Instagram Bots: How Fake Followers Are Impacting Social Media Marketing

May 8, 2017
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Instagram Bots: 9 Things Marketers Need To Know

UPDATE January 7, 2019 — Here are nine crucial facts that marketers should know about Instagram bots:

  • Instagram bots are fake accounts meant to automatically simulate real user activity.
  • Users employ Instagram bots to inflate follower and engagement metrics.
  • As many as 95 million Instagram bot accounts may exist, with search interest in fake Instagram followers increasing 71% in 2018.
  • Instagram is still attempting to thwart bots by purging fake accounts, with mixed success.
  • Some Instagram influencers use bots to boost awareness and vanity metrics.
  • Some brands use bots to legitimize their accounts.
  • Accounts that use Instagram bots risk incurring ad fraud penalties, account suspension, and brand reputation damages.
  • Accounts should never use Instagram bots to grow social media status.
  • Marketers should instead employ influencer marketing for authentic growth and engagement on Instagram.

Instagram has demonstrated continual growth since its launch in 2010. With over 1 billion users, Instagram is home to some of the most engaged fans and influential creators on social media. Instagram presents a massive opportunity for marketers to reach key audiences. Influencer marketing is a $1 billion industry on Instagram, and as Instagram’s user base grows, so, too, does the size of influencer marketing industry on the platform.

instagram bots

Instagram marketing isn’t entirely without problems, though. Fake followers and bots are not only present on the platform, but common. Used by Instagrammers (and, in some cases, even brands and marketers) to boost follower counts and engagement on Instagram accounts, these bots pose a deceptive and questionable practice on Instagram.

1. What Are Instagram Bots?

Definition Of An Instagram Bot

Instagram bots are fake, automated Instagram accounts designed to mimic the actions of real Instagram users. Instagram bots are programmed to like and comment on posts and follow accounts at a high volume. The difference is that bot actions obviously lack human discretion and intention when it comes to execution.

instagram bots

After individuals deploying the bots have selected predetermined actions (e.g. commenting on posts with certain hashtags or targeting accounts that follow relevant accounts), automated bots fulfill their duties efficiently at great scale (sometimes even duplicating their work on the same post, as demonstrated in the post above). This saves IRL Instagram users the time it would take to manually engage with other accounts on their own in an organic nature. In short, Instagram bots speed up the process of growing an active, engaged Instagram presence.

2. Why Do People Use Instagram Bots?

instagram bots

Instagram bots provide a shortcut to bloat vanity metrics that marketers sometimes put too much stock into. Bots also help automate tedious, time-consuming actions for Instagram users looking for quick growth and perceived authority. In many ways, Instagram bots function as manmade robots do—they’re programmed to carry out repetitive, and sometimes complex actions automatically. By eliminating the hassle of trying to build a large Instagram following organically, bots provide a workaround—albeit a temporary and costly one.

3. How Prevalent Are Instagram Bots?

The Internet Is Filled With Non-Human Web Traffic

instagram bots

The internet is rife with bots imitating humans—in fact, many studies suggest that less than 60% of web traffic comes from humans, meaning bots account for more than 40%. A survey run by Common Sense Media illustrated the opinions of both teens and the parents of teens on the concern of fake accounts and bots influencing purchase decisions on social platforms. They found 40% of parents in the U.S. were extremely concerned, while only 18 percent of teens expressed the same degree of concern. The varying levels of concern between generations are alarming, and this perhaps fuels Instagram bots in taking advantage of vulnerable audiences.

In just this past year, search interest in fake Instagram followers shot up 71%. Along with this growing interest, the market for fake followers has ballooned, with many services cropping up to supply the increasing demand. Companies include Buzzoid, Instaboostgram, iDigic, and Poprey to name a few.

10% of Instagram Accounts Might Be Bots

Instagram bots may go largely undiscovered due to the platform’s image-based qualities, making bot activity easier to conceal. Images and videos have the potential to go viral and rack up more organic engagement, which allows fake activity to get buried.

instagram bots
While a spokesperson from Instagram claimed “internal estimates show that spam accounts make up a small fraction” of Instagram’s user base, another source estimates that as many as 95 million bot accounts exist. Of the 1 billion total Instagram users, that means nearly 10% could be bots.

