Don’t Let Instagram ‘Influencers’ Kill You

Bot farms and fake accounts swindle businesses out of thousands each year. Here’s how to make sure your business isn’t one of them.

Shelby Rogers
Jan 16 · 11 min read
Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

Update as of 7/17/2019: The account mentioned in this piece still uses fake followers. She’s attempting to connect with brands like Vynl and small businesses within the Chattanooga, TN area.

In the social media system, Influencer offenses are considered especially heinous. There are groups dedicated to investigating these crimes, known as Marketers. These are their stories…

From YouTube to Instagram, Influencer Marketing continues to rise. Over 86 percent of women admit to consulting social media before purchasing an item, and 71 percent of consumers are more likely to buy something favorably represented via social media.

However, the growing pressure to “be somebody” on the internet comes with a wave of wannabes and knock-off influencers.*

Instagram manages to cultivate false followings with ease. And, in the event Instagram does decide to keep up with Twitter and purge bots, companies built upon generating fake celebrity have already found new ways to circumvent the changes.

Recent reports from The Atlantic point out that aspiring Instagram influencers are even faking brand deals in hopes of acquiring MORE brand deals.

Those “influencers” start somewhere. Here’s how to sniff out if the person reaching out to you is the real deal or if they’re lying about their numbers:

(whispers) “I see a dead career…”

How to Sniff Out Questionable Instagram Influencers

Step 1: Identify a candidate.

Ideally, this should be someone relatively local to your business.**

An influencer should also have interests aligned with that of your business’s products or services. They will also probably showcase some sort of availability or interest in being an internet ‘brand.’

I recently stumbled upon this account after Instagram suggested it to me, and after 5 minutes of digging, I realized it made a prime candidate for this demonstration:

Confession: I frequently put on my ‘social media marketer hat’ and have a little bit of analytical fun. All marketers do this, and if they swear they don’t, they’re lying to you so you don’t get creeped out.

My Initial Thoughts: this person has clearly caught up on Instagram trends. The description gave me an idea of this girl’s voice and personality.

Visually, there seems to be relatively consistent color schemes. She also knows how to do that whole “aligned post” thing that I just cannot get right.

And, after two or three quick scrolls, I stumbled upon this post:

Whoever sent her this message identifies her as an “influencer” — a relatively specific term. The sender didn’t refer to the account holder as a friend or a singular “influence” (i.e. had she said “you’re a great influence,” I would’ve hesitated), but they used a very specific term associated with a marketed persona.

That, alongside a penchant for model-esque shots and strategically self-timed (toooootally candid) selfies, indicated to me this account’s owner would be a candidate for social media influence.

Step 2: Take note of their metrics.

What caught my eye next were the numbers posted by this account. There are (as of this writing) nearly 7,500 posts, 6,589 followers, and the account follows nearly 1,200 people. The account owner seems to post once every two or three days, but there are some instances of a two-a-day post.

UPDATE (7/17/19): This account now boasts a whopping 7.7K followers, follows 1,692 people, and seems to have deleted several posts. It’s currently at 7,487. The metrics mentioned (including the fake follower percentage) remain the same.

Almost 7,500 posts is still a freakishly large amount of posts for one person. Given that Instagram really picked up in popularity five years ago, I will very generously assume this account was created circa 2012–2013. From there, I calculate how much this girl posts per day.

(5 years x 365 days) = 1,825 days

7,500 posts / 1,825 days = 4.1 posts/day

That’s A LOT of content going up. But why? It could have something to do with her engagement percentage.

This is one of the fastest ways to suspect fake followers. In 2017, the average engagement on Instagram was 3 percent. Brand influencers frequently reach as high as 8 to 10 percent engagement.

At the very least, a good influencer surpasses the average.

In order to calculate an account’s engagement percentage, add the number of likes in three ‘normal’ posts together and divide by three. Take that average number of engagements and divide it by their number of followers.

For this account, I took a seemingly average set of three photos — nothing that looks sponsored or for a third-party.

Left: 160, Middle: 165, Right: 185

The posts came in at 160, 165, and 185 likes from left to right, respectively. That’s an average of 170 likes. Then I divided that by the number of followers…

170 likes / 6,598 followers = 2 percent engagement

That abysmal percentage indicates to me a much larger issue: fake followers.

Step 2.5: Use an auditing tool

I stumbled upon IG Audit, which gives a quick breakdown of someone’s Instagram following. It’s free, fast, and f***ing great.

It weighs the total number of followers on someone’s account against what natural engagement patterns would be. It then runs a cursory diagnostic on the followers themselves, looking to see if those followers are real or bots.

Here’s the audit for this account:

Nearly 60% of this account uses bots to pad numbers. For a business, that’s:

  • 60% of your money on a sponsored post falling on deaf ears.
  • 60% of your time wasted on an influencer who won’t impact your bottom line at all.
  • 60% of your investment you won’t see back.

Step 3: Start Hunting for Bots

Fake followers (aka Instagram bots) are some of the most detrimental — yet lucrative — forces plaguing the platform. These fake accounts come from companies that hire staff to upkeep these accounts in order to look like regular accounts, making it easier for these bots to survive an Instagram bot “purge.”

Fake followers don’t magically appear on someone’s account in droves.

Instagram users have to buy fake accounts.

A few years ago, companies could use free online software to sniff out uncharacteristic growth spikes in a number of followers that happened as a result of a dump of fresh bots. However, fake follower companies are getting smarter, often adding 6–10 new followers to an account at a time.

Let’s test it, shall we?

This picture has had plenty of time to accumulate average engagement, and it’s her most recent post at the time of this writing. Currently, there are 152 likes on the image.

I clicked on that number to see what users liked the image. A few things caught my eye. Two accounts listed within the first 5 likes are from users olivertessa0 and 1f_0h. They both appeared to have stock imagery for profile pics, so I became skeptical.

