Instagram Fakes, Phonies and the Fallout for Marketers
A stroll down Canal St. in lower Manhattan, is the quintessential NYC tourist experience. As you shuffle past endless vendors with unbelievable deals you can’t help but get caught up in the energy. It is an energy that can only come from fast-paced hand to hand “street commerce”.
Displays crammed with products litter the sidewalk. Managed by fast-talking vendors with big stories and low prices. This is ground zero for America's counterfeit market. It is a cornucopia of luxury items: purses, shoes, watches that on the surface, look legit but are in fact fake.
Can you tell the difference in the stitching on a brand name purse versus a counterfeit? Is a leather belt less effective if the iconic D&G stands for something other than Dolce & Gabbana? The reality is that fake products are disingenuous. You are paying for what you believe to be an authentic experience but are being duped by bad actors looking to exploit that authenticity. And that is not right!
Today marketers have to navigate their own version of Canal Street. Here the products are people! Instagram influencers who have amassed audiences that brands want to access. But how does one know if those followers are legitimate human fans, vs counterfeit followers.
Let’s take the case of a fake purse. If you get lured into buying a counterfeit designer purse at least you get a stylish vessel to store your sunglasses and tiny bottles of wine in (I’m not judging). But, in the case of fake followers, you get nothing! And that is why all marketers should be infuriated with the fake Instagram followers who have the potential to poison the influencer marketing industry for everyone.
Likely you have heard about the fake follower issues facing social media marketing. Fake influencer follower fraud will cost companies $1..3 billion in 2019. Yes with a "B"! In this article, I want to put forth some concrete examples that illustrate how this is a real problem that you likely face every day, and might not realize it. We will end by talking about some data you can use to help determine if your next influencers will be a bust.
Why Real People Buy Fake Followers
Given how disingenuous it is to purchase a fake audience it is easy to write this off as a tactic solely for crooks and scam artists. But, the reality is that very real, normal, predominantly honest people get caught up in the allure of quickly growing a sizeable following on Instagram. Here is why.
Winning the Popularity Contest
Below is a quote (I swear this is word for word) from Stormlikes, a website that openly encourages users to: “Buy Genuine & Selected Instagram Likes, Followers and Views”. This language is designed to justify why someone would buy fake followers and silence the cognitive dissonance tapping away at an influencer’s ethics.
“The logic is that – people require proof that you are popular before they do the needful. They believe that you are popular if they see that your Instagram post has a lot of views and this come with a great help in increasing your likes and comments of each post in your Instagram and also Instagram accounts followers. People will follow your account immediately they see many views on your Instagram posts. The video or image’s views also make the post more popular both on this platform and on the search engines”. “Why should I buy Instagram Views? - Stormlikes Blog (2019)
Despite the poor grammar, you can see how this message would resonate with a new creator who is trying to get their Instagram channel off the ground. It isn’t crazy for them to think that “Having more followers legitimizes me and my Instagram account, leading to more followers”. Many honest people probably justify buying followers as a victimless crime. They will do it just once to get their channel some early momentum. But where does it stop?
Faking It Is Cost Effective
The cost of acquiring fraudulent followers isn’t expensive at all. Hootsuite has a great blog about fake Instagram followers. In the Hootsuite article they discuss how buying fake followers “can be quite cheap, with many services charging around $3 USD for every 100 followers. But you get what you pay for. In most cases that’s bots and zombie accounts (inactive accounts that have been taken over by bots). There are also more expensive options that charge upwards of $1,000 for 10,000 followers. Those services maintain active accounts that will interact with your own”. I've included the logos to just a fraction of the fake follower services I came across in my research (ahhh obviously for this Blog and not my personal Instagram account).
I personally investigated a couple of these Follower Farms to learn just how much fake followers cost. One such website is Famoid. The website was notable for the audacious tagline: “Meet The New Way of Becoming a Famous!” (once again a word for word quote from their site).
So at the risk of giving my computer a virtual STD I ventured into their website to show you what they charge for fake followers. You can see the Famoid pricing card below.
Now I’m no mathema-scientiest but to me this means you can buy an audience of 10,000 followers for $159.50!
As a marketer this should be terrifying to you.
Influencer market rates are all over the map but let’s take just one example from an agency like Tinuiti. Their blog suggest that influencers could make $1,000 per 100,000 followers off of a single post. Even if this rate is inflated, it is easy to see how the economics work out for the influencer. Pay, $1595 to buy 100,000 followers and start making $1000 per post!
If you think that you are outsmarting the fraudsters by focusing on engagement (Likes and Comments) I have bad news for you. Influencers can just as easily purchase those. This is a pricing chart from the aforementioned Stormlikes that shows the cost of buying hundreds of likes on a specific post.
If you pay an influencer hundreds of dollars for a couple of Post and Stories, it makes sense for them to take a small percentage of that money to buy the Likes and Comments that will keep you happy and wanting to work with them again.
Instagram’s Own Incentive
So we have already reviewed a number of reasons why a genuine person would be enticed to buy fake followers:
- look popular in their market
- legitimize their Instagram channel
- get and keep paid advertisers
There is an additional reason that would compel influencers to purchase followers: Instagram itself.
Instagram has reserved an important influencer feature for only those Instagram accounts with more than 10,000 followers - Swipe Up in Instagram Stories. This feature is critically important to creators who need to be able to share an advertisers URL or call to action inside a promoted Instagram story. Every marketer in the world is looking to connect the dots between advertising and action. Swipe Up linking in an Instagram story is one of the best ways to calculate that attribution. But you need at least 10,000 followers to access this feature. This creates the ultimate Chicken v. Egg for influencers. No wonder people are enticed to pay a few hundred dollars to increase their followers and unlock this important Instagram feature.
