The murky world of fake Instagram influencers!

If there is one social platform that has grown far more exponentially than any of its rivals, it is undoubtedly Instagram. Though a very late entrant compared to FB, twitter, blog etc, Instagram’s success as a platform is probably attributed to one thing- simplicity, ease of content creation and consumption. Consider this:
  • Writing a blog post is lots of effort- you’ve to ideate, draft, curate, add photos/videos, publish and hope people come and read.
  • Twitter is shorter, but still needs effort to think what to type- there should be some substance in the few lines you put it- so is not easy
  • Youtube is also effort intensive- to ideate, shoot, edit, upload, publish etc
But Instagram is lot simple- all it takes is a photo- everyone has smartphone, there’re 100s of things around us to click, so some decent photo, few hashtags and your content is ready. (Note: To be fair, I have seen few instagram users putting lots of effort into their photos- like editing them extensively for maximum impact- Lots of respect for them, but majority would only use built in filters and basic edit options) Even for content consumers it is lot easier- one look and you can figure out what the photo is about and if you like it or not- other mediums like blog posts, youtube videos take time to read/view, understand and form an opinion.

Thus within short span, Instagram managed to grab lots of users- both content creators and consumers and gain crown as a preferred platform for the youth.

With its popularity came commercialization- an attempt to make money from Instagram-by individuals, by PR agencies, by brands (indirectly by selling through Instagram). Follower count became an easy and crucial measure of one's popularity based on which lots of things-selection of influencer for collaboration, amount to be paid everything got pivoted.

So far so good. But human greed has no limits- there’re always some people ready to try short cuts, outsmart the system and use it for their personal advantage and of course to make more money.

Within short time, many individuals rose to stardom in Instagram, where follower count is your primary measure of success.

With my limited knowledge, below are different ways to grow your follower count
1. Provide good quality content, hope to get noticed, gain more followers- This is best, honest and legal way but it is painstakingly slow process and success is not guaranteed, hence very less tempting approach for many.
2. Follow lots of people, hope many of them follow you back. After sometime unfollow those who are not following you back-Not illegal as such, though platforms impose limits on how many people you can follow in a day etc. This works for many- do this repeatedly and rigorously for 3-6 months or longer and you may get to boast a significant number of followers. Many people I know of have done this- once they reach significant count of followers they often stop this and focus on monetizing their popularity. It is not illegal, but there’s a belief that real stars are supposed to have much more followers than they are following- thus to have a more appealing ratio of followers vs following, these people are forced to unfollow some people they are following and hope they don’t get detected- once those unfollowed people realize what has happened they may return the favor and the vicious cycle repeats.
3. Attract followers through various promotional activities- giveaways, contests, cross promotion on other platforms and so on- fully legal, may take some investment and effort. Lots of people with free time ready to follow half a dozen accounts for a remote chance of winning something, so this approach can boost your follower count, but depending on how successfully you market your giveaway. Fair assuming you do give away real prizes to some real winners.
4. Optimization: Understanding how Instagram works and having a plan to make the most of it- like what time to post, right set of hashtags, tagging relevant people/brands, doing more stories for better visibility, liking and commenting on other users with a hope that they will return the favor and so on. Needs lots of time and effort but helps get bit more visibility and hopefully more followers. Nothing wrong but not good enough to exponentially increase your followers count.

Meanwhile, many enterprising individuals/group of individuals have come with innovative ways to make money from follower hungry ‘instagram influencers’
5. Pay to get featured- there are many accounts that are focused on certain themes- by cities, by topic and so on. These accounts promise to repost/promote you on their account for a fee, supposedly help you get more visibility and followers. Rates vary depending on multitude of factors and lots of people fall for this.
6. Joining PODs- There are many closed/secret communities of like-minded influencers who help each other- like, comment share each other’s post mandatory, so that to an outsider, it looks like someone is having lots of engagement in their account. Unless they analyse closely, they may never figure out that it is fabricated.
7. Fake it till you Make it- here’s a story of lots of instagramers faking brand promotions- even if a brand doesn’t pay you, pose as if you’re hired by the brand to promote them. This is done with a hope that this fake promotion catches attention of other brands/PR agencies and they may get some real deals later. 
8. Deception- Sex sells everywhere, instagram included- show more skin and you will get more likes or followers. Nothing illegal about it and whether is it right or wrong is left to every individual's judgment. Many other forms of deception involves buying an already popular account and using it for yourself, using photos lifted from elsewhere and so on
9. Buy followers in bulk- since number is everything and organic growth may take decades, an easy short cut was to buy followers in bulk. Some individuals/companies would create thousands of fake accounts (known as bots) and make these bots follow whoever pays to buy followers.

