Under the Influence of Influencer Marketing: How to Protect Yourself

Are you one of the 3.5 billion people worldwide who actively uses social media?  Then you may be under the influence. Social media influencers aren’t just pushing the flashiest cellphone cases and the toothpaste with the most sex appeal.  They are telling us how to invest our hard-earned dollars, learn a new skill or make thousands through online businesses. By all accounts, we’re listening.

Influencer Marketing Is the New Word of Mouth

How can you determine who is trying to sell you something and who is giving a credible opinion?  Well, start with the obvious: Your Aunt Debbie has nothing to gain when she tells you about her new smartwatch purchase at the family dinner.  But how about that social media fitness guru you’re following? They may be getting a kickback from your purchase (through affiliate programs that provide commission), or a brand may be paying them to talk up the product like a celebrity spokesperson should.

As consumers, we love our influencers.  They are popular for a reason. The best among them are  taste-makers and trend-setters, entertaining and relatable, which makes them seem like trustworthy old friends.  Followers faithfully follow. It’s fun — and it’s how we’ll be doing business in the 2020s. But this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t protect yourself. But how do you do so?

What Social Media Influencers Should Tell You

Digital influencers can be anyone from a pop star to that nice guy with the Irish setter at the dog park.  You can pretty much assume that anyone you meet on social media who posts regularly to thousands of followers will eventually try to sell you something.  Ethical digital influencers, however, will always divulge their affiliations and be perfectly transparent in their dealings. You’ll see disclosures such as

“Some of the links in this post are affiliate links.  If you go through an affiliate link to make a purchase, I will earn a small commission.”

Sponsored posts, too, must carry a disclosure:

“This is a post sponsored by [brand name].  However, the opinions expressed in this blog are my own.” 

Or #ad in social media posts.

Or if the products or services used were received free, the post must divulge that information:

“I received samples of [product] in order to evaluate and share my opinion.  This is not a sponsored post, however.” Or #gifted in social media posts. 

Digital Influencers Aren’t Always Honest

By law, every social media influencer must disclose financial benefits they receive.  This applies even if the influencer was not specifically asked to post a review. In addition to financial ties, they must disclose employment and personal or familial relationships.

Influencers with ethics follow the rules.  But some unscrupulous influencers bite the hand that feeds them. It’s estimated that influencer deception cost $1.3 billion in 2019.  This includes digital influencers buying followers and comments.  So there is no guarantee that you won’t trip over scammers in your social media encounters.

How to Audit Social Media Accounts

Before you make an important purchase, one that involves both limited dollars and precious time, you’ll want to know more about who’s making the recommendation.  Start by looking at the social media account. With just a few questions, you can determine whether the account seems legitimate:

  • Do they have an extraordinary number of followers?  While some social media influencers are insanely popular, most will not have as many followers as your favorite celebrity.
  • Are they receiving unlikely likes?  The posts should be interesting enough to be liked by the numbers they’re generating.
  • Do their followers seem like real people?  The username structure should vary significantly among the followers.  Also, there should be actual pictures of people in the follower profiles.
  • Do the comments seem genuine?  Two or three word comments like “good information” or “nice” appear suspicious.  The same holds true for comments with oddly consistent poor grammar or identical sentence structure.

Use Spokeo to Investigate Influencers

If the account looks real, investigate the digital influencer using a dedicated people search engine.  With Spokeo, you can enter the username to discover other online aliases, profiles from other social media sites, other blog posts and even whether they have an online dating profile. Then, conduct a search using the person’s real name to get information about their estimated income, living situation, personal connections and criminal background.  Use additional names gathered, like spouses, roommates or family members, to conduct further research.

Let’s say you are considering purchasing an investment course.  Wouldn’t you want to know that the influencer is living in a 600-square-foot rental apartment with four other people?  Would it interest you that their spouse has been convicted of mail fraud in a get-rich-quick scheme? Use what you find to make an informed decision about whether or not you should take what the influencer is selling at face value.

Final Thoughts

In the past, when you wanted to buy something you simply got a referral from your friends, a co-worker or a close family member.  Now, in an increasingly global and digitized economy, you have many more options than the ones in your neighborhood, and they’re all right at your fingertips. But they come with risks.  Fortunately, you’re just a few keystrokes away from the information you need to make more informed buying decisions.

Pamela Fay has been a business writer for more than 15 years, with work appearing in publications such as “Legal Times.”  She has also worked in the consulting arena since the 1990s, specializing in leadership development, human resources, change management and diversity.  Fay holds an M.B.A. from Dartmouth College.