I clicked on Oliver Tessa’s account to see what was up:

This account showed several indications it could be a bot:

  1. It’s private. Private accounts make it harder for Instagram to see them as fake while also giving fake account companies the perfect way to keep liking paid accounts.
  2. There’s an insanely small amount of posts for how many people they’re following.
  3. They have barely any followers when compared to the amount of people they’re following.
  4. Images appear to be stock images or someone else’s intellectual property.

While I was on the fake account, I reported it to Instagram as spam.

Let’s check out 1f_0h’s account next:

This account seems to have the opposite problem. It only has one post but a deceptively high number of followers while only following 4 other accounts.

Still smelled like a fake account, so I reported it as well.

While going down the likes list of this one post, I kept encountering more of these fake accounts:

For every 10 users who liked the image, I reported 3–6 of them to Instagram for being bots.

Any business owner can do this themselves, but it requires a bit of leg work.

Take an average post from your candidate and look for bots. Count how many fake accounts you suspect, and create your own percentage.

Ideally, this percentage should be zero and all of the engagement should be real.

If you’re willing to shell out a few bucks, invest in a Deep Social account.

This tool gives anyone a thorough analysis of an Instagram account’s engagement percentage, follower breakdown, and where a person’s followers are most heavily concentrated.

Rather than do the math myself, I let Deep Social do it for me. They will run diagnostics of five accounts for free.

Here are the key points from the sample account:

Over 25% of her audience cannot be deemed as “credible” (which is Deep Social speak means “fake”).

And oddly enough, most of her active followers are Men between the ages of 25–34. That’s really out of left-field for most female accounts on Instagram, particularly those that give off identical vibes as our sample.

Let’s compare that with another Instagram account of a well-known influencer.

Whitney Simmons is an athlete, model, and brand ambassador. She’s associated with Tarte, Tula, Gymshark, and Fab Fit Fun (to name a few).

The queen of booty workouts has 1.1 million active followers on Instagram. And she’s STILL pulling 98 percent audience credibility. YAS QUEEN.

When comparing the aspiring influencer’s account to an actual influencer, I also noticed something strange.

Less than 30 percent of our example account’s engagement came from the U.S. However, there’s no trace of 1) international travel, 2) international friendships or 3) secondary languages on her account.

I guess record collecting and mosh pits are just surprisingly popular in Brazil and Italy…?

This girl is clearly based in the U.S. Why are most of her followers not?

The short answer? Engagement pods.

“Engagement pods” pool together random accounts and essentially say “if you like 20 posts, 20 other aspiring social media accounts will like your stuff back.” This is much harder to sniff out than a fake account. If it seems like an odd portion of your candidate’s engagement comes from a different part of the world, they might also be part of an engagement apps that connect people to engagement pods.

During my hunt for bots, there were additional users who liked the photo who seemed to be from the opposite side of the world, despite being real accounts of their own:

And this Iranian beauty account:

These accounts and others like it exemplify a “like-for-like” strategy rather than anything remotely resembling genuine engagement.

Step 4: Ask Them for Metrics Themselves

While the success of a brand campaign doesn’t entirely rest on an influencer, businesses are within their right to ask a candidate what they’ve done for other companies. If you’re investing that time and energy into someone, you want to make sure they can actually deliver on their promises.

Some metrics to account for: followers gained for the brand during the campaign, referral traffic generated, comparison statistics between posts associated with the influencer against more traditional posts.

Asking for metrics shouldn’t come as a shock to any influencer or brand ambassador. And if their numbers are *actually* good, they’ll probably be happy sharing them with your brand.

Be wary of any aspiring influencer who delays in getting those numbers to you or emphasizes shallow figures like an overall follower account.

Why should normal people care?

Maybe you don’t run a business. Maybe you just follow along with people’s lives as a sort of vicarious fun.

But when a critical eye is disregarded for the sake of “feel good”-ness, average Instagram users lose out. The lose out on confidence. They lose sight of reality. They lose the understanding that social media is a carefully curated lifestyle. And that those accounts that swear they’re “honest and real” with followers are often the ones with the biggest pile of secrets.

In the case of Caroline Calloway, hundreds of people lost $165 each because they trusted an influencer who established her “career” on a lie.

The account used in this demonstration might not advertise a “creativity workshop” or even promote anything beyond the same recycled thoughts one would find on Tumblr.

But the existence of fake followers — intentionally purchased affirmations of good content — should signal something more disturbing to followers of this account and others like it.

It shows them two things:

  1. Human followers aren’t enough for the “influencer”. Human engagement isn’t enough. Numbers matter more. That should be disheartening to anyone who was tricked into believing said influencer truly cared about her audience. Despite her telling her followers they’re “enough” and matter, the presence of fake followers says otherwise.
  2. Narcissism and vanity fed by social media metrics mean the content probably won’t help an audience. How much of an “influence” can people really have when they’re too busy posting more selfies supported by more fake followers?

It’s up to business owners and marketing directors to take the impetus from these bot-generating, fake-influencer spawning companies and redirect it into content creators who genuinely develop and care for their followers. Shedding more light on the issue will encourage more up-and-coming social media personalities to repent from their internet sins.

*This thought-provoking look into the dredges of Instagram “authenticity”from Petah Raven is an excellent read.

**If you’re an international company or nationally known, there’s a bigger need for any influencer to be aligned with both your company’s values and industry. (Prime Example: Gymshark, a fitness clothing brand based in the UK, does a really great job of picking out and grooming their influencers.)

Shelby Rogers

Written by

Orlando-based Content Marketer and Social Media Consultant with @DigitalUsAgency // Sometimes I write the funny things. Sometimes I write the serious things.

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