4. Instagram Is Still Catching Up With Bot Activity

How Instagram Handles Bots

instagram bots

Instagram previously took steps to eradicate bots in 2014 and is presently taking more serious measures to thwart bots by weeding out fake follower accounts and removing accounts that use apps to generate fake engagement. By doing so, the platform has shut down bot services like Instagress, but it’s unlikely that bots will leave Instagram completely in the foreseeable future.

Cleaning Up Fake Instagram Accounts

instagram bots

As mentioned, Instagram performed a major cleanup on the platform in 2014, exterminating millions of fake accounts and bots that were inflating follower counts. In what many called “The Great Instagram Purge” and “Instagram Rapture,” plenty of Instagram users took a hit. The more notable accounts primarily suffered the most, like Justin Bieber, who lost 3.5 million followers, and Ariana Grande and Kim Kardashian, who lost 1.5 and 1.3 million followers respectively.

5. Do Influencers Use Instagram Bots?

Extending “Fake” Reach

Influencers on Instagram, as well as every other social network, are valued largely by how many people they’re able to reach on a given social media platform. For example, those who reach hundreds of thousands or millions of people and garner significant engagement on posts offer brands more value than those who reach tens of thousands of people but generate minimal engagement.

Fake Instagram followers have a pretty clear purpose—they make accounts appear more popular and more impactful than they actually are. But bot services don’t just supply fake followers to augment reach—they feign engagement, too.

Buying Fake Engagement

Instagram influencers can buy followers, likes, and even comments to make modest accounts look impressive and entirely fake accounts look legitimate. When partnering with influencers who have a high number of fake followers, brands and marketers pay to reach audiences that are, in part, just bots. At best, brands reach disinterested and irrelevant followers. It’s the social media equivalent of delivering a speech to a room full of empty chairs.

Recognizing Instagram Influencer Accounts With Bot Activity

instagram bots

Above is an example of a sponsored Instagram post from an influencer named Savina with 55,000 followers that has generated some suspicious comments.

instagram bots

By clicking through to some of the accounts that commented with ambiguous emojis and generic language, we find that those users follow more accounts than follow them. In this case, the accounts may be legitimate, but they probably deployed bots to broadly comment on more influential accounts in an attempt to build their own authority. Savina’s post likely fell victim to other Instagram accounts masquerading as humans, not because she set out to inflate her own engagement metrics, but because other legitimate accounts have targeted her post with bot engagement to lure her into following their own accounts.

Did You Know? Instagram influencers typically have public Instagram accounts, meaning they’re more vulnerable to bot activity. Without close inspection, some influencers may fall victim to fake Instagram engagement and not even realize it. This poses a massive industry problem for general users, influencers, and brands alike. Instagram hasn’t provided details on their ability to distinguish influencers who intentionally use bots vs. influencers on the receiving end of bot engagement.”

Implementing The Follow-Unfollow Approach

The classic follow-unfollow strategy is a growth approach in which users follow multiple accounts that are potential fans (e.g. accounts that have liked dog photos in the last week) in an attempt to drive awareness for their own account. The idea is that an unsuspecting account would receive a bot-automated follow (without realizing it came from a bot), check out the account, and follow it back if the content is interesting. Later, the bot would unfollow the targeted account in an attempt to maintain a low ratio of people they follow to people following them.

Generally, well-established accounts don’t resort to this method of “growth-hacking,” but smaller accounts with ambitions of “earning” the badge of larger influencer tiers will employ this method. For a more in-depth guide to detecting fake followers, check out our marketer’s guide.

Undercutting Influencer Campaign Performance

instagram bots

Though not all influencers who use bots have totally illegitimate accounts or followings, a high number of fake followers does undermine campaign effectiveness. In analyzing the followings of 20 million Instagram accounts, Fohr Card found that on average, 7.8% of an account’s following was made up of fake followers and that for some influencer accounts, that number climbed to 20%. For brands willing to shell out a chunk of money on influencers, marketers should beware of flushing some of those dollars away with phony Instagrammers.

6. Do Brands Use Instagram Bots?

Over 800 million brands use Instagram Business accounts, and these professional accounts aren’t immune to the bot frenzy. Whether it’s to lend a degree of legitimacy to young accounts with few followers or to jumpstart activity on the account by faking engagement, brands sometimes turn to bots as part of their social media growth strategy.