Understanding the money involved in Instagram campaigns
Though I am not privy to exact numbers, instagram campaigns are believed to be more lucrative than other mediums like blogs. This news says Priya Varrier (wink girl) is believed to be charging INR 8 lakhs for instagram promotion of brands. She has 6.3 million+ followers. Many popular instagram influencers with 300-400k followers are said to be charging as high as INR 30-50k per instagram post. Even those with 100k followers make decent money- couple of well paying campaigns per month is enough to match or exceed salary of a seasoned software professionals, with not even 2% of the time, effort or skill required. Check this post for more details on how much influencers quote internationally. Thus with the kind of money involved, competition is also fierce and desire to bag more deals by hook or crook is also paramount. Payout is typically directly proportionate to followers count which make matters worse.

Why instagramers started buying followers?
I can think of many reasons- partly greed, partly compulsion
  1. Many brands and agencies started declaring a cut off followers count, even to begin a conversation (like minimum 10k followers)- This would immediately disqualify lots of genuine people outright, so some of them figured out if they can buy some followers to bridge the gap.
  2. Many individuals are making a living out of Instagram- no other job/source of income- full time on instagram- promoting brands on Instagram is their bread and butter- hence maintaining higher follower count than other competing ‘influencers’ fighting for same business became crucial. Doing the right thing and growing organically would have taken ages and they would be sidelined by others- thus idea of spending part of the money earned back on Instagram to boost follower count became part and parcel of life. 
  3. No fear of getting caught- Probably during the initial days no one thought they will ever be caught. It was a new platform, buying followers could be done secretively without having disclose or anyone knowing. With the kind of money and fame involved, small expenditure and short cut was probably considered harmless. Only recently that awareness about fake followers is growing, shaking the foundation of those who built an empire on the basis of purchased popularity
  4. Easy money-Invest 10k INR, buy 1 lakh followers, start earning 50k INR+ per month almost immediately from brands (hypothetical numbers, hopefully close to reality)- is a very easy and tempting proposition, than slogging for years to grow a profile organically while seeing all opportunities slip away
  5. Indifference/indirect support from PR agencies- Many PR agencies that advise brands and coordinate with influencers have been turning a blind eye to all the unethical practices-Their core objective is to show a bunch of metrics to brands and show that they managed to create lots of buzz around the product/service/event. Most brands were either unaware or ignorant to fake engagements generated. When no one has any concerns then why stop? 
A simple search reveals many websites openly selling instagram followers- a screenshot for reference
What happens after you buy followers?
Buying followers is usually a continuous process, not a one time activity. Following will happen
  • You start losing some of the followers, so may have to buy again
  • Your competition is also buying followers, so you may have to buy even more followers
  • There is always someone else with more followers, so to reach the top, you need to buy more followers
  • It is not enough if you just buy followers- you’ve to buy likes, views and comments, because brands/PRs have started checking engagement levels as well.
Why Instagram users would start losing followers?
There could be multitude of reasons:
  • Platforms like Instagram are regularly analyzing accounts and de-activating those found to be fake or violating terms and conditions. As your bot followers are killed, your count drops
  • I believe people who sell followers will also slowly trigger unfollow activity after some time- else how will they get repeat business? Fake influencers don't have a way to track this and fight with seller of followers. It is like you pay a street peddler for drugs and he supplies you poor quality drugs- you can’t go to cops complaining someone sold me poor quality drug- you’ve to suffer in silence or spend more to buy more drugs. Same with losing followers. As long as an influencer is able to earn lots of easy money from brands he/she wouldn’t mind spending a part of it to keep buying followers- the vicious cycle continues
  • Remember people unfollowing others either because they are not being followed back OR because they want to improve the ration- your followers may stop following for similar reasons
  • Real people unfollow other users for a range of personal reasons- not liking the content, offending contents and so on
So what next in the world of Instagram influencer marketing?
Obviously nothing lasts forever. Particularly fake things. I believe some sort of correction process has begin. Consider below
  1. Some accounts like Diet Influencer are actively hunting down fake influencers who have purchased large quantities of followers- by calling them out, by tagging brands they work with, by making evidence of purchase public, I am sure a wave of fear has been propagated among the fake influencers. Only time will tell how this will end- will the fake influencers figure out newer ways to con everyone, will they be forced to give up and come clean, will brands exercise better due diligence? We need to see. At least 3 people whom I have met have been flagged by Diet Influencer till date.
  2. Tools are available to analyze an Instagram account- by checking various measures, it is possible to sense if an influencer has been purchasing followers, likes and comments.
  3. The early days of brands not knowing much about influencer marking and trusting PR agencies/influencers blindly is fading. Brand people have begun to ask for metrics, evidence, stats and do more scrutiny, due diligence than before- this has only begun and should pick up momentum as awareness increases. Hopefully every brand starts doing and begins to boycott those found to resort to unethical ways. Read this Indian Express news
  4. I am seeing some PRs explicitly call out stating only with real followers should approach them. This is a good development- hope everyone does the same 

