Fake accounts plague Instagram since its start in 2010. These accounts or bots are usually computer-based and randomly follow Instagram channels, post spam comments and like huge quantities of pictures. But there is another side to the story: More and more Instagram users deploy fake followers to increase their follower group and multiply the likes and comments on their pictures.
What are fake followers?
Fake followers are unauthentic subscribers to an account who are in most cases artificial bots. Some of these fake followers are inactive but some of them aren’t. In the case of automated bots, fake followers often engage with content posted and increase an accounts engagement rate with liking or commenting a post. Nevertheless, fake followers have no real interest in the content and are a non-valuable audience.
At first glance, it might seem pointless to put the effort in creating content and then artificially increase one’s follower group by paying for fake followers, likes and comments instead of relying on real people and their honest feedback. But as a matter of fact, the majority of marketers first takes a look at an influencer’s follower base before acknowledging other metrics like engagement rate and audience quality. A certain follower number is needed to warrant awareness of a brand or a product and also displays a standing of the influencer in the industry.
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Based on these conditions it is, in fact, no surprise that the demand for fake accounts is consequently high: According to a group of researchers, in 2015 a total of 8% of Instagram accounts consisted of fake channels. For advertisers, collaborating with influencers with a large amount of fake followers bares high risks – the cooperation will oftentimes not have the expected outcome.
The pros and cons of purchasing followers
The purchase of followers has increased mainly due to the fact that the follower number still is a highly important metric. As pointed out, most companies look for reach when analyzing influencers for cooperations. Thus, the influencers feel pressured to attract a certain amount of followers to be noticed for cooperations in the first place. Especially at the starting point, it can be extremely challenging to gain followers, even though an influencer has an excellent content quality and puts a great amount of effort into the content production. For such newcomer influencers, it might be helpful to get a jump start in the form of purchased followers since people tend to rather follow channels with a high amount of followers.
Imagine discovering a new channel on Instagram with good content quality and 1.500 followers. You will probably, consciously or unconsciously, prefer a channel with similar content (and content quality) and 25.000 followers who actively engage with the channel to the smaller one. Without deeper analyzing an influencer’s channel, high follower numbers basically serve as a sign of quality in the Instagram universe. Therefore, artificial followers will eventually attract organic followers in the long-run.
Purchasing followers will, in fact, increase the follower number – it will, however, not necessarily have a positive effect on the engagement rate. There are bots who do not only follow but also like and comment, whereas other kinds of bots only follow. When using these, likes and comments have to be purchased as well to increase the engagement rate in equal measure. The engagement rate is essential since it signifies how active and engaged the users are behaving in relation to a channel’s total follower base.
Although a high engagement does not equally translate into high sales, it has to be noticed that fake followers are never beneficial for advertisers: Even if the purchased followers are human, they have no real interest in the content and only follow for money. More probably the followers are artificial bots. In both cases, the followers are invaluable since they will never purchase the advertised products.
Therefore, it is in no way beneficial for companies to cooperate with influencers who have large amounts of fake followers since the outcome will not be worth the money. Advertisers have to consider that the pricing of a collaboration is based on CPT – the advertiser is charged for every follower, no matter how valuable or invaluable that user is. In the case of a high amount of fake followers, this investment will not turn into positive sales.
From an ethical perspective as well as a legal one, deceiving potential business partners when entering a cooperation by faking reach with the help of purchased followers is fraud – it is de facto a failure to perform. In a worst case scenario, the company’s investment in the cooperation will be lost completely.
Selling fake followers as a business
Purchasing Instagram followers on the internet is easier than one would expect. Automation tools like Instagress provide extended services and have different kinds of followers to choose from, starting with basic packages of random followers and going up to offers that differentiate between gender and nationality which helps to make the purchase less obvious – for example, German influencers will naturally have a majority of German speaking followers when keeping their posts in German.
The companies selling fake followers basically have two options:
- They create millions of fake accounts and follow their customer’s channels with these.
- They create bots that follow (and unfollow) automatically.
A quick google search leads potential customers to numerous pages with package offers like this.
The prices vary depending on the number of followers and also differ according to whether one buys followers from “real” channels or bots. If desired, likes and comments can be bought additionally, ensuring a rise in engagement. These can even be bought for future content: A number of likes will be sent automatically to new uploads.