Purchasing Fake Social Metrics

instagram bots

While using Instagram bots on a brand account doesn’t have the same financial impact as paying influencers who use bots, it’s still a financial decision. Buying fraudulent social metrics isn’t necessarily expensive (depending on the service that one uses), but there are also dozens of services, ranging from roughly $10 per month to up to $10 per 3-day period. For some accounts, this might not be a temporary fix either.

Padding Likes & Follower Stats

instagram bots

A major motivation for brands using bots is to create momentum in the likes-and-followers department. Given that we often evaluate the quality and credibility of an account based on social following or how many likes a post captures (for better or worse), it stands to reason that brands would want their accounts to look more impressive and valuable however possible. Perhaps some of this thinking ties into the idea that once a certain number of followers ostensibly begins liking and commenting on the account, real followers will follow suit. The caveat, though, is putting your brand in grave danger of exposing its own falsehood at the expense of its reputation.

7. What Are The Risks Of Using Instagram Bots?

Instagram bots represent a seemingly quick and easy solution for an account that’s in need of more followers and engagement, but they come with a number of risks.

Distasteful Deception & Ad Fraud

First and foremost, purchasing fake followers and trafficking bot engagement on social media is downright deceptive, and it will likely turn Instagram users away. If an account is obviously fake, followed largely by bots and filled with invalid engagement, audiences will detect the phoniness. Accounts built by artificial means simply aren’t attractive to genuine followers.

For influencers, running brand campaigns after building accounts with Instagram bots poses a major risk because it’s essentially a type of ad fraud.

Poor Influencer Campaign Performance

Campaign results will likely underwhelm, creating the potential for torpedoed influencer relationships with brands and influencer marketing agencies. Influencer marketing is an effective way to reach audiences, and when campaigns fail to draw the engagement and results that brands expect from legitimate followings, it threatens an influencer’s reputation in the community. It also ensures that the brand won’t work with that influencer again. Ultimately, it jeopardizes the influencer marketing industry as a whole.

Instagram Bot Elimination & Account Suspension

instagram bots

Instagram bots can also cause accounts to be suspended or flagged as suspicious. Because both brands and influencers spend a lot of time, effort, and resources to nurture accounts and develop a social growth strategy, endangering them with excessive bot activity is likely a risk that outweighs the potential rewards.

Furthermore, when Instagram weeds out fake accounts, brands and influencers risk sudden drop-offs in follower counts and engagement rates that push them back to square one while exposing their botting practices.

8. Are There Exceptions For Using Instagram Bots? (Spoiler: No)

Condemning Instagram Bots

Though building a large, engaged, and legitimate following on social media is challenging, the smartest way to secure a robust social following is to do it authentically. Marketers on the quest for immediate amplification may argue that the case for using Instagram bots stems from honest intentions to raise brand awareness and become relevant with target audiences. But at their core, these tactics are spammy and have the potential to snowball out of control. As demonstrated by the current Instagram fake followers crisis, the increasing sophistication and manipulation of fraudulent activity blur the line between what’s a human and what’s a bot.

In an industry riddled with constant speculation and scrutiny, brands and influencers owe it to themselves to never engage in the deceptive practice of using Instagram bots.

9. What Are The Alternatives To Using Instagram Bots?

Influencer Marketing As A Growth Alternative

Following and engaging with other accounts, audiences, thought leaders, and peers in your brand’s space is imperative in social media, but influencer marketing takes social growth one step farther by giving brands the opportunity to tap into influencers’ networks to build into their own.

instagram bots

Though we often think of influencer marketing taking the form of product placements or product reviews to drive conversions and positive ROI, social following and engagement goals are an important byproduct of influencer marketing. And social media growth and engagement might even be the primary objective for influencer campaigns with the goal of increasing brand awareness. Brands can partner with influencers who reach and interact with their key audiences to drive traffic and engagement to their social media accounts in an authentic way.

Exercise Good Judgment & Proceed With Caution

No matter how you choose to build your brand’s following on social media, brands and marketers should be cautious of the prevalence, function, and risks of Instagram bots on both sides of their business. To avoid partnering with influencers associated with Instagram bots, your brand could work with an influencer marketing agency or industry expert who will suggest pre-vetted, highly authentic influencers to ensure your marketing dollars aren’t wasted. Bottom line—when finding Instagram influencers, closely evaluate the account quality and carefully consider the drawbacks of letting Instagram bots take control of your social presence.