The impact of everyone buying followers
  • Genuine people who chose not to buy followers and rely on organic growth are sidelined and denied all opportunities.
  • Brands realize super late that money they pumped in isn't resulting in any actual sales or ROI- whatever reach, engagement promised/shown to them was fake/artificial-makes them lose faith in influencer marketing in general
  • More n more fake things begin to dominate a platform, more n more genuine users move away from it- not good for the platform either
How to detect fake influencers on instagram?
It is not that difficult- a bit of probing nature, use of right tools and a fair portion of common sense/general awareness is adequate to sense if an influencer is genuine or a potential fake. Below steps should help
  1. Check the content- are they exciting? Unique? Would you follow them for these photos/content?
  2. Check account holder’s real life identity- check their LinkedIn profile or google their name- Is their popularity solely limited to online accounts or do they seem to have some expertise, experience and skills in their field outside of Instagram world? Have they done anything special/noteworthy in real life that would make lots of real people follow them? If promoting brands on Instagram is their full time activity, you've to wonder how exactly did they qualify for this or what made them popular
  3. Check comments- is there a real humanly conversation happening there or it is a bunch of generic comments and 'thank you's? Are same set of followers commenting on all posts or if there is a variation-those users who are commenting a lot- do they seem legitimate or their account also looks suspicious- these observations will give some hints
  4. Check if Diet Influencer has featured them- if the account in question is caught and published by Diet Influencer under their #Youtoo campaign, we can conclude with reasonable certainty that they are fake. Of course, do your due diligence and double confirm if you feel like.
  5. Check tools like Social Blade to analyse their follower count- are they adding large number of followers at regular intervals? One word of caution- addition of followers doesn’t always mean it is purchased, but the magnitude of jump, frequency without any real life justification is what triggers an alert. For example, if you win an award that was shown on national TV or newspaper, many genuine individuals may follow you next day, which is legitimate. But without any reason one day there’s addition of 10000 followers, it is a cause for concern. No one will admit they bought followers, no one can prove foolproof someone bought followers, but reasonable conclusions can be made based on data. Few other tools you can use are this and this- there're many more online. There're many more tools and solutions to monitor your influencer marketing performance more effectively- such as Qoruz
Please note that there will always be some false positives- for example, a genuine person might have created an account, followed you and then stopped using Instagram- an analytics tool may count such account as fake due to no activity. Similarly at times bots follow real/genuine accounts as well, so that they look more legitimate. So a small % of fake followers might happen without an influencer soliciting them. So always use your best judgment.

