A Question of Value
How do you determine the “value” of something? What actually goes into determining something’s worth, usefulness or importance. These questions are complex enough in the context of something tangible like a new car or vacation. But what if the product is a person, and their social media following?
The question of “value” is something that marketers who work in influencer marketing wrestle with every day. One creator is asking for $500 while another is asking for $1000. How does a marketer determine if either of those prices are good “value”? All too often marketers mistakenly use Follower Count to determine value.
In this article, I am going to use real Instagram data from a recent campaign to shine a light on the difference between followers and true Reach on Instagram. We will also look at the Micro-influencer category - where smaller influencers might actually be more valuable than larger ones.
Note: this article contains real Instagram Data from influencers, all names and faces have been redacted for privacy reasons.
Two True Stories of Misguided Value
The first story takes place on a Sunday in Isleworth, a small town that sits a little over an hour’s drive from London, England. It is the early 1980’s and a woman is visiting a charity flea market (in England they call it a Car Boot Sale). The market is being hosted by the West Middlesex Hospital as a fundraiser.
The lady browses the rows of second hand junk when she stumbles across a very large ring. The diamond setting is laughably large. It looks more like costume jewelry than a serious fashion accessory. The price is $13 and the money is going towards a good cause, so she purchases the ring.
Despite being cheep costume jewelry, it turns out that the lady really likes the ring and proceeds to wear it regularly. She doesn't wear it on fancy occasions, due to its ridiculous size. Instead, over the next 30 years she wears this ring for the most mundane moments in life, shopping, working, running errands.
If you suspect where this story is going...you’re right. It turns out the diamond wasn’t fake costume jewelry. It was a very real 26-carat diamond that was cut in the 19th century. In 2017, this ring was auctioned off by Sotheby’s for $849,740.
Our second story takes place at the Czech National Museum in Prague. In 2018 the museum conducted an audit of their collections. Two of their prized stones were thought to be worth millions. One of the artifacts was a 5-carat diamond acquired by the museum in 1968. Another was a 19-carat sapphire bought by the museum in 1978.
After scientific inspection it turned out that the 5-carat diamond was nothing more than a worthless piece of cut glass and the 19-carat sapphire was a synthetic, worth only a tiny fraction of its estimated value. What the Czech National Museum thought was worth millions was worthless.
In influencer marketing we are often looking for diamonds in the rough. Marketers spend countless hours evaluating Instagram accounts in hopes that the quality of their content and their engaged audiences will bring value to a brand. But how do we know if an Influencer is in fact valuable? The common mindset is that bigger is better. Someone with more Instagram followers will drive more impressions resulting in better advertising value. But, in a world of fake followers and Instagram algorithms do we really know who is valuable and who is not?
Instagram Followers vs True Reach
You Need to Consider Instagram’s Algorithm-Driven Feed
Back in the summer of 2016 Instagram (by then owned by Facebook) made a decision that would change everything, for everyone, forever!
Instead of users viewing the post of those they follow in chronological order Instagram switched to an algorithm-driven feed, “ordered to show the moments we believe you will care about the most”.
Instagram felt that this change would ensure the best, most meaningful content would “be waiting for you when you wake up”. While this may indeed be true let’s not lose sight of what this change ultimately means: Instagram now controls what post people see. Just because you are following someone does not mean that you will be served their latest post. Especially if you don’t scroll deeply into your feed.
Why is this Instagram change so important to marketers working in influencer marketing? Because marketers frequently speak as if someone’s follower count is the “gospel truth” and represents the number of people a brand will reach with each influencer’s Instagram post. It is not!
The truth is that a mystery Instagram algorithm is determining if/when a post is served to the followers of that person. This means that only a fraction of a creator’s followers could be seeing their posts. Yet, most creators are signing campaign contracts based on follower count. Brands are wasting money trying to reach followers who may never see their #sponsored post.
If you haven’t read my previous blog on influencer fraud I encourage you to check it out. The bottom line is, Instagram fraud is very real and very easy to perpetrate. During my research for that blog I found several services that could give you 10,000 fake Instagram followers for as little as $150.00. When you think about the money some influencers are charging based on their follower count it is pretty easy to see how buying fake followers is a tempting trick that many, many, many, influencers fall prey to.
Whether it is due to fake followers OR Instagram’s algorithm, it is critical for everyone to understand that Follower count does not equate directly to actual reach. In the sections below you will see first hand how the number of people reached by an Instagram post swings wildly from account to account.
But don’t take my word for it, let’s look at the actual Instagram data from a real campaign and see for yourself. Throughout this article I am going to focus on the metrics I believe to be critical to Influencer Marketing:
- True Reach: How many people on Instagram actually see your content
- True Reach % = [True Reach / follower count] x 100
There are two questions I want to address in this article:
- Does someone’s follower size predict how well their content performs on Instagram?
- Are there any predictors of True Reach on Instagram?
Note: Socialpeeks also collected Instagram Stories from this campaign, but that is analysis for another article.
To examine true reach on Instagram we will be using organic Instagram data from a recent health and wellness campaign executed by Socialpeeks. None of these posts were boosted with paid promotion. We are simply looking at the Instagram Insights for organic posts from each influencers account.
(This research is possible because www.socialpeeks.com allows marketers to create a private-secure connection directly to the Instagram accounts of the influencers they hire).
The influencers in this campaign were all recruited to create original Instagram post showcasing a new health beverage. Influencers all live in the same country and were given the exact same product to promote, and published their post over the same 3 week period.
This campaign recruited 10 influencers who’s follower count ranged from a max of 60,923 to 425. The average follower count across all 10 influencers was 10,701.
The influencer’s campaign post consisted of images of them, usually in workout gear, sitting in some interesting lifestyle inspired place, showcasing the product.
