field, the larger it becomes, so will the increasing disparity between experts, novices and hacks. Influencers should have materials to support their paid sponsorship request. A complete media kit outlining audience demographics, engagement rates, case studies and client referrals should be made available to demonstrate the influencer's professionalism, experience and track record of success. Is the influencer hesitant to share actual numbers from previous campaigns –a sign of fraudulent influencer tactics.

When it comes to making a final decision on deploying an influencer program, it is important to not only find a reputable representative for your brand, but to also ensure this social media personality has actual influence. Vanity numbers, such as total likes and follower count can easily be inflated to provide a distorted sense of reach. Although it is easy to buy followers, filter your photos and game the algorithm to increase engagement, the ability to devise and express a deeper point of view is something that is still difficult to fake.

To preserve ethics in influencer marketing, we actually predict brands will build internal influencer ethics advisory boards to set and preserve disclosure standards across programs and partnerships. At the same time, it's highly likely that morality clauses will become commonplace in influencer contracts to avoid campaigns becoming an outright disaster.

On the same note, a newly recognized social media personality has slowly emerged as a potential partner for many brands. The "micro-influencer" has been deployed for their smaller, yet more genuine engagement, delivering authentic reach at a lower cost. However, problems categorizing this smaller-reach social media influencer have surfaced, mainly regarding the acceptable number of followers and engagement they receive to earn the "micro" title. The limit once set as low as 10,000 to 25,000 followers is now as high as 75,000 to more than 100,000.

Put in the time and research to ensure a potential influencer shares your best interests, and is ready to provide your target marketing audience with tremendous content. Make sure your potential influencer exhibits your core brand values, and that they actually connect with your desired audience. There must be a clear understanding of the expectations of both parties in the arrangement. If managed correctly, an influencer will provide tangible awareness to your brand. Influencer marketing fails not because it does not work, but because brands invest in the wrong people and wrong partnerships.

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