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Instagram’s massive network of over 800 million engaged users makes it an ideal platform for brands to reach broad audiences through influencer marketing campaigns. As the Instagram influencer marketing industry continues to grow, however, some digital stars are purchasing fake followers on Instagram to artificially inflate their perceived reach and boost their appeal to companies.
Brand dollars are pouring into the Instagram influencer marketing space, and Instagram influencers with partially or entirely fake followings are deceiving brands. In order to help marketers avoid getting caught in this new form of ad fraud, we’ve compiled the best strategies for identifying fake followers and fake influencers on Instagram.
Fake Instagram followers are accounts that have been created using fictitious email addresses and sold to real Instagrammers as a way to exaggerate a social media influencer’s or celebrity’s popularity and social reach.
Micro-influencers are some of the most likely candidates for bot use. Building a loyal, engaged following on Instagram is difficult. As a result, a number of smaller accounts and aspiring influencers have turned to fake followers to catalyze their growth.
These fake accounts are becoming better at acting like real users—some will even autonomously follow other accounts based on a user’s hashtags. However, there are a number of ways to tell if an Instagrammer has purchased fake followers from one of the internet’s numerous “black market” offering sites.
According to findings by a group of Italian security researchers, as many as 8% of Instagram accounts are fake, while up to 30% of Instagram accounts may actually be inactive. These findings raise pressing questions for marketers, chief among them: Are my Instagram marketing efforts reaching real customers or bots, and how can I differentiate between fake followers on Instagram and real ones?
Here are the top characteristics of fake Instagram accounts that will help marketers identify fake followers on Instagram:
One of the biggest red flags of a fake account is a lack of profile image. However, many fake accounts will use stock images or other photos available online to set up their account, so the presence of a profile image does not necessarily mean an account is authentic.
Most fake Instagram accounts exist solely for the purpose of following other accounts. As a result, fake accounts often have little or no content on their page.
For example, in the fake account below, @gi_dda only has only shared one photo, and it was posted 2 years ago. Oftentimes, fake accounts will have no posts at all.
Bot accounts typically have a high ratio of people they follow to people following them. While authentic accounts usually have a 1:1 follower-to-following ratio, fake accounts follow an average of 41 Instagrammers for each one that follows them.
Many fake accounts will use a random string of letters as a username. If an account’s username sounds like computer generated gibberish, it probably is.
For example, the account @ljjhhhujjjhh has all the telltale signs of a fake account. The username, nonexistent profile image, and high following-to-followers ratio are all strong indicators of fake activity.
In a recent study, Mediakix created two entirely fake Instagram influencer accounts by purchasing likes, comments, and followers. Both accounts secured offers for paid brand deals through top influencer marketing platforms.
This experiment shows just how easy it is to build an entirely fake Instagram account, and shows that brands are at risk of being deceived by fake influencers on Instagram.
Here are the top strategies marketers can use to identify and avoid falling for fake influencers:
Low or no engagement can be a sign that an Instagrammer has purchased their followers. Before partnering with an Instagram influencer, marketers should monitor each post for likes and comments, and then weigh these statistics against the total number of followers an Instagram account claims.
However, marketers must keep in mind that some influencers have been known to purchase likes and comments in addition to followers. As a result, a well-crafted fake influencer account may have a perfectly normal engagement rate.
If a fake influencer is purchasing engagement in order to boost credibility and avoid detection, evaluating the comments can often help clue marketers in. Comments that have been purchased are often extremely generic, and at times nonsensical.
For example, the screenshotted post above contains 100% fake, purchased comments. Notice that none of the comments are specific to the photo. Generic comments such as “Cute” and “Good” could be applied to any photo. Further, several of the comments are outright nonsensical, such as “Best rapper alive” and “Very profile”.
Another way to identify fake influencers is to manually review their followers. To see who is following a particular account, go to the Instagrammer’s account page, click on the number over the word “followers,” and scroll down.
If you notice many blank profile avatars as you scroll through the list, it is likely that this user has purchased fake followers.
Additionally, marketers should consider evaluating individual accounts from the “followers” list. If many of them possess the traits of fake followers (listed in the section above), it is likely that the influencer has engaged in fake follower purchases.
Before deciding to work with an influencer, it is best practice to examine an influencer’s overall social presence. Most well-established Instagram influencers also have profiles on YouTube and Facebook.
Tread carefully if you find an Instagram influencer who is not present on any other social media platforms—while this is not unheard of, it could be a sign of an inauthentic influencer, since it is more difficult to create fake accounts on other platforms.
Another great way to confirm an influencer’s authenticity is to watch their Instagram Stories. If an influencer posts Stories that include videos of themselves, marketers can be more certain of their authenticity. Before selecting an influencer for their campaign, marketers should consider monitoring their Stories content for at least a few days.
For companies trying to assess a campaign’s return on investment (ROI), scrutinizing an Instagrammer’s “vanity metrics” (i.e. number of followers, likes per post, comments per post, etc.) can give brands insight as to how successful a campaign will be.
If an influencer has purchased fake Instagram followers, however, the branded content or sponsored campaign will not actually reach the number of real consumers the statistics promised, and the campaign will likely underperform as a result.
Though Instagram has taken steps to remove the scourge of fake accounts from the photo-sharing platform, it’s unlikely that Instagram will ever completely eliminate these bot accounts or prevent fake Instagram followers from overinflating the reach and popularity of dishonest Instagrammers.
To ensure the success of future campaigns, brands need to choose their Instagrammers carefully and monitor each digital influencer’s account for signs of fake followers.