The Micro-influencer Advantage
Below are three examples of campaign posts from Influencers who have follower counts of 1,267, 8,633 and 60,923 respectively. The posts are shown in a Socialpeeks report that includes important metrics on how the post performed. The report metrics are explained below:
Expected: This column represents the Basic Numbers we can see on Instagram. Total follower count, Likes and Comments from the post that can be viewed on Instagram.
Instagram Insights: This column contains the actual Instagram Insights from the influencers account.
% of Expected: The percentage of Instagram Insights Column divided by the Expected Column.
By looking at the results from 3 different campaign posts you can see the dramatic variance across influencers.
Influencer A: 1,267 followers
In this campaign, an influencer with one of the lowest follower counts actually reached 112% of their potential audience. How is this possible? Remember the Instagram Algorithm we discussed earlier, well Instagram must have decided to serve this post, in the Search feed, to people who don’t even follow this creator! People following #hashtags or other search criteria could have also discovered this post.
Influencer B: 8,633 followers
A creator with 8,633 followers reached 3,776 people i.e. 43.74% of their audience. This is actually a pretty healthy reach percentage.
BONUS TOPIC: True engagement rate
What is also interesting is that if we use the standard industry method to calculate engagement rate (engagement / follower count) this influencer would get an engagement rate of 2.43%. But this is completely wrong! The truth is that less than half of their followers got to see this post. This means the true engagement is more than double 5.77%. It is safe to say that the entire influencer industry is underestimating Instagram engagement rates.
Influencer C: 60,923 followers
Here is the most interesting result. The influencer with the largest following reached a tiny fraction of their audience with their post. They have a following of 60,923 but one of their campaign posts only reached 2,074 people! This is concerning because influencers with larger followings typically negotiate higher rates. Which means, not only is their true reach on Instagram poor, marketers overpaid to get these poor results.
If we look at the entire list we can see that the smaller Micro-influencers tended to reach a higher percentage of their Expected Following. In this campaign, the two influencers with the largest followings actually reached the smallest percentage of their followers.
Does this mean that the larger influencers bought fake followers? Maybe. Does it mean that the Instagram algorithm preferred the micro-influencer post and served it to more people? Maybe.
The Instagram Insights only show us what happened, they don’t show us why they happen. But there is a noticeable trend where Micro-influencer appear to be more valuable than they may appear on the surface, and the opposite can be said for larger influencers.
What I can tell you is that these results were predictable...
Instagram Influencer Fortune Telling
It is safe to assume, that after looking at the data from this campaign you can see that there is an enormous variance between Follower Count and True Reach on Instagram.
The question most marketers are now asking themselves is “how do we look past Follower Count and find the influencers who will actually deliver the best results? The secrecy of Instagram’s algorithm makes it impossible to know exactly how an influencer’s post will perform but at Socialpeeks we have noticed two trends that can predict campaign success.
Engagement Rate Predicts Instagram Reach
At Socialpeeks we use our Instagram Analyzer to evaluate Instagram accounts before we do deeper Instagram Insights driven analysis (I’ll mention this in the next section). After dozens of influencer campaigns we have noticed that there appears to be a correlation between engagement rate percentages AND true reach on Instagram.
This makes sense, as someone with a ton of fake followers won’t be getting ongoing likes and comments on their content. In addition, if someone is producing great content they are likely getting better engagement rates which could factor into Instagram’s algorithm thus increasing your True Reach.
Below you can see our 3 previous influencer examples and their engagement rates as calculated by the Socialpeeks Instagram Analyzer.
Influencer A with only 1200 followers who reached 112% of their audience also had the highest engagement rate at 19.4%
Influencer B with 8,600 followers and reached 43% of their audience had an engagement rate of 5.2%.
Here is the complete list of campaign influencers and their True Reach Rate and Engagement rate.
There is a clear pattern here, Influencers with higher engagement rates reached a higher percentage of their Followers on Instagram than those that had low engagement rates.
NOTE: With the news that Instagram is removing like count from the app it is important to know that you can still use the Socialpeeks Instagram Analyzer to calculate engagement rates even after Instagram removes the Like counts.
Historical Instagram Insights
Unsurprisingly, in influencer’s past performance on Instagram is a great predictor of future performance. That is why Socialpeeks creates influencer reporting that looks at an influencer’s last 25 posts and provides an average of their True Reach on Instagram.
It turns out that someone's historical Instagram reach rate is an amazing predictor for how their campaign content will eventually perform. Below is the reach % for each influencer in this campaign and how that compared to their historical Reach Rate as calculated by Socialpeeks.
There is very little variance between how someone performed historically and how their campaign content performed. That is why we encourage every marketer to look at the historical reach rate BEFORE you negotiate and recruit your final list of campaign influencers.
By looking at an influencer’s Instagram Insights you can get the best sense of their true Value!
At the very least marketers need to be aware that Instagram’s Algorithm plays a major factor in who sees content on Instagram. Simply having followers is NOT enough.
Let’s go back to the concept of Value. How do you know if you are getting good value from your Instagram influencer campaign? We know that Instagram influencers frequently negotiate their rates based on their follow size. We also know that follower count on its own is a very unreliable metric. So what can marketers do?
- Pay close attention to an Instagram accounts average engagement rates. This number can be a predictor of true reach on Instagram.
- Demand access to an influencers Instagram Insights. This is the truest information about their account and you deserve to see them. Either demand screen shots from their phone or use Socialpeeks which creates a private secure bridge between marketers and the Instagram accounts of the influencers they hire. Either way you deserve to see these numbers.
Value does NOT need to be a guessing game. If smart marketers go beyond the most obvious Instagram numbers they can improve their chances of selecting the influencers who provide their brands the best value.