The Instagram influencer market size is currently $1.7 billion. That figure is set to double by 2019. With brands investing heavily in the influencer marketing space to reach millennial and Gen Z audiences on Instagram, some influencers are taking advantage of this market demand by buying fake followers and engagement to artificially inflate their clout.
While influencers both large and small are suspected of purchasing fake followers and engagement, this practice can be more lucrative and commonplace for smaller, starting, or micro-influencers. To prove whether or not it’s possible for accounts with fake followers and engagement to secure brand sponsorship deals, Mediakix created two fictitious Instagram influencer accounts grown completely with bought followers and engagement (likes and comments) and applied to campaigns on popular influencer marketing platforms.
We created two fake Instagram influencer accounts: 1) a lifestyle and fashion-centric Instagram model and 2) a travel and adventure photographer.
Step 1: Generate Content (or Source Content)
For the first Instagram account, we hired a local model and generated the entire channel’s content through a one-day photo shoot. The fake persona behind the account was a fashion and lifestyle influencer and Santa Monica local who went by the username “calibeachgirl310“.
While the first Instagram account featured a real subject, we constructed the second Instagram account completely from free stock photos. The fake persona behind the account featured a travel and photography influencer who went by the username “wanderingggirl” sharing mainly landscape photographs from scenic destinations such as Paris, Yosemite, and Maui.
To make the account more personalized, we also included a few photos of “wanderingggirl” herself—we accomplished this by using stock photos of blonde girls that showed only the back of their heads.
Step 2: Purchase Fake Followers
Within a day, we had enough content to build two entirely fake accounts. Next, we posted daily and purchased followers. We started with buying 1,000 followers per day because we were concerned that purchasing too many followers at the onset would result in Instagram flagging the account. However, we quickly found that we were able to buy up to 15,000 followers at a time without encountering any issues.
The pricing for followers ranged from $3-8 per 1,000 followers, depending on the reliability of the service. Websites that sold followers on the lower end of that price range often did not deliver in a timely manner, or sometimes at all, so we switched to more expensive follower providers later in the project. Even at $8 per 1,000 followers, we were able to accumulate over 30,000 followers for the travel account and over 50,000 followers for the fashion account with minimal investment over the course of just two months.
Step 3: Purchase Fake Engagement
Once we had accumulated a few thousand followers for each account, we started buying likes and comments. We paid around 12 cents per comment, and between $4-9 per 1,000 likes. On the lower end of that price range, it took around 24 hours for the likes to appear, whereas, on the higher end of that price range, likes were delivered instantly. For each photo, we purchased 500 to 2,500 likes and 10 to 50 comments.
We scaled up engagement as each page’s follower count increased.
Many influencer marketing platforms require a minimum number of followers in order to sign up for and partake in brand deals. For this reason, we weren’t able to register for certain influencer marketing platforms until each account had 10,000 followers. Once we hit this threshold, we were able to sign the accounts up for a wide range of platforms.
Once we had the accounts on a few platforms, we applied for new campaigns daily. The application process ranged from simply clicking a button to writing a short message to the brand, depending on the platform’s requirements.
Results. We secured four paid brand deals total, two for each account. The fashion account secured one deal with a swimsuit company and one with a national food and beverage company.
The travel account secured brand deals with an alcohol brand and the same national food and beverage company. For each campaign, the “influencers” were offered monetary compensation, free product, or both.
Due to its efficacy, influencer marketing has become an extremely crowded space on all fronts. On the influencer end, everyday people with follower accounts of 5,000 or more are getting paid by brands — it’s not just the Kardashians of the world. Influencers of all sizes know brand dollars are pouring into the space, and in order to compete and secure these sponsorships, influencers are increasingly inflating follower counts and engagement artificially.
Brands and advertisers eager to reach audiences on popular social media channels and seeking quick entry into the influencer marketing space, are turning to platforms, automation and micro-influencers in hopes of making the media buying process more turn-key and easier.
However, akin to the ad fraud that’s afflicted display ads, Instagrammers with completely or partially fake followings and/or engagement present advertisers with a unique form of ad fraud that’s becoming more and more commonplace and could be siphoning tens of millions of dollars from brands.