How to detect purchased followers
When only looking at an Instagram channel, it is hardly possible to be absolutely sure if a user bought followers. Therefore, it is risky for companies to evaluate an influencer only based on the channel as displayed by Instagram as this only shows the status quo – the development of the channel is disregarded. A deeper analysis is key to identifying if a cooperation with a certain influencer is worth an investment and will result in the expected outcome. But even a first glance at a deeper analysis can be deceiving when observing the wrong details.
Without the help of analysis tools, we can only make assumptions whether a user’s followership consists of fake followers and bots. A look at the followers’ names and the quality of comments can be helpful. Peculiar names are definitively an indication. Purchased comments can be easily detected in most cases since they mainly consist of pre-built sentences like “That is awesome!”, “Keep it up!” or “Pretty cool!” that theoretically fit a majority of content pieces.
However, if only analyzing a channel on a superficial level like this, one can just assume that followers have been bought. Before investing a sum of money in an influencer, a data-based in-depth analysis is necessary.
Our first step when starting a deeper follower analysis will be to have a look at the follower growth which can be a first indicator for the presence of fake followers.
For comparability reasons, first an example of an organic follower growth.
This account has a steady growth without any remarkable spikes in either direction. The channel serves as a perfect example for a successful influencer: It had a steady growth up to now and is still growing without major stagnation. It also receives a lot of mentions from other successful channel’s fueling its growth as indicated by the green bars.
Compared to the graphic above, the next digraph shows a clear difference: Two spikes are visible.
One explanation for a sudden increase in followers like this could be a rising awareness of the influencer, for example by being mentioned by other major influencers and thus an increasing earned media value. As we see here, however, the earned media value does not show any significant increase that correlates with the spike in follower number.
Nonetheless, this is a rather inconspicuous example due to the comparably low number of purchased followers.
The next graphic shows a much more obvious example. Compared to the first graphic (organic growth), it is apparent that the growth of this channel has to be the outcome of follower purchase.
The daily follower changes (graphic below) support this assumption, showing a massive increase of followers during the last week of August 2016.
These numbers also demonstrate very clearly the decrease of followers on September 3, 2016. In this period, Instagram deleted a massive amount of fake accounts, resulting in partly significantly decreasing follower numbers for channels who bought followers beforehand.
Instagram’s approach to proceed against fake accounts
Finally, as more people join, keeping Instagram authentic is critical—it’s a place where real people share real moments. We’re committed to doing everything possible to keep Instagram free from the fake and spammy accounts that plague much of the web, and that’s why we’re finishing up some important work that began earlier this year.
We’ve been deactivating spammy accounts from Instagram on an ongoing basis to improve your experience. As part of this effort, we will be deleting these accounts forever, so they will no longer be included in follower counts. This means that some of you will see a change in your follower count.
Most of you won’t see any impact. If you’re one of those who will see a correction, you will receive a notification in the app directing you to additional information.
Following this statement, Instagram indeed deleted a huge amount of fake accounts in 2014. The platform repeated its actions in September 2016, resulting in a partly extreme decrease in follower numbers for a lot of influencers.
The graphic below shows a channel hit by the so-called Insta Purge in 2016.
This channel obviously had a large number of fake followers. The major increase in followers in April 2016 signifies a large-scale purchase of fake followers. Therefore, the decrease in followers due to the purge in September 2016 is all the more significant and the channel lost more than 30.000 followers in one day as the daily follower changes show.
Many Instagram users reacted to the purge with devastation due to their decreased follower amount even though these followers were just invaluable bots. Their reaction shows how important quantity is in the Instagram universe even though it does not state anything regarding the quality.
With Instagram being very clear about their standing regarding fake accounts, more deletion of spammy channels will presumably occur. Users relying on fake followers will experience an ongoing decrease of follower numbers in the future – the only way for such users to keep up their follower metrics is to buy even more followers. This vicious cycle is obviously continuing, making the sale of fake followers a well-running business.
Based on this fact, the need for in-depth analyses is obvious. Companies can lose sums of money when relying on an influencer’s follower quantity without deeper analyzing the quality of these followers. They might end up putting their money in bots that will, by nature, never convert into customers. The outcome for the involved influencers will only be positive as long as companies are oblivious to the deception. Once the fraud is unveiled, however, the loss of the influencer’s credibility is tremendous. Companies should, therefore, aim for identifying influencers with an excellent content quality and real, engaged followers who are truly interested in the influencer’s recommendations since these followers are likely to convert into customers.