UPDATE March 14, 2019—Influencer marketing has boomed in popularity because it leverages the dedicated following of social media influencers to reach targeted audiences. Advertisers are estimated to spend $2.3 billion in Instagram influencer marketing in 2020.
With the massive flood of billions of advertiser dollars into influencer marketing, it’s become a massive financial opportunity for influencers but also filled with challenges for advertisers. The rise of influencers has also given way to fake and fraudulent activity by some influencers.
Companies or individuals create fake Instagram accounts to sell (and resell) their follows, likes, and comments. These are often dubbed “bots” as in order to deceive Instagram into thinking the accounts are real, they mimic the activity of real users. Influencers seeking to “improve” their appearance on Instagram (oftentimes in hopes of appearing more popular in order to secure paid brand sponsorships) can purchase fake followers, likes, and comments from these various online sellers.
Buying engagement from fake accounts boosts vanity metrics and gives the appearance of a well-followed, engaging account. However, these measures fail to deliver meaningful ROI when it comes to sponsored influencer content. Depending on the sophistication of a fake follower service, bots, and the influencers purchasing them, paid-for engagement Instagram accounts can be incredibly convincing. Unsuspecting brands that aren’t used to discerning between authentic and artificially inflated accounts can be easily duped.
There are a number of ways to conduct manual fake follower and engagement audits on Instagram influencer accounts. The following tips will help marketers notice red flags that an influencer has paid for engagement or followers, but these guidelines are not intended to be foolproof. Like various aspects of influencer marketing, spotting fake followers is nuanced and can be affected by a myriad of factors.
Aside from influencers like Beyonce (@beyonce) who maintain millions of followers and follow no accounts, authentic influencers typically follow 1-5% of their total following size. Be wary of influencers that maintain a large “following” base in comparison to followers, as this may indicate they have bought followers or used bulk follow-unfollow methods.
The follow-unfollow method is a common tactic for many users. Influencers may try to increase their follower count by following a large number of users at once, waiting for those users to follow them back, and then unfollowing said users. Marketers should monitor an influencer’s following activity in order to detect sudden, large changes in the number of users an influencer follows.
Evaluating engagement rates (total # of likes + comments / total followers) is one way to gain a baseline understanding of how reactive an influencer’s audience is. However, engagement rate ranges will vary depending on a number of factors (e.g. size, type of influencer).
An engagement rate that’s either unusually high or low in relation to an influencer’s total followers and/or industry norms may indicate that an influencer has bought fake engagement. Another giveaway: post engagement that is too consistent (i.e. the same or meticulously consistent engagement rate for each post). Instagram posts from authentic influencers tend to vary in engagement.
The number of posts (photos and videos) on an influencer’s Instagram profile should relate logically to their follower count; more posts should equal more followers.
To build a sizable and authentic following, influencers must post consistently over several years, producing hundreds if not thousands of pieces of content. An influencer with very few posts and a high follower count is almost certainly fraudulent as users are unlikely to have seen or follow influencers with a small amount of content.
See if the influencer in question regularly posts Instagram Stories or curates a Highlights reel. A real influencer will be posting new Instagram Stories on a daily or weekly basis. The content in their Stories will look professionally designed and feature the same person consistently. Nearly all influencers will curate a Highlight reel with clips from past Stories. When reviewing Stories, or lack thereof, signs that point to a fake influencer account include:
Evaluate an influencer’s followers and look for private accounts, accounts without a profile photo, accounts that follow thousands of users but maintain only a few followers, nonsensical usernames, and accounts with a low number of posts.
In addition to examining an influencer’s followers, examine the accounts an influencer follows. Influencers typically follow peers, family, and friends; therefore look out for influencers that follow accounts that either:
To judge whether an influencer’s comments have been bought, examine comments individually for impersonal statements like “Great!” or “Love this,” as well as repeated or spammy comments or a large percentage of comments in a foreign language. Inspect comments on multiple posts and look for accounts that comment frequently with generic verbiage.
Apart from rare exceptions like virality, authentic influencer accounts typically grow at a steady and somewhat consistent pace. Monitor an influencer’s follower growth either manually or using free tools like Social Blade and look for large spikes in follower growth, or overly precise follower gain (i.e. always adding 50 followers a day).
Also Review Followers Gained vs. Lost
An influencer may have faked their followers and engagement if they’re consistently gaining a small number of followers while simultaneously losing a large number of followers. The consistent loss or “bleed” of many followers is atypical of genuine accounts.
As steady, consistent follower growth can be interpreted as organic growth, some fake follower tools mimic these growth patterns by consistently adding only a few followers at a time — a practice called “dripping followers.”
If influencers post videos in their feed, check to see that the views they get in their videos align with the number of followers they have. Views on an individual video should be a meaningful percentage of their total followers.
At the end of 2014, Instagram attempted to systematically rid its platform of fake or bot accounts. Dubbed “Instapurge,” the eradication caused many high profile celebrities and influencers alike to lose millions of followers seemingly overnight (ranging from 4-15% of their total follower counts). Facebook, who owns Instagram, has conducted similar purges removing hundreds of millions of fake likes from major publisher pages.
