Influencers? Don't trust 'em. Not the individual person, perhaps, but the concept as frequently presented. As a recent report notes, things are getting to the point that businesses lose a collective $1.5 billion a year in a combination of scams, users' distrust, and invisible disengagement.

Not that it should come as a surprise. Rented followers is an old story at this point

Many influencers also have no idea what they're talking about, as the late and apparently sometimes great Payless Shoes proved by inviting fashion influencers to a private showing, watch them go into raptures over the footwear, and then telling them the source.

"Shut up! Did I just pay too much?" one asked who said a pair of sneakers would be worth hundreds. Uh, yup.

The new study--really a meta-analysis by Roberto Cavazos, a professor at the University of Baltimore, on behalf of adtech company CHEQ AI Technologies--suggests that things in the influencer world are even more problematic. Here are a few of the issues he brings up:

  • Fake followers: There are scams aplenty in influencer marketing, like Potato, only without acknowledgment to prove a point and at much higher rates of occurence. Depending on the study, numbers of fake followers in influencer audiences range from 20% to 78%.
  • Sneaky tactics: People will grow their follower base by doing things like following others, waiting for them to follow back, and then unfollowing. If most of those others aren't checking and unfollowing in return, it boosts the apparent figures without a real connection. The influencer is just another random person.
  • Attrition: Many people who use social networks lose interest or move on to other ones. A significant percentage--commonly 30%, according to figures Cavazos cites, but possibly going as high as 90% for many influencers--may no longer be there. The audience capacity keeps showing like the size of a theatre but many of the chairs are empty.
  • Audience distrust: This may be even more damning than the other items. Again, depending on the source of the stats, as few as 4% of people on the Internet trust what influencers say on social media and a majority of people think influencers are trying to scam their audiences.

I spoke with Lena Katz, a branded content strategist, who works with clients on content distribution strategies that often include an influencer component. She said all the problems are well known. "Fake engagement, being able to buy likes, is not new," she said. It's been going for years." She thinks the audience disaffection has been growing over time. It's bad news on the influencer front, at least how companies and agencies have approached it.

Katz suggested a few approaches she's found to work. One is to partner with businesses or specialty tradespeople or solo practitioners who are influential in their own right among a customer base. Companies and people with actual revenue streams and not a dependence on Instagram posts. "It's a reliable strategy for building influencer campaigns where you're more likely to generate ROI," she said, because the people going to that site or account are accustomed to actually doing business there. "The followers of their accounts are more likely to be real customers, not bot-inflated followers of 'professional influencers' that will never buy a product." 

Katz mentioned working with an apparel brand. Out of 50 "fashion influencers," fewer than five were able to sell two items of clothing with a discount code. What did work? Having a wedding photographer do a fashion shoot then do giveaways. "It did 10 or 20 times better than any of the influencer posts," Katz said.

Look for individuals or businesses with skills or products people seek out and where an influencer campaign might overlay well with what they do. "If you have a caffeine drink, [don't get] a barista," Katz said. Instead, look for "someone who would drink a caffeine drink to help them do their job better." Who's more believable? That barista or, perhaps, a bus or truck driver who has to stay alert on the road for hours at a time?

Companies can do well working with complementary firms or with corporate customers and doing cross-promotions. Katz did that with an e-commerce company that went from nothing to a multi-national business doing millions in annual turnover within three years.

Finally, consider social impact programming. "Pick a charity, something that aligns with your brand, someone that you would want to support," Katz said. Support the charity with your own products or services.

And, in all cases, focus on tangible results, not engagement "because that can be faked." Run promotions that require interaction, like people signing up with their email address for a giveaway. The more tangible the concept, the better a chance you'll get something from it.