The world has become seemingly hypnotised with the illusion of ‘influencer’ status and symbols, and as a result, the volume of marketing pitches to become an influencer has reached epidemic proportions.
Small businesses and coaches are being increasingly targeted by those offering marketing, branding and media services, all with the goal of raising their visibility.
The vast majority of providers and media sites are reputable and genuine, but deceitful operators are putting brands and owners at risk. These grifters, fake sites and services offer to purchase fake LinkedIn followers and engagement, or provide industry ‘awards’, dodgy testimonials and listicles.
While fake news sites are not new, the number of fraudsters setting up ad-supported sites with content scraped from legitimate publishers has grown.
In 2020 CNBC reported on how such sites can be easily set up to garner huge revenue from ad tech placements and Google revenue. Further, the BBC has explained how the titles of well-known media brands, such as Forbes and Business Insider, have been reworked in titles to convey association.
It’s this fake name association that spruikers, grifters and fake media website owners are using for pay-to-play and advertising revenue rewards. Victims may be simply ignorant and unaware of the deceit, or arrogantly accepting of the perception of fake status. In either case, brand trust and value is eroded.
Shams targeting Australian businesses
Australian business owners are being contacted by fake news sites, set up to ride the coattails of respected business publications, such as Forbes, Thrive Global, Entrepreneur, Business Insider, the Wall Street Journal and the New Yorker.
These sites don’t list names of editors, editorial policies or advertising and contributor guidelines, or information about their writers.
The Australian Business Journal (ABJ) is one such fake aggregate news site that offers pay-to-play industry influencer lists. Industries being targeted include advertising agencies, leadership coaches, recruiters, mortgage brokers, sales trainers, finance and fintech businesses and lawyers.
Random emails are sent to businesses to be included on the lists, which appear to be compiled based on merit. However, in reality, businesses are charged around $500 to appear on the list, and often far more to be included at number one or two.
I was personally approached to be featured on a personal branding list and was told I would have been listed immediately once payment was received. I think not!
Once Australian Business Journal lists are published, the onslaught of humble bragging from individuals “so honoured to be featured” begins on LinkedIn and other social media sites. This further dupes followers into sharing effusive congratulations and amazement of such esteemed ‘awards’.
In some cases, mock-up magazine covers are even shared, giving the impression of celebrity status. Quite apart from the sizeable revenue generated from these lists, such sites also continue to earn revenue from advertising too.
Reputable media lists and judged industry awards have grown in popularity in recent years, and it is understandable that business owners seek out the recognition that comes from these application processes, judging panels and peer reviews.
But fake lists of ostensible influencers ‘to watch’ risk diluting the trust in this marketing category more broadly.
Why the surge of bogus ploys?
The supply and demand curve is alive and kicking here. Every business and coach seeks to grow business visibility and success, and so it is understandable that they are focused on building trusted market recognition, a strong personal brand and value position.
And the pathways to achieve success include a mix of earned, paid and owned media channels. PR, social media, content, paid promotions, digital marketing are all integral to a marketing mix and it’s a long game of consistency and work.
However, unrelenting industry competition, COVID-19 challenges, and social and digital media saturation has fed the beast, resulting in a deluge of fake influencer ploys to fill the hunger.
Social proof is also a reference point to help decision making. Too often, people don’t dig deeper to determine if someone or something is genuine and real. So faking it can and does reward many people. But while fake influencer badges of social proof can be gamed, there is a moral and humanity aspect that just cannot be taken for granted.
Brands and trust is immeasurably damaged when using fake sites and deceitful ploys.
As Nic Hayes, CEO of Media Stable and a staunch advocate of ethical earned media and sponsored labelling, says, it is problematic when businesses are “paying for media coverage and pretending that it is earned media”.
“Australian Business Journal is just one of the many fake media sites that is getting $500 plus from those that are appearing in them. They look cheap, poorly put together and everyone knows they aren’t real. It’s time to call it out!”
Apart from the ethical and commercial illusion and delusion, there are also some legal considerations to be aware of.
Ben Thorn, IP and commercial lawyer from Xuveo Legal advises:
“From a competition law perspective, attempts to artificially inflate business reputation (for example, through garnering fake media, followers, non-genuine positive comments or ‘like’ farming) may constitute misleading and deceptive conduct. (In Australia, the ACCC has prosecuted businesses for this type of conduct).
“This could also apply to personal accounts where the individual is a sole trader, director, partner or other prominent person within their business — or if the activity is encouraged or approved by the business itself.”
Integrity is the influence end game
The influencer sales pitch malarkey has well and truly passed its use by date. And people who have given praise and accolades under the guise of influence being earned will feel a right goose when the truth is revealed about the paid and fake influence status.
Everyone wants to make a mark, have media visibility and be a go-to authority. But doing so with integrity matters. As 2022 approaches, it will be critical to re-emerge with gusto, being genuine, unique and standing out for all the right reasons. Purpose is key.
Don’t fall for the glitter pitches. Do your research and due diligence. Your integrity and trusted brand association is the end game of influence.
SmartCompany contacted Australian Business Journal but did not receive a response.