The explosive growth of Instagram and influencer marketing has created a perfect confluence of brand dollars and aspiring would-be influencers. The Instagram influencer market alone was forecast to be over $1B in 2017. Instagram just announced over 1B users and a staggering user growth rate of over 200M users in less than one year.
With millions of dollars up for grabs, the market has drawn in a plethora of people aspiring to build their following and get paid for posting to their Instagram feed. Brands pay top Instagram influencers tens of thousands of dollars for a single sponsored post. Top social media stars also regularly travel to top global destinations at no charge in exchange for coverage of hotels and resorts on their Instagram. The Atlantic recently reported that top hotels and resorts can receive up to 20 inquiries per day from influencers looking for free stays in return for social media features.
All the potential perks and income from being an influencer draw in hundreds of thousands of people who yearn to be one. Becoming an influencer is a time-intensive process and costly as well. The NY Post shared the story of a woman who went over $10,000 in debt while trying to become an Instagram influencer. That effort and cost only resulted in her gaining 12K followers. Fashionista reported that it would cost up to $31,400 per year to keep pace with the fashion and beauty standards to be a female lifestyle Instagram influencer.
Brands compensate influencers for sponsored posts based on the number of followers the influencers have. Typical compensation is around $1,000 per post per 100K followers. Not surprisingly, many pseudo-influencers have pursued a quicker way to riches and stardom by buying followers and trying to increase their appeal to brands and also capture higher sponsorship rates. The New York Times reported on this shady side of influencer marketing. In the article, sources in the industry noted that over 16% of the followers of Instagram’s top 20 accounts were suspected to be fraudulent. One company in the space rejects over 77% of the Instagram influencers that apply to register with them because of suspicious followers.
With potentially tens of millions of brand dollars going to waste because of inflated follower counts and fraudulent followers, Mediakix ran an experiment last year to call attention to this industry problem. Mediakix created two accounts on Instagram and purchased followers to amass around a 30K and 50K follower-count respectively. Shortly after creating these accounts, we added them to Instagram Influencer Marketing Platforms (marketplaces for paid brand sponsorships with brands and Instagram influencers). Within a few weeks, the account received four paid offers from brands totaling over $500 in value.
The accounts were female lifestyle influencer accounts where we hired a model for a day and shot a collection of photos to use as content; and a travel account, where we used entirely free stock photos available to anyone. Buying all the followers and engagement cost only a few hundred dollars.
The story went viral and was published by over 100 press outlets around the globe (featured in Mashable).
We thought it would end there…
A few months after the story ran, we were surprised that the accounts were not removed by Instagram. Although the experiment was a huge success in calling attention to the problem and prompting some action by brands (Unilever announced last week at Cannes steps to ban influencers with fake followers), we realized while larger brands may have the resources to vet out influencers with fake followings, smaller brands do not have those same resources. One industry that seemed particularly at risk is the hospitality and travel industry.
Using the travel account we created, wanderingggirl, we started posting again and continued to buy new followers, gaining her following up to around 63K. We posted new photos and bought engagement for each (likes and comments). We then researched popular 3 and 4-star hotels and restaurants (based on a top travel website rating) in several U.S. cities, and emailed them inquiring about a free stay or meal(s) in exchange for a post on the account.
Not surprisingly, we were offered lots of free stays and meals by the hotels and restaurants we emailed in exchange for a post on the account. This, in spite of the fact that we had not changed the name of the account (wanderingggirl), and the global press around the original stunt read by millions around the globe, was astonishing. If you search “wanderingggirl Instagram,” all of the Google search results except for the top one are news articles about the stunt from 2017, tricking brands into offering paid sponsorships for the fake account.
Here’s a list of the offers:
Wanderingggirl was offered accommodations at four hotels:
She was also offered dining credits or meals for one or two guests at seven popular restaurants.
This experiment shows the vulnerability of the travel and hospitality industry to getting conned by accounts with fake or purchased followers. Many small businesses may want the exposure, but simply not have the resources to vet through accounts. Determining whether an influencer has fake or purchased followers can very difficult. It’s a problem Facebook (Instagram’s parent company) is aware of and even they are not able to strip out the bot accounts on Instagram.
Mediakix listed 9 ways for brands to detect whether an account has fake followers, but the steps are not foolproof and can be time-consuming. There’s no current reliable tool to identify fake followers. As recently as winter 2018, there were several low-cost online tools to doing such, but when Facebook shut down Instagram’s API access because of concerns over data privacy, it blocked third-party site’s access to an Instagram’s account and followers.
With the Instagram Influencer Market forecast to be up to $1.6B in 2018, the cost of purchased or fake followers to brands and businesses could be as high as $100M. The practice of buying fake followers also takes away credibility from both Influencer Marketing and from the tens of thousands of legitimate influencers who work hard to build authentic and true audiences. Our goal with this is to raise the issue to the industry and hopefully build more meaningful discussion and scrutiny of this issue.