Mediakix sought to shine a light on these unscrupulous activities as they were becoming increasingly prevalent and polluting the influencer marketing industry.
The success of our experiment provides a number of influencer marketing industry takeaways:
When vetting and selecting influencers on influencer marketing platforms, brands failed to tell the difference between real and fake Instagram influencers. Whether for lack of bandwidth or proper vetting techniques, our fake influencers were selected to be paid and compensated as part of brands’ influencer marketing campaigns
Once we paid for enough fake followers and engagement to exceed certain platform thresholds, we registered both accounts to top influencer marketing platforms. The platforms didn’t flag the fake accounts for removal or alert brands of the spammy nature of these accounts. Their failure to do so indicates that fake follower and influencer detection can be extremely elusive and beyond the scope of established influencer marketing platforms.
Fake followers and engagement are against the policies of social media platforms (e.g. Instagram, Facebook, Twitter). However, these apps and networks have historically struggled with precise detection and removal of fake and spam-related activity, resulting in sizable pools of fake accounts across major social platforms.
Two to three years ago, bot accounts were easier to spot — hence, Instagram’s systematic purge of these accounts. Now, however, bots have evolved to become more sophisticated with convincing photos, followers, likes, engagement.
At present, we don’t believe a tool, platform, or algorithm exists that can accurately detect and vet fake followers and engagement. If this technology existed, then Instagram and Facebook (with their considerable resources and top-tier talent) would have successfully eradicated the problem themselves. It’s difficult to believe that if Facebook is unable to adequately remedy its fake follower and engagement issues that companies of lesser resources and talent would be able to provide a viable solution.
Fake followers and the influencers purchasing fake engagement hurt brands in a number of ways—namely, the newest form of ad fraud. Akin to the fraudulent clicks, video views, and pageviews that plagued the display ad industry, fake followers, bots, and the methods to manipulate them for personal gain may be siphoning tens of millions of ad dollars from brands and advertisers.
Aside from paying for imaginary likes, comments, and engagement that have no impact on ROI, fake followers and influencers hurt the influencer marketing industry as a whole by:
We’ve seen huge success with a wide variety of brands and influencers accompanied with the “bad actors” seeking to capitalize on the industry’s prodigious growth. Influencer marketing will continue to grow and be one of the few viable advertising channels to reach increasingly mobile and social consumers who eschew traditional advertising. As such, marketers need to know how to properly vet and identify fake engagement and influencers or work with an experienced influencer marketing agency who can deliver results with proven social media influencers.
Last summer, global brands offered to pay for sponsored posts with two fake Instagram influencers that Mediakix created. Mediakix created the accounts and only purchased fake followers in order to show how easily and cheaply this could be accomplished. A Google search for “buy followers on Instagram” will have dozens of options. Mashable broke the story and it quickly went viral and was covered by news outlets on six continents.
In the time since the issue of fake followers has reverberated throughout the news. The New York Times recently published an expose focusing on Twitter fake followers and the current investigation of the company peddling followers, Devumi. The purchasers and purveyors of such accounts — namely well-known public figures — have suffered major career repercussions in the aftermath. While Twitter is a hotbed of bot activity, fake followers and influencers on Instagram may be a much greater issue, defrauding advertisers up to $100 million a year.
In an age where social media and celebrity influencers can command up to six figures for a single sponsored Instagram post, there are serious advertising dollars at stake for brands both large and small. It’s critical for brands that work with social media influencers or are considering it to understand and be able to identify “bad actors” — those influencers who are partaking in fraudulent and unscrupulous means to boost their social notoriety.
The number of fake followers, engagement, and influencers leveraging bots to boost their online presence has unfortunately grown in tandem with the influencer marketing industry’s success.
As influencer marketing has proven highly effective for brands of all types and sizes (from mobile gaming apps to financial services to fashion), marketers have ramped up influencer marketing spend.
With increased spend in the space, unethical practices and influencers of all sorts have cropped up to take advantage of the influx of brand dollars. To put it in context:
In a recent industry interview, Jim Louderback, CEO of VidCon remarked on the rise of fake followers and influencer marketing,
“Bad actors have come in, fake creators have come in. Some influencers deliver great ROI. Many other influencers and influencer platforms have not been able to show that they deliver an ROI that’s worthwhile.
Mediakix has done a bunch of work on fake influencers, how to spot them, and how to weather this. Influencer marketing is not going away and it is such a great way to reach audiences in a natural and authentic way, but you have to do it right. And some of these people don’t do it right.”
The efficacy and versatility of influencer marketing are widely recognized among advertisers as the majority of marketers are increasing their influencer marketing budgets for 2018. Nearly 90% of marketers believe that influencer marketing positively impacts how audiences perceive brands and produces measurable results.
By using the methods presented in our fake follower guide, becoming more knowledgeable with the additional resources below, or working with a qualified influencer marketing agency, marketers can safeguard against fake followers, engagement, and influencers. Research and careful vetting can prevent marketers from being duped when it comes to choosing the right social media influencers for successful influencer marketing initiatives.