What can you do as an individual/follower?
  1. Support initiatives like Diet Influencer to spread awareness, help identify more n more fake influencers
  2. If you know of or when you come across genuine content creators who may not have large follower numbers, do show some love by liking, following etc. Appreciating and supporting genuine people goes a long way in discouraging fake influencers.
  3. Before working with someone do better due diligence to assess if they have purchased popularity
  4. If possible question fake influencers on their deeds, if you can’t, unfollow them. More awareness and probing should hopefully discourage them from continuing
Internet is a very dynamic world- what’s hot and happening today will be obsolete tomorrow. Will Instagram remain popular over next 4-5 years? Will something else come up and take its place- only time will tell. Each wannable influencer has to choose between two paths- one- the right and honest path- Maintain your reputation, don’t resort to unethical shortcuts and stay strong for long term benefits or option 2-make the most of now- take every short-cut available at your disposal, make maximum money while you can but risk being exposed and potentially alienated once your wrong deeds are discovered.

Intention of this post is not to target anyone as an individual. If you’ve purchased followers and likes you know it best than anyone else and have options to come clean or correct yourself. Idea of this post is to spread awareness about unethical practices adopted by few, that is affecting a larger community and even general public and brands.

On a personal note I don’t have a great story to tell about my Instagram account (@enidhi) - I was little late when I created an account and over past 2 years or so I only have about 1200 followers. I am not actively promoting my Instagram account or doing anything specific to boost my followers-only thing I am doing at the moment is follow people who follow me-after checking that their account seem to be genuine. With a full time job, I am not relying on my social accounts for a living. My main focus is still on my blog, with only a small portion of time being spent on other mediums. You may follow me on Instagram here if you like my content.

Thanks for your support for this article. Do share your thoughts!

A related news of people ordering cloths just for instagram pic and then returning them

Similar posts: 10 trends that should worry every blogger * Dynamics of expecting brands to pay bloggers * 12 Years of blogging *

19 comments:

  1. The trouble is that it seems brands don't care. Social Blade gives a good idea about sudden change in followership and yet nobody seems to care. I recently stumbled upon the Diet Influencer account and social blade and I was amazed at the tomfoolery that is going on!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, I guess it will take time for brands to realize how they are being taken for a ride- earlier lots of brands paid people to put specific tweets at specific time so that certain hashtag can trend- now that seem to have gone, as everyone realizes trending for a while has no real impact- Instra promotions will eventually correct over time I hope

      Delete
  2. OMG ! Great post , having full of knowledge for the business man.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks- not full knowledge- some information are not in public domain, so we have to make some guesses or reasonable assumptions. Open to more inputs if readers have them

      Delete
  3. Thanks to Diet Influencer, so many fakester accounts have been highlighted! It is high time brands realise that such fake numbers of so called influencers arent leading to any marketing goal fulfilment!

    ReplyDelete
  4. So many times I have been denied an opportunity because a blogger who has more insta followers (fake of course ) was chosen. So I am fighting the system, sending more profiles for diet influencer to feature and sending a msg to brands abt these ppl too

    ReplyDelete
  5. This post have enriched my knowledge about Instagram and the activities happening there.
    You have explained and discussed it all and its really very helpful.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Great to read, Very informative post on Instagram.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Really nice article. You seem to have summarized the pain of individuals like us who are trying so hard to make an impact.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Wonderful post. Instagram is a bubble waiting to burst.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Hi,
    I just tested the hypeauditor service right now from your article, seems a very nice tool but expensive also. For now i use https://evoig.com for auditing instagram accounts but it dosen't have as many options as hypeauditor, do you have a list of services who can provide instagram audit at a lower price?
    Thanks

    ReplyDelete

Appreciate your efforts and interests to comment. Comments may be moderated due to increased spam. Will ideally respond to comments within few days.Use Anonymous option if you don't wish to leave your name/ID behind- Shrinidhi

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