How big is the problem?
Do you think buying fake followers is an anomaly?
Before researching this blog I had never heard of companies like Famoid or Stormlikes, but somebody has, as evidenced by the staggering monthly visits these fraudsters get to their websites.
Famoid, with their promise of a “New Way of Becoming a Famous” (again, actual quote from the website not a typo), is regularly driving over 2 million visitors per month! Even the lesser known Stormlikes is driving around 150,000 visits per month. Is your website driving this much monthly traffic? Me neither.
Bonus Trivia: Can you guess which countries are driving the overwhelming bulk of Famoid and Stormlikes visitors?
That’s right, the most important markets for the Instagram influencer industry are also the ones driving the most traffic to Fake Follower Sites. I share these statistics simply to illustrate how prevalent this problem is in our own backyard.
This should be a wake up call for marketers everywhere, as Famoid and Stormlikes are only a couple of players among the dozens of companies offering fake Instagram Follower services.
The Storm that's Brewing:
Those of us on the front lines of Influencer Marketing likely feel a storm on the horizon. Brought about by two market realities: Follower count matters to most influencers and there are dozens of low cost services that can help influencers fraudulently increase their follower count and even engagement rates.
It’s like if I were a prisoner in jail (for a crime that I obviously did NOT commit), and the prison canteen sold low cost shovels and ladders. I know I’m not supposed to buy those items to try and escape but it really would be tempting.
With low cost and tangible benefits you can see why people would purchase, at least some, of their followers. Whether it is to increase their rates, gain attention or simply access the Instagram story swipe feature, influencers are tempted to buy fake followers.
The real problem facing marketers is that these creators have built empty channels that advertisers are paying for! The most likely scenario is that an influencer bought some followers and are driving some organic growth. That still means a portion of the audience being accessed by brands is fake.
While I am not currently in a position to speculate how much of the industry is fraudulent we would be naive as marketers if we did not suspect that this dramatically impacts the influencer campaigns we all run today. Thankfully there are some steps we can take to protect ourselves from paying for fraudulent followers, we simply need to look at the numbers that matter most.
Protecting Yourself Against Fraudulent Followers
The truest information about an Influencer comes directly from Instagram. Every influencer with a Instagram Business or Creator account can see exactly how many people viewed their content. This reporting is called Instagram Insights.
The reality of Instagram content is that someone physically needs to scroll down their Instagram feed in order to be counted as an impression. While they don’t disclose their technology, Facebook appears to be working hard to ensure they are providing the most accurate information possible. As I mentioned this information is referred to as Instagram Insights.
The challenge is this: the critical information, that could tell you if someone with thousands of followers is only reaching a fraction of that audience, is owned by the influencer themselves. It’s like if you suspected your business partner was stealing from you, yet they were the only one with the password to the banking account. This creates a bit of a stand off!
Demand to See the Insights Data
When a marketer hires an influencer they deserve to see those Instagram Insights. I insist that any influencer we hire at Socialpeeks must make their Instagram Insights available. You should be able to look at the true results of their last posts in order to predict what will likely happen when they create content for your upcoming campaign. That is why our Socialpeeks Influencer Reports use the Instagram insights from the influencers last 25 post. This historical data allows us to calculates averages, that are useful to predict their future performance and covers a wider range of their content.
Across our campaigns Socialpeeks Influencer Account Reports have shown us Influencers who have had over 32,847 followers but are only reaching little more than 3658 people on their average post.
At the same time Socialpeeks analyzed an account (a photographer from Hawaii) with 5149 followers who reaches 24,359 people with his average post. That is crazy!
When you hire an influencer you are not just hiring their talents as a content creator, you are also buying access to the audience they built. The only way to have visibility into this audience is to request the Instagram Insights from the people you are considering to work with. I would also go a step further and request the Instagram Insights from the post that you have paid for so that you can see first hand how that content performed. You can request screen shots from the influencer's phone or at Socialpeeks we automatically track the campaign Post and Stories so we can see the Instagram Insights for ourselves in a live report.
If your influencer campaign isn’t converting at the rate you expected, it could simply be that a significant portion of the audience you are paying to access doesn’t really exist. Your campaign could actually be converting just fine but reaching a smaller audience than you thought.
Weathering the Storm
Influencer marketing can be amazing. The fake follower market is an unfortunate side effect of what has become a revolution in media and advertising. Some of the best content I watch each week isn’t being created by Hollywood or some Media Conglomerate. It is being created by amazing social media personalities who have a small but engaged audience and now have the platform to speak directly to that audience around the world...basically for free. (Thank you Facebook and Instagram).
The world of influencer marketing can be as chaotic as Canal Street at rush hour. Marketers can’t afford to bury their heads in the sand and take things at face value. The reality is that even the most genuine Instagram influencer isn’t reaching 100% of their followers all the time. If we know there is a good chance that some influencers have purchased a portion of their audience, we must go the extra step to examine the best information available...,and that is often the Instagram Insights from their account.
We have to strive for a future where marketers negotiate influencer contracts based on true reach and impressions and not the antiquated vanity metric (follower count). Only then will we get the deals we bargained for.
Author's note: I'd love to hear your opinion. Have you seen results different than I have OR do you have similar experiences? Are there some wild follower farms that I should have included? What is the most outrageous fake influencer story you have seen? I would love to hear from you so leave a comment and keep the discussion going.