Although it started as an organic, raw and exciting way to share thoughts and opinions, there’s no doubting that blogging has now become a numbers game. It’s all about how many followers you’ve got on Instagram, what your Klout score is and the number of YouTube views each video gets. I get it, I really do; brands want to generate as much exposure as they possibly can and to get maximum return on their investment, so the number of eyeballs is the easiest thing to focus on. When historically we’ve all only had magazine circulation figures (often hugely inflated or manipulated) to go on, this is the one statistic that keeps being measured as the ultimate level of success – and expectations keep increasing. With some superstar bloggers and vloggers speaking to millions of people every single month, it’s easy to get wrapped up in seeking as high a number as possible and using that as the only metric of success. However, this numbers-led culture within the bloggersphere is causing one huge problem that seems to be getting increasingly worse: bought followers.
It’s surprisingly easy (and cheap) to buy your way to the top these days. All it takes is a couple of quid, a few minutes out of your day and BOOM you’ve got yourself another couple of thousand Instagram followers. The platforms that offer these services are becoming increasingly savvy, ensuring their fake accounts look and feel like real ones – they have real names, real faces and real photos on their own feeds, but if you look a little harder you start to see through the illusion. What’s even more worrying is that these falsified accounts aren’t just appearing on little known blogger’s feeds, but on some of the most well known and respected in the industry; even one of the biggest UK beauty editors is well known for buying her way to 100k Instagram followers and as a result is heralded in the press as one of the best beauty insiders on social media.
Although that’s a problem in itself (lies always get caught out in the end,) what I find increasingly worrying is the number of brands, PRs and industry insiders that know about these falsified audiences and continue to work with the bloggers regardless. I’ve had conversations with a handful of brand representatives myself about the issue and have been met with shrugged shoulders, only for them to book the influencer in question for a big campaign a few weeks later. I was worried and baffled: was I the only one thinking it was unethical to buy your way to the top, ask for money to be part of a campaign only for your audience to be significantly non-existent? As a result you may have seen the poll I ran a couple of weeks ago on Twitter (see the poll here,) which asked the question: “Do you care if (you suspect) a blogger has bought their social followers?”
The result was this: unsuprisingly 85% of the bloggers who answered said they did, with the remaining 15% not caring at all. (I get it: you may just like their content and don’t give a rats arse what’s going on with their following, real or otherwise. In fact some of the bloggers suspected to have hugely falsified followings are actual incredible content creators – which makes it even more frustrating.) However, 160 PRs answered my poll and around 20% of them admitted they didn’t care if they knew or suspected an influencer had bought their followers. That means that around 20% of my sample study knowingly work with bloggers, vloggers or social media starts that they suspect or know to have a fake following. And do not care. Let’s just reiterate that once again: they do not care.
My problem with this is two fold: 1. that brands are being fed information on bloggers that is one-dimensional, inflated and inaccurate, so their ongoing expectations are distorted, and 2. that the bloggers in question are often charging a small fortune, getting the great campaigns and taking work away from other people that are working to build a true and authentic audience. When it’s no longer a free lipstick or invitation to a cocktail reception, and instead exotic holidays, designer handbags and campaigns that see their faces plastered over billboards and in stores nationwide, it’s time to start saying this is not ok. It’s all very well and good to ignore it or think “don’t worry, they’ll get caught out in the end!” or “cheaters never get ahead!” But the problem is they are; they’re getting ahead and they’re getting ahead at the expense of everyone else.
My thoughts are somewhat torn on who is to blame for this current situation and who is making it worse. As bloggers we’re always being driven to justify why a brand should want to work with us, and those conversations 99% of the time focus on numbers; very few discussions involve influence, engagement or relevancy – because at the end of the day everyone’s objective is to sell stuff, the focus should be on how likely an audience is to buy based on a recommendation or feature, not how many people may have seen a picture of it and scrolled on by. (Some of my blogger friends have much smaller audiences than me, but their engagement is insane; their followers lap up everything they say, buy everything they recommend and comment on every single thing they publish. You just can’t buy that sh*t.) These questions and constant justifications make us all a little paranoid about our numbers, so it’s easy to understand why some may feel the need to give themselves a helping hand.
In a nutshell: brands want numbers, PRs need to deliver on
numbers, PRs search for bloggers with big numbers so they can tick boxes
and report on the great job they’ve done, bloggers feel a bit inadequate with all the questions and focus on numbers, bloggers buy followers, numbers make PR happy, PR makes brand happy by giving them big numbers. Do you see how it’s a vicious circle? Until the circle ends, until everyone makes a concerted effort to educate brands about the importance of engagement and relevancy, this shady behaviours will continue and it’s only going to get worse. I’ve heard so many stories about bloggers creating a whole fake identity and blagging their way into campaigns, launches, trips and experiences off of the back of a falsified Instagram account – because nobody bothered to check. I’ve seen digital influencers scoop their own makeup collaborations and big brand campaigns from an inflated social presence – because nobody bothered to check. If you’re a PR or work with bloggers in some capacity, please take a little time and bother to check (for everyone involved.)
I’ve been running my blog for nearly seven years and I’ve had some amazing experiences and opportunities land in my inbox. It’s hard not to compare yourself to people that have got twice the following you have in half the time, but I have to remind myself that I have a niche and I’m proud of that niche; everything I’ve done has been generated because of hard work, love and passion – not cheating. Although buying a few followers doesn’t mean what the blogger produces doesn’t have value (often the opposite,) it does seem incredibly unfair on those of us that creep up gradually with pure grit and determination. This kind of activity reflects badly on all of us; it reflects negatively on the industry as a whole, when we’re already perceived as giggling girls with swishy hair and nothing much to say for themselves. We have to justify our existence so often that it’s becoming exhausting, and this really isn’t helping. Collectively we need to keep bossing it and proving that we DO have value, that we DO have something to say, that we DO have influence and we won’t be going anywhere fast.
Right now I feel like I’m in the digital version of The Emperor’s New Clothes: we all know the followers aren’t real, including the said Emperor/Empress, but everyone is just smiling sweetly and applauding because they’re afraid of whatever fall out will follow. Here’s hoping fakeness isn’t on-